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'Marie Antoinette' Recap: Episode 1

Daniel Hautzinger
Marie Antoinette entering Versailles
Marie Antoinette is a naive outsider to the court of Versailles. Photo: Caroline Dubois - Capa Drama / Banijay Studios France / Les Gens / Canal+

Marie Antoinette airs Sundays at 9:00 pm on WTTW and is available to stream. WTTW Passport members can stream the whole show. Recap the following episode.
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Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna is fourteen when she is sent away from home to a foreign country to marry an equally frightened boy, the fifteen-year-old heir to the French throne Louis-Auguste. The two awkward teenagers have had their marriage negotiated and decided by Maria’s mother and Louis’ grandfather, an empress and a king, to secure an end to hostilities between their Austrian Habsburg Empire and Bourbon France. The young couple has had no say in this.

In preparation for new life in France, Maria Antonia has her hair and teeth altered and tries to learn the etiquette of Versailles. Her mother impresses on her that she will have failed both her mother and the empire if she fails to produce an heir. The childish Maria Antonia, prone to tantrums, cries when she leaves Vienna.

She is met outside a country estate in France by the new mistress of her household, the stern Madame de Noailles, who immediately demands a curtsey. Noailles takes Maria’s dog from her and sends him back to Austria, chiding the girl when she cries. As Maria is forcibly sundered from her Austrian life, even her name changes. She is now Marie Antoinette.

King Louis XV, Louis-Auguste’s grandfather, is more welcoming than Noailles. Provence, Louis-Auguste’s handsome brother, is also friendly. The king’s daughters Adelaïde and Victoire are cold and vicious. Cousin Chartres is charming, but the only true kindness Antoinette receives is from Lamballe, a young Italian widow who married into the family.

And what of Louis-Auguste, Antoinette’s betrothed? He’s the least friendly of all, mainly because he’s afraid to even make eye contact with Antoinette, let alone speak to her. He hunts every day, and bathes infrequently; Antoinette’s first image of him is an odd, unwashed youth holding a dead hare.

Etiquette may be important at the French court, but in confusing ways. The royal family’s table manners are atrocious, punctuated with slurps and burps. The Madame du Barry, a late-arriving countess, waltzes straight to the king and sits in his lap. She is his mistress.

Lamballe gives Antoinette an overview of the family after lunch. Provence hates Louis-Auguste, and even though he has actually spoken to Antoinette unlike Louis-Auguste, Louis-Auguste is the better person. Antoinette should be wary of Provence.

The whole family leaves for Versailles, with Antoinette and Lamballe left alone at the estate. Antoinette must spend her first night in Versailles with Louis-Auguste, as a married woman. As the royals rumble in their carriage ride, the women insult Antoinette, while Louis-Auguste can only discuss his soon-to-be wife with his grandfather by comparing her to a horse.

That night, Antoinette is tucked tightly—stiflingly—into bed. She eventually untangles herself and explores, finding in her creaky room a case of jewelry and a paper saying to trust no one at Versailles—the walls have eyes. She has a nightmare when she finally sleeps.

She is met at Versailles the next day by a crowd watching from the balconies. The Habsburg ambassador, Count Mercy, waits for her at the door alongside the Duc de Choiseul, France’s Foreign Minister and the author of the Bourbon-Habsburg alliance—and Antoinette’s marriage. Mercy will be Antoinette’s mentor at Versailles, and secretly dresses a young man in women’s clothes to attend to her in her bedchamber in order to keep tabs and be sure she produces an heir.

Once inside the palace, Antoinette is again met with silent stares, and trips under them. She is ushered to her chambers, which were once Louis-Auguste’s late mother’s, just as the jewels Antoinette found in her previous room were. A portrait of the Dauphine stares down at the room. She left instructions for the routine of her son’s future wife, detailed down to the minute. While Noailles has told Antoinette that French princesses don’t display their emotions in public, they are dressed every day under the eye of the court.

The one thing no one will offer instructions in is what Antoinette does with Louis on the wedding night.

The future king tries to hide with his doves in a tower before the wedding, but is manhandled into a bath and finery. He shakes and drops the ring during the ceremony. The newly married couple doesn’t kiss. Both are terrified of the night.

Madame du Barry, who has told King Louis that Antoinette seems “undeveloped” and received a slap from the king for insulting Louis-Auguste’s own lack of sexuality, prepares Antoinette for her conjugal night. She puts make-up on the young girl, but tells her she’ll teach her the art of seduction—and what a conjugal night entails—later.

Antoinette is left to wonder and shiver under the gaze of the court as she and Louis-Auguste are stripped of their clothes and clamber under the covers. The watchers pelt the newlyweds with candy or beads as well as laughter before closing the bed curtains and leaving them to it.

Louis-Auguste immediately puts a pillow between himself and his wife and turns his back on her to go to sleep. Her mother’s warnings to produce an heir ringing in her ears, she eventually touches him, startling him awake. He flees, knocking over his brother Provence outside the door. Every keyhole reveals an eye peering into the room, watching. Antoinette hides under the sheets.

When she wakes up in the morning, she pounds on the locked doors of the room, finally gaining an exit thanks to a creepy butler. She screams and runs down a gilded hallway but is grabbed by soldiers and brought back to Noailles, who slaps her and tells her she has failed in her duty towards her husband and her country. Her mother will be informed.