Recap/Review: The Borgias, “The Poisoned Chalice”/”The Assassin”

As word spreads of the death of the aged Pope Innocent VIII, the doors and shutters of the Vatican are slammed one by one. The council of cardinals are entering a conclave to elect one of their members as the new pope – head of the Catholic Church, a position more powerful than any king or clergyman in 1492, and one that several of the cardinals are keen to have themselves elected to. The cardinals are to be cloistered amongst themselves until a series of ballots delivers a majority ruling, and the entire building will be sealed shut until they come to a decision.

The reason for that is apparent in two men pacing the halls as daylight is gradually shut out – Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) and his eldest son Cesare (François Arnaud). Rodrigo aims to win the conclave, and has taken steps to ensure the ballots come out in his favor. Taking Cesare into a corner, he details their carefully laid plans to slip doves out through the Vatican with lists of those cardinals who have yet to vote for him, and authorizes Cesare to convey offerings of “properties, benefices, and if need be gold” to sway their vote.

“They call it simony, father,” Cesare says in a warning tone.

“God will forgive us, my son,” Rodrigo says, dismissing the sin with a halfhearted wave before turning a steely eye on his son. “But I will not forgive failure.”

Thankfully, there’s not much failure to forgive in the first two episodes of The Borgias, Showtime’s newest historical fiction series which lavishly depicts the political strife and backstabbing that flourished in Renaissance Italy under the rule of Pope Alexander VI. Centered around the titular Borgia clan who schemed, strangled and screwed their way into being the heads of the Catholic Church, it lays the framework for what could be a compelling tale of conspiracy and the means to which power is gained. Unfortunately, starting out there’s also a fair share of dullness and inconsistency in the way it’s presented, which gives some reservations whether or not they can tell the story I think is here.

I admit that I was fairly optimistic going into The Borgias, although I’ve never seen its predecessor The Tudors (partly out of a lack of interest, and partly because I refused to buy that the gluttonous Henry VIII could be reinvented as a swarthy lothario). I’ve been a fan of Renaissance Italy going back to high school, and the Borgia family history contains a laundry list of sins both complex and base. And in more recent history, the Borgias have been well-treated in media: the Assassin’s Creed series of video games made both Rodrigo and Cesare adversaries you felt both challenged by and compelled to finish off at the same time, and “The Godfather” author Mario Puzo rendered them as the Corleones of the 15th century in his final novel “The Family.”

So there’s a lot of meat on the historical bones for show creator Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game,” “Interview With The Vampire”) to dig into, the number one problem the show has in these first two episodes* is that it doesn’t seem to know whether it wants light meat or dark. Starting out, The Borgias seemed like it could take two main gears: it could follow in the vein of The Tudors and be an explicit soap opera fixated on the family lusts, or it could aim for something like Deadwood where it uses its historical background to weave a deep political story. Instead, it’s opted for something in between, to the extent that all its elements simply feel average and occasionally dull.

*I offered some praise to AMC’s The Killing in an earlier post for airing its first two episodes together, but that tactic did not work at all for The Borgias. Not only did it feel like like a glut of plot points were being forced on us, it’s never a good sign for a show when a critic pauses to see how much time is left and audibly groans that there’s more than 15 minutes remaining.

A large part of that I think falls on the shoulders of Jeremy Irons – or more accurately how his character is being interpreted. Irons is one of those performers I call an actor with a fair amount of reverence in my voice, and when I heard he was portraying Rodrigo I was very excited to see either either a performance full of quiet manipulative malice or some joyful over-the-top villainy. Instead, his Pope Alexander VI doesn’t really seem interested in the power he wields, half-nodding off in cardinal conferences or outright ignoring the entreaties of Cesare. There’s a glimpse of some legitimate pain in his face as he confronts the weight of the office he’s bought his way into, and he speaks of how it’s now his burden to hear the voice of God, but then ten minutes later he’s back to growling about how if God does not punish their enemies he will help him do so.

It’s still Jeremy Irons, and it’s still a treat to hear him dismissing two agitated cardinals vying for his office or raging that anyone would dare to poison the vicar of Rome, but the context for his becoming pope feels like more of a “because it’s power” than any other reason.

It’s a shame that there’s not more of a basis for his lust for power, because there are so many people who don’t want him to have it. Despite being sitting in the office of the Holy Father Alexander is not a pope undisputed, respected or saluted, and very few of his cardinals see him as a wonder. Indeed, it’s almost laughable to see how the cardinals, chiefly Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere (a masterfully controlled performance by Colm Feore) are willing to undermine his authority with thinly veiled metaphors to his Spanish heritage or lambasting him to his face in council. This conflict is the most interesting part of the entire pilot – indeed, a better tactic would have been to spend the entire first episode on the election’s manipulations and just let Irons, Feore and Arnaud play off each other.

Because really in these episodes, there is too much going on and only about half of it is terribly interesting. We see Alexander warring with his physical appetites, leading him to walk a line between his childrens’ mother Vannozza (Joanne Whalley) and new mistress Giulia (Lotte Verbeek), neither of whom is particularly well characterized starting out. His younger children Juan (David Oakes) and Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) are set up as pawns for him to utilize in his political ambitions, and they’re both mostly unremarkable as they play with the new toys made available to them by Alexander’s ascension.

But despite the fact that I do have these concerns about the show going forward, there are many elements here I think it can use to its advantage. First of all there’s Cesare, who’s clearly risen very high by holding onto Alexander’s robes. Of course, he’s expected to take certain duties on board (quid pro quo as it were), chiefly filling his father’s old cardinal seat and yielding his true desire to control the papal armies to his younger brother Juan. He’s clearly chafing under his father’s yoke, but at the same time is absolutely devoted to keeping his family safe at any cost – particularly Lucrezia– and will bite his tongue for the most part to fill this role. Arnaud’s only competent in the role so far, but he’s got a good chemistry with his siblings and is in a promising position for episodes going forward.

Arnaud’s been all right to start, but the real MVP of The Borgias has been Sean Harris as Michelotto, a professional killer who goes from meeting Cesare at bladepoint to becoming the family’s Luca Brasi. Harris is portraying the character phenomenally, someone who’s expert at lurking in the shadows and standing off to the side, tilting slightly with his hands never far from the brace of swords on his belt. He doesn’t take sick pleasure in ending lives or betray an inner conflict, he’s merely very good at what he does and has simplified his life by stripping away any emotions or regard for life, as he makes clear to Cesare in their first meeting: “I’ve smothered infants in their beds. But only when their parents paid me.” He impresses Cesare with his dedication, and he’s definitely impressed me with his poise.

And while I did complain earlier about how the show’s very inconsistent in its tone, the fact that it’s resisted the urge to go into full-on smut/soap opera mode beyond a few PG-13 sex scenes makes me think that it could turn into something more. I’m also buoyed by the fact that Jordan has apparently written all the episodes himself, which creates hope that there’s a vision to the whole series – as it stands the show could easily fracture into random vignettes, and I’d like to think Jordan’s a talented enough writer to hold the big picture together.

We’ve already started to see some of those promising plot threads develop. Beyond Cesare’s desire for military power, the show’s already established that Alexander plans to marry off Lucrezia as a political pawn as soon as he can, a move that will no doubt rankle Cesare and hopefully force Lucrezia out of the childish passivity that she shows in early episodes. The aforementioned Cardinal della Rovere is also in the in the picture as threat number one to the family, and he’s also delivering a wonderful performance – legitimately enraged that this upstart Spaniard took the office he feels is his, it’ll be interesting to see what lengths he goes to now that his first efforts have left blood on his doorstep courtesy of Michelotto.

Following Alexander’s election, della Rovere pulls the French ambassador aside to advise he feels they have elected “an ape” to the papacy. The ambassador says the king of France “has hopes that the office brings its own grace with it and that the grace of God can transform the worst of men.” And similarly, I have hopes that the history and the performances can transform The Borgias going forward with their grace and make it a show worth following in detail.

And if it doesn’t? Well in that case, like the French ambassador, I’ll simply observe with interest what harm it can do and hope it at least crashes in an interesting way.

(Editor’s Note: I’ll also be recapping this show for the time being, given that it’s only a nine-episode season. I might occasionally pair episodes together if I’m pressed for time – which I expect to be once Game of Thrones launches – but I’ll have an eye on this for the rest of the season in some form.)

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About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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One Response to Recap/Review: The Borgias, “The Poisoned Chalice”/”The Assassin”

  1. frank bauer says:

    Finally someone who won’t swoon endlessly over how fantastic everything was with this rather boring affair of a pilot. I’m willing to give it one more shot, but then I’m out…

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