Recap/Review: The Borgias, “The Moor”

I have a rule for shows when I start watching them. They get the pilot to impress me, and if I’m intrigued enough by that I’ll give it to the fourth episode to tell its story and find what it does well. If those four episodes work, then I’m in for at least the rest of the season or more likely the rest of its run until it completely goes off the rails or I feel I’ve seen enough of it.

By that logic, The Borgias has officially one more episode to impress me before I sigh and resign myself that for all its lavish production it’s never quite going to be the show I want it to be. I expressed a fair share of concerns in my initial review that the show was lacking in direction and development of its main characters, and the third episode “The Moor” hasn’t assuaged my concerns in any fashion. It’s not appreciably worse than the first two episodes, but it’s also not any better, and it’s also giving the feeling of a show that’s settling into a pattern I don’t care for.

It’s a shame, because “The Moor” had a lot of threads that could have made for interesting character development on the part of the pope. Inspired by an idea that he wants to see his papacy as Joseph’s “coat of many colors,” he tells Cesare and Juan he plans to extend the hospitality of Rome to those outside the Christian faith whom many of his council would see as heathens. This ranges from a group of displaced Spanish Jews who set up their own little community inside the city walls to the displaced Prince Djem of Turkey, the latter of whom quickly strikes up a friendship with the younger Borgias.

The concept of Alexander having this sort of soft spot for non-Christians appeared on its face to have a lot of room to provide the definition of character I complained it was lacking in its first two episodes. Either it could play into the spirituality the show has hinted the papacy has instilled in him, or it could be seen as a well-calculated political move to instill some further resentment and distraction in the political rivals who make no secret of their distaste at a Spanish pope. It seemed like it would force him to betray his motivation as chiefly pious or spiteful, which would give us a compass going forward.

But if there’s anything in there, it’s little more than a greedy pragmatism. The Jewish population is paying for the privilege of Roman space, and Djem’s brother is offering a regular allowance to keep him as far from Constantinople as possible. When Alexander mentions to Cesare that the prince’s brother has offered 400,000 ducats if he leaves Rome in a box, he dismisses it at first as unthinkable but and by the end of it has Juan seeking an assassin to ensure Lucrezia has an ample dowry to ensure her political marriage. More and more, it’s becoming clear that Alexander’s attitude is dependent on whatever the plot requires – be it the whims of his council or his mistresses – and when you have a main character played by an actor as silken and imposing as Jeremy Irons is, that feels more and more like a waste.

The added focus on Djem does offer us a bit more of a look at the less acknowledged Borgia offspring at least, but unfortunately they have yet to betray themselves as interesting. Lucrezia continues to learn more and more of the world – she’s made peace with the fact she’s to be married soon and is trying to prepare, but she’s betraying just how childish she is in her clear infatuation with the handsome foreigner. Juan’s obviously full of swagger in his role as the pope’s general, commissioning his own portrait and joyfully sparring with Djem, but betrays the fact that he has no battle experience by how badly he botches trying to kill his new friend.

Cesare’s still the most interesting of the Borgia children, and now that he’s a full cardinal you can see how much it’s rankling him* not to be able to take command of soldiers. In the ceremony where he and Alexander’s other cronies are anointed cardinals – one of the expansive ceremonies The Borgias is proving to be very fond of – there’s a look on his face where he’s clearly warring with his impulse to throw the robes down and storm off. He’s also beginning to border on confrontational with his younger brother, refusing him Michelotto’s services to deal with Djem and sarcastically proclaiming “Lesson one” after his brother has done the deed himself. If there’s to be any sort of conflict in the show it’ll be coming from him, but he’s still nowhere the catalyst of Christopher Moltisanti or Jimmy Darmody.

*Once again, the show’s inconsistency with Alexander is maddening to me – in one scene he hugs Cesare to him and laments the fact that his course in the church has kept his son from achieving his goals, but later he pokes him with the fact that Djem has become Juan’s “brother in arms.” Is he trying to start a line of “Boy Fights” videos in the vein of George Sr.?

Outside of the main thread, my dissatisfaction with the show can be summed up in two scenes. The first comes with Cardinal della Rovere, forced from his Roman home by a corpse summarily dumped in his bed by Michelotto. Looking for allies to depose Alexander, he journeys to Naples, where Prince Alfonso – played by Augustus Prew doing an impression of a squawking goose – proudly displays a room full of his father’s long-dead enemies, mummified and positioned as if they were in the Last Supper. It’s obviously meant to instill some sense of how vicious they can be, and possibly to what ends the obviously horrified della Rovere may be forced – but even in the show’s inconsistent voice this feels ridiculously atonal.

And at least it’s somewhat creative, as opposed to the other scene tied to Alexander’s clear obligation to marry his daughter off to secure a political alliance. This leads to a montage of suitors who are obviously meant to be viewed as poor, but it feels more like Dr. House sitting through a series of idiotic clinical patients than a Renaissance drama. The musical choice seems more suited to a conspiracy montage than a succession of nitwits, and the fact that Alexander regularly whispers to his vice chancellor on the poor quality further splinters my ability to take this show seriously.

When I first started with the show, I thought it was going to be either a complex political drama or an orgiastic production, and it’s failing to do either – especially the latter, despite some wonderful garrotte work and skulking from the still reliable Sean Harris. I’ll keep watching for at least one more episode, but unless “Lucrezia’s Wedding” betrays more spine The Borgias is nearing the end of my attentions.

(Editor’s Note: Given Game of Thrones‘s premiere next Sunday and the lax performance of The Borgias, I’ll be moving this one out of the rotation for now. I’ll keep watching and will probably check in at the end of the season, but unless it shifts radically regular coverage will be stopping.)

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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