You might remember that the last time I talked about The Borgias, I made it clear the show had one more episode to capture my interest before I resigned myself to the fact that it was never going to be what I wanted it to be. It wasn’t that any of it was awful, but it just lacked the sense of “oomph” I felt it needed to have in terms of either narrative or acting, with mostly flat performances and plots that weren’t fleshed out to any real extent. So when “Lucrezia’s Wedding” came on, I adjusted my expectations for the show and hoped that it would at least do something entertaining.
And then, something weird happened: I found myself watching the episode very closely, nodding along several times and not once slapping my forehead in annoyance. And not only did I finish that episode, but immediately after that I put on the next one “The Borgias in Love” with my expectations adjusted to pilot episode levels, and I found myself similarly invested.
I can only conclude that Neil Jordan apparently had some sort of radar deployed for when my attentions dropped, because the fourth and fifth episodes of The Borgias have rekindled my interest in the show and given me the motivation to stick with it for the remaining four episodes of the season. It’s still not what I’d call a great show – it’s not within throwing distance of Deadwood, Rome or Boardwalk Empire in terms of quality historical drama – but it’s finding its rhythm and doing things that make up for my grievances without sacrificing itself on the altar of exploitation or soap opera.
The most intelligent thing The Borgias does in these two episodes is that for the first time, it begins to feel like there is a bigger picture to the machinations of Alexander’s papacy beyond it simply being another office for him to achieve. In 1492, Italy didn’t exist as a unified country, but was split up into a variety of city-states such as Milan, Florence, Naples and Venice, principalities concerned with maintaining their independence from each other and the adjacent nations of Spain and France. Alexander is head of one of these city-states by virtue of being pope, but he sees that he could do so much more with the power of the church – that through machinations and matrimony, he could tie each of these city-states to the Vatican, and make himself the head of a legitimate Holy Roman Empire.
While it definitely could have stood to introduce this idea earlier in earlier episodes – especially given how most viewers aren’t Italian history buffs – The Borgias managed to make it stick by weaving it into the two separate spheres of the show’s action. Cardinal della Rovere has been moving through these separate factions to gain support for his papal coup, and he spells out to the ruling Medicis and Sforzas exactly what to expect if Alexander slides his foot into Italy’s boot. Back in Rome, Alexander gives his youngest son Gioffre an elementary lecture on Italian politics, explaining how his sister’s upcoming wedding* will strengthen their position and affect relations with other city-states. Both scenes are not only very good for Feore and Irons respectfully – Irons in particular comes across as both a political master and an attentive father – but give us our first real understanding of the game being played.
*Speaking of the wedding, I don’t think I mentioned this in my earlier reviews, but even if I did the matrimonial presentation merits a mention of just how great this show looks. Lavish is the key word here, with every character and every set decked out in full Renaissance garb that never looks cheap or faked. The wedding, as well as earlier ceremonies like the coronations of Rodrigo and Cesare, have a sense of epic scope to them even if the show itself doesn’t, and the immersion it creates helps get past the littler flaws.
And the way the game is played could lead to some very interesting payoffs. Cardinal della Rovere has apparently chosen to play it dangerously, seeking an alliance with the king of France to trade a Naples for the Roman throne, marching a full army through Italy – and considering he’s already killed one person he (correctly) suspected of being a spy, his desire to restore some form of decency to the office of St. Peter might quickly be washed away until he’s no better than his rival. This is pretty obviously telegraphed, but Feore’s playing the dignity and horror with his not inconsiderable talents, and it should at least be interesting to watch.
For his part, Alexander appears to be playing the long game by plucking the fruit of his loins, using arranged marriages with his children to persuade various dukes to owe him favors and lend him troops that will secure his position. He’s looking at the political climate as one would a chess game – even optimizing the seating arrangements at Lucrezia’s wedding to aggravate or mollify the parties next to each other – and he sees his children as the knight, bishop and queen to be played at the appointed time. “You are going to ensare the whole of Europe in your progeny,” Alexander’s mistress Giulia Farnese* says with a note of concern. “What else are families for?” he replies with a smirk.
*This does remain an annoying gap in the storytelling. After the second episode spent so much time focused on the scandal and potential expulsion of a pope having a mistress, Giulia is now sitting at Alexander’s side during his daughter’s wedding in plain sight – while at the same time he forbids Lucrezia’s mother Vanozza to attend because she is a former courtesan. Maybe the iron grip he’s exerting on the Vatican has given him a loophole, but if so it hasn’t been made clear.
But he should be paying a little more attention to that family, as after three episodes Cesare, Lucrezia and Juan are starting to find their own goals to execute – and as a consequence they’re becoming more interesting to watch. Well, the first two are at least – Juan has mostly shown himself as an arrogant boor who’d fold at the first sign of combat, whose real talents lie in casting obscene plays and trying to pawn homely potential brides off on his little brother. “Juan will do what Juan will do,” Alexander says wearily as he tries to envision an appropriate marriage for his second son.
And with such an undisciplined brother in the military role he so desperately craves, it’s no surprise that Cesare has decided to start bucking the decisions that kept him from the role. After his father bars his mother from the wedding, Cesare runs straight to her house after performing the ceremony and points out that she was not barred from the reception – and brings her as his date in a moment that brings the whole celebration to a halt and led to the first held breath of the series as everyone waits on one nod from Alexander. And as he dances later, he finds himself flirting with noblewoman Ursula Bonadeo and listening closely to her request to help with her husband, a decision made easier by the fact that said husband calls Cesare’s mother a whore to his face.
These twin actions are giving Arnaud a chance to finally bring some passion to the role, and a sense of purpose to the character that had been lacking for some time. A tense scene with Ursula in the confessional booth shows that he’s obviously ready to cast off the celibacy his role has enforced on him, and his fighting spirit has been awakened as he takes Michelotto to a secluded place, throws him a sword and states “Eminence has dulled my edge… Call me Borgia this good morning.” Before long, he’s honed his abilities back to their pre-cardinal levels (in fairly well-choreographed fight scenes) and ends up burying his dagger in Baron Bonadeo’s neck. Like della Rovere, there’s now actual blood on his hands – and it’s a safe bet that while he’s clearly put off by it he’ll have a lot of bodies dragged into the Tiber after this one as he secures his position.
Lucrezia, for her part, is also realizing that she’s going to have to take affairs into her own hands to get results, but her path is less about defying her father and more a brutal coming-of-age. It was already established that she knew she’d be bartered off as a bride, and was perfectly happy to marry whoever her father dictated out of familial loyalty. However, her husband Giovanni Sforza is equally aware he was asked to marry her for political reasons, and his distaste for the low-bred Borgias leads him to take it out on her in bed.
But while she sobs continually after the act, there’s a sense that she’s not broken by the results. Since her husband’s out of the estate most days hunting, that gives her the freedom to wander and strike up friendships with the staff – including a young stable boy who’s clearly smitten by her beauty, and whose suggestions of sabotaging his master’s saddle she doesn’t discourage. Holliday Grainger is playing this with a good hint of ambiguity – we’re not sure how much of this is a childish desire for companionship that could get him killed through her own naivety, or if she too is playing the long game. However, there’s no denying the quiet smile on her face after the accident injures her husband, nor the look in her eyes when she urges him to count to three before the bone is reset – in a cruel echo of her counting through her sobs to get through his “marital duties.” Regardless of how fast it’s happening, the Borgia cunning in her blood is coming to light, and she’s still young enough that it could rise to her father’s level.
And while it’s a minor detail so far, the show’s universe is now expanding to the level where characters are popping up who are at least vaguely recognizable as historical figures. The two most obvious are the “mad monk” Girolamo Savonarola of Florence (Steven Berkoff), who is churning up a fair amount of discontent against the Borgias and the Medici family; and Nicollo Machiavelli (Julian Bleach), a representative of the latter who both della Rovere and Cesare approach for support in the matter of the French army. Jordan is handling their insertion well, not throwing up any red flags of “Hey! Look over here!” and their insertion doesn’t feel gratuitous, even if Berkoff’s purposely playing it over the top. Machiavelli has the most potential to go forward in the show – he would famously look to the Borgia family for his political treatise “The Prince” in later years – and here he offers a sign of what is to come: “If the times have made you clever, the coming months may thrust genius upon you.”
*Fun facts: Berkoff also played Savonarola in the 1991 film “A Season of Giants,” and Bleach plays the Dalek creator Davros in the rebooted Doctor Who. As to the latter, anyone else smell a crossover?
That said, the show still hasn’t worked through all its issues – or at least, I haven’t learned to brush them off them in favor of what it does right. Irons still feels like he’s underplaying the role, letting Cesare’s blatant defiance in bringing Vanozza to the reception slide and shrugging off Juan’s indolent way of handling the papal army. Jordan can’t quite bring himself to abandon his aspirations of comic elements, and I continue to cringe every time a buffoonish envoy presents himself for a papal audience or the head of a city-state chews the scenery like roasted pheasant. There’s also a few scenes that don’t make any sense in the context of the story so far, such as a Native American presented to Alexander as proof of a converted Christian that seems to legitimately bother Cesare but is then never mentioned again.
But it’s worked through enough of its growing pains that I can treat as good news the fact that Showtime renewed The Borgias for a second season last month. It was unsurprising considering the pilot’s 3.71 million viewers was not only the best a Showtime program has done in seven years (even higher than The Tudors‘ final season), but it’s now making me feel it deserves more episodes for reasons unconnected to ratings. It’s not great yet, but for the first time I think it might actually get there.
(Editor’s Note: With the season finale coming up this Sunday, I’ll be reviewing the three episodes between now and then briefly and have a post up prior to the finale, which – if the show continues to justify my renewed faith – might also get its own post. Continue to watch this space.)