Recap/Review: The Borgias, “The French King”/”Death on a Pale Horse”/”The Art of War”/”Nessuno (Nobody)”

I know that at the end of my article on The Borgias last week, I mentioned that I was going to try to recap each of the four remaining episodes individually and see how it maintain the faith I’d newly invested in it on an hourly basis. I won’t manage to do that, largely because I didn’t find the time to watch them individually and burned through my queue in one day, but the more I think about it it seems taking them as a whole is best course of action. Given that this is the end of the season, and I’ve spent enough time writing about what I like and don’t like about the show, I’d rather take the big picture view and see if the show could sustain my goodwill as a whole – an idea helped by the fact that these four episodes had a central narrative that united many earlier plot lines.

So, with the conclusion of the first season, has the show kept the faith I invested in it after the fifth episode? Overall, I would say yes – but it required something of a conversion on my part to do so.

What I mean to say by that is that in these last four episodes (and by extension the entire season) I’ve had to come to terms with what The Borgias is: it’s a soap opera. I don’t mean this in derogatory terms – it’d certainly be easy to identify soap opera elements in a broad swath of critically acclaimed programming, up to and including Mad Men and Friday Night Lights – but here it means that the show is driven by the conflicts and emotions of its characters, as opposed to building an immersive and thematic world. Its principal weapon is melodrama, not subtext, and it’s perfectly willing to rush plot points along at the expense of story or long-maintained tension.

Now I never deluded myself that this was going to be a program with the depth of an HBO or AMC drama – the reputation of Showtime and the specter of The Tudors kept me from those thoughts – but my long-standing interest in the subject matter did keep me hopeful that it would find its way towards those levels of quality. And in many ways, I felt the show was trying for something more than other offerings: the violence and sex was underplayed, it had a political framework that survived the often cringe-worthy Italian lords, and (a few unsettling moments aside) it avoided the incestuous approach to the Borgia family other adaptations have emphasized. And as time went on, I liked it more than other shows that premiered around the same time,* and as I’ve written I thought it might come within spitting distance of the pantheon.

*And for what it’s worth, The Borgias is the only show I’ve stuck with out of the three pilots I reviewed the week they all premiered. I abandoned Camelot for very obvious reasons, and while I gave The Killing a few episodes I honestly prefer this melodrama to the latter’s oppressive and frankly uncompelling world, particularly as it seems clear The Killing has been drinking the 24 Kool-Aid in later episodes.

But if I had any strong grip on these hopes, it was fractured by the fifth episode “The French King,” in which three-quarters of the episode felt like it was devoted to pillow talk (in fact, this is the episode they should have dubbed “The Borgias in Love”). Cesare pursued his affair with Ursula, the woman he widowed without her knowledge, and spent his scenes dancing around exactly where he was. Juan openly flirted with the woman his younger brother was betrothed to, and wound up screwing her in the room of mummified enemies previously mentioned in the third episode. Lucrezia took advantage of her crippled husband to pursue a teenage love affair with Paolo, and sweetly compared him to Narcissus as they stared into a lake. And in a particularly uncomfortable example, Alexander once again went over the politics of Italy, but this time using his mistress’s leg rather than a map, and closed the discussion by invading France (a visual I’m not particularly keen to describe and will leave to your imaginations).

And really, the rest of the story continued on a similar path as episodes abandoned what could have been better served. Cesare’s fire, lit so soon after killing Ursula’s husband, was snuffed as soon as she found out and he spent the rest of the season trying to lure her away from a nunnery. Juan’s clear incompetence as general was pushed off to the side in favor of Juan bedding Gioffre’s wife and beating up Vanozza’s husband (though the latter did give Jeremy Irons a chance to show some steel as he chastised and eventually slapped his son). The show also chose unfortunately to marginalize its most interesting character and one of its better actors in Sean Harris – Michelotto disappeared for two episodes, was only marginally present in the third and his murder of a French soldier felt more like a token killing than anything else.

Speaking of the French, to the show’s credit it never completely abandoned its more strategic side and the last four episodes had a very satisfying build to Cardinal della Rovere’s machinations. Finding his way the camp of King Charles VIII (Michel Muller), della Rovere presented his plan to trade the province of Naples for the papacy and received the king’s promise, though only after weathering his insults and granting them permission to wage war “the French way.*” This plot was interesting to watch for a lot of reasons, largely for the performances – Feore’s arc has been how much he’d give up to become pope, and he played a nice variety of emotions in his horror at the French carnage and the icy cool in negotiating with Machiavelli and the Medici. And in a marked improvement, Muller played a compelling Charles who had some of the show’s cartoonish quality** but made it seem a facade to a cunning and realistic mind that understands how war is played.

*I immediately thought of Boardwalk Empire once Charles said this, though I think it’s a safe bet Angela Darmody had a much different understanding of the term.

**This tone will not go away no matter how much I beg, ranging from Irons’ papal audiences to the inexplicable decision to keep Augustus Prew on as the atrociously squawking prince of Naples.

This plot also managed to wring some life out of Lucrezia, who I originally predicted was coming into her own but for the most part still seemed like a naïve child in her affair with Paolo. After her husband’s family withdrew its military support – and her affair put her in the family way – she and Giulia Farnese quickly fled the castle only to be captured by the French army. In the presence of the king, Lucrezia finally got to use the foresight and manipulation she picked up from others, convincing a panicked Juan to retreat from the French cannons and Charles to accept the retreat. Grainger was quite good in these scenes, warring with her panic to diffuse these clearly violent men.

Then the army comes to Rome, and my biggest complaint comes to light – the maddening lack of definition to Alexander’s character. I’ve had a fair share of complaints against him, and they came to a head for me at the end of “The Art of War.” Faced with the reality that his cardinals would abandon him at the drop of a miter and the son he chose as a general will cave at the first sign of conflict, he turns to the elderly priest who was his first confessor one more time* and seeks some enlightenment from him that the course he has taken is the right one. Gripped by some instinct, he sheds his papal garments in favor of the priest’s simple brown robes, kneeling in prayer as the army enters the city gates.

*I don’t believe I’ve mentioned this yet, but The Borgias regularly uses the confessional setting as a method to move the plot along – it’s almost the show’s equivalent of the talking heads in The Office or Parks and Recreation, and given how duplicitous these characters are it’s frequently the only way to get into their heads. Sometimes it’s an exposition dump, but it has had a few particularly good moments for character development: beyond Alexander’s lament, we’ve also seen Cesare and Ursula practically grinding between the divider, and della Rovere furthering his moral descent by stabbing a (correctly) suspected spy in the eye.

And what happens then? Upon seeing the pope clad in such humble robes and yet appearing every inch the head of his church, Charles seems to grow weak in the knees. The two men pace and engage in a civil conversation, and Alexander undercuts della Rovere by promising Charles the same thing and throwing in a papal coronation to sweeten the deal.

This is all well and good as a way to resolve the situation, but what’s maddening about this is that there’s no way to gauge what it means. Was Alexander genuinely moved by a crisis of faith, and in finding the humility to step down from his position he found the wisdom to negotiate a peaceful resolution? Or was the whole thing a calculated political gambit to appeal to Charles as a pious man, and prove his earlier statement that all kings want the divine validation of being crowned by the pope? Or was Alexander prepared to go down with the ship and used it as one final cynical plea for mercy? I really don’t know, and Irons’ performance felt so neutral on that score I’m unable to shake the sensation he wasn’t entirely sure either.

And if I needed one more sign of where the show’s priorities lie, this resolved the issue of the French army in ten minutes – after building it for three episodes – and then spent the remainder of the time devoted to the relationships. Alexander and Cesare make sure that Lucrezia’s marriage is nullified in the most definitive (and humiliating) way possible, Charles is crowned in a typically elaborate ceremony and della Rovere skulks off to the side with a cold look in his eyes. At the close of the season, Lucrezia’s child is born and the Borgia family unites around its newest member in a rare moment of peace following the storm – but unlike other shows, like The Sopranos or Deadwood, the moment rang hollow because I never quite grasped what the stakes had been.

But really, at the end of the season with all these words spilled about the show and my oscillating attitudes, there’s one question that’s even more important than: did I enjoy this show? And yes, I would say I did. The characters were well-acted and in several cases had compelling story arcs, the story had problems but Jordan’s writing made it at least consistent in its inconsistencies, and the sets and costumes were immersive enough to let me brush off the rougher edges of the battle scenes. I’ll likely watch it again at some point, probably get the DVD set when it comes out, and I’d recommend it to viewers with an interest in historical drama or Italian history (provided they watch the pilot first and not the first two episodes, as I still hold that wasn’t the best introduction to the series).

So for better or worse, The Borgias has its hooks in me. I will be tuning into the second season on a regular basis, will almost certainly be recapping it on a weekly basis, and the possibility is high that with my readjusted standards I’ll enjoy at least part or each of them. And I’ll acknowledge that the show does what it does well, and offer a quiet requiescat in pace to the show I thought it could be.

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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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