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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Review: The Borgias

As I announced on Tumblr last month, I had at my disposal a long weekend, a bag of lollies and three seasons worth of The Borgias, so it felt the time would be well spent marathoning the show in its entirety.

In hindsight, this was probably not the best idea. What I've learned from the experience is that binge-watching can be surprisingly draining, especially if it's for a show you've never seen before. Coming fresh to a brand new story requires a certain amount of concentration in order to keep track of all the plots and characters, and about five hours into a show filled with intrigues and political machinations, I was pretty beat.  
But this was something that had been on my to-watch pile for a long time, so at least I can say it's finally under my belt. And naturally, I have thoughts...

The Borgias ran for three seasons between 2011 and 2013, before it came to an end in a rather abrupt manner. It's clear from the final episode that there was the expectation of at least one more season to provide closure to the multiple character arcs, and though I've heard conflicting reports about what creator/writer Neil Jordan had planned, the fact that he eventually released a screenplay of a proposed telemovie demonstrates that in some way or another his original vision was cut short.
In many ways this was designed as a Spiritual Successor to The Tudors, with an emphasis on both political intrigue and beautiful people in period garb. And yet the historical backdrop of The Tudors gave its writers a fairly solid roadmap for an overarching plot – unsurprisingly it followed the rise and fall of Henry the Eighth's six wives, as do most adaptations of his lifetime (in fact, if there's a biographical dramatization of Henry's life that doesn't start with his courtship of Anne Boleyn, I haven't heard of it).
The life and times of the Borgia clan is more difficult to map – naturally it starts with the ascension of Rodrigo Borgia to the position of Pope Alexander VI of the Holy Church of Rome, but where does it end? With Rodrigo's death? With Cesare's? We'll never know.
But the show offers some indication of what Neil Jordan had envisioned for a fourth and final season. Each of the three seasons has a clear overarching theme: the first is ambition, the second vengeance and the third war. If there was to be a fourth, the name of Jordan's screenplay yields a clue: apocalypse. I recall a few snickers back when this title was announced, though it makes a lot of sense when you take into account the true definition of the word (less to do with the end of the world and more to do with a revelation or "lifting of the veil") and the imminent historical downfall of the Borgia family.
For the record, I haven't read Jordan's un-filmed screenplay, but I'm not surprised that he still had at least one more season in him. The third season ends on an open note, with plenty of plot-threads left dangling and important characters unaccounted for. But we'll get to that.
There's another consideration to be made when it comes to the differences in programmes: the fact that most audiences are not as familiar with the Borgias as they are with the Tudors. Everyone knows where Anne Boleyn ends up – but Lucrezia and Cesare? I'll admit I had to check Wikipedia for the details. On the one hand this gives the writers a bit more leeway in how they present certain characters and historical events; on the other, it's clearly the result of much less reliable material on the subject matter.
To put it another way, most modern adaptations don't for a moment entertain the possibility that Anne Boleyn really did have sexual relations with her brother, much less portray her as a practitioner of witchcraft, but it's nearly impossible to watch any sort of depiction of Lucrezia and Cesare without the deliberate inclusion of an incestuous subtext. Anne Boleyn belongs to history; the Borgias still have at least one foot in the legends left behind them.
With the tagline "the original crime family", the show makes its intentions clear: this is a Renaissance take on the The Godfather (fitting considering that trilogy was apparently based at least in part on the Borgias) in which a mafia-like family use underhanded dealings to secure their own power and political freedom, with a side-quest for personal happiness, which of course can never be attained when you're this deep in lies and backstabbing.
What immediately becomes apparent is that despite Jeremy Irons taking top billing, this is more the story of his children: Cesare, Lucrezia and (to a lesser degree) Juan, all of whom have their lives irrevocably changed once their father becomes the head of the Church. To consolidate his power Rodrigo must turn his children into political pawns: making Cesare a cardinal, Juan a general, and Lucrezia a bargaining chip on the marriage market, all of whom must subsequently cope with the consequences of his decision to seize power – particularly since all of them instantly become targets for Rodrigo's political enemies.
But surprisingly enough, the family is not a dysfunctional one (with the exception of the tension between brothers Cesare and Juan). There can be no doubt that Rodrigo loves his children; they are the light of his life even as they prove to be a constant thorn in his side, and their mother Vannozza dei Cattanei is a level-headed woman who commands respect. Cesare and Lucrezia are devoted to one another, and youngest brother Gioffre is a boy who seems born to please others.
As such, it is the fracturing of this otherwise happy family in the wake of their patriarch's power-grab that sits at the heart of the show, and that's a compelling premise to build a show on: the fact that absolutely everything that happens across the course of these three seasons, for good or ill (mostly ill) can be traced back to the choice made by a single man to become the religious leader of Western civilization.
So although Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo is very much the centrepiece of The Borgias (both the show and the family), he's not necessarily its protagonist. Irons certainly seems to be enjoying himself, striding into Large Ham territory on more than one occasion, perhaps all the better to capture some of the inconsistencies in Jordan's portrayal of him.
You see, Rodrigo is defined largely by his ambition. He wants to be Pope no matter what the cost, and when his son points out that perhaps bribes and hypocrisy are not the most holy way to go about getting what he wants, Rodrigo dismisses him with a simple: "God will forgive us." In service of his great ambition his children are mere pawns, his long-time mistress is set aside, and he's ushered into a world where almost everyone is out to get him.
And yet at no point do we get a clear understanding of why all this is considered an acceptable price for becoming the Pope. Very little exposition is given in regards to his background (beyond some brief mention of the prejudice he faced regarding his Spanish blood) and there's never a moment of introspection in which he articulates exactly what drives him to seize the position.
Is it because he sincerely thinks he'll do a good job? Or is it all about the power and prestige? You'd assume it would be one or the either (or maybe a little of both), but because he's written as a "likeable anti-hero", his motivation remains obscure. In fact, between Jordan's characterization of the man and Irons's tendency to play him with wide-eyed befuddlement, Rodrigo often comes across as startlingly naïve.
He's hurt and appalled every time an assassination attempt is made. He seems to have no understanding as to why the likes of della Rovere or Caterina Sforza are so hell-bent on deposing him. He's shocked, shocked I tell you that some would take umbrage at the unethical way he secured control of the Papacy.
But this is a symptom of a greater issue when it comes to writing anti-heroes. In most cases, they're depicted as doing bad things in pursuit of ambiguous goals, but who are essentially decent – even loveable – people in close quarters. (Seldom do you see the inverse of this: an anti-hero who does noble things in public but is a ghastly person in private). In this case, Rodrigo gets one of the most common traits from the "how to write an anti-hero" guidebook:  the mind of a progressive.
Never mind his deception and lies, for Rodrigo is a man who will willingly work with Jews and Muslims for the mutual benefit of both, and thinks nothing of casually leaving his mistress or daughter in charge of Vatican affairs while he attends to business elsewhere (though in that latter case, the real Rodrigo apparently did allow Lucrezia to fill in for him during at least one official Vatican meeting).  
Such a lack of prejudice and affectation, as well as the ability to recognize and reward the talents of others no matter what their gender or background, instantly makes him more sympathetic to modern viewers.
He's also portrayed as having more physical bravery than the other Cardinals (refusing to leave Rome when the French army invades; running into a collapsed chapel to save people) and plenty of times he seems perfectly capable of being an effective Pope, particularly in organzing the women in his life to cut down on the corruption inherent in the church's finances. (That said, he eventually gives the go-ahead to charging people money for confession and absolution).  
All in all, he's never portrayed as overtly bad at being the Pope, nor is he an unnecessarily cruel or petty man. As such, when he's accused of simony and lechery by his detractors, you can't help but think: "so what?" The portrayal is of a flawed but oddly lovable man, who comes up with devious methods of sustaining his power, but nonetheless rises to the tasks before him. The question then becomes: how much of his enemy's hatred of him is justified, and how much of it is wrapped up in their own attempts to seize power?
He's a hard character to pin down, and I suspect Jeremy Irons himself may have felt the same way considering by the final season he's often painting the character in broad comedic strokes. Only occasionally does a streak of his original cunning shine through (as when he suggests that Cesare inherit the Papacy by invoking primogeniture) so perhaps it was only the now-forever-hypothetical fourth season that could have provided some big-picture clarity on his characterization.
Had the show continued, I suspect he was headed toward the epiphany that despite consolidating his power and maintaining his hold over the church, it wasn't worth the dissolution of his beloved family. Even by the third season he was beginning to long for the simple life.
Whereas Rodrigo is driven by somewhat vague ambitious impulses, it's no mystery at all as to what motivates his eldest son Cesare. "For the good of the family" could well be his personal catchphrase, and for the duration of all three seasons pretty much everything he does is for the protection and wellbeing of the Borgia clan – up to and including the assassination of his own brother.
François Arnaud is very much the star of the show, treading the fine lines between charismatic leader, Machiavellian plotter, and devoted family man. It's a compelling character and performance, and one you suspect was a favourite of the writers, especially when he loses some of his early inhibitions and is finally given his longed-for position of army general.
His entire character can be summed up in an early episode, in which he and his father attend a banquet, only for his instincts to guide him to a would-be assassin, who he then fights into submission and talks into joining his side, before subsequently poisoning the man who originally ordered the hit on his father – all while Rodrigo remains oblivious. In many ways it's a flip on the usual father/son dynamic, with Cesare being infinitely more quick-witted in his dealings and ruthless in his protection of loved ones, though he remains the loyal tool of his father in many respects.
Marked out in the first two seasons in particular is his frustration at being constrained by the robes of a cardinal, when he knows full-well his true talents lie in the military. Not only is it a more active lifestyle, but its resources and moral flexibility makes him more able to protect his family.
Unfortunately, Rodrigo has his children's lives preordained and when it comes to his sons, he wants (in his own words) "one son in armour, one in the cloth". It's immediately obvious to anyone with two brain cells that he's put Cesare and Juan in the wrong positions, though it eventually emerges that this decision was not so short-sighted as it initially appears: Juan may be Rodrigo's favourite child, but it's in Cesare that he sees himself, as well as the son intelligent enough to grasp his plans and remain vigilant against all threats.
Still, most of what Cesare does is part of a desperate on-going bid to get himself out of his cardinal robes, though he does have one other key motivation: his sister Lucrezia.
Although I can't provide a direct quote, I'm under the impression that Neil Jordan originally stated there would be no overt depiction of incest between Cesare and Lucrezia, which seemed to me a wise decision. Although these famous siblings no doubt inspired Game of Thrones's incestuous twins Jaime and Cersei Lannister, claims that the two of them were engaged in a love-term love affair are almost certainly slander created by the family's numerous enemies.
Yet unlike the charges of incest laid at Anne Boleyn's feet, which no self-respecting historian bothers to take seriously (at least I truly hope not!), the rumours about Cesare and Lucrezia linger even to this day.
And so it's not surprising that Jordan cannot bring himself to completely exclude an incestuous vibe between them, starting from their very first scene together. It's fraught with subtext, as Cesare realizes Lucrezia is spying on him while he's in bed with another woman and playfully chases her around the garden before tackling her to the ground. It continues in this vein, with Lucrezia telling Cesare of her impending marriage in the same way one might break bad news, Cesare carrying his newlywed sister to her marriage bed after she falls asleep during the reception, and later displaying obvious jealousy toward any and all of her other lovers.
They finally consummate their love in season three, and I'll admit to disappointment that the show went there. Despite all the tension that's been built up between them (including Lucrezia inviting Cesare into her bedroom to see the wedding gown that she's not wearing) it still feels a little too explicit – as though it was put in for the sake of edginess and the inevitability of two attractive people eventually sleeping together rather than a natural (albeit taboo) development between brother and sister.
Much like Heathcliff and Cathy, the tension and chemistry was all the more palpable without going all the way. The rumours and suspicions that surrounded them were more than enough – leave the rest of it to fan-fiction. And strangely enough, the act itself is not treated as Moral Event Horizon but as evidence of their love and commitment to each other; a "forbidden love" that no one else could hope to understand. 
Look, I don't want to get into an argument on the rights or wrongs of incest of all things, but suffice to say that these two characters as they existed in this time period would have surely known a sexual relationship between siblings was a grave sin and would have consequently treated it as such. Yet here, despite a few awkward glances the morning after, they seemed utterly nonchalant about what they've done – and the fact that no one else ever finds out about it (again, alas for season four) means there's never any long-term ramifications. Heck, even Game of Thrones treats Jaime/Cersei as something that's not only unnatural but detrimental to both of them.
But whatever you may make of "canonizing" Cesare and Lucrezia's incest, the fact remains that she provides his emotional (though hardly moral) impetus. In light of that, it's unsurprising that Cesare's first on-screen romance with Ursula Bonadeo falls entirely flat.
I suspect at least some of its unpopularity is due to the fact that Cesare/Lucrezia was the fandom's favourite ship, but there's no avoiding that the relationship isn't sketched out particularly well either. There's potential in its broad strokes: Cesare pursues a married woman and kills her husband in a duel before sleeping with her, conveniently withholding knowledge of her husband's death and his part in it. On finding out, she's horrified enough to flee to a nunnery.
I can see (and even appreciate) the irony they were aiming for – that Cesare kills a man in order to obtain a woman, only for that very act of killing to drive her away, but the premise just doesn't translate well to the screen. It relies on Love at First Sight, and though I wrote a massive post on how this can be pulled off if you tread carefully, suffice to say that it doesn't here.
I can only assume that to some degree Cesare was projecting his feelings toward Lucrezia onto Ursula (she's a blonde that he meets at his sister's wedding who is also in need of liberation from a ghastly husband) but there's very little attempt to flesh it out into anything more interesting. She's duly fridged in season two in order to kick-start Cesare's Roaring Rampage of Revenge, and honestly – she's such a misfire that I can't even bring myself to care that much.
They do much better in the third season in which Cesare (finally free of his Cardinal robes) is ordered by his father to marry, and so finds a young wife in the French court who is as pragmatic and cool-headed as he is. Neither Charlotte nor Cesare are in love with each other, but they certainly enjoy each other's company, were given some great banter, and had every appearance of finding happiness with each other.
One of my biggest regrets in not getting a fourth season was that Charlotte of Albret only appears in a single episode – though perhaps given Cesare's obsession with his sister, all would have not ended well for his young wife.
Which naturally brings us to Lucrezia. Her arc is also very clear, moving from childlike innocence to the political manipulator and master poisoner of legend. Holliday Grainger was a perfect choice for this role: the woman has the face of an angel, the smile of the cat that got the cream, and the ability to use both in keeping you in suspense over what exactly might going on behind her eyes.
I was pleased to discover that right from the start, she's portrayed as perceptive and clever. As Cesare helps his father garner votes from the Papacy, she's well aware of what the multitude of carrier pigeons flying to and from the house actually mean, and as she gradually sheds her naivety she grows in cunning and guile. And yet in the early episodes particularly, her story is one of innocence not lost but destroyed – specifically feminine innocence destroyed.
To consolidate her father's power, Lucrezia is married off to the much older Giovanni Sforza so as to forge an alliance with his powerful family. She's essentially sacrificed on the altar of her father's ambition, for her husband rapes her nightly in revenge for the perceived slight her family did him at their wedding (which among other things, involved the presentation of a ribald play and the presence of Vanozza despite his attempt to bar her attendance), explicitly telling her she's being punished for their behaviour.
As strange as it may sound, I found this particular use of rape as a plot device (and let's be clear here, if a story involves rape but is not about rape, then it's either a plot device or a negligible background event) more troublesome than I did on Outlander. This may not only have to do with the fact that despite Claire getting threatened with rape every ten seconds, none of her assailants ever got the chance to go through with it (Jamie of course, is another story) but because of how Lucrezia's rape is used to supplement her character development.
In many ways it's handled more tastefully than Outlander. The rape of Lucrezia is not gratuitous in any way (no nudity is involved for a start, and the scenes are dimly lit and quickly over), the abuse she sustains is condemned by all who are aware of it (there's no room for the "marital rights" excuse) and the experience clearly has a long-term psychological effect on Lucrezia herself. 
But at the same time, it bothered me that it's treated as an intrinsic part of Lucrezia's growth. To become the conniving and seductive political player of later seasons, she has to go through what almost feels like a "rite of passage" rape; something to tear away her innocence so she can start down her dark path; an experience that gives her the tools and practice ground she needs to grow more hardened and manipulative in later years (for example, she uses herself as "bait" to distract her husband from the water she's poured on the floor, causing him to trip over).
I've noticed this motif many times in historical fiction: that character development is intrinsically connected to the loss of innocence, and that while the growth of male characters usually involves killing someone for the first time, the development of female characters is measured by the horrible things that happen to them.
(By complete coincidence I recently stumbled upon an interview with Joss Whedon in which he describes his latest project featuring a female character. In his words: “it’s called Twist, and it’s a Victorian thriller superhero story about a young chambermaid who, bad things happen to her. Needless to say, because it’s something I’m writing, she becomes very powerful because of it.” Granted, we can't read too much into the nuances of a story that has not yet been released, but his words do illustrate the point I'm trying to make: that for a woman to become empowered, first she has to be victimized).
For the record, none of this is a dealbreaker. Though it's a recurring theme across a variety of different stories, in general this show does pretty well with its female characters. Whatever the pitfalls along the way, Lucrezia's progression from innocence to corruption is compelling, as we watch her learn to yield "a woman's weapons" – charm, beauty and poison to achieve her own ends; culminating in a character who is somehow both femme fatale and tragic child.
When she meets Paolo the stable boy for example, who first becomes her lover and then the father of her child, we're never quite sure how sincere she is in her proclaimed love for him. There's some certainly, but her seduction of him is clearly also an attempt to find a protector. On meeting him there's a deliberate projection of the distressed damsel and a sense of childishness (she plays a hand-clapping game with him) which all results in him taking action against her husband on her behalf.
Later still we see her using her coquettishness to secure her safety with the French King, her deception in "vetting" her suitors so that she might decide on the right match on her own terms, and her herb-lore in saving her father's life when he's poisoned with chanterelle. Of course, things don't always work out the way she planned (in the promisingly named episode Lucrezia's Gambit, she's given the opportunity to back one of two heirs to the Nepalese throne – and ends up siding with exactly the wrong one) but I felt much more comfortable with the character in later seasons, by which point she's taken command of her sexuality and fate. In fact, her choice of second husband is almost funny – he's so hopelessly out of her league that it's clear Lucrezia is more interesting in having a puppy dog than a partner.
Then there's David Oakes, playing the exact same character as he'll later play in The White Queen: the favourite middle son of a doting parent who is nevertheless vain and insecure when it comes to his legitimacy. Juan's story can get a bit ludicrous at times (he screws his thirteen year old brother's betrothed in a room full of dead people) and by the end he's created enough animosity between his siblings that he's duly killed off at the hands of Cesare, once more "for the good of the family."
There's also Joanne Whalley as Vannozza Cattaneo, Rodrigo's long-term mistress and the mother of his children. Much like Megan Followes, she's an actress who never got the career she deserved (though she seems to be getting steady work these days) and here she plays the most level-headed member of the Borgia clan. There is a twist though; unlike most maternal figures who encompass the beating heart of a family, Vannozza is often shunted to the side due to her perceived lack of respectability, having once been a courtesan (not to mention the current Pope's ex-mistress).
Also of note is Lotte Verbeek as Giulia Farnese, a young woman who replaces Vannozza as the Pope's mistress – not that he's supposed to have such a thing in the first place. With her red curls she looks very much like a Renaissance model, and like Vannozza she's characterized by her composure. Early on she gets to point out to Lucrezia that because women have so little chance to decide their own destinies, they often end up hating each other – a narrative she rejects and proves by befriending Vannozza. Okay, perhaps "befriend" is too strong a word, but in a way their cool but respectful partnership provides a much more realistic dynamic than if they were suddenly written as besties.
Each woman is well aware they're rivals, but neither is particularly interested in pettiness, and both women are bound in their mutual love for Lucrezia. In fact, much of season two involves the three women effectively working together to complete some of Rodrigo's plans for the city.
And then there's Sean Harris as Micheletto, the aforementioned assassin whose attempt on Rodrigo's life is intercepted by Cesare, who is then smoothly coaxed into working for the Borgias instead. These two have all the prerequisites of a huge slash following (heck, Micheletto is eventually revealed to be gay) though from what I've seen of the fandom it never really took off. Perhaps this is because Cesare/Lucrezia was the big fandom ship; perhaps it was because Sean Harris – as lovely as I'm sure he is in real life – has a rather terrifying game-face, one that was also used to good effect as Joss Merlyn in Jamaica Inn.
As Cesare is devoted to his family, so Micheletto is devoted to Cesare. In many ways, his motivation is just as hazy as Rodrigo's ambition (why does Micheletto throw his lot in so utterly with Cesare?) but in this case the ambiguity, together with that terrible face, leaves you deeply unnerved. He drowns children, murders women, kills his own lover, and throughout it all refuses any kind of reward or recognition. Existing in a world where there are no lines to be crossed, he's eventually described by Cesare as someone above good and evil, driven only by loyalty to the family.
We talk about people being "tough nuts to crack", but Micheletto is sealed shut – utterly and completely, and remains as much as enigma at the end of the show as he was at the beginning, whatever glimpses we might get along the way as to his background and sexual orientation.
In some ways it's difficult to review a show in its entirety. Usually I review episode-by-episode, or at least season-by-season, which may be more time consuming, but also allows a person to get into the nitty-gritty of the individual choices a writer (or group thereof) makes in telling the story on a weekly basis. After all, that's how television shows are structured, and the collective whole may not be fully known to its creators until after its conclusion.
And because I marathoned The Borgias over the course of a single week, the episodes as well as the seasons have merged into a conglomerate in my head; a glut of events and characters and subplots and climaxes that are lumped together without distinction. It's difficult to pull out any distinguishing episodes – or even separate incidents – across the course of the three seasons.
But if there's a central theme that Jordan seemed to enjoy, it's what The AV Club reviewer described as the Borgia family's talent for bullshitting, which often sees them bluffing their way out of situations involving anything from a jealous mistress to an advancing army by the seat of their pants. Their sheer audacity naturally makes us root for them despite their corrupt decadence, but Jordan is careful to make sure there's a price.  
Most of the Borgias clan (sans Juan) have Plot Armour and historical precedence to protect them from death over the course of the show, and so in a clever bit of foresight Jordan doesn't bother to keep throwing them into life-or-death situations, knowing that this will create no suspense for any but the most ignorant of audience members.
Instead, the family are tainted by the tragedies that follow in their wake. No matter what they do, no matter how hard they attempt to achieve otherwise, they remain directly or indirectly responsible for hundreds of deaths – often for no good reason.
In the first season we are introduced to Prince Djem, a hostage sent to the Vatican from the Sultan of Constantinople, offering the family 40,000 ducats per year for his half-brother's accommodation – but 400,000 ducats straight up if he should die while in their care. Realizing that he needs a massive dowry for Lucrezia if he's to marry her to the powerful Sforza family (and secure their support in times of unrest), Rodrigo gives Juan the go-ahead to dispose of their young guest. (Naturally, Djem is portrayed as a complete innocent, a loving suitor to Lucrezia, and the victim of a botched poisoning that requires Cesare to deliver a mercy kill. Yeah, sometimes this show could go a bit overboard).
And so the blood money is collected and Lucrezia is duly married off to Giovanni Sforza – only for the Sforza family to not lift a finger when the Papacy is threatened by the French forces. Lucrezia's misery leads her to escape her husband's estate and return to Rome, where the marriage is eventually annulled by Papal decree.
In short – everything, from Lucrezia's suffering to Djem's death, was for nothing.
Throughout this entire show, from start to finish, innocent people die for and because of the Borgias. Paolo and Ursula are two more obvious examples, each one targeted specifically due to their relationship to a Borgia sibling, and often for no reason (Paolo was leaving the city with no intention of ever returning when Juan catches up to him). In the same episode that Paolo is killed by one faction of the Borgia family, a random prostitute that Juan was using as a lookout is murdered by Micheletto as he and Cesare try to maintain a hold over the situation.
And just to round things off, on learning that Juan was responsible for Paolo's death, Lucrezia retaliates by leaving a lit candle beneath the rope that holds a chandelier in place above Juan's bed. But it's not Juan who gets skewered – it's the prostitute sharing his bed. In fact, it's only her presence that saves his life considering she's on top when the chandelier falls.
Every which way you look, it is the innocent who suffer in the pointless games and political machinations of the Borgias.
But it's not a theme that's exclusive to the family. Their greatest threat initially comes from Cardinal della Rovere (Colm Feore) who can quite easily be described as a good, virtuous man. He genuinely cares about the wellbeing of the Church, its people, and the entire city of Rome, and he (correctly) accuses Rodrigo of bribing his way into power. When he vows to rid the Papacy of the Borgia stain, you can understand why. In any other show he'd be the good guy, bravely finding against corruption and debauchery in the Mother Church.
And yet you can see the reality of the situation dawning on him as he accompanies the French army cutting a swath of destruction across the land on their way to Rome – it's been his actions that have spurred all this into motion, and in his prayers and behind his eyes you can see his growing alarm at what he's unleashed in his attempt to remove Rodrigo from power.
And of course, his entire plan is thwarted when the Pope dresses in a friar's robe and simply talks the French King out of invading. Going into the second season, on the heels of his abject failure in removing Rodrigo by force, delle Rovere initiates more subtle methods. By this point he's given lines such as "can one sin for the greater good, to rid the world of evil?" and "sometimes goodness needs the help of a little badness" which clearly indicate how compromised he's become, roping in a young monk to serve as Rodrigo's new taster – someone perfectly placed to slip poison into his wine. This naturally requires the death of the old taster, and the lengthy, painful process of building up a resistance to poison in his young protégé.
It's a slippery slope, and when the assassination attempt goes ahead, delle Rovere is in amongst the rest of the Cardinals, collecting votes as they gather around what could be Rodrigo's death bed. It's a far cry from his purer motivation of the first season, in which he gave no thought to ambition beyond ridding the Vatican of Borgias.
It's therefore a damn shame that the lack of a fourth season means there's no "full circle" quality to delle Rovere's story-arc. After the botched poisoning he disappears halfway through the third season, just in time for the role of main antagonist to be handed over to Caterina Sforza. In time he would have finally witnessed the downfall of the Borgias and become Pope Julius II – but I suspect Jordan would have staged it as a Pyrrhic Victory in keeping with Rodrigo's own ensuing epiphany that absolute power wasn't worth its price.
That no character emerges from the events of this show with their innocence intact is a theme that sadly cannot be explored further in that hypothetical fourth season, in which we would have no doubt seen each character pay dearly for sinking so deep into corruption. Cesare and Lucrezia's love affair would have probably been exposed, Caterina Sforza would have grappled with knowing the loss of her son and citadel was all for naught, and delle Rovere would have no doubt sacrificed more of his integrity in ridding Rome of the Borgias.
In strange way, it's Rodrigo himself who remains figuratively and sometimes literally "above it all." Every single thing that happens in this drama can be traced back to one singular event: his decision to become the Pope. He's at the epicentre of the storm that rages around him, and as meteorologists will tell you, that's a strangely calm place to be. As battles and intrigues churn around him, he remains in the relative peace of the beautiful Vatican, where the worst that can be accused of him is sending out his son to do all his dirty work.
This show is at its strongest when dealing with the trinity of characters at its heart: Rodrigo, Lucrezia and Cesare, and their complex love for one another. Each child bristles at the control their father wields over them, Rodrigo laments the part of himself he sees in his eldest son, and of course the siblings are – well. You know.
Throughout it all it's easy to assume Jordan is more interested in the more dynamic Cesare and Lucrezia, who are each given clear character arcs: she goes from innocent girl to devious plotter, and he goes from loyal son to Machiavelli's Prince (unsurprisingly, the final episode is actually called "The Prince"). That the final scene of the show closes on the siblings lying next to each other on a bed that also holds Lucrezia's dead husband – mortally wounded by Cesare and finished off with Lucrezia's poison – is an indication of how far the show had come from its Rodrigo-centric opening and of where it was poised to go in the future: the eventual downfall of the Borgias as a result of their dysfunctionality as a family unit.
At times there is so much double-crossing and plotting that it's hard to keep track of it all, and often keeping within the boundaries of historical record results in more than a few anti-climaxes (after a memorable performance in the first season, the French King is off-handedly mentioned as dying of a head injury during a tennis match in the second). Like I said earlier, the events of Henry the Eight's life gave writers of The Tudors a clear trajectory to follow. Here, you can tell that Jordan often struggles for material, with subplots and characters often falling to the wayside without explanation. (Whatever happened to Vittoria, the cross-dressing artisan? Or more damningly, Gioffre, the youngest Borgia son?)
But it's my theory that if your show only lasts one season, it was either underwhelming or screwed over by the network. If it lasts two, then you failed to capitalize on its early success and seize your second chance. But if it lasts three? That's a good run. There's no doubt The Borgias deserved a fourth season (or at least a two hour movie) to wrap things up satisfactorily, just as The Tudors did. But even without it, the show was a success – not as big as Game of Thrones, but certainly more so than Camelot (all three of which premiered in 2011).
The subject matter could be incredibly dense at times, and the plots a little stop-and-start as a result, but in terms of visual beauty there was no competition. Never does the show skimp on the opulence and wealth that surrounds the Borgias, and I could have happily watched Holliday Grainger and Lotte Verbeek glide around the marble halls and ballrooms of the Vatican in their Renaissance garb for hours on end.
Miscellaneous Observations:
There is little exploration or emphasis on the lower class, which is always a weakness in my eyes, no matter what part of history is being dramatized. This may sound like a bizarre comparison, but one of the ways in which Avatar: The Last Airbender was clearly superior to The Legend of Korra was that is focused on the cost of war among ordinary people, whilst Korra stayed almost exclusively among the political movers and shakers.
Similarly, The Borgias stays within the circles of power, and though I've mentioned the on-going theme of hapless bystanders dying as a result of the family's intrigues, there's very little attempt to flesh out any of these characters. When they do, the likes of Ursula and Paolo aren't exactly interesting, though perhaps one of the most touching parts of season two is when Paolo enlists the help of a prostitute called Beatrice to find Lucrezia. Blasé and cavalier at first, she leads him on a merry dance around the city before his belief in love eventually moves her to tears.
Jordan is aware that it is often the little historical details that can be just as interesting as the movement of armies; such as all the odd rules and rituals that permeate this world, from the dramatic rite of excommunication, to the fact that the Pope's high-born mistress could attend Lucrezia's wedding while the low-born mother of the bride could not.
Often the show struggles to find things for any woman not called Lucrezia to do, though it was always appreciated that female characters were never pitted against one another, not even when they had justifiable cause. At all times, they're portrayed as – well, adults.
The humour is a bit hit-and-miss; although there's laughter to be found in some of the old rites (such as the Cardinals verifying that their new Pope is in fact a man by making a quick check of his genitals) other new discoveries of the age fell a bit flat (Rodrigo's reaction to cigars is to cry: "turds?!")
The nudity was handled pretty well; throughout the first season it never felt too gratuitous, and unlike Game of Thrones there was equal opportunity nudity between men and women. From season two on there was a bit more pointless boobage and the underlying insistence that Irons's Rodrigo was totally irresistible to women (over on The Tudors at least you got the sense that Henry's multitude of sex partners were unable to say no to the King of England; here it would seem the line-up of beautiful sexpots genuinely wanted a piece of the old Pope). This was especially grating with the character of Vittoria. A young woman disguised as a man so that she might be apprenticed to an artisan had all sorts of potential for an interesting subplot – but instead nothing is done to get inside her head, and her presence does little beyond providing the chance for Rodrigo to have a threesome.
In short: I never felt the show crossed a line, but it does get more grisly and sexual as it goes on, and not in a particularly meaningful way.
Finally, watching this in tandem with Da Vinci's Demons provides plenty of amusing comparisons. It's quite astonishing that Leonardo himself never appeared in The Borgias (though he's mentioned plenty of times) but there are other historical characters that are included in both shows. Among the most famous figures, it's rather amusing that both versions of Prince Alfonso of Naples are equally horrid, while the separate takes on Machiavelli couldn't be more different.


  1. Bradley James is on The Medicis Masters of Florence. Have you had a chance to see it?

    1. Not yet - I was actually planning on tackling it very soon though!