EPISODE REVIEWER: Urquheart's Take



SEASON ONE EPISODE ONE: The Poisoned Chalice
Urquheart's Episode Stats



SEASON TWO EPISODE ONE: The Borgia Bull

Alternative Title:
The Borgia Bull(sh*t)

Favourite Guest-Actor:
Augustus Prew reminds us why viewers clicked with his depraved, unscrupulous prince for the last time…

Best Character Interaction:
Vanozza and Giulia sharing feminine wisdom and plotting to keep their oddly functional triangle from becoming a permanent quadrangle.

In a Nutshell:
The ideal premiere, pure fun, full of humour, entertainment, action and spectacle.

Not in a Nutshell:

Second Time’s a Charm

The Borgias could function as an above-average period drama merely by providing episodes like The Borgia Bull. Season 2 gets a lot better than The Borgia Bull and even Season 1 has a couple of well-balanced episodes that could give it a run for its money but the fact that the show is so much better than it needed be can mean that sometimes it sacrifices fun, juicy melodrama for deeper, slower and more boring character-and-dialogue-based drama. Well, The Borgia Bull is a little bit of both, a unique mixture of “guilty pleasure”, well-timed humour and brooding, suspenseful action. Much like Alexander VI, Neil Jordan doesn’t find it bad to (finally!) provide an episode that is full of light, swashbuckling energy and great promise for the next to come. Not only as the episode’s writer, but as its director as well Jordan injects the hour with an energized, fast-paced approach that’s entirely welcome. Season 2 starts with good auspices and seems ready to give people what they want: more action, more prominent roles for fan favorites like Micheletto and Vanozza, more visual delights and quicker storytelling.

Cantarella on the Rocks

The opening sequence has an aptly menacing and urgent tone. The chilling shot of Cesare waiting for the wafer in line just before DR collapses is followed by the young cardinal’s warning, really a continuation of their scene in “Nobody”. DR obviously can’t die, yet the scene doesn’t lack punch or a climax (something rather rare in Season 1). In DR’s stead, an incompetent altar boy gets punished, courtesy of Micheletto, who then casually salutes and old nun, and the scene ends with the harrowing image of the boy’s drowned, lifeless body floating on the water. A wonderful CGI of Rome, accompanied by a serene melody is next, indicating that Alexander seemingly lives in his always sunny, palatial world, in a bubble away from the unpleasant events in DR’s Umbrian lair (by the way, Jordan must really like the word Umbria or the region itself because it is mentioned in relation to three different persons in a span of the first two episodes of Season 2!). Alexander VI seems too busy trying -with hilarious results- to hide his some-nights-stand from official lover, Giulia Farnese, and trying to put his grandchild to sleep as a means to dismiss the French ambassador to in any way participate in the destruction of his enemies. Both scenes showcase the show's humour at its finest, only to have the following scene shatter any impression of levity. Calling his two sons to pay their respects and account for their actions and failures, Rodrigo hides depths of grand-scale manipulation (after all, he sent the entire French army to their doom) and megalomania behind his loveable, goofy and silly exterior, something I would have liked to be much more obvious in Season 1 but I guess it’s better late than never (the episode will even emphasize Rodrigo’s duplicity by having him dress up as Janus, the two-faced deity). The scene also introduces the themes of vengeance and the Renewal of Rome (I hope they mean the city, because sadly the ship has already sailed on HBO’s illustrious series!), the goals that Rodrigo sets for his family but will never completely follow through, except when they will be expedient to the plot. The conversation is rather badly scripted and could alternatively read something like that:

Rodrigo: So, now that the French King is going through a bad cold along with a stomachache from eating too much Neapolitan ice-cream, it is time to punish our enemies.
Juan: All our enemies?
Rodrigo: Oh, yes! Giovanni Sforza, Caterina Sforza, Ludovico Sforza. So, basically all the Sforzas.
Cesare: What about Ascanio?
Rodrigo: It’s complicated. Plus, he’s got a bad itch ever since “Stylish in Sackcloth” Day.
Juan: What about the Orsini and the Vitelli?
Rodrigo: What about them? Come to think of it, who are they?
Cesare: Remember all those rival noble families we should’ve shown last year, but we were too busy with Tediousla Boredtodeatheo? They are just two of those.
Rodrigo: Oh, right. Them too, I suppose then. But basically the Sforzas.

The most important season-long theme to be eloquently introduced however is the sibling rivalry between Cesare and Juan. The family rallied together against the French and once again for Lucrezia’s labour but now that they have had time to brood, the two brothers are already at one another’s throats. A thrilling swordfight provides ample, well-choreographed andrenaline, but a less-than-heart-stopping (as it were promoted) horse-race is too short and too repetitive to top that.

Vittoria’s Secret


Another new storyline to be introduced is based on a character that strays dangerously into the Ursula Bonadeo Brain-Cell-Death Zone. Vittorio/Vittoria (what an obvious pun!) is played by Jemima West, a likeable actress with enough beauty and charisma to entice the viewer, but her horrible disguise strips the storyline of any credibility. In an episode that is mostly spectacle-oriented and occupied with reintroducing characters and plotlines, which means it rather lacks an emotional core (with the exception of Lucrezia, whose heart-warming chemistry with Cesare is apparent despite lack of screen-time or an actual storyline of her own), to me it is weird that I developed a connection to Giulia and to what Vittoria’s arrival meant for her. Giulia is a cold fish and we’ve never so far seen her crack, but in fear of losing the Pope’s affection -and probably his lavish fondness too- it is a nice change to watch her struggle to regain his attention or veer into b*tch territory, for example when she intimidates poor Vittoria in a sexually abusive way. Her interaction with Vanozza, who seems to enjoy it, because she now knows that as the mother of the Pope’s children she could never be supplanted, is delightful, mainly because it is nice to see two one time opponents (though their feud never sparked) plot together and it is seems fitting to see Giulia humbled and Vanozza probably thinking that she’s better off with the devil she knows, Giulia having perpetrated no aggressions against her, nor her children, instead having befriended Lucrezia and behaved like a mother to her. Vanozza’s solution to Giulia’s problem is ingenious and indicative of her augmented role this season.

A (Judas' C)hairy Situation

While the Borgias are having their Pagan-themed feast, a way for the show to flaunt his now complete and very beautiful Saint Peter’s piazza, in the plague-infested Naples, the French King demands the sinister Alfonso’s head. After a nicely-filmed chase along the slopes of Vesuvius, Alfonso’s apprehended and brought in front of Charles VIII, whose mental state reflects the decadent and filthy atmosphere in the Neapolitan court. Augustus Prew and Michel Muller wonderfully play off one another’s shameless depravity, until one of them ends up tormented to death. The French King looks so unstable and unhinged that he becomes an even more exciting villain to have on the show, because the fact that he might die at any moment means he has nothing to lose, so all the bets are off. The final shot of the episode is appropriately creepy and scored to perfection, the ideal way to make one look forward to seeing what's next.



SEASON TWO EPISODE TWO: Paolo

Alternative Title:

Paolezia (Or Lucreolo)


Favourite Guest-Star:

Sarah Solemani gives ample flavor to naughty, nasty, f-bomb-dropping Magdelena!

Best Character Interaction:
Pope Alexander VI and Ascanio Sforza talk about the Vatican’s fiscal viability and the Vice-Chancellor’s no-nonsense attitude nicely complements and contrasts Rodrigo’s, who’s starting to behave like the Sun Pope.

Cheesiest Quote:
DR: Sometimes goodness needs the help of a little badness!

Season 1 Character Bodycount:
Paolo joins Alfonso in the afterlife (Alfonso’s death is confirmed in this episode) which brings the count to 2!

Best Costume:
Vanozza's gold-white robe makes a short, single but memorable appearance.

In a Nutshell:

One of the better episodes of the series, heavy on well-attuned suspense and humour.

Not in a Nutshell:

Paolo? And Ursula? In the Same Episode? Really?

When I first saw that a Season 2 episode was titled “Paolo”, I was disappointed. Why not an episode titled “Niccolo”? Or “Ascanio”? There were many secondary characters in Season 1 worthier of an episode titled after them. And I also thought it were a bad omen: I was afraid Season 2 was going to once again devote screentime to the very same characters that often undermined my enjoyment of Season 1. Well, “Paolo” may be my least favourite Season 2 episode, yet it is still an episode that works on several levels and provides many of the things I loved in Season 1. First of all, “Paolo” is as much Cesare, Lucrezia and Juan’s episode as it is Paolo’s, if not more. We don’t learn anything new about the titular character (not even his surname or how he escaped from Sforza’s claws, regrettably), but certainly the ripples caused by his romance with Lucrezia are a nice way to explore class divisions and how they relate to family politics, while Neil Jordan also throws some nifty suspense tricks in the mix. The episode has a slower pace than “The Borgia Bull”, as well as, sadly, less action, spectacle and pomp. But Paolo ends up dead, which is always a plus! Killing recurring characters that are really BORING is the best way of salvaging their reputation and making the most out of their restricted uses, given that they are BORING, because the show finally looks like it takes chances and does daring things by sacrificing familiar, likeable but BORING characters! The “familiar and likeable” part contributes to some sadness when they finally depart but did I mention BORING?

Good Prostitute/Bad Prostitute

To help introduce and develop the episode’s main storyline, Jordan recruits two mismatched pairs of characters: the friendly prostitute Beatrice who helps Paolo find Lucrezia and the obnoxious prostitute Magdelena that acts as Juan’s spy (both played with remarkable vim and energy by their respective performers) and Lucrezia’s brothers Cesare and Juan, all of whom are deeply involved in the episode’s endgame. Paolo, as naïve as ever, enters Rome in search of Lucrezia and the episode moves really slowly due to the whole “fish-out-of-the-water-as-a-device-for-exposition” ploy until the two lovers meet again under less-than-comfortable circumstances and set a clandestine rendezvous, using a code even Juan can decrypt! Then the episode’s pace picks up considerably, mostly due to now having a purpose. Lucrezia, knowing that she owes Paolo at least one chance to meet his child (and have some soft-core sex) decides to talk to Cesare (whose startling presence in Lucrezia’s chamber is Jordan’s first crafty trick). Cesare’s decision to arrange a single meeting for his sister and the father of his nephew seems to be influenced by his earlier encounter with old flame Ursula. In a short and intense scene that is definitely successful due to that (even for Ursula-haters, such as I), Cesare, obviously dying to see Ursula again but having forgotten how to express his affection for her, comes across as psychotic and borderline abusive. Arnaud, giving it his all, and Gedmintas, feeling appropriately powerless, helpless and oddly sympathetic for once, perfectly embody the two people caught in another painfully hopeless romance, which seems to be the fate of every Borgia offspring except Juan (whose romances are restricted to business-like transactions with Rome’s prostitutes). The meeting between the two lovers is arranged to occur in intrigue-prone Vanozza’s house (her line “You know how I love secrets” indicates how much she likes being included in family plots and plans) but Juan’s already on to them. Having spent the episode threatening peasants -among them Paolo- and making rather inelegant observations about Rome’s “rich versus poor” problem, Juan is constantly over-compensating for his suspected and dreaded lack of Borgia blood and nobility. That is never more apparent than during the family lunch scene (in the variation of “philosophizing-over-eating”), when he seems alone and unsupported in his callous, brutally cynical comments, even patronized by his preachy father for his lack of social conscience, so it is no wonder he gets errantly violent and homicidal. After being lectured by Rodrigo Borgia on inequality, I would want to kill someone too! Thus, a cat-and-mouse game begins. To cast doubt on how easily Cesare agreed to grant Lucrezia’s wish (not that he can really refuse her), Jordan has Cesare send Micheletto escort Paolo to Vanozza’s house. As menacing as ever, if not more (frankly, I don’t think we have seen his face paler), the beloved, beastly assassin seems ready to mangle the horrified stable boy, only to then guide him to his destination (exchanging some rather contrived remarks about life and love on the way). There is a silent confrontation between Cesare and Paolo, the latter ready to drop dead of a heart attack, what with all the frights he’s gone through in this episode, and the former briefly examining the only man his sister has ached so much for. Soon, Juan disturbs the night tranquility only to be convinced by Cesare that everything’s under control and that their sister is in no danger of humiliation by association with a low-born. To add another touch of suspense, a baby’s cry shatters the silence, even though Cesare’s stated their mother’s house empty of visitors. Cesare covers it up but the truth may have already been compromised as his pet pigeons -the alleged source of the cry- have been massacred by one of Rodrigo’s ravens (more on that later, it is sillier even than it sounds). Whether or not Juan’s noticed, he leaves willingly and the two brothers share a strange moment of swearing allegiance to their duties as Borgia men. That is why it suspicious -intentionally or unintentionally- that two sets of legs seem to be tailing Paolo around Rome the next morning (after a tearjerker of a farewell with Lucrezia, courtesy of the endlessly likeable Pasqualino and Grainger’s masterful control of her facial expressions). The two figures are soon revealed not to be Cesare and Juan but rather Juan’s henchmen who along with him hang Paolo, just after informing him that he is going to die a suicide, deprived of God’s mercy even in death.

The Pigeonator

Inspired by Vittoria, his latest, low-class, cross-dressing paramour, Rodrigo seems to have woken up and remembered the people of Rome. Unsuccessful at any attempt to find company for his little tour among Rome’s disadvantaged (the most hilarious one occurring with Peter Sullivan’s Ascanio Sforza, who finds the idea laughable), Rodrigo finally embarks on the mission along with Vittoria and Giulia. Just like one is touring a museum looking forward to the gift-shop, after helping the series show off its new slum set (imagine the Aventine in HBO’s “Rome”, only ten times smaller!) , the trinity ends up in a tavern and have a good time. So, Rodrigo decides to focus on improving sanitation… by exterminating the city’s pigeons! Meanwhile, Giulia’s given the far more trivial task of battling corruption in the curia (giving a good line or two to Vernon Dobtcheff’s Cardinal Versucci, one of the show’s six speaking cardinals). The storyline doesn’t lack substance or humour, especially in Rodrigo’s depiction as so flamboyant that he once more focuses on aesthetics, but one wonders why the fabled administrative prowess of the Borgias is diminished to something so easily derided and “breads-and-circus-y” (just like the Pagan festival last episode), instead of something as important and interesting as the swift enforcement of justice, one of the Borgia papacy’s most famous achievements.

Dellaroverutin, the Mad Monk

Back in DR’s Umbrian lair, the barely surviving cardinal-turned-monk decides to order “Don’t Skimp On the Poison: The Borgia Handbook to Achieving Success” from Amazon.pp (Amazon Papal States) and directly follow the teachings of Chapter 1: “An Anachronistic Capuchin Monkey Makes the Poison NOT Go Down”. Deciding to leave the nunnery for Rome, DR and a young nun travel the dangerous roads of central Italy only to encounter two rape-y farm workers. DR eliminates the two attackers quite easily and the scene is a much needed injection of adrenaline in an otherwise mostly serene episode. The point is ably made clear: DR is now much more accustomed to violence and will definitely use it against the Borgias (come to think of it, DR has now killed 3 people himself). It is a storyline that has great interest and potential but I can’t stop thinking how preferable it would be if DR seemingly yielded to Cesare’s demand last episode and rejoined the consistory, only to undermine the Borgia papacy from within. His storyline would have thus picked more steam earlier, provided us with an enemy far better situated in the proximity of the Pope and given Irons and Feore a chance to confront and play off each other again, as their chemistry in Season 1 was marvelous. Nevertheless, Feore lends a steely ruthlessness to his future Warrior Pope and keeps you on your toes about DR’s future exploits.


SEASON TWO EPISODE THREE: The Beautiful Deception

Alternative Title:
Borgia Publicity Might Yet Undo Him

Best Performance:
Holliday Grainger’s grief is so gut-wrenching and her thirst for revenge so chilling that there is no doubt in my mind this is her best episode so far and BY FAR.

Favourite Guest-Actor: I love Gina McKee and Ronan Vibert but how could they compete with Michel Muller when he's comically sending kisses towards the dead seated at King Ferrante’s dinner room, while vowing to see them again when he returns?

Cheesiest Quote:
Lucrezia: The pity was he loved a Borgia.

Best Quote:
Lucrezia: Then I may drop in on you... someday soon, in Spain.

Best Line Delivery:
You can do no better than Grainger’s slow, cold and menacing “Ask Juan”!

In a Nutshell:
An exemplary hour and a series high so far, thanks to Jon Amiel’s inspired direction.

Not in a Nutshell:

A Deceptively Beautiful Episode

“The Beautiful Deception” has little to no basis in history. Its title has been mentioned in relation to another event in Cesare Borgia’s military career and another fact is that Lucrezia’s lover, Pedro (whom Paolo is loosely based on), died under mysterious circumstances and of course the French army did return to Rome, though the outcome was different. So, why do I consider “The Beautiful Deception” the best episode of the series up to this point? First of all, the show finally works out how to successfully develop both the political storyline as well as the more personal-familial one, providing unexpectedly satisfying climaxes to both. Additionally, this is one of the few episodes that the show achieves technical flawlessness: I have never seen the show better lit and better framed or the camera being so inspired in its constant motion. And lastly, the episode manages what Season 1 and “The Borgia Bull” only hinted at: that the show is special and "colourful" enough to become cult. “The Borgias” is relatively successful commercially and well-received by critics (Metacritic gives it a 66/100 rating for Season 1 and 81/100 for Season 2, albeit by fewer reviewers) but, in my opinion, it is much more important for it to become a cult classic. Due to Jeremy Irons being in the lead role, every show or film about the Borgia family produced in the next 50 years will be inevitably compared to it and every one of those projects will (in most likelihood) have higher production values, better VFX, bigger sets etc. The show’s been pretty good so far in almost everything but only in “The Beautiful Deception” it finds a healthy balance of style and substance: director Jon Amiel (he and Kari Skogland, after helming “The Choice”, share the honour of being the best directors of the show) make everything eye-catching (like “The Borgias in Love” director, John Maybury) both as merely an idea and in the execution of it. The score by Trevor Morris has never been better, the story unfolds at its own leisure and builds up tension, without any plot development feeling gimmicky. “The Beautiful Deception” has that approach to the historical show genre “The Tudors” never pulled off (and that is why it is unfair for this show to be so often compared to that other Showtime series): everything IS special and there are some great things that look perfect in the show’s promos without lacking serious emotional impact or suspense. I also mentioned “The Borgia Bull” because “The Beautiful Deception” really takes every one of its themes and greatly expands on them: family strife has never felt so gripping as when Juan spites Lucrezia and the political storyline may seem funny with the Season 1 baddies ganging up against the Borgias but when Charles VIII, even in his unhinged state, does the reasonable thing and actually orders retreat, you know things are being taken seriously. Plus, the show retains and enhances the juicy, guilty-pleasure intrigue when the Pope has a violent argument with his son or when chandeliers fall and heads roll or when plaster is turned into cannon. The show hits almost all of the right notes.

That Would Never Have Happened With a Lamp From IKEA

Picking up some hours after “Paolo”, Lucrezia is having shopping therapy to get over her sadness due to her separation from Paolo. Cesare, who’s spotted the man’s dead body hanging in the marketplace, sweetly, admirably and discreetly tries to spare his sister the gruesome sight but alas his alarming behavior sends Lucrezia crying over her lover’s cadaver. Juan’s behaved like a fool sadist: if he merely wanted the peasant exterminated to remove any threat of shame to his family, he would have done so quietly and not leave the hanging body as a public spectacle mere feet away from the Pope’s front door and with written evidence of his association with Lucrezia. The girl’s face is priceless, becoming rapidly rigid, as she picks up on the clue (Jordan has rather clumsily notified us more than enough times that “Paolo can’t read or write”) and though someone else could have written the letter for him, Lucrezia knows that even if Paolo wanted to kill himself he wouldn’t hurt her by doing it in front of her palace. Detecting foul play in her lover’s death, Lucrezia becomes increasingly distant, cold and self-destructive, jeopardizing the life of her child. It is rather absurd that a baby with a wet-nurse would be in danger of starving to death but Grainger makes you forget any incongruousness by rendering Lucrezia magnetic and compelling to watch in her eerie reclusiveness and depression: her breakdown at times looks like a ploy to get the Pope to punish Juan and permit Paolo a Christian burial. Her “Ask Juan” line is delivered so chillingly that it sends Rodrigo presiding over a peculiar family court -the Pope, Cesare and Vanozza even sit down as if someone’s has just declared “Court in Session!”- and subsequently leaping across the table in fury -a magnificent moment I looked forward to ever since it was advertised in the season’s first trailer- to hold his second son accountable for his behavior. Juan is unapologetic but presents the “family honour” defense and Rodrigo leaves: his expectations and designs (none of his children, least of all Juan, are turning up to be “the Borgia he hoped them to be”) have crippled and devastated his family, even though Irons, with his deep, sad eyes, often renders Rodrigo the most sentimental of the Borgias when it comes to family matters. The Pope doesn’t leave Juan unpunished, as he’s finally ordered to stop fooling around and marry in Spain. Another memorable, series milestone moment follows shortly: atmospherically lit (the contrast between Lucrezia’s dark, coldly-colored room and Juan’s bright, warmly-colored chamber is ingenious), hauntingly scored (certain moments are accompanied by music reminiscent of a horror film) and -most importantly- perfectly acted by both Grainger and Oakes, Lucrezia’s anger at Juan turns homicidal: paying him a visit merely to ask for a little less noise, Juan’s callous behavior aggravates Lucrezia who decides to punish her brother, too blinded by her quiet, simmering rage to consider the consequences. Placing a candle under the rope holding the chandelier, Lucrezia retreats to her chambers and tries to put Giovanni to sleep while Juan is loudly continuing to enjoy his female company upstairs, as if he’s taunting and mocking his sister for her loneliness. Lucrezia hums the children’s tune she and Paolo played to back in Pesaro while Juan and his bedmate are constantly trying to get on top of one another, the viewer not knowing who will end up a the other's "shield" to be fatally impaled by the falling chandelier. The suspense peaks just before the Nazgul-like screeching sound of the rope getting cut is followed by momentary silence. Juan ultimately survives but not without a scare, the expression on his face so revealing when he finds the burnt rope: he seems mildly awed and amused to hide his shock and terror of the lengths his sister is willing to go to. Just before Juan leaves for Spain, Vanozza hosts a farewell dinner: Juan and Lucrezia are hurling innuendos at each other and when Vanozza notices, Juan decides to make it all about her by making a speech extolling the virtues of the family’s “Madre”. Vanozza is flattered and clearly loves Juan but looks on proudly only towards Lucrezia and Cesare. Vanozza is much cooler this season, her children with Rodrigo rendering her the undisputed queen of the family, and as Juan acknowledges that he gets between the two of them, just before he’s reminded that everything’s done for family, to which they toast. As Juan departs Rome for Spain amidst pomp and fanfare, his face promising more evil to come, Lucrezia and Cesare are reluctantly happy but I am definitely happy that the show’s decided to keep a strong card like Juan for the end of the season, because had they kept him in every episode, soon every shenanigan would feel superfluous, repetitive and tiring.

Too Little Time, Too Much Plaster

One good storyline leads to another and Micheletto (after a wonderful encounter with his Neapolitan taxidermist spy, one of the creepy figures that makes this episode so visually vibrant and memorable in its imagery) warns Cesare that the French and the Sforzas are coming back to Rome with a vengeance. It is really fun watching the French King sitting on his wheelchair like a demented Bond villain and plotting with other baddies like Giovanni and Caterina Sforza but the storyline gets much more interesting very quickly. The show may not (I want to say “yet” but I don’t really believe it) have shown several of the extended Borgia family members that acquired offices and posts during Rodrigo’s nepotistic reign, but still Rodrigo’s favoritism is evident here, meaning that he only trusts those he spawned or slept with: deciding to defend the city, Rodrigo orders Vittorio/Vittoria, who knows a thing or two about the city’s foundries, to manufacture cannon. But Rodrigo’s opulent festivities in “The Borgia Bull” have dire consequences: much like his expensive ascension to the papacy that made him order the assassination of Djem in Season 1 in order to provide a dowry for Lucrezia, Rodrigo has sold the city’s bronze resources to pay for his extravagance, so Rome’s practically defenseless. Cesare and Vittoria are a pair with chemistry (though Cesare wouldn’t touch anything his father did) and the scene with the latter explaining the situation is full of tension and urgency. Their solution of using fake cannons is clever if rather predictable, though the scene where Rodrigo laughs maniacally after Cesare’s startling exhibition in front of the College of Cardinals is rewarding enough. That is a great character moment for Cesare and Arnaud makes the most of it: Cesare is burdened with the risk of not only losing Rome and his life but also -possibly more importantly in his mind- his father’s trust, esteem and approval. He knows this is his make-it-or-break-it moment and that everyone doubts his abilities as a military leader, which makes that his first step in convincing his father that he could be capable of supplanting Juan in his mind and in his heart. The stakes for Cesare would be great even if the cannon were real: now that they are fake, they are simply unbearable. Nevertheless, he doesn’t shy from it: his unwitting father, in a magnificently lit scene taking place soon after daybreak, is convinced that Cesare’s in control of the situation and thus denies any kind of parley with the French. Cesare braces himself for his confrontation with the enraged French King, who intends to bathe in the Pope’s blood, but when the gates of Rome open to reveal the young Borgia's face full of determination, not even he would notice anything by looking at himself in the mirror, which ultimately is what makes his trick successful. Cesare's revelation of Rome’s majestic walls equipped with artillery is one of the coolest moments in the series. The French King, of course, decides to survive and fight another day and there’s a small but brilliant moment with military savant Caterina Sforza looking puzzled at the innumerable cannon as she turns her horse around. I would contest the show’s wisdom in avoiding direct confrontation once again (it’s already kinda happened in “The Art of War” and “Nessuno”) but I guess it is a matter of budget as well as story. Cesare takes some moments to realize the success of his gamble and rejoins his father (who is disinterested in the cardinals’ congratulating him mere minutes after they attacked his son’s and his own leadership). Cesare vows to produce real cannon and for the first time in the series he glows with confidence and even happiness, having finally found himself.

DR Needs Some Good PR

In the only storyline that seems to be working rather poorly so far, as it is very much on the fringes of the most exciting happenings and doesn’t give Colm Feore something challenging to do other than being morally dubious, DR enters Saint Peter’s and sees the Pope sitting on his throne, dressed in his pointy tiara like an evil overlord whose just sold heavenly forgiveness to those contributing to Saint Peter’s pence. DR meets his Roman monk contact and -surprise, surprise!- it’s Roger Lloyd-Pack! So, who would imagine such a fine actor in such a thankless role, the episode’s only blemish! Why did the show -or DR, for that matter- need someone who isn’t even helpful as a tool for exposition but rather spends his screen-time stating perfectly obvious things, morally challenging dilemmas in the most morally unchallenging manner and who doesn’t even partake in any kind of action. I guess it could be said that it is a good thing he’s so bland, humorless and plain given that he’s supposed to emphasize the repressed, colorless and puritanical attitude of Savonarola’s brethren, but I find myself quickly disinterested in DR’s plans to obtain the Florentine friar’s approval to murder the Pope.


SEASON TWO EPISODE FOUR: Stray Dogs

Alternative Title:
The Booty and the Booty Call

Favourite Guest-Actor:
Patrick O’Kane imbues his Francesco Gonzaga with a wonderfully appropriate rigidity!

Best Character Interaction:
The meeting between the Pope and the French King that was a long time coming is tense and completely different from their first one, back in “Nessuno/Nobody”.

The "Ursula Bonadeo Award" for Most Useless Waste of Screentime: Interaction:
And the UBA goes to… Vittoria! After 3 episodes of her being a fixture and having something to do with the plot(s), she gets a “Thank you and off you go! By the way, we don’t validate temporary parking in the Vatican!” courtesy of the Pope.

The "Jeremy Irons Award" for Excellence in Mostly Effortless Scenery-Chewing:
The French King’s last appearance on the show is definitely a memorable one. Muller manages to out-Irons Irons!

WORST.QUOTE.EVER:
Battista Colonna: You piece of piss, Orsini! As a Colonna I despise you and your sorry dick!

Best Line Delivery:
Jeremy Irons: Do you think the Lord God doesn’t know how to make rain?

Best Costume:
The Pope’s crimson travelling outfit makes him look like some kind of super-villain!

Season 1 Character Bodycount:
Ursula goes to Hell and the French King (who actually dies in episode 8, but he’s never seen from this point on) retreats to France! Season 1 Characters down so far? 4 and counting on!

In a Nutshell:
A colourful episode, the biggest fault of which is that it can’t possibly top “The Beautiful Deception”.

Not in a Nutshell:

Sic Semper Ursulis!

Accompanied by cries of “Rejoice!”, “Hallelujah!”, “Amen!” and deafening applause coming from the show’s audience, Ursula is discovered DEAD (God, it reads well!). With a radically reduced presence in Season 2 (she only has two scenes in fact, the best of which is arguably the one of her as an amputated corpse!), Jordan decided to salvage the character by having her getting killed in order to use her demise as a plot device, a trigger to unleash Cesare from every kind of a humanizing romantic tie to a woman other than Lucrezia. Arnaud is reliable as ever but the scene with Cesare discovering his murdered lover is merely perfunctory (then again, perhaps that’s for the better), the fact that Ursula must have had agonizing last moments the only thing enhancing the impact of the development.

Brute of the Poisonous Tree

Cesare’s understandably out for revenge and orders Micheletto to gather Rome’s other masterless assassins (I imagine him dealing out fliers or gluing them on Rome’s pillars, reading: “Skilled Cutthroats Needed for Distinguished Client. Flexible Schedule, Flexible Morals, Payment in Booty”). Micheletto doesn’t disappoint him and brings him a team of ragged warriors (the scene with them assembling and walking down the road would be ripe for parody with the right modern music accompanying it), disenfranchised veteran condottieri without condottas, looking like hobos even though they bear names such as Orsini, Baglioni and Colonna. Cesare exhibits some cool new gadgets, which are soon put into practice against the French scouts (yes, an army of 20,000 has, like, 20 scouts!), and the scene is my favourite action sequence in the series (which says a lot given that Season 2 features, among others, a horse race, a swordfight, a chase and a heist). I have to say, though the show’s wise not to have over-utilized violence, choosing instead to insert it in certain imaginative ways here and there when it can turn your stomach much more suddenly and easily, I don’t yet feel palpable danger, that constant sense of imminent volatility, like any situation could burst into violence at any second, something that’s been achieved in shows like “Boardwalk Empire”, “Rome”, “Game of Thrones”, even “Borgia”. The show usually has that Downton-Abbey-ish classy, civilized and tactful atmosphere and lacks the dirty, gritty, malevolent medieval noisomeness. That being said, the long scenes taking place in the torture chamber were boring and repetitive. Of course, the information that Giovanni Sforza instigated Ursula’s rape-murder was necessary but I believe that the info could have been extracted much more quickly. Yet, Micheletto’s reemphasized, blood-chilling fascination with violence and pain are entirely welcome and more Sean Harris is always a pleasure.

The Devil You Know, The Pontiff You Don't

Strange alliances and bizarre bedfellows is one of the episode’s themes, prevalent when the Pope is forced into an alliance with Venice, Milan and Mantua against the French King or when Vanozza is recruited by Giulia and Lucrezia to bring down the corrupt cardinals. There was something delicious about the first time Rodrigo, Cesare and Ludovico Sforza meet in person (and thankfully Ivan Kaye doesn’t scream this time!), especially how Cesare’s so aggressive towards the usurper duke, who now has no choice but to withdraw his support to the French and humble himself before the Pope, whose latest maneuver made the French Italy’s problem and no longer his own. Though I am not aware of Rodrigo’s desire to have his Italian frenemies and the French slaughter each other and cancel one another out being one of his motives for joining the alliance, I am all up for anything that makes the Borgias look more duplicitous. Cesare and Rodrigo, in the absence of Juan, continue their nice father-son dynamic, an element of which is that the younger generation often distrusts and undervalues the older one’s achievements and firmly believes they can easily outdo them, so it was nice to see Rodrigo explaining Cesare why it is important and worth their while to travel with the Holy League for the confrontation with the French. Of course, Rodrigo’s other motive is his desire to reconnect with old flame Bianca, something Giulia detects and subtly comments on, quite possibly my favourite Giulia moment yet. Their scene together is a nice one and they kinda have an embryonic form of the Tony-Carmella dynamic in “The Sopranos”: he exchanges power in return for being guilt-free to engage in his affairs.

A Little Bit of Giulia in My Life, A Little Less of Ursula by My Side…

Having one good scene here and one good moment there, Giulia is merely representative of the show’s deep female problem: the sour truth of it is that the show doesn’t know how to fully utilize the women in its cast apart from heroine Lucrezia and villainess Caterina. Ursula isn’t the only female character to exit the series in this episode, as it opens with a farewell to Vittorio/Vittoria too. One wonders why the show took the effort of introducing a likeable character to hook up with the Pope, bring out some of Giulia’s vulnerability and insecurity, bring the matter of Rome’s poor to the forefront, help Cesare in Rome’s defense and then disappear. The show would have strived to include her afterward given how the plot develops (with the Pope travelling and then coming back to fast etc) but I don’t like to see valuable screen-time invested in a character that doesn’t have an arc or any profound influence on a storyline. Jemima West, you will be missed, that’s for sure (hope to see you again in Season 3)! I would so rather have her enter the papal bedroom as a harmless outsider only to evolve into a formidable figure and clash with official mistress Giulia and official matriarch Vanozza, but “The Borgias” feels too mature for that, though I don’t know how long it can keep its women interesting without having them at one another’s throats. The three women teaming up to take down the greedy cardinals (the initiative is Giulia’s, the means are Lucrezia’s and the knowledge is Vanozza’s) is awesomely promising -the closest thing Giulia and Vanozza have so far come to having a storyline- and works perfectly within the constraints of the episode (because in “The Choice” and “Day of Ashes” it becomes apparent that it was more of an afterthought than a storyline). Rodrigo leaving Lucrezia in loco parentis is also a clever, scandalous touch and handled adequately and realistically: Lucrezia sits on the throne of Saint Peter and puts on a “morality play” for the cardinals (accompanied by a whimsical Desperate-Housewives-like music) but her power isn’t all that material (in reality, during the Pope’s absence once, she was authorized to open or seal Vatican mail along with an elderly cardinal). And then there’s Bianca: introduced in “The Borgia Bull” as the Pope’s lover during Giulia’s absence (whose return caused Rodrigo’s hilarious efforts to conceal his infidelity), she’s elevated here to a recurring character with ties to the Mantuan Gonzaga family. Though at first she was seemingly a prostitute or a random girl the Pope had picked up on, closer inspection reveals she was rewarded with a precious perfume vial and not actual coin, so she could have been some kind of lower, possibly impoverished nobility. She’s hot (and Melia Kreiling is a good actress) so it is no wonder Gonzaga would want to marry her (but the reasons why Neil Jordan couldn’t have him marry Isabella d’ Este and Bianca be the wife of a fictional lord is beyond me) but her storyline doesn’t really lead into anything exciting, instead functioning as just another indicator that Rodrigo’s your average guy: he will succumb into any temptation without much of a fight (in fact, when Bianca enters his chamber at night to find him praying, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was just begging for company!).

Cloudy with a Chance of Cannonballs (or Thunder)

Just before Rodrigo leaves Rome, we get the obligatory DR cameo (this time he and Friar Snooze a.k.a. Brother Sylvio are dressed like Sith Lords) and I can’t help but feel how much more conflict and intrigue there would be had the show not chosen to turn DR into some kind of covert, homicidal zealot but kept him in the curia. Just imagine what trouble he could create for Lucrezia during her tenure as de facto ruler of the Vatican in Rodrigo’s absence. Alas, one can only hope that Colm Feore will continue to be a part of the show in Season 3 and if he is, the only logical way to include him is to have him return to the college of cardinals (maybe under the pretense of learning about the Pope’s latest health risk). Anyway, Rodrigo’s “weekend in Tuscany” doesn’t seem to have the benefit of fair weather (I loved the shot of his carriage approaching the field of battle were army lines are ominously forming under the gloomy sky). Rodrigo peacefully sleeping on cardinal Sforza’s shoulder was a classic moment and the shot that followed, that of the plain grey church that serves as the meeting point between the French King and the Pope, was wonderfully atmospheric and sent shivers down my spine. Rodrigo’s soft-spoken and calm and stands his ground against the King but he’s also visibly unsettled by the King’s rapidly degenerating mental state. Michel Muller is almost frightening and his irate cry at the end is an unnerving parting moment. Rodrigo’s successful on everything he set out to Tuscany for and it’s funny how Gonzaga is so uplifted after the slaughter given how the Pope had just cuckolded him, tricked him into bloodshed and robbed him of the spoils of war. The final scene with Cesare is really the culmination of one of the episode’s subtler issues: Rodrigo had spent two scenes earlier in the episode lecturing Cesare on his impatience, on double-crossing their old enemies and the tactics of revenge and Cesare really comes out the winner here. While the Borgia son was furthering the family’s interests, Rodrigo was jeopardizing their alliances. Rodrigo’s two faces are ably revealed when he thinks nobody’s looking and the lens (Jon Amiel uses hand-held camera a lot in this episode to stellar effect) thankfully appreciates every single muscle in Irons’ face.


SEASON TWO EPISODE FIVE: The Choice

Alternative Title:
Fiends With Benefits

Favourite Guest-Star:
Gina McKee is finally given ample screen-time (and a Borgia boy-toy) to command!

Best Character Interaction:
Cesare and Micheletto’s mother have a PDA* meeting (*Parent-Dottore Association) and a few laughs at the assassin’s expense.

Most Obvious "The Godfather: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer" Homage:
Rodrigo: Know your enemy, cardinal. Know him better than your friend.

The "Chained Cannonball Award" for the Most Shocking and Unexpected Moment of Violence:
Cesare slaughters Giovanni Sforza in what feels like the most brutal, agonizing and utterly enjoyable murder of the series.

Best Line Delivery:
Piero de Medici’s great imitation of Savonarola: Did Adam need gold coin? Did Eve need a bank? Did Kane charge interest to Abel? Did I overdo it?

Best Quote:
Cesare: I can’t imagine you being born, Micheletto.

Season 1 Character Bodycount:
Giovanni Sforza's heart finally meets the dinner knife Cesare promised it would and he becomes the 5th Season 1 Character to bite the dust!

In a Nutshell:
The best episode in the two seasons of the series.

Not in a Nutshell:

I Choose The Choice

If I haven’t mentioned it enough times already, “The Choice” is my favourite episode. I also happen to think that it is the best episode in the two seasons of “The Borgias”. The episode benefits from having its own thrust by relocating the action from the Vatican to Forli and Florence in a very organic way and all in all there wasn’t something I found particularly wrong with it. On the contrary, the episode is uniquely paced and has an electrifying climax. Characters and plot are in ideal balance and Kari Skogland is quite possibly the most capable director yet, enhancing the show’s dramatic economy and natural flow and effortlessly packing a lot of developments in 52 minutes. Neil Jordan writes his last episode of Season 2 and thankfully doesn’t disappoint: essentially, still dealing with Season 1 issues and characters and offering both resolution and a reintroduction of some of them as important Season 2 plot factors, he crafts arguably the best, most eventful final act yet. Additionally, he goes out in style and makes sure that the back half of Season 2 will be just as great and exciting.


Savonarock&rolla

After his unmitigated triumph (except for a misunderstanding about weather or two) over the French, Rodrigo heads incognito to Florence to deal with Savonarola. Getting the Pope out of the Vatican is a deft move and I definitely want to see much more of that in the seasons to come. After successfully expanding the Rome set this season, I was really looking forward to see the show’s take on Florence (last season we got a glimpse of the city’s gatehouse and Brunelleschi’s dome). I would have liked a longer shot of the majestic city and its river but the episode sadly establishes Florence’s look as only slightly different than Rome’s (the colour palette is roughly the same). Savonarola’s preaching left me indifferent, which is why it is curious to me that Rodrigo’s in awe of the Friar’s eloquence. What really made the scene worthwhile was the moment DR entered the church and unbeknownst to him stood close to his mortal enemy. Both men are amazed at Savonarola’s control of the crowd and what I also found very apt and effective in terms of tension was the constant fear on Sforza’s face. This season has made a fuss of how much Rodrigo distrusts his Vice-Chancellor, which is the reason why he keeps him close at all times as per the famous The Godfather principle, but all things considered Rodrigo and Sforza make a nice duo, ably complimenting one another, e.g. Sforza being dead serious while Rodrigo’s light and humorous, Sforza’s more cautious when Rodrigo’s reckless and so on. Departing Florence, the two men have a subtle moment of mutual understanding of the situation: Sforza realizes Rodrigo’s watching him closely and Rodrigo wears his wide, reptilian smirk, stopping short of denying it. Near the end of the episode, they exchange smiles full of subtext once again but when one would hope that the show would have Sforza actually hold some sort of crucial role in the main storyline (maybe having a part in Rodrigo’s assassination attempt or becoming an innocent casualty of it), he proves absolutely, unquestionably loyal (which surely disappointed me, given how the Sforzas re-emerge as archenemies of the Borgias) and only serves as a tool for exposition. Visiting the breath-taking Medici palace, my favourite set in Season 2, (it is a crime the episode didn’t get nominated for the production design Emmy, given the amount of effort to create the really detailed and beautiful sets, especially the Medici palace and the Forli stronghold), Rodrigo meets with Piero de Medici and Machiavelli, who’s acting as the former’s baby-sitter (loved Julian Bleach’s acting when Machiavelli signaled Piero to stand up and not sit down before the Pope!), to plot how to deal with Savonarola. Jeremy Irons once again nailed the quiet, casual ruthlessness of Rodrigo: minutes ago he admired Savonarola’s piety, fervor and inspiration and now he wants to grant him “heaven itself” (one of the best euphemisms he’s so far utilized to describe destroying someone).

Roddy’s Angels

It is ironic that the sequence opening the episode is of Saint Peter’s Basilica in its full glory given how the very symbol of ecclesiastical superiority in the era is going to partly collapse by episode’s end. After summarizing the church’s real business as an enormous banking machine, Giulia, Lucrezia and Vanozza target the cardinals to secure the funds they need in aid of Rome’s poor. Vanozza sits between the other two women (which is rather weird given that Lucrezia is the one that is on best terms with her mother and her father’s mistress, but the show is determined to emphasize that enmities are in the past) and definitely her experience renders her the leader of the group. One could easily poke holes in the storyline (Why don’t they just help the poor with their own means? Why don’t they simply petition Rodrigo for resources and swift justice on the greedy cardinals?) but without it ever being said or alluded to, I got the sense that the three women were also doing it out of sport or as a kind of exercise in power, which actually explains a lot. As I said in my “Stray Dogs” review, the three of them teaming up is awesome and still works well in terms of this episode, but I would much prefer a subplot of the three women squabbling over something or coming together to take down a female opponent (Sancia, where are you?) or, failing that, battle someone much more important and central to the plot than the show’s go-to cardinals, Piccolomini and Versucci (seriously, the college of cardinals sometimes seems like it is in fact a council of five people, i.e. Rodrigo, Sforza, Cesare, Piccolomini and Versucci, and every other cardinal’s sitting there just for the booze and the canapés). The scene in the brothel is very PG but the delightful acting, especially by Joanne Whalley, and the appearance of the grotesque figure that acts as the madam save it.

Two and a Half Monks

DR’s trek in Florence to acquire Savonarola’s approval finally jolts his storyline forward and features some really welcome developments. The meeting between the cardinal-turned-Dominican-friar and the de facto supremo of the Dominican order is an excellently scripted and acted scene, reminiscent of a James Bond film and the scenes when the henchman reports to the arch-villain. Savonarola’s French affiliation, along with other political issues relating to his activity, are glossed over here but with good reason: Steven Berkoff is so masterful and exquisite when he plays the riotous monk as such an eerie, unworldly figure that to convolute this approach with political matters would rob him of his spirituality, this exceptional quality of abiding to a different set of rules and seemingly operating on a different plane. Berkoff has an indecipherable poker-face and exudes menace and imperiousness when he mocks DR for his miserable failure and this contrast between the firmly religious man, whose integrity has paid off and resulted in his effectively ruling an entire city, and the politically-minded cardinal, who resorted to unsavory means, stooped to the level of his enemies and ultimately lost and was forced to hide, strikes all the right notes. Without any actual promise, Savonarola approves of DR’s mission to kill the Pope only if he’s successful (which means, he can be political after all), which sends DR searching for a volunteer willing to go down with the Pope as the taster of his poisoned food/wine. The introduction of Jesse Bostick’s baby-faced killer, Antonello, is atmospheric and effective (especially the timely lightning turning night into day) and Colm Feore’s face is perfectly shaped to make every scheme in his mind become evident when he turns towards the camera, his new recruit facing his back: DR doesn’t just want to save Christianity from the Borgia Pope, he still longs to be ideally situated to take on after he’s gone.

Cougarina Sforza

I saved the best for last and it is a fact that the storyline that provides the most sparks in “The Choice” is Cesare’s paying a visit to Forli and Caterina Sforza. A side benefit of a storyline that takes the Borgia son in a largely unknown and potentially hostile territory (an always neat premise for any story) is getting to know Micheletto’s origins. Though the Borgia captain was originally from Spain or Navarre if I am not mistaken, Jordan conveniently places him in Forli and ties him to the episode’s main story successfully. Barbara Flynn turns up in a magnificently energized cameo as Micheletto’s delusional mama and the conversation between her, Cesare and Micheletto is typically embarrassing for the latter and utterly enjoyable for the audience (especially Cesare’s imitation of Micheletto’s supposed devotion to his mama!). Micheletto is revealed to be a patricide which is quite ironic considering Cesare (and every other Borgia offspring in fact) are continually compromising their lives and their innocence for their father’s sake. Revealing that Micheletto is also a homosexual -so, to sum up, he’s a closeted homosexual, who’s secretly murdered his father and is employed as an enforcer pretending to study medicine!- is a big twist, the term “big” and “twist” used rather loosely as many shows have used this device many times already to delve into the psyche of an inscrutable character. Surprisingly, this is one of the cases that it actually works: A) Jordan merely provides the facts and doesn’t tell us what to think of them taken in context, which makes it feel less forced. B) Micheletto’s preferences may shed some light on his blind, undivided loyalty to Cesare. C) The Sweet Assassin isn’t made any sweeter or sappier or weaker or less fascinating just because he’s got a childhood gay love interest, on the contrary the plotline is in compliance with the “The Borgias Code of Macabre Goings-On”, far darker and more morbid than your average Glee romance. Moving on, Cesare’s confrontation with the Sforza Iron Lady works marvels in terms of suspense: the big fortress has that “Dracula’s Castle” vibe (which was the case also with Giovanni Sforza’s castle), the fact that it is seemingly inhabited only by Caterina, her son and a handful of servants contributing to that sense that Cesare could be ambushed in every unlit corner. Gina McKee and Francois Arnaud have explosive chemistry, which makes their entanglement much more compelling to watch: I doubt even there’s any real carnal desire there, as Caterina tries to assert her authority, distract Cesare from his mission and get the better of him and Cesare attempts to melt the woman’s steely exterior and mellow her into submission. All of their sex scenes seem like a showdown and have that -mostly- unsexy, unfamiliar, adversarial power-game climate, where each one of them attempts to penetrate and bring down the other’s considerable defenses. Cesare and Caterina have the same rapport that Juan and Sancia did: they both know what they mean to each other and are very similar in behaviour (in fact, they would make a nice couple of fiends). The episode is also adept at communicating that entire “trapped-in-a-dark-castle-with-a-gracious-but-dangerous-hostess-that-won’t-let-me-leave” theme, which gets all the more interesting the moment Giovanni Sforza arrives at night to support his cousin’s decision. Ronan Vibert is deliciously haughty and callous when Caterina refuses to capitulate, which ultimately brings about his violent demise. Sforza’s been maybe the worst Borgia opponent so far, since he raped Lucrezia, betrayed Rodrigo and caused Ursula’s death but I got that sense that none of that was a critical factor in Cesare’s decision, which was much more based on his feeling utterly used, humiliated and violated, unable to forgive himself for letting his defenses down for that long. Sforza’s murder is one of the few really savage moments in the series, agonizingly slow and graphic, almost animalistic, reminiscent of the botched assassinations in “The Sopranos”, full of blood and struggle. The sequence is juxtaposed with the collapse of Saint Peter’s roof after being struck by a lightning bolt, a memorably impressive moment which the production admirably pulled off. Both Borgias, Rodrigo and Cesare, barely escape their respective predicaments and both end up in a dark place of self-doubt and heart-pounding fear, in a completely opposite direction from where they stood at the beginning of the episode. Sforza definitely had it coming and nature’s smiting of Rodrigo was appropriate considering he had spent the season so far getting everything he wanted by foul means but there were a nice contrast in the way that Rodrigo, usually inactive and working through others, risked his life and proved heroic while Cesare, usually cool and collected, completely lost it, provoked aggressions and was driven to flee. The climax of the episode is, in my opinion, the most powerful ever and makes it almost function as a finale, full of resolution as well as a potent starting point for the installments to come.


SEASON TWO EPISODE SIX: Day of Ashes

Alternative Title:
The Bible Says It’s Not Wrong To Rob An Embezzler

Favourite Guest-Actor:
Julian Bleach double-crosses the Medici and proves a delicious addition to the regular cast!

Best Character Interaction:
Rodrigo and Vanozza plot Lucrezia’s marriage and the terms of their relationship are completely renegotiated.

Best Quote:
Lucrezia: What does it say of us, brother? That you would promise me this and I would accept?

Cheesiest Quote:
Cesare: Trust me. My name is Borgia.

In a Nutshell:
A serviceable transitional episode that suffers by comparison to its predecessors.

Not in a Nutshell:

The Borgias Version 2.2

“Day of Ashes” could function as the premiere of “The Borgias” Season 2 Vol. 2. This is the first episode to be written by new executive producer/director/co-showrunner David Leland and he is wise to keep up Jordan’s elaborate, somewhat archaic prose (it almost feels as if Jordan is ghosting the script) while also bringing his own style and dynamic to the writing, something that shows much more in the episodes to come. He is aided by veteran director John Maybury, who’s not new to the show and whose keen eye for visuals helps elevate an otherwise mundane episode. For the first time since his temporary departure, the show suffers without Juan’s mischief and the ripples that causes as the episode feels flat, steeped deep in dull moral dilemmas and without a sufficient axis of conflict and tension.

Fasting Should Be An Olympic Sport

The episode starts by demonstrating Rodrigo’s grief and penitence after the deadly natural events that closed “The Choice” and the production successfully pulls off the big Ash Wednesday litany that is taking place in Rome. The scene’s better watched as a counterpart to the much darker and grimmer occurrences in Florence, where Savonarola’s grip grows ever tighter and the friar presides over a hooded “tribunal” that purges sin and luxury from the city. Subject to this tribunal is a noblewoman (HBO’s “Rome” alumna Camilla Rutherford is rather wasted in this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part), whose ornate braid Savonarola briefly sniffs (reminiscent of a similar moment with Judge Frollo and Esmeralda in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”). Apart from conveying the information that the Medici are soon to be expelled from Florence, the scene, seen in context with the previous one and Rodrigo’s dire disappointment in particular, rather deftly makes the viewer wonder whether there is a shift in the power balance, what with Savonarola growing stronger and more determined and Rodrigo deeper in doubt than ever, which in turn makes their battle all the more interesting and drives the viewers to question their allegiances: Rodrigo’s crashed and humbled by the divine punishment and works towards becoming better (but is he really?) while the mostly righteous Savonarola throws Florence into a hurricane of turmoil, violence, Puritanism and bigotry. Consistent with Rodrigo’s character, he is once more paying lip service to God: the historical Rodrigo was as much a carnal as he was a spiritual man but what I think the show’s so far most successful at -courtesy of Jeremy Irons- is emphasizing Rodrigo’s deep, unreserved belief at the Church as a political establishment. Part of what makes Rodrigo’s character likeable, at least in my eyes, is that he, more than Cesare, Lucrezia, Juan, Giulia or Vanozza, is concerned with amassing influence and wealth not only for the family but also for the Church. And that is why I don’t find it odd or contradictory that, apart from being a little less goofy and light in this episode, Rodrigo’s “business as usual” and actually much more active in scheming against Savonarola and plotting Lucrezia’s next marriage. Rodrigo envisions Savonarola’s demise as a step-by-step plan of luring him into committing acts of heresy and then discrediting him as an excommunicant. Ascanio Sforza approaches Savonarola in Florence and their meeting has a nice mystique to it (aided by the gloomy lighting and the church’s magnificently dark and imposing altar) because we can’t know from the beginning in what capacity Sforza is in Florence: Is he the Pope’s spy/emissary? Or is he there acting on his own, maybe to offer his allegiance to Savonarola? We get our answer early on: disappointingly, Sforza remains the Pope’s watchdog and tries to seduce Savonarola with a cardinalate, which of course Savonarola refuses. Back in Rome, Maybury is filming Rodrigo’s conversation with himself and God inside the confessional in an ingenious way: Rodrigo’s abruptly interrupted by an extremely anxious Cesare mere seconds after commenting on the “great silence”! Cesare’s decision to deliver his confession then and there seems to be informed by his desire to have a wood-screen between him and his father and quite rightly so as Rodrigo gets sarcastic and furious, indulging in such time-honored parenting traditions as turning his children against each other and showering them with guilt.

Father of the Bribe

Pushing Lucrezia to marry (despite Cesare’s quiet protests) to secure a new alliance so that he can face the Sforzas -and citing the aggressions provoked by Cesare in the North as the reason behind it, though he himself stated that war would follow if Caterina Sforza didn’t obey him-, Rodrigo hits a wall of denial (Grainger more than stands her ground here) which sends him right to Vanozza in the episode’s best scene: she is bathing in her villa and feels like she’s Cleopatra granting him an audience. He asks for her help in convincing Lucrezia to marry (and sharing the blame if that match fails as well) and informs her about Cesare’s lethal encounter with Giovanni Sforza, just before Vanozza taunts him on his hypocrisy when he starts sending her lustful looks despite his fasting for Lent. Vanozza is cool, confident and on top of that a mostly good mother: she always argues their children happiness when she’s with Rodrigo, pushing him for better treatment, and almost always defends their father’s decisions when she speaks with Cesare or Lucrezia. Rodrigo nevertheless deals the harshest blow to Cesare who goes out of his way to please him: travelling to Florence to deliver a papal edict banning Savonarola’s preaching, the two clergymen have a great confrontation shot in close-up and Cesare’s warning that Savonarola may get burnt should he continue to play with fire fore-shadows the upcoming “fiery” developments (the Bonfire of the Vanities, the Trial-by-Fire and Savonarola’s eventual pyre). Steven Berkoff, in his “Uncle Fester” physique, continues to elevate obstinate, otherworldly and creepy to new heights. Florence is poorly rendered here (a painfully obvious CGI building stands next to Savonarola’s Church when Cesare and his team ride in front of it, while Rome’s gatehouse is evident in the background from the other side). Cesare and Machiavelli’s relationship is revisited and as the latter tries to gain influence with the former when he sees the Medici power wane, Cesare acts on the info and robs the Medici caravan trying to make amends by funding his father’s defense. The scene constitutes a necessary dose of adrenaline in the quiet and uneventful installment, though it is, sadly, completely by-the-numbers: hidden Medici guards spring out of the wagons just when everyone thought that an entire gold fortune shouldn’t be that easy to acquire, there is the obligatory “Cesare almost gets shot by an arrow” moment, tragically one of his men (identified in the credits as “Carlo Baglione”) dies falling accidentally on an enemy’s sword and there is a second that even the usually sharp Cesare momentarily panics when he can’t find a single alum ore coffin with a sign reading “EMBEZZLED GOLD HIDDEN INSIDE. TO ACCESS, SEARCH DEEPER”. Though the feat is not small and Rodrigo’s grateful, he’s no grateful enough and news of Juan’s return overshadows Cesare’s accomplishment, who is embittered and vows to return to Florence instead of staying in Rome to greet his brother.

Cardinals Vs Women
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The storyline concerning the female cabal going against Vatican corruption concludes in this episode in an unceremonious manner. The women -in ultra-b*tch mode- set a rendezvous with those cardinals that feel they have something to lose by going against the ladies of the Pope’s heart (meaning, unsurprisingly, Versucci, Piccolomini and a nameless, voiceless cardinal that arrives moments before the scene ends) and inform them that they will fund the renovation of a ruin (kudos to the production for the location) to house the poor, unless they want the women going through their dirty laundry by inquiring about them at Rome’s whorehouses. After consulting Ascanio Sforza who believes that one shouldn’t mess with dangerous women and that the Pope’s in a charitable mood that the ladies are sure to exploit, the cardinals capitulate and the women receive a taste of the gold that will go towards their benevolent efforts. The storyline was supposed to be revisited in episode 8 (an early episode synopsis mentioned the women turning to actual blackmail rather than simply threaten it after the cardinals start delaying their payments and there were a couple audition videos back in Fall 2011 with a scene of a prostitute describing a depraved sex game involving urine, which could be tied to this sub-plot) but I am glad that it ends here. This storyline that started out promising never bloomed or evolved into anything more complex or clever, never provided any real kind of conflict, either by having the women antagonize the cardinals or, even more interestingly, one another and never even mattered in terms of the general plot. The potential developments that with proper handling could turn a disaster into a triumph were endless (since the writers evidently aren’t afraid of fictionalizing): however stereotypic, the women could have encountered danger and send Rodrigo and Cesare running amok, the storyline could have helped introduce a love interest for Vanozza or even Giulia, the women could have aggravated the cardinals so much that they would offer their help to DR, they could have argued about taking sole credit for the charity and so on. Alas, nothing happens and the focus changes towards Lucrezia’s mostly boring romances once more. Lucrezia setting her eye on the wrong Pallavicini, especially after her mother warns her to fortify herself and brace for her inevitable marriage, is a storyline that works better here mainly because there is promise of intrigue with every character introduced and nobody could predict just how mind-numbingly tedious it would actually prove later on.

The Cantarella Shots Are On the House (Or In this Case, Monastery)

Operating entirely on the periphery on the main story, DR tries to cultivate Antonello’s endurance to arsenic with horrific results and Feore masterfully portrays the cardinal’s newfound cold-heartedness, never batting an eyelid even when his new agent is subjected to torment after torment. The storyline also helps pinpoint what bounds to be a semi-important plot factor, the Pope’s new taster, Brother Bernadino, an one-dimensional pious being who one can divine is not long for the world of “The Borgias”. The sub-plot is, nonetheless, one of the parts the episode that functions alright, packing at least a moderate amount of tension and intrigue.


SEASON TWO EPISODE SEVEN: The Siege of Forli

AlternativeTitle
Return of the Prodigal Son (of a B*tch)

Favourite Guest-Star:
Gina McKee returns in a final (for Season 2) magnetic, eye-opening and nuanced performance!

Best Character Interactions:
The two silent confrontations of Micheletto and Savonarola, especially given that the former’s a homosexual and the latter’s systematically purging them from Florence, are immensely powerful episode highlights.

The "Jeremy Irons Award" for Excellence in Mostly Effortless Scenery-Chewing:
David Oakes evidently relishes his role and proves he's gorgeously expressive!

The "Chained Cannonball Award" for the Most Shocking and Unexpected Moment of Violence:
Ludovico's army catches Juan by surprise and heads -and eyeballs- roll!

Best Line Delivery:
Caterina Sforza: My son live or die, I vow these men won’t reach old bones.

Best Quote:
Machiavelli: And as you can see, with this face I have no vanity.

In a Nutshell:
A near perfect episode, successfully balancing character moments, plot, excitement and action.

Not in a Nutshell:

Nobody Does a Good Siege Nowadays

Reviewing the really good episodes of the series, I always face the same difficulty: there’s not much to make fun of or comment on or suggest ways things could have been done better. “The Siege at Forli” is one such case and definitely one of the best episodes of Season 2. Similar to “The Choice” in that a lot of its action takes place in Florence and Forli, the installment benefits from a central axis that never quite reaches its full potential but admirably generates heaps of suspense and tension and lends the episode focus and a sense of purpose. David Leland finds the right blend of dark, uncompromising, even tragic drama and sprinkles it with healthy doses of irreverent humor and sarcasm. Kari Skogland, director of my beloved “The Choice”, returns and makes sure not even one shot is wasted, filming the episode in a cinematic and involving, if rather straightforward way. “The Siege at Forli” is, in fact, a model “The Borgias” episode. Unable to compete with big-budget film sieges (“Troy”, “Kingdom of Heavens” and others), Episode 7 finds a deft formula to justify avoiding conflict until the last couple of minutes and doesn’t disappoint, even though I have often contested the show’s choice not to let confrontations such as this result to all-out, crowd-pleasing carnage. In essence, the only serious criticism “The Siege at Forli” is vulnerable to is the following: Juan Borgia never laid siege at Forli. This isn’t the first time the show depicts something that didn’t actually take place, even in such a big scale (Siege of Lucca? Plaster Cannon?), but in terms of the fictitious universe of the series a campaign such as this would only make sense if it was waged against the Sforzas (standing in for the Orsini at the siege of Bracciano), the most enduring Borgia opponents. The build-up (what with Caterina, Giovanni and Ludovico constantly antagonizing the papacy in the past) makes everything worthwhile but I definitely hope the show can move on in Season 3 and at least introduce some other noble rivals for the main characters and expand the world of the series.

You Give Lust a Bad Name, Juan

“The Siege at Forli” is definitely a Juan-centric episode, as Rodrigo’s middle son finally returns triumphant from Spain (actually, “triumphant” doesn’t even begin to describe the horse poopies the Vatican’s cleaning staff will have to sort out). Juan’s absence was greatly felt in the previous episodes, especially "Day of Ashes", and while he may not be my favourite character, David Oakes is definitely one of the top 5 cast-members of the show in terms of versatility and capability. Back in Season 1, though he seldom carried the plot, he made sure his role was graced with tons of character and personality, making him compelling to watch, sometimes attracting the eye with his over-the-top body language, even when someone else was the epicentre of the scene. Thinking that panthers are a girl’s best friend, he gives one to Lucrezia in a deliciously wicked move but the real joy of the opening scene is the priceless ecstasy and adoration on Jeremy Irons’s face as he greets him, at the same time sweet and deluded. The whole cigar incident is hilarious (especially a very natural-looking suppressed laughter by Joanne Whalley) and though the comedy springing from it may be a little too obvious, it helps to think that without it we wouldn’t have the pleasure of watching a cigar-smoking Pope wandering through the Vatican searching for the “Boardwalk Empire” sound-stage. Nevertheless, when nausea finally catches up with him, Rodrigo turns his attention to subjugating Caterina Sforza by ordering Juan and his conquistador mate, the majestically named Don Hernando de Caballos (or Don Hernando of the Horses), to take her down. Juan’s continuously (since the second he first appeared on-screen in Season 1) engaged in a game of impressions, the heart-breaking result of his father’s surreal expectations of him, and this time he seems determined to win it. Whether Juan’s indeed a changed man, sober, dedicated to his noble wife and soon to be a father, is a question quickly answered: Juan’s diagnosed with a lethal, degenerative venereal disease. The importance of the tragic news is downplayed courtesy of Richard Durden’s deadpan comic delivery and his stomach-turning, torturous procedure, but most importantly because the inevitability of death isn’t something made ready to digest as it seems to concern Juan less than his family learning about it, something that isn’t directly stated but alluded to.

Army of Juan

Caterina Sforza’s tight budget seems to not have allowed for scouts and spies, so her guards are alerted to Juan’s attack only after his army has magically appeared from the woods. The Forli stronghold is a magnificently detailed set (though I’d have liked a moat) and the numbers of Juan’s army are believably rendered on-screen. Caterina’s safest hope of beating Juan is receiving her cousin Ludovico’s promised help, an ingenious device on behalf of Leland that starts a clock ticking against Juan’s effort and lends the siege a wonderful, edge-of-your-seat sense of anticipation and urgency. Exhibiting remarkable reflexes Juan, under the pretense of a parley, kidnaps Benito, Caterina’s son who Jordan’s insisted in “The Choice” was soft and unfit for a soldier’s path. Enquiring whether Benito thinks his mother will break under the pressure, Juan receives a response that drives him livid, Benito having found a sensitive nerve as Juan himself deep down doubts his own mother’s unconditional love for him. From that point on, the siege stalemate is handled effectively and doesn’t feel ponderous, opting to emphasize Juan’s painful desperation to prove himself to his father that drives him to atrocity after atrocity (though being lectured about it by a conquistador is a bit too much!), plus Robert Cavanah, Noah Silver and Gina McKee prove extremely reliable partners in sharing the burden of the sequences.

Mini Minions

Being besieged is the episode’s theme and Juan’s storyline isn’t the only one to reflect that. As Lucrezia is besieged by her parents to settle on a suitor, Cesare’s in Florence, where Savonarola unleashes his army of obnoxious toddlers to lay siege to every poor or affluent household and purge sin and luxury. The camaraderie between Machiavelli and Cesare is nicely blooming, as the latter is a guest at the former’s house, engineering Savonarola’s downfall together. Though I am not entirely sure whether I want to watch Machiavelli portrayed as a kind of inside joke or wink at the public’s perception of him as a witty, amoral observer of the ruthless Renaissance politics rather than an actual person that is simply on his way through life, Julian Bleach is masterfully handling himself and a delightful addition to the Cesare-Micheletto team. The trio fend off Savonarola’s minions only to witness the notorious Bonfire of the Vanities, an event that is satisfactorily recreated here. Though I’ve come to terms with never receiving a CGI that even so much as attempts to do justice to the size and magnificence of Florence, the sequence is accompanied by appropriately haunting, eerie music and atmosphere. I‘d have liked to see much more frenzy and chaos as well as a larger bonfire or at least a mention that this wasn’t the first and only in Florence but the scene’s ultimately successful and the monstrosity of Savonarola’s conservative and backwards tactics is substantially felt. Bigot Savonarola seems to have developed an obscure connection to Micheletto, as the two men seem to be aware of one another’s aura of power and danger as if by animal instinct. The result is many threatening looks and promise of only one man standing in the end. Dealing with Savonarola though is oddly not Cesare’s only concern as he receives intelligence of Ludovico Sforza’s imminent surprise attack and decides not to warn Juan, acceptant at best of the risk of him and their family being humiliated and at worst Juan’s very demise. For the first time behaving in a petulant way and putting his own interest ahead of the family’s, I kinda liked that Cesare has inherited his father’s casual, unapologetic yet veiled, cutthroat streak, revealing the same layers of envy, power-craving and hypocrisy he’s often directly or indirectly accused Rodrigo of. Back in Forli, Caterina decides that Juan’s just as worthy of a look at her genitals as Cesare were, a moment most probably ripped from history (albeit under different circumstances). For the first time, Juan finds a vagina he doesn’t like but the worst news is that Ludovico’s army has finally arrived. The short moments Juan’s army is getting annihilated from every side are pleasantly brutal and violent, the viewer’s sight spared neither a severed head nor an eye pierced by an arrow. Benito’s saved at the last moment by Don Hernando of the Horses and at the same time Juan hops on the Coward Express to Rome, only barely escaping a cannonball.

It Takes Two to Tame a Shrew

Last and definitely least of all storylines in the episode, Lucrezia’s storyline feels like a marginally more tasteful and cerebral version of “The Bachelorette”. The plot-thread’s only redeeming quality is that Lucrezia actually becomes the predator here, utilizing Giovanni’s nanny to spy on and pursue the brain-dead, colorless Raffaello Pallavicini (Tom Austen is perfectly likeable, the character is just too meh). Another excuse for the storyline: Vanozza. A long-time fan favourite, a testament to Joanne Whalley's appeal, Rodrigo's old mistress, marginalized in Season 1, is now much more involved in the storytelling (still without her own storyline though) and there's admirably subtle character development here: without losing her warmth and above all caring for her children's interests, she nevertheless understands how she has to operate and conduct herself in the palatial world of the Borgias, where hubris of power is commonplace, a way of life. Vanozza's greatest concern, just like Rodrigo's, is keeping the family together and that's why she's constantly mediating between Lucrezia and Rodrigo, possibly sensing that her position is secure as long as her children remain in their father's good graces. Embodying every single minx trait, Lucrezia is somewhat hard to like and treats her suitors to Juan’s panther as a present full of meaning -as a warning perhaps that she can devour them?- but I admit I loved the overhead shot of Lucrezia strolling the Vatican halls, the same one that appears in the title credits and makes her look so regal, potent and dangerous. The location of the arranged-to-look-random meeting between her and Pallavicini is breath-taking, making up for the mushy dialogue. The name Alfonso d’ Aragona is also mentioned in the storyline as a clue for future developments and an irritating reminder that this storyline is merely filler material that will in most likelihood lead nowhere.


SEASON TWO EPISODE EIGHT: Truth and Lies

Alternative Title:
Juance Upon A Time…

Favourite Guest-Star:
The casting call for Antonello reads: "Antonello (15-25 years of age). Character Description: The Devil's Spawn. Actor must be as warm as an icicle, able to creep the hell out of people and reduce the role of Roger Lloyd Pack a.k.a. Friar Boredom". Kudos for the casting of Jesse Bostick!

Best Character Interaction:
Basically, every single scene between David Oakes and Jeremy Irons.

Best Line Delivery:
Basically, every single line delivered by David Oakes and Jeremy Irons.

Best Performance:
It’s a tie between David Oakes and Jeremy Irons, just can’t choose, they are both mesmerizing.

The “Jeremy Irons Award” for Excellence in Mostly Effortless Scenery-Chewing:
The award goes to the electrifying David Oakes, who may channel Jonathan Rhys-Meyers from “The Tudors” (especially conveying his pain for his leg wound) from time to time but is spectacular nonetheless.

In a Nutshell:
A heavily and substantially dramatic episode that mostly avoids soap and melodrama and is admirably grounded and immaculately acted.

Not in a Nutshell:

To Tell You The Truth, I Am Not Gonna Lie To You

“Truth and Lies” is one episode I didn’t instantly like and appreciate when it aired, thinking it was too heavy and uneventful for a series such as “The Borgias” that needs to constantly entertain with its juicy intrigue. I thought it pointless, even downright idiotic, to build an entire episode around the aftermath and the ramifications of an event that didn’t even happen in reality, especially with the season drawing to a close and in dire need of wrapping up multiple storylines and with a bang at that. But revisiting it and judging it within the context of the entire series and its endgame, “Truth and Lies” could well be said to be one of the best episodes of the show. For starters, remove all the period show trappings and you are left with an extremely articulate exploration of timeless issues such as a parent coming to terms with the limitations of his child a little too late, the matter of misplaced faith and expectations, disappointment, failure, rejection, loneliness, comeuppance and so on. David Leland constructs an utterly compelling episode that is remarkably subtle and laconic when it comes to dialogue, leaving it to the acting to bring out the nuances and almost functioning like a theater play, what with his many one-on-one scenes and lack of action, spectacle and plot tricks. John Maybury dresses everything in interesting visuals while music by Trevor Morris greatly enhances the themes and the narration.

You Are Just Too Good To Be Truth

News of the French King’s ridiculous death reach Rome and Alexander’s annoyed when his spineless, changeable cardinals, victims to any big or small shift in the political status quo, are ready to laugh at the deceased brave monarch’s expense, even though Alexander himself did everything in his power to bring him down. The info is not irrelevant as Rodrigo spends much of the episode pondering the question of how much of a value bravery is. Though he’s tactically shied away from many confrontations, Rodrigo’s no coward and he’s proven it. Remember in “The Choice” when he reentered the crumbling Basilica to rescue the choir children? Or the time he wandered the dangerous streets of Rome to inspect how the poor survived? Or when he tried smoking a cigar even though it looked like a turd to him? Hearing Juan’s story and at first being concerned about the strategic repercussions in his vengeance scheme against the Sforzas, the One and Only Noble Family in Renaissance Italy (All Rights Reserved), Rodrigo’s faced with many questions: Is Juan telling the truth? And was Cesare really in the know about Ludovico’s attack? This is one of those rare instances that one man’s not telling the whole truth, yet he’s right about the blame being shared by another man. Not knowing who to believe and how exactly to handle the situation, Rodrigo’s remarkably active at trying to settle his other scores: he sends Cesare to Florence bearing his full papal authority in condemning Savonarola (Cesare’s not fully happy as Rodrigo indirectly reasserts his wish to make Cesare Pope after him), promising that an excommunication is not far behind, and pushes Vanozza to convince Lucrezia by any means necessary to finally give her answer to the Pallavicini suit. His conversation with Vanozza nicely foreshadows the future funeral in the Borgia family and the most interesting part is that Vanozza vocally protests and wonders why she was burdened in the first place with the impossible task of choosing a husband for Lucrezia but Rodrigo’s doesn’t give a straight answer (which in my opinion means he possibly wanted to involve her after she spent Season 1 outside the family business).

No More Mr Nice Cardinal

Don Hernando, introduced as Juan’s accomplice at first, is by now disgusted by his tactics (“I am disgusted by imperialist violence”, said the conquistador!) and finally provides Cesare with what he believes is the silver bullet against Juan. Interestingly, after commenting on the noble Italian clans fighting each other ruthlessly for more and more power (I wish we had seen some more of that by now), Don Hernando mentions that Rodrigo keeps asking the same questions even though he already knows the answers to them. In fact, it’s when we don’t like the answers we keep asking the questions and Rodrigo can’t possibly rationalize continuing his favouring Juan over Cesare anymore, which is why he’s struggling for answers, especially after he was led to believe that Juan’s past mistakes and character flaws are now rectified. I like that in “Day of Ashes” Rodrigo seemed aware of Juan’s shortcomings and the theme continues here, showing he’s not actually blind about his son but rather hopelessly in (parental) love with him. Jeremy Irons injects Rodrigo with such a likeable and relatable devastation and the parallels with any modern father realizing how much of a mess his child is (due to, in part, his own pampering of him) and where he as a parent went wrong are very poignant. Rodrigo’s soul remains in the wilderness, just like he says, even though Lent is soon ending and John Maybury stages his own exquisite “Last Supper” homage (this kind of iconography is ultimately unique and welcome because it respects the show’s palette of deep red and gold colors and just makes every moment more visually appealing). Cesare in this episode grows to be much more petty and manipulative than usual, coveting his brother’s position yet putting up the front of the good son when his father orders him to go to Florence. He knows exactly what buttons to push both when it comes to Rodrigo (there’s nothing more vulnerable than a troubled father) and poor Juan, who can’t quite catch up as Cesare’s both superior at subterfuge and his own problem are too distracting. Oakes and Arnaud are extremely and fittingly different from one another: the latter’s Cesare always calculates his every move or word however small or unimportant while the former’s Juan is an all-devouring vortex of insecurity, self-harm and intemperance. When Rodrigo’s inspecting the repairs inside Saint Peter’s Basilica, the very symbol of his divine punishment, Cesare lets Benito loose merely to discredit Juan and the scene is magnificently shot, maybe the best ever in terms of lighting and atmosphere, you can almost feel the cold, and Rodrigo can’t run away from the truth anymore.

The Patty Hewes Doctrine

Patty Hewes, the Machiavellian protagonist of one of my all-time favourite shows “Damages”, played by the sublime Glenn Close, confronted with the question whether she’s sacrificed human intimacy entirely to succeed in her career remarks: “You think success made me lonely? Failure is lonely”. Though she would definitely defend her choices, there’s a morsel of truth to what Patty says and something that could definitely apply to Juan’s case. When the standard of success is something as high as Rodrigo’s expectations, failure is almost a given, which is exactly what has happened to every Borgia offspring at least once so far. Juan hasn’t yet recovered from being saved by Lucrezia when he faced the French and hasn’t been able to come to terms with the possibility of his not being a Borgia, which is exactly why he has an evident need for approval and validation, constantly over-compensating by committing acts of monstrosity in the name of the family he desperately wants to be a part of. There is no alternative but failure for him in this regard. Failure can make one feel useless or unworthy of basic human joys, such as a parent’s unconditional love, and alienate one, driving one to feel cornered, friendless, at an impasse, without choices, without prospects. Juan’s return from Forli and his insistent lying about what truly happened shows that he can’t identify his real problem: he lacks the skills of a soldier (a general, a leader of men, what his own father bred him for, as he pointed out to him in “The French King”, further exacerbating his own psychological condition) but above all, courage. He keeps trying to cover everything (without having taken the precaution of securing Don Hernando’s silence), he is desperate to keep playing in the same game of false impressions, he has nobody to confide his very real problems in (he’s dying!) and his physician thinks that given his condition as a lame, syphilitic, unstable wreck the best solution is to resort to opium! Next week: Juan’s a rapist too (it was only an attempt but whatever)! David Oakes paints Juan’s despair in all sorts of interesting shades: he can still feel like using sarcasm (rarely even directed at his own self) yet he’s readily offended whenever Cesare brings Forli up. Oakes is most compelling not when he screams or hams it up (though his histrionics are deliciously wicked) but when his dark, shiny, schizophrenic eyes reflect Juan’s painfully innocent, juvenile search for his father’s acceptance, which is always coming at a cost. After Rodrigo learns what really transpired, he approaches Juan with great gentleness and affection, having finally realized what needs to be done and intending to relieve his son of duties beyond his abilities, only to receive blatant emotional blackmail by him. The scene is chilling and heartbreaking, an appropriate climax to the episode’s main storyline, flawlessly acted by a very understated Irons and a jaw-dropping, excellent Oakes.

Brother Bernandino Sleeps With the Fishes

Children feature heavily in Season 2: due to the birth of his grandson Giovanni, Rodrigo’s become much more sensitive to them. The death of the choir children has weighed terribly on him and the kidnapping of Benito has led him to realize what Juan’s become. Practically everyone this season is being examined through the parent-child prism, even Micheletto, whose Mama appeared on “The Choice”, revealing that even the cold-blooded killer has a need to keep his mother in the dark about his true occupation for her own sake. Then there are Savonarola’s young henchmen, who are fanatical exactly because they can’t quite comprehend the graveness of their actions, so it’s only fitting that DR’s pawn in his lethal endgame is an angelic child, that he shows absolutely no compassion for, even though he is destined for death in DR’s service, and tries to justify eliminating everyone standing in the way by unconvincing arguments on the nature of good and evil. The scene with Antonello taking the initiative and disposing of Brother Bernandino is amazingly shot and finally provides a bit of motion in this storyline, while DR’s satisfaction by his agent’s homicidal act is shocking and remarkably unsentimental.

Ad-Vice City

Unsurprisingly, Lucrezia’s storyline is once again the weakest, lighter part of a gloomy, powerful episode. Lucrezia being portrayed as so predatory and her being in the driver’s seat all the time along with the fact that Raffaello feels hopelessly outmatched by her wit and panache successfully contribute to the -perhaps unintended- creation of an ominous atmosphere, emphasizing the possibility that maybe something bad is going to happen to Raffaello due to his involvement with the Borgia daughter, just like the fate poor Paolo suffered. This is definitely one advantage of the storyline and the other thing is that Raffaello and Calvino seem like close brothers -Raffaello praised his brother in “The Siege at Forli” while speaking with Lucrezia- yet the former never even blinks before being seduced by Lucrezia, proving that every sibling relationship is strained and possibly filled with betrayal and jealousy (the parallels with Cesare and Juan being obvious). But once again the heavy lifting when it comes to the sparks in the storyline falls to Joanne Whalley’s Vanozza: sitting in what I like to call her “Advice Chair by the Fireplace” (the same one she dared Cesare to leave the Church and pursue Ursula from, back in Season 1) she chooses to, effectively, manipulate Lucrezia to marry (in a scene reminiscent of "Dangerous Liaisons") by telling her what she wants to hear (something like the Devil’s Insight Ursula Bonadeo accused Cesare of utilizing). That doesn’t mean that Vanozza doesn’t believe the tough truth she informs her daughter of: in a world where the Borgias have so much power that they can have whatever and whomever they want, there’s no point in pretending that Lucrezia won’t. The cynicism and promiscuity of power is steeped in futility and boredom, Vanozza subtly warns though, as she remains the humane and caring mother she were in Season 1, but now that she’s elevated to a lady of the Borgia court (reflected in her much more elaborate hairstyles and glamorous costumes) she has to make sure her children remain in their father’s good graces and guard however they can the Borgia influence and glory.


SEASON TWO EPISODE NINE: World of Wonders


Alternative Title:
Requiem For A Dream Team

Favourite Guest-Actor:

Savonarola’s downfall gives Steven Berkoff another chance to shine!

Best Line Delivery:
Jeremy Irons sends the Pallavicini Bros on their way and utters each line with delicious disdain.

Best Quote:

Micheletto: Still, I stand in awe.

Best Costume:
Vanozza’s glorious purple dress, worn during the celebration for Giovanni’s baptism, finally does justice to the queen of the Borgia family.

Most Obvious "The Godfather: Michael Kills Fredo" Homage:
Only instead of Michael and Fredo, Cesare kills Juan!

The “Ursula Bonadeo Award” for Most Useless Waste of Screentime:
The “UBA” is shared by the Pallavicini Bros whose absence wouldn’t have been regretted or even noticed.

Season 1 Character Body-count:
R.I.P. Juan Borgia, the 6th casualty of a deadly season.

His grave reads:
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
You hated me, so do not try!
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am still there and trying to sleep!


In a Nutshell:
One of the top 5 episodes of the series, excellent in every way.

Not in a Nutshell:


Death and The Son


Julius Caesar’s Assassination. Anne Boleyn’s Execution. These are only two of the moments that historical drama fans never tire of watching, these are only two of the moments that confirm the fact that reality is nastier than fiction and that a writer needs to look no further than written history to find inspiration. In a historical show these are the make-it-or-break-it moments that define their respective shows and provide reference points for the season(s) to come after. Juan Borgia’s death is definitely one such moment: the show has been building to it since Season 1 (remember in “The Poisoned Chalice” when Cesare rescued Juan from a street duel but stated that he should have let the Colonna kill him?) and when it actually happens the viewer isn’t at all disappointed. Writing and direction by David Leland are extremely confident (though Leland, at least when it comes to direction, decides to recreate Jordan’s signature serenity, which somewhat lacks the energy of Jon Amiel, Kari Skogland and John Maybury) and the sheer magnitude of plot development that occurs in the episode may lead some viewers to call it the best, most eventful yet.

The Unsuitable Suitor

Lucrezia doesn’t seem to think that waking up to find a caged panther in front of your bed is a crappy way to start your day, given that she smiles in amusement. Soon we learn why: The Pallavicini boys will be soon departing and she knows it. The lamest thing about Season 2 (sorry Vittorio/Vittoria and Friar Roger Lloyd-Pack, you sucked just a little less and this is why you lost the crown), the two noblemen could maybe be based on some of Lucrezia’s earlier suitors like Gaspare da Procida or Juan de Centelles or they could be merely a surrogate for the whole two-brothers-after-the-same-Sancia trouble or a way to demonstrate just how much Lucrezia’s attitude has changed. Nevertheless, there are two things I liked about the scene when Rodrigo sends them packing: First, Rodrigo’s informed by Ascanio Sforza that his goodhearted taster, Brother Bernandino, is dead and all he cares about is whether he was poisoned, in case he himself has had one poisoned sardine too many. Secondly, the fact that the Pallavicini stick together and alter the suit, suggesting that Raffaello become the Borgia groom (Calvino’s evidently annoyed but stands by his brother) is a nice exhibition of a brotherly bond. The two Pallavicini brothers supporting each other even after such terrible betrayal and the Borgia fratricide in the end of the episode could mean that the writer intended for the two scenes to be considered bookends and the fact that the sequence ends with Rodrigo cursing the souls of the Pallavicini as a way of giving them the middle finger for their stupidity that played right into the hands of his crafty daughter is hilariously wicked.

Excommunicate Me If You Can


Visiting Vanozza to hold her accountable for the failed suit, Rodrigo is made to realize things he doesn’t like: he will never be able to fully control Lucrezia again, not when her first bad experience filled her with bitterness and made her deceitful and fully aware of what her strategic value is (though Lucrezia hasn’t fundamentally changed, basically still desiring the same thing as every proper Disney princess: a husband to her liking that she chose). There’s a bit of a retcon here as Vanozza mentions that she was made to marry so that she could be a socially respectable woman and enjoy Rodrigo’s affection in private (as she did in real life) but back in Season 1 Vanozza’s husband Theo (the criminally underused David Bamber) appeared and made it look as if Vanozza were already married when she fell in love with Rodrigo, who paid her husband off to disappear. His marital plan having failed, his middle son being a wreck and his taster having perished, Rodrigo once again turns to a recreational excommunication: Cesare witnessing a witch burnt as a way of finally coming to the conclusion that fanatic superstition has been Savonarola’s key to crowd control all along is a bit foolish but the entire trial-by-fire challenge is an ingenious idea to bring him down. Savonarola readily accepts the test, though Steven Berkoff’s eyes betray the Friar’s fear, maybe even his knowledge that if he fails every cheer by his flock will be turned to jeer. Cesare isn’t a man of God and is adamant that nobody can cross a fiery path untouched, yet even he is somewhat unsettled as Savonarola makes his first few steps through the flames unscathed. In reality, the trial-by-fire didn’t go through due to trepidation and disagreements on the trivial details of the procedure and the people lost their faith to Savonarola soon after. In “The Borgias” Savonarola being up for the trial is consistent with his character and presents one of the rare examples of true conviction and integrity in the show, which made me feel a tiny bit sorry for him when he ultimately loses and is attacked by the fickle Florentine people. The excommunication/trial-by-fire montage is one of the top three montages of the show, scored with haunting music (love the church bells ringing when the Pope enters the ritual circle of cardinals inside Saint Peter’s) and narrated by the sonorous, hair-raising voice of Jeremy Irons. On the visuals front, Florence looks a little better in this outing (especially just before Cesare enters Savonarola’s church, when a mist covers the surrounding buildings) and the shot of the Pope entering the repaired Saint Peters holding a ceremonial staff is excellently stylized.

Cantarella Is Thicker Than Water

The assassination storyline also features some developments in this episode, though it can’t be said that Leland mines it for drama. When Sforza offers to act as the Pope’s taster until a new one is hired, intrigue rears its head and the viewer wonders whether Sforza will be an (innocent?) casualty of DR’s scheme but nothing actually happens as Antonello is soon employed by the Pope himself, who is enchanted by the young man’s self-sacrifice. Rodrigo keenly emphasizes that he will keep drinking water which can only mean one thing in television: he will only stop drinking water when the poor assassin tries to poison him with a glass of it. That’s exactly what happens and Antonello manages to hide his murderous intentions but without a victim or an accomplice, the storyline lacks real intensity.

Another Juan Bites The Dust


After Rodrigo’s shock last episode when Juan threatened to kill himself, he remains idle and hopes that the problem will simply solve itself. Leland has Juan ponder a question here that sets up a promising climax for the episode: The opium-smoking Juan considers the baby Giovanni a demon who may destroy him, spawned by Lucrezia and Cesare, his estranged siblings. The suspicion of incest, even under the influence of opium, is a very apt connection and the show’s way of winking to the Lucrezia-Cesare shippers but underneath hides an even more fascinating theme: The psychotically insecure Juan, especially now in his rapidly deteriorating physical and mental condition, is a textbook attention-seeker so to have his father’s affection shared with an infant is infuriating for him. When the Pope decides to ultimately baptize Giovanni and end his period of penitence with a glorious celebration in the baby’s honour that is to be formally acknowledged as a Borgia offspring (Wait, who’s that girl that’s climbing the Pope’s bed? Is she an assassin? No, wait, she’s that girl, his mistress that fancied the threesome, what’s her name? Judy? Julie? No, Giulia, Giulia the Cardinal Hunter! Where were she? It feels like ages since we last saw her!) Juan’s bitter and extremely bad-behaved: he insults his mother (super-cool Vanozza remains unfazed, greeting every single one of Juan’s idiotic insults with a remarkably cold exterior, in fact a little colder than what would be expected of a mother towards her seriously sick child), he plays a dangerous game with Lucrezia’s baby and attempts to rape one of the young dancers that unintentionally offended him by repeating a humiliating slander that has been associated with him. Having Juan on a mission to break every rule ever conceived by the human race would be otherwise obvious and patronizing if the writing didn’t make it subtly evident that Cesare doesn’t decide to kill him for that. Making Juan’s death feeling justified would be intolerably trite, if Cesare weren’t the one to kill him (Lucrezia, for example, would be seen as a mother protecting her child, and though the act is severe one could find it also understandable, even relatable) as Juan makes it clear to him earlier that he has always known and exploited the fact that he is the Prodigal Son and that Rodrigo will always forgive him every time Juan lets him down, exactly because he’s the one that needs him more than the self-reliant Cesare, a fact which Rodrigo later confirms, tragically sealing Juan’s fate: in his father’s words, Cesare will always need to be his brother’s keeper, staying in his shadow, cleaning up after him, as a cardinal. That along with the need to keep his sister’s soul untainted (Cesare may not believe in the eternal soul or God but definitely wants to keep his sister as pure and innocent as possible), as she would kill Juan herself the moment she could, lead Cesare to finally decide to kill Juan. Having Juan followed to his opium den by the Harbinger of Death, Micheletto, the viewers, at least the ones who didn’t know what happened in history, feel that something pretty dark is going to go down, maybe a savage beating, possibly even death. But then Cesare and Juan meet and have a civil, even friendly conversation: we are unsure whether opium has made Juan sincerely apologetic or emotional like he's a real human being or whether Juan makes one last attempt, by using pity, to manipulate his brother into sparing him, oddly aware that his doom is near. The deed itself is wisely accompanied by no embellishments: Cesare stabs Juan and throws him in the Tiber, no visual tricks, no cliff-hangers, no whodunits, no stylized camera movements. In the universe of the show nobody could have killed Juan apart from Cesare and the moment is majestically simple, unsentimental and effective, relying on the acting by Francois Arnaud, David Oakes and Sean Harris to convey the sheer size of such an event. Juan’s mischief will be sorely missed and his death will surely change the dynamics of the series for the rest of its span. The show promises to make all of us, just like Micheletto, stand in awe.


SEASON TWO EPISODE TEN: The Confession

Alternative Title:
The Concession

Favourite Guest-Actor:
As Savonarola approaching his pyre Steven Berkoff’s on fire!

Best Performance:
Give Jeremy Irons every f*cking award! (Obviously not the Emmy, that ship has sailed!)

Best Line Delivery:
Seriously, give Jeremy Irons every f*cking award! (And why didn’t he even receive an Emmy nomination?)

Best Costume:
Lucrezia’s silver gown, the one she wears during the engagement celebration was regal and appropriate for her now much more mature and experienced self.

Season 1 Character Body-count:
The tally ends at 7 with Savonarola's demise! Alfonso, Paolo, Ursula, Giovanni Sforza, Charles VIII, Juan and Savonarola: Rest in peace and rot in hell, Crazy, Boring, Crazy Boring, Hideous, Unlucky, Incompetent and Creepy !

In a Nutshell:
A dark, emotional finale with a unique tone and pace, ideal to end a roller-coaster of a season.

Not in a Nutshell:

I Confess Myself Amazed

As far as season finales go, “Nessuno” and “The Confession” have nothing in common, yet the two episodes share strong thematic ties. “Nessuno” was a relatively light, feel-good episode that avoided conflict, had a happy end and found Rodrigo triumphant: he manipulated the French King into marching to his own doom, humiliated Sforza, made every cardinal sorry that betrayed him and got back everything he bribed them with. Rodrigo’s children were less lucky: Cesare was exchanged as a hostage (not for long, though) and Lucrezia was forced into hiding to give birth to her child. Rodrigo spent Season 1 and most of Season 2 thinking of himself as some kind of victim entitled to commit monstrosities without batting an eyelid as a means of justified retaliation, a sort of crusade to subjugate those who had harmed him in the past or didn’t share his holy vision of the “Renewal of Rome” (a theme that was pretty early on abandoned). His journey was full of moments of self-doubt, genuine brilliance and authentic kindness but also lechery, greed, hypocrisy and megalomania (the very definition of the dangerous Renaissance frivolity that conceals depths of reckless disregard for human life and violent avarice), so it is only fitting that “The Confession” finds him crushed and unable to recover. On the other hand, both Cesare and Lucrezia finally own up to their true desires and ambitions, which portents a shift in the family dynamics in Season 3. “The Confession” is one of the top 3 episodes of Season 2 and while the investigation into Juan’s murder could finally provide the show with the opportunity to talk about the various Borgia enemies and provide some insight into the many opposing interests, sociopolitical issues and so on, the series does its best to deliver on emotion, tension, conflict and tragedy, all of which are left to the actors to spell out (and they absolutely succeed in it). David Leland returns to the director’s chair and helms a solemnly powerful, gripping episode while Guy Burt, the show’s longtime bible-keeper, builds an episode around character motives that are fleshed out, subtle dialogue and moments of silent sadness and despair.

You Will Meet A(nother) Short, Dark Stranger (After Djem And Paolo)

While Juan’s missing and the search for him continues, Alexander’s ideal son-in-law, the Neapolitan prince, Alfonso d’ Aragona, arrives (throwing coins to the poor as he enters the city, just in case someone in the audience doubted he's filthy rich!) and the Pope keeps trying to advantageously marry his daughter, this time approaching her with far more circumspection, as if he’s almost afraid of her after watching the Pallavicini suit bomb. Lucrezia’s transformation is complete here and she has finally found the perfect balance of witty and assertive, without appearing annoying or spiteful. Though every adaptation of the Borgia tale so far has cast an older, rather more dashing Alfonso, Sebastian de Souza brings his own brand of sweet and naughty to the part and fits the description of Lucrezia’s groom-to-be as the show wants him to: a good-hearted young man that Lucrezia can tolerate, handle and hope to love at some point. With proper writing, he may prove to be an invaluable addition to the Season 3 cast and an interesting participant in the fabled Lucrezia-Cesare-Alfonso triangle. Lucrezia, after a season of mourning Paolo and playing bitter and dangerous games with her suitors and father, finally founds someone she can live with and her new mature and confident self is ultimately going to clash with Cesare’s, who’s slowly turning into a cold, unfeeling being fixated on power.

Ex-pyre-ation Date

When it comes to Savonarola’s execution, the stakes are extremely high for Cesare who desperately needs to obtain a confession in order to appease Rodrigo and by extension convince him that he’s invaluable to him. After Savonarola’s stubbornness and Machiavelli’s urging to give people what they need, Cesare decides to falsify a confession and silence Savonarola forever in fear that the Friar will succumb to death under torture (though initially it seems like he’s having a fun time mocking his tormentors). Steven Berkoff gives maybe his best performance yet, his Savonarola being every bit as obstinate and unbreakable as a prisoner in Castel S. Angelo as when he were a free man in control of Florence. Alternating between frighteningly deranged and admirably collected, Berkoff makes the passionate Savonarola at once likeable and unlikeable. Micheletto, who’s raised a red flag (or perhaps a pink one) on Savonarola’s gaydar, appropriately gets to be the one to remove the Friar’s heretic, mendacious tongue and light his pyre. While Savonarola’s execution historically occurred in Florence, “The Borgias” places it in Rome for obvious reasons (and I have to admit I found Florence mostly disappointing) which gives us the pleasure of having Cesare and Rodrigo witness his death, the former clearly relieved and the latter in shock since the Friar turned his offer of mercy down, spat blood on his face and proved that there are men who don’t have a price tag (which carries special meaning for Rodrigo now that Juan’s death has forced him to reconsider his entire value system and perspective).

Body of Proof

Cesare screaming to the lieutenant in charge of the search for Juan as a means to hide his guilt possibly makes the pragmatist Sforza to start considering the possibility that the Pope’s middle son may be dead, which is why he orders the man to start looking for Juan in the mortuaries, a clever device on behalf of Burt that brings Rodrigo face-to-face with the dreaded scenario that his beloved son may be dead when a body turns up (and all that in classic “The Borgias” fashion, after Rodrigo’s elated to learn that Lucrezia has finally agreed to marry his dream son-in-law). Rodrigo and Giulia once again embark on a journey to the streets of Rome to personally look for Juan’s body, an apt contrast to their fact-finding tour in “Paolo”, which ended up almost recreational (remember the Medieval Tavern/Casino?), that feels like a punishment for Rodrigo’s wanton arrogance. Juan’s reasonably disfigured body finally emerges and from that moment on the episode becomes Irons’, reminding us who’s the show’s real star. While walls of cold indifference are towering around Rodrigo in the forms of the culprit Cesare (in fact, Juan steals Cesare’s thunder for one last time as he enters his father’s apartments bearing the news of Savonarola’s confession), Lucrezia, who loathed him for various reasons, and Vanozza who was frigid to him, the Pope reacts badly to the possibility that he may be the only one to have worshipped Juan and secludes himself, denying to bury his body for as long as he needs to sort out his troublesome issues with his murder. Watching Rodrigo no longer being in his over-the-top, flamboyant, light-hearted disposition is painful, even frightening and Irons gives it his all. Apart from Cesare and Lucrezia that were long past loving Juan, Vanozza has the most interesting reaction to his death: Joanne Whalley ably empties Vanozza’s face of all emotion, as if the mother herself feels lost and doesn’t know what to think and what to feel when the body is discovered. Vanozza, with a blank and awkward expression on her face, ultimately tells Rodrigo that she were aware of the animosity between their children and that Juan had fatal character flaws and though that seems extremely harsh coming from a dead man’s mother, Vanozza’s true fear is subtly revealed: Vanozza isn’t only grieving Juan, she is also grieving Cesare. When Cesare takes advantage of Rodrigo’s mourning to assume the position of the head of the family, Vanozza and Lucrezia are forced to keep up appearances which immediately alerts Vanozza to the fact that Cesare’s changed and the fact that she always turned to him when Rodrigo turned to Juan, because Cesare had a kinder heart may not be a given anymore.

Burying the Juan-tchet

The fear of moving on and how a sudden death propels that forward or makes that even harder to is one of the themes of “The Confession”. My favourite Lucrezia-Cesare scene this season has to be the one with the two alone on the bed, discussing Lucrezia’s eventual marriage. After the usual innuendo Lucresare shippers love, Cesare reaches a very important decision: he will come clean with his father about his crime as a means to walk the path he’s always wanted to and stop obsessing over things that he can’t have. His sweet relationship with Lucrezia has always had an element of subtly twisted psychosis, that’s held him back from a sense of achievement and finding his place in the world so Cesare decides that this must end, that the marriage shouldn’t be postponed and that the engagement should be celebrated as if nothing’s happened. Seeing his father crushed doesn’t really make Cesare consider sparing him a devastating confession (in fact, the aggressive way he dresses Rodrigo to appear before the Roman people just before Savonarola’s execution is borderline violent and abusive and shows that Cesare has harbored resentment towards his father maybe for too long). When Rodrigo eventually hears Cesare’s confession of the crime he completely breaks down: Cesare is usually fearless but even he is afraid of the potentially unhinged Rodrigo so, much like his father does, he embellishes his horrible deed in all kinds of euphemisms and justifications, never uttering the phrase “I killed Juan”. Rodrigo, broken and weak, releases Cesare from his vows as cardinal and proceeds to bury him instead of attending Lucrezia’s engagement celebration. The most emotional, tear-inducing, heart-breaking montage the show’s done so far (kudos to the direction, writing, acting and score) superbly juxtaposes the joyous dancing of the party with what Herodotus considers an abnormal effect of war: parents having to bury their children. As Rodrigo picks up Juan’s body to carry to the garden for a humble funeral attended by the only man who really loved him, himself, and the only thing he sees is an innocent small child, there lies the closest thing to an answer we’ll get on the question why Rodrigo favoured Juan: we always remain our parents’ children but that is especially true for Juan, a young man who never grew due to the incapacitating expectations of his father, his own identity crisis and various other hindrances. Suddenly appearing in the celebration hall covered in dirt seems melodramatic but Rodrigo’s burial of Juan has gained him a commendable sense of clarity. In an episode that is full of confessions Rodrigo provides the last one when he recognizes his own part in Juan’s downfall and is almost apologetic to Cesare when he explains that he's always seen him as just as able and strong as his own self, which drove him to pamper Juan who was weak and couldn’t exactly cope. Seconds away from forgiving Cesare and providing catharsis and absolution for him, Rodrigo’s finally poisoned by Antonello who suffers a wonderfully grotesque death, blood springing from his eyes and mouth, and the Pope falls on the floor (after a short moment of pushing Cesare away, which could mean that maybe he’s suspecting him? We’ll have to wait and see). The terrified family gathers around him and Leland gives us a panoramic shot to end the episode (and the season) but unlike the “family portrait” one that ended “Nessuno”, with the familial bonds strong and the family close and happy, this time the Borgias are scattered and facing an uncertain future in danger of losing their patriarch.

A Season 2 Post Mortem…

Season 2 of “The Borgias” wasn’t everything it could be. There were still fictional characters that didn’t go anywhere, certain storylines still lacked complexity and interest, the show’s universe was expanded but only barely. But: the show kept everything that was successful in Season 1 and enhanced it, while limiting its flaws and disadvantages. Acting was stellar as ever, costumes and score were flawless, the writing and direction were much better and most importantly the series developed and cemented its own, unique visual and narrative style. The show could have been bolder and more gripping or make better use of its resources, yet Season 2 was a step in the right direction and there weren’t a single episode that didn’t flow better than the Season 1 ones (even “Paolo” and “Day of Ashes”, that I wasn’t particularly fond of). The cliffhanger that ended the season is moot (we all know Rodrigo will survive) but I applaud the well-executed effort and hope that the show will use this conventional suspense and anticipation device more in the future. All in all, I am extremely satisfied by Season 2 and can only hope that the next season will meet the standards it has set.

…And a Season 3 Wish-list

That being said I definitely hope that Season 3 will take the show one step forward and benefit from what Season 2 has meant for it: a clean slate. With the death of Juan (and various other recurring characters), everything we know about the show’s dynamics is about to change and room for new characters and storylines has been created. Specifically, I want to see Rodrigo become more aggressive after getting poisoned (remember how furious he were when he learnt that Orsini tried to poison him, back in “The Poisoned Chalice”?) and start taking down the feudal states that have opposed him by using Cesare (and not the other way around), I want to see Lucrezia finally have a storyline that won’t be mainly fuelled by her mistreatment by men and her mistreatment of them as a consequence, I want to see real enmity and power games between Giulia and Vanozza and I want to see DR return to the Vatican so that we can see him scheme within the Pope’s proximity. I want the show to incorporate many more themes and characters in every storyline and become even more stylish and idiosyncratic. In short, I want a Season 3 that will eclipse Seasons 1 and 2!




SEASON THREE EPISODE ONE: The Face Of Death

Alternative Title:
The Facelift of Death

Best Performance:
Colm Feore proves that DR at his worst is his acting at his best!

Best Moment:
When Micheletto carries Giovanni back to Vanozza's villa under guard, drawing the eyes of the peasants to the celebrity baby.

Best Line Delivery:
Rodrigo: That... b*tch!

Worst Haistyle:
The award goes to Rufio and counts for every single episode of the season, where his hair just got worse and worse!

Best Costume:
Caterina Sforza's black dress, worn inside her study when she learns of the failure of her plot is another majestic creation of designer goddess Gabriella Pescucci.

In-a-Nutshell:
The best season premiere and one of the show’s top 10 episodes.

Not-in-a-Nutshell:

We Are Fans, We Never Forgive

Had “The Borgias” been renewed for a fourth and final season of any length, this episodic review and all future ones would have been filled with exhilarated anticipation about the show’s swan song, speculation on which character the reported new cast-members would get to play and ongoing commentary on the status of filming, while sadness would only take the form of realizing that sometime soon all of us would be bidding farewell to our favorite show. Sadly, Showtime has robbed us of all this and the unceremonious cancellation that left the show incomplete also rendered it legendary: “The Borgias” can take pride in its reputation as the highest-rated and most critically-acclaimed show (this week the show scored 6 Emmy nominations for its Season 3) to ever get cancelled by the network. This makes no difference to the fans however and in turn our hordes are trying to make a difference for the show they have come to adore: a stunningly ardent, surprisingly inventive and endlessly generous fan campaign to “Save The Borgias” is right now laboring and given us all hope that, as past fan campaigns have achieved, we might get to see our show again, if only for us to have the chance to properly say “Goodbye”. And that is why I’ve decided to treat Season 3 as the penultimate installment in Neil Jordan’s unique retelling of the Borgia story and maintain a positive outlook on the show’s prospects of returning in the future. Let the Season 3 reviews begin and the fires of Hell rain down on Showtime in the form of canned sardines (to learn more about the campaign visit: www.savetheborgias.com)!

Premiere Power

“The Poisoned Chalice” indicated it. “The Borgia Bull” proved it. “The Face of Death” cemented it: the show sure knows how to pull off a season premiere. Thoroughly different in their content and their structure the three season premieres of the show were nonetheless excellent in their own right and “The Face of Death” is, quite simply, the best of them all. While most shows struggle to provide satisfactory opening hours, due to their being relatively light in plot and character developments and mostly focusing on reemphasizing old themes and introducing new ones, “The Borgias” insists with “The Face of Death” that even such an hour can be equally well-crafted and packed with action and emotion. The Season 3 premiere is actually nothing more than a Part II for the Season 2 finale “The Confession” or even a Season 2 Epilogue, if you will. Both episodes are penned by the astonishingly efficient and surgically precise Guy Burt and “The Face of Death” resolves the Season 2 finale’s cliffhanger, swiftly and ruthlessly deals with Season 2 baggage Della Rovere (more on that singular development later) and finally ordains Caterina Sforza as the main threat to the family this season. In effect, it’s an hour that has little to do with the rest of Season 3 and come Episode 2 the show reverts to its traditional rhythm, which is entirely understandable given that a repeat of such a tension-filled, darkly atmospheric hour would merely undermine the show’s narrative approach. While anchoring an entire episode around an event that didn’t happen is a shaky premise and one that the show has risked a few times too many in the past (Season 2 Episode 3 “The Beautiful Deception”, Season 2 Episode 7 “The Siege at Forli” and others), Kari Skogland’s break-neck-speed-energetic direction and the gloomy, ice-coloured, morbidly imaginative cinematography by Pierre Gill help the episode transcend its genre’s stylistic restrictions and create a wildly pleasing and endlessly memorable, even surprising hour, which is a rare accomplishment for a period drama. Thematically, the most compelling achievement of “The Face of Death” is that it poses an interesting question, one that puts the entire show’s run in perspective: Is there a Borgia family without Rodrigo?

The Man Who Came Back From the Coal

While the type of cliffhanger that closed Season 2 (a main character’s life hanging in the balance) had already grown tiresome since the age of “Alias”, I applaud the series for experimenting with narrative devices that are not typical to the period drama genre. The resolution of such cliffhangers are, by definition, gimmicky (can’t wait to see how BBC’s “Sherlock” will deal with it in Season 3) and Lucrezia shoveling coals down her father’s throat definitely falls in that category (even though Wikipedia mentions the use of carbon as a poison antidote) but the director relishes the moment and makes it worthwhile for the viewer as well. The episode is full of short blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments that seem to emphasize the passage from life to death (e.g. just before a small fire is extinguished by Lucrezia’s glass of water it turns momentarily emerald) and there’s a nicely moody montage of everyone contributing to the Pope’s survival before Lucrezia administers the unorthodox remedy: Cesare helps carry him to a table Giulia clears up by violently pushing everything off it and onto the floor and Vanozza throws a sheet on Antonello’s dead body. But Lucrezia’s sudden knowledge of all things cantarella is a bit implausible and even though the making-of featurette for the premiere mentions that this moment is the first that implies that Lucrezia had been looking into poisons (possibly to murder Juan herself?) and while that is a recurring theme throughout the season that climaxes in the season finale, I don’t think there’s enough to put it into context neither here nor in subsequent episodes, thus making it feel arbitrary and unsuccessful as Lucrezia’s knowledge of the art of poisoning appears and disappears as it suits the plot. Also, Cesare’s persecution of the Dominican brethrens of Savonarola starts a bit too early and too easily for my taste but, once again, Skogland’s stunning direction and the rapid-fire editing are adept at obscuring it and don’t really let you think it through, especially on a first-time watch, presenting a very dynamic narration of Cesare’s raid to the Dominican abbey, starting with a magnificent view of an ominous Rome by night and culminating in a skirmish with the over-whelmed Dominicans that resort to fighting with crosses (another vitriolic jab at the pugnacious nature of the so-called “men of God and peace”). While Micheletto’s discovery of the Dominican Psalter in the supposedly Franciscan monk Antonello’s cell is a deft plot device, his ingenuity is a bit too presumptuous, even for our favorite assassin, since it would take a few more logical steps before suspicions fell on the deceased young taster. That being said, the discovery ultimately traces the plot back to Della Rovere, who reenters the picture as a veritable Vatican power-player… for a second.

D(isappea)R

Though Season 2 badass, rogue DR had his moments, it was obvious that the Borgia arch-nemesis was much better plotting in his red attire and Season 3 realizes that. And then forgets it. The moment of DR’s entrance in the Apostolic Palace, accompanied by lyrical vocals, is powerful in itself: DR has long been gone (since Season 1 Episode 2 “The Assassin” to be exact) and fans have been clamoring for more scenes between Colm Feore and Jeremy Irons. While I was looking forward to more DR scheming with the other cardinals inside the Vatican’s walls, it made no sense for the show to retain him after his being the mastermind behind the poisoning plot was discovered and the Borgias would have looked weak and stupid if they let him live free, much less operate within the College. Feore is majestic in this first installment of Season 3 and the fact that, though DR appears in all 20 episodes the show had aired at the time of “The Face of Death”, the Season 3 premiere is his absolute best really says something about the way his character’s been treated. Throughout these 20 episodes we don’t really learn anything about DR’s past, his other interests or leanings and perhaps that is intentional: while protagonist Rodrigo is despicably amoral, his love for life and his children is his compass, when by swift comparison antagonist DR doesn’t display any kind of real intimacy with anyone and his obsession with destroying the Borgia Pope defines him as a person, depriving him of any actual sense of morality, human warmth or other admirable characteristics. It’s understandable that the show’s main antagonist wouldn’t get a comparable amount of screen-time to the protagonists in order to be equally developed but Feore manages to fill in some of the blanks. His DR has always been cold and sanctimonious but the moment he offers Cesare his collaboration (foreshadowing their historical short-term collaboration when Della Rovere finally climbed to the throne of the Chuch), it is revealed how miserably weak of character he really is when stripped of his freedom and privileges, especially given that he’s denied Cesare’s own offer of collaboration twice already (once in the Season 1 finale “Nessuno” and the Season 2 premiere “The Borgia Bull”). DR exits the picture in great style and his sullen face tells us that he himself knows this is the last time he escapes the Borgias’ clutches: next time either he or they will die in a final reckoning. While I wished Colm Feore would appear at least once more in Season 3 to catch us up with what DR is up to, it wasn’t meant to be and the sad thing is he may not get to render DR any more layered even if Neil Jordan’s intended finale for the series, “The Borgia Apocalypse” script, gets produced at some point (fingers crossed) since there wouldn’t be time for everything and Jordan’s writing has always been primarily about the Borgias, even if Feore’s character is definitely a part of said script as the writers seem to have deemed it fit to save him for last and replace him with Caterina Sforza as the main opponent for the show’s penultimate chapter.

House of Card-inals

The theory that the show doesn’t really know how to handle DR as a polite plotter, a villain in the direct proximity of the Borgias rather than the peripheral monk desperado he was in Season 2, is further supported by the fact that the show also doesn’t know how or care to indulge itself in the political intrigue of the College of Cardinals. Aside than a few convenient plot devices and even fewer and rather paltry character moments here and there throughout the 29-episode run of the series, the cardinals were never much more than greedy, lecherous and hypocritical crows (or roosters, as the most terrifying, unsubtly symbolic cockfight ever caught on camera, courtesy of Kari Skogland and Pierre Gill, would convince you), present only to prove that the Borgias were the lesser -and most desirable- of two evils. While “The Face of Death” could deal with Rodrigo’s incapacitation in the same artful way early episodes of Season 6 of “The Sopranos” dealt with Tony’s coma and finally bring some of the cardinals into the limelight for some deeper psychological examination (much like “The Sopranos” did with its minor gangsters and figures in Tony’s circle of “colleagues” and family), the show opts instead to hint at their aspirations in the broader terms possible. It doesn’t get more generic than “land and power” and that seems to be exactly what the cardinals want if they are going to vote for Rodrigo’s successor and DR, repeatedly besmirched and defeated, summarily stripped of his possessions and long ago ostracized, advertising himself as the primary candidate (running against Vatican stalwart Ascanio Sforza no less) strains credibility. But, thankfully, the device of Rodrigo all along listening to the cardinals’ poisonous conversations from beyond and Versucci’s shiver-inducing laughter after he’s named the possible successors and his getting punished by getting a black bile shower by the awaken Rodrigo (as if he’s now marked for death, the cardinal will have taken his own life before the credits for Episode 4 roll) are stylistic touches that again elevate the show to a fascinating sepulchral visualization of its central themes rather than a meticulous elaboration on them. And that is exactly why Caterina Sforza is reintroduced to the audience as the show’s main villain: delightfully playing with stereotypes around witches (Caterina’s hooded cloak, her raven, her big scary castle) the show finally lets the astonishing Gina Mckee, who has been a minor player since Episode 3 of Season 1 and was obviously destined to be used more heavily by Jordan (as she was in Season 2), take Feore’s place, either due to his commitment as a recurring character on NBC’s “Revolution” or the fact that DR had to be the final main villain and couldn’t be exhausted too soon. Though Caterina too will have to uphold the ritual decorum with the Pope a few more times, this is a villainess that is much straighter in her enmity with the family than DR ever was, who wanted not only to destroy Rodrigo but also to succeed him, also in the sense that her power translates into cannon and soldiers rather than toddler poisoners and boring monk sidekicks. Even if we have forgotten by now what ignited their feud in the first place (to refresh your memory: Caterina and Giovanni Sforza joined the French Invasion betraying the Pope, then he demanded an official display of their regret which brought about the death of Giovanni when they refused, then Juan laid siege to Caterina’s castle and abducted her son but his forces were annihilated by Ludovico Sforza), Caterina is perhaps the show’s best and most crafty antagonist, plus the fact that she’s a woman appeals to Jordan’s wish for variety since she’s the first -and only- female character to become a major enemy to the family, as well as serving as another metaphor of the growing power of the show’s other female characters, primarily Lucrezia.

Cantarella Hangover Part I

There was never any real doubt that Rodrigo would survive DR’s murderous plot but the important question in all our minds as a dehydrated, pitiful Rodrigo wakes up and starts shooting hateful looks to all his cardinals is: has Rodrigo come back as a better man or is he now worse than ever? Thankfully, the show understands that to go forward, the answer must be the obvious one: he’s worse than ever! The enlightened, eerily calm and warmly forgiving Rodrigo we witnessed during the closing moments of “The Confession” was a harrowing, almost unintentionally frightening image for those of us that were accustomed to a relatively light, casually sinister character and functioned as proof of a profound change in the role, reassuring us not only of Jeremy Irons’ acting prowess but also restoring faith to his Pope Alexander VI, the softer Borgia and also the more tragic and sympathetic one. The Rodrigo of “The Confession” would have altered his ways (evident in his attempt to pardon Savonarola) and would have reformed the Church and would have probably handled his son Juan’s death as he should: Juan’s death was the culmination of a lifetime of wrong choices on Rodrigo’s part and should have signaled the end of the Borgia family as we know it, which would mean that Rodrigo would have to find a way to rebuild it anew and base it on a much stronger moral axis. Sadly, as honestly heart-warming and surprising Rodrigo’s epiphany in the Season 2 finale was, a period soap can’t continue without dark intrigue and “The Borgias” (finally!) gives us a madly paranoid, borderline psychotic and dangerously unstable Rodrigo who has a chance, in Irons’ hands, to chew more scenery than he ever had (before the production demolished it, following the show's cancellation). Alexander, saved from death at the last moment and fully aware of it, now feels like an aberration, a blemish on the tapestry of nature, a man that crossed to the Beyond and came back, utterly changed by this experience. His pale face, his blood-red eyes, his gravelly voice all contribute to a vampiric appearance and the show plays with the idea that, even though Rodrigo is definitely one of the weaker characters (definitely more so than Cesare or Lucrezia) and even if his strategies are often unsuccessful and blow up in his face, he is supernaturally resilient, almost indestructible. Juan’s demise is still an issue and in one of the episode’s best moments, soon after Alexander wakes up from his coma he asks for Juan, as if the memory of his murder and Cesare’s confession to the crime have been banished from his mind, as if he has reset, like a PC, to a moment in time when none of these things were true. But Rodrigo soon remembers what’s really happened and surprisingly schemes with Cesare to cover up the latter’s involvement and frame someone else for the deed: at this moment, Rodrigo relinquishes his high moral ground and his grief for Juan, however genuine, is turned into another political ploy, never again to be rightfully held against Cesare.

Do Not Not Resuscitate

But the episode is as much about Rodrigo as it is about how the other characters (not only his cardinals or his new nemesis Caterina Sforza) react to his hazardous situation. Take old mistress Vanozza for example (new mistress Giulia is obsolete in this episode and seems to have run off to some L’Oreal photoshoot to make up for the losses of being a mistress discarded): nobody expected the notoriously cool-headed Vanozza to break down under pressure or be emotionally crushed by Rodrigo’s near-fatally poisoning but the fact that she remains too calm even by her own standards and tries to control Cesare all the while devising the best strategy for the survival of herself and her offspring as if Rodrigo’s death is a foregone conclusion, is surprising, if subtly underlined by the episode’s majestic script. Later, Vanozza is seen praying (a first as she hasn’t really been portrayed as spiritual and only visited Church before to target cardinals) and she almost bursts to tears as poor Rodrigo is howling for Juan: I applaud the show for relishing these contradictions without ever explaining them in clear terms that would diminish their realism and effect. Cesare greatly resembles his mother in that he takes immediate action even before he positively learns of his father’s survival (his slapping the physician and the line “His soul doesn’t depart until I give it leave!” is a golden Cesare moment) and he actually is relatively cold (even perhaps disappointed?) when his father wakes up fully or at least semi-lucid, as Cesare had maybe grown used to calling the shots himself. Lastly, Ascanio Sforza, an amazingly consistent character in his quiet condescension of the Borgia papacy but also his unquestionable allegiance to it, gains a new-found importance as he is pushed into a corner by his cousin Caterina and ventures to murder the Pope himself. While “The Borgias” is infamously afraid of long-term storytelling gambits and should have kept the cardinal ambiguous and jumping from Caterina’s camp to the Pope’s and back throughout Season 3, his value to the plot is exhausted here and we don’t learn anything new about him as a person when he confesses the plot to Cesare under duress, but not before Peter Sullivan gets a chance to exhibit the full range of his dark, silent intensity (and this is as Ascanio-heavy as any episode will ever be), while the cross/dagger gadget (previously popping up in the pilot of the inferior Starz Renaissance series “Da Vinci’s Demons”) was one I was anticipating to see appear on the show. This particular storyline also introduces us to Rufio, Caterina’s enforcer, Micheletto’s reflection on Caterina’s side, only instead of our favorite assassin’s deceptive down-to-earth quality Rufio feels vaguely patrician and has an Emmy-nominated hairdo that has to be seen to be believed (it’s as if Rufio’s mother combs his hair every morning before she serves him milk and cookies for breakfast and sends him off to work for Caterina). We know little of the assassin at this point (and the sad thing is we are not going to learn much more, if anything at all, throughout Season 3), except that he seems thorough and sly, has been with with Caterina Sforza longer than Micheletto has been with the Borgias and is more or at least as adept at manipulating with words as he is with using violence. The best thing about Rufio’s introduction is that the script just has him appear rathen than having some sort of grand entrance and Thure Lindhardt mostly underplays the part to great effect, even if his character’s largely undefined at this point (and will more or less remain so for the remainder of the season). Speaking of Micheletto, he himself gets many moments towards the end of the episode, even if he’s been instrumental to its plot since the beginning (remember that he discovered the key to DR’s plot, the Dominican Psalter). The Season 3 premiere is indicative of the method that the entire season will employ to treat Micheletto with: the assassin will not only be a key to one of the show’s main storylines towards the season’s climax but will also have many more impactful and showy character moments. Such a moment comes near the end of the episode: Micheletto, having saved Vanozza, Lucrezia and Giovanni from Rufio’s assassins holds the baby in his arms for a while. Vanozza notices that and takes Giovanni away, her gratitude for the man that rescued her having evaporated after witnessing the paradox of a blood-drenched assassin holding her innocent grandson. For the few moments Micheletto held the baby we watched all kinds of emotions manifest on Sean Harris’ beastly expressive face: Is he pondering a life outside crime, perhaps one that would allow him to have a family (the strict 1500 laws on gay couples adoption notwithstanding)? Is he perhaps envious of the baby’s untainted, innocent soul? Or is he actually jealous that a privileged baby seems to have the greatest benefit of all, that of choosing which path to follow? Every question relates to the show’s themes and the only reason we don’t get answers is that we probably don’t need them.
SEASON THREE EPISODE TWO: The Purge

Alternative Title:
Cardinals Don’t Stand A Chance Unless They Unionize

Best Line Delivery:
Vanozza's having the time of her life and so is Joanne Whalley with her lines!

Best Guest Performance:
It's a tie between the show's "Cardinal of the Week" contestants, Orsini and DeLuca, played respectively by David Dencik and Peter Stebbings.

Best Set Design:
The cardinal's palace with the marble staircase that is to be Giulia's residence from now on is a set so liked by the show that they decide to set every other scene in it for the coming episodes!

In-a-Nutshell:
Not quite the best episode of the season, but an above average one that doesn't disappoint after such a splendid premiere.

Not-in-a-Nutshell:

The Second Episode To Purge All Second Episodes

Much like Rodrigo discriminated between his first and second sons, “The Borgias” excels at eventful, spectacular season premieres but produces second episodes that don’t fare equally well, at best feeling less eventful in comparison to previous or subsequent episodes (that happened with Season 1 Episode 2 “The Assassin”, which is best watched as Part 2 of the series premiere) and at worst ending up as the most lackluster episode of the season (that happened with Season 2 Episode 2 “Paolo”, which had a unique pace and was important to the dramaturgy of the season but was nonetheless rather sappy and definitely the worst episode of Season 2, along with season 2 Episode 6 “Day of Ashes”). Neil Jordan makes a comeback as the episode’s writer (he had not written an episode since the marvelous Season 2 Episode 5 “The Choice”, my all-time favorite) and unsurprisingly provides a rather chatty installment, too dependent on metaphor for my own taste if still pleasingly poetic and acidly witty. Kari Skogland directs her second episode this season and while she doesn’t disappoint, her keen eye for grim imagery, evident in “The Face of Death”, is absent even if the episode does have its fair share of stylistic punch, mostly as the hour winds down. What’s especially commendable in this episode is Trevor Morris’ wondrous music and the show’s Emmy-nominated composer outdoes his own work in seasons 1 and 2 following a successful experimentation with new sounds, becoming in Season 3 a constant highlight of any episode.

A Greek, A Brit, A Danish Guy and a Frenchman Walk Into Some Ruins…

Right after showing a recovering Rodrigo, still in a bad mood and with blood in his eyes, as well as on an exquisitely crafted wheeled armchair that makes him seem like some kind of infirm Bond villain, explaining eloquently and vividly to Cesare how a Caterina-Romagna-Cardinals conspiracy would work against them (love the “Great Arachne”, “Tarantula of Forli” nicknames for Caterina Sforza, even if the episode wildly overuses them), said conspiracy is already set into motion as teased by Caterina during the last minutes of the season premiere. In a scene that feels formulaic (everything’s there: creepy atmosphere, misty ruins, half-words, masked enmity, reluctant collaboration), Rufio (“the black heart of the Borgia nightmare”, he declares, “the black heart of a hairstylist’s nightmare”, I might add) meets with Paolo and Roberto Orsini (a fictional character standing in for Giulio Orsini), Prospero Colonna (possibly a temporary replacement for Oliverotto da Fermo, a theory supported by the fact that Colonna becomes Cesare’s victim in Episode 9 and maybe that is why he’s introduced instead of the historical condottiero) and Vitelezzo Vitelli (continuing Jordan’s onomatopoeia tradition of replacing “o” with “e”, quite like he did with “MichelEtto” instead of “MichelOtto”). The actors chosen for these parts, especially Pilou Asbaek (a “Borgen” alum) and Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson (introduced as Gian Paolo Baglioni in the next episode), are talented no doubt -and I am especially proud of fellow Greek Prometheas Aleiferopoulos a.k.a. Prometheus Aleifer scoring the role of hotheaded Roberto Orsini- but their casting signifies a change as the show moves on from idiosyncratic performers playing rather grotesquely obnoxious and outrageous, borderline cartoonish characters that became synonymous with “The Borgias” (such as Augustus Prew as Alfonso of Naples and Michel Muller as Charles VIII) and ends up instead with a dead-serious and straight type of acting that may be more grounded and grown-up but robs these scenes of any kind of dark, macabre charm and irony which is exasperated by the fact that the script itself treats these Romagna noblemen as devices and doesn’t really define them other than in the most general terms, making them feel, as a result, dry and one-dimensional, ideas of a character rather than full-fledged characters. Also, the notion of all Italian noblemen “happily hating each other” has been used verbatim before, to be exact when Cesare was gathering his team of “stray dogs” in Season 2 (3 of them interestingly credited also as Orsini, Colonna and “Baglione”, which makes me suspect that the seed for the storyline about Cesare’s future condottieri was planted as early as then but somewhere down the road plans changed and other characters had to be introduced to fulfill the same function), condemning this particular plotline into feeling even more repetitive. Anyway, Cesare’s own encounter first with Vitelli and then with the Orsinis, even if all the actors involved turn in, as expected, reliable performances (a very good David Dencik shines as the ferocious Cardinal Orsini, given his short screentime), still feels extremely by-the-numbers as well, as if it proved the most boring thing for Jordan to write and something he wanted to get out of the way so that he could deal with the real meat of the episode, which, thankfully, he so adeptly does in the other storylines of the hour.

I Love You, Baby, But Face It… She’s Vanozza

Aged, in decline and still in recuperation from the attempt on his life and his son Juan’s death (pointed out in the most literal and unsubtly symbolic dream ever – I know “The Borgias” isn’t “The Sopranos”, still the fact that the former is a period drama shouldn’t prevent it from being more contemplative and insightful), a shaken Rodrigo goes on the offensive, both personally and politically. In previous seasons, Alexander’s unquestioning allegiance to a pragmatic God and the holy cause of the empowerment of His Church colored even the most morally questionable of his actions, adding to them a tangible sense of almost conscientious justification but his character’s trajectory in Season 3 turns him into a consummate tyrant, openly pursuing his dynastic ambitions and unapologetically disavowing any kind of canonical restriction or decorum. Like with all tyrants, paranoia soon kicks in and is a factor into all of Alexander’s decisions and while his rapport with God is less strained than he would have you believe following his poisoning and is summarily restored following the events of “The Purge”, this is a vastly different and much more active Rodrigo and, because of that, a more compelling outlet for Jeremy Irons’ talents. Rodrigo’s plan to weed out those cardinals that he overheard bargaining his succession and could potentially conspire with Caterina Sforza in the future is ingenious and understandably so, since Rodrigo has his scheming hat on (literally): Ascanio Sforza will apply pressure to each cardinal so that he will incriminate the others in fear of invoking the wrath of a lividly grief-stricken Pope and suffering the fate of Savonarola, starting with an easily intimidated one, DeLuca (a very believable and measured Peter Stebbings). The execution itself is a little sloppy: the show never explains why Alexander or Sforza doesn’t feed the timorous cardinal the names of his enemies in order to strip them of their wealth and titles and banish them, since the cardinal will lie one way or another to evade torture (as advised by Micheletto) and so he can’t be trusted to unveil the real plotters (even if there isn’t any actual plot but rather an attempt by Rodrigo to eradicate those that question him). The cardinal anyway proceeds to promptly implicate cardinals Orsini and Colonna (we don’t care about them a lot given that they were introduced as late as the previous episode) and Versucci and Piccolomini (that we do care about as they are the show’s go-to cardinals and have been with us since the very series premiere). This is another move of expediency by Jordan to prepare his planned endgame: Piccolomini is eliminated from the storyline so that his eventual short papacy as Pius III will be omitted from the storyline to make way for Della Rovere’s Pope Julius II, who historically succeeded him. Of course, a proper witch hunt requires a fictional crime to charge someone with and that is the fabricated conspiracy that allegedly cost Juan’s life and endangered the Pope’s: nearing the episode’s climax (more on that shortly), the theory that Juan’s death has been rendered a relative frivolity for Rodrigo (despite the afore-mentioned dream) is enhanced by the fact that he has turned this unbearable tragedy into a political ploy and thus can’t genuinely lament Juan, a truth evident in his apparently fake, almost mocking display of grief as soon as hears DeLuca mention Juan’s demise. Of course, the episode’s climax, a superbly choreographed scene played to death in every promo, finally gives Rodrigo his first and last hands-on kill and injects the episode with a reasonable and much-needed amount of adrenaline: the just de-ordained cardinal Orsini attempts to murder Rodrigo taking advantage of the transparent pretext of a confession and the noise is covered by the raucous created by Piccolomini’s tirade against the Borgia papacy (a grand exit worthy of the lovely Bosco Hogan). Orsini gets murdered by Rodrigo in self-defense and the latter’s ego hits the roof when he chillingly concludes that God wants him to survive (bringing about his reconciliation with Him). Unfortunately, Rodrigo never learns that it was Orsini who released DR from prison -though I can’t imagine him sadistically plunging the knife any deeper in than he did even without being aware of the cardinal’s other treason-, which drives him to suspect Cesare (and there’s the obligatory “It’s-so-clever-to-question-the-man-who-holds-a-razor-to-your-neck” scene). On the personal front, Rodrigo’s paranoid anxiety also manifests itself in the form of erectile dysfunction: in another scene that feels awfully plain and like something you’ve seen a million times before, Rodrigo finds himself sexually disappointing his younger mistress, which sends him straight to an eternally understanding Vanozza (I love Joanne Whalley and this is the most Vanozza-heavy episode in a Season 3 that, regrettably, featured her a lot less than Season 2). The two women later meet in one of those scenes the show relishes (and unfortunately the last one to feature interaction and dialogue between the two of them) and Vanozza, slightly amused (and featuring a great hairstyle), concludes that Rodrigo’s latest mistress is to retire with a generous “severance package”, consisting of a comfortable palace and a cardinal’s hat for Giulia’s brother. The storyline is successful only for the sheer joy of watching Rodrigo and Vanozza almost getting it on (almost?) in the defrocked cardinal’s palace that is to pay host to Rodrigo’s estranged lover Giulia from now on (one of the season’s finest new sets, perhaps the most immaculately designed interior, one that is poorly disguised and recycled as Lucrezia’s wedding venue, part of the Neapolitan royal palace and Lucrezia’s new home in Rome in episodes 9 and 10) but it still feels rather forced because even if it comes from history (Rodrigo lost interest in Giulia a few years before his death eventually and they separated amicably), there’s no build-up to Rodrigo’s distrust of Giulia and she’s been, as far as we know, an exemplary mistress, so his hinting that he can’t be at ease with her feels unfounded. Rodrigo’s Facebook relationship status with Vanozza is still “It’s Complicated” for the remainder of the season and the show doesn’t do more than hint that they may be lovers again but the theme of Borgias turning to other Borgias (because Vanozza has given birth to Borgias and is essentially one herself –“Siblings” even names her “Vanozza Borgia” on Lucrezia’s wedding seating arrangement) for comfort in dark times is nicely resonating throughout the entire season.

3, 2, 1… Happy Incest’s Eve!

Though not quite a Cesare-Lucrezia shipper or fan of the show’s incest storyline pre-Episode 4 “The Banquet of Chestnuts”, I knew that the show needed to move on from teasing us with innuendo and fulfill the promise of such a storyline, a fulfillment that actually begins in “The Purge” and is defined by aspects to both like and dislike. The characterization remains surprisingly consistent with the established one so far and the notorious near-incest scene, teased in every promo for the new season and early on speculated to be either a dream scene or some other cheap narrative trick, is extremely sexy and rather well-scripted, still the idea of Lucrezia suddenly attempting to seduce Cesare on the base of mere horniness (her husband is a 20-year-old virgin nobleman, you see, a rare thing in Medieval Italy, he remarks, and an obsolete one in Period Drama Television, I might add) needs some getting used to and suspension of a fair amount of disbelief. Unwilling to do that personally, I’d rather think that the episode tries to enhance the feeble basis of this storyline by emphasizing that Cesare and Lucrezia are in fact the latest Renaissance power couple and furthermore two people whose attraction for each other has gone through so much, in no small part due to their Borgia name and the entire “Unholy Family” reputation, that they find out that to be together isn’t enough anymore, they have to rule and wield influence together also. This is best underlined in their scene in the armory, which is expertly lit and plays subtly with all the above-mentioned themes, having these two very intelligent young people discussing their aggressive ambitions and desires, blatantly abusing their sexuality and the trappings of their wealth (Cesare’s exquisitely crafted suit of armor -kudos to the props department, they are bar none the best I have ever witnessed- and Lucrezia’s sumptuous purple dress and elaborate hairstyle) to accentuate their status and for the first time visualizing exactly what Juan feared, that the product of such a strong pairing would be a fearful being that could devour the world. The thematic content of the scene -that Lucrezia, driven by her husband’s spineless indetermination, goes to Cesare to be her child’s champion with the King of Naples- adds more layers to Lucrezia’s attempted seduction of Cesare: I may be mistaken but I always had the impression that while Lucrezia loved her brother deeply and possibly viewed him as the ideal match exactly as he did, she knows that her best chance at happiness is a normal life and not one where she’s romantically involved with her own brother maybe urging her to be less obsessive about him (and that is why she seems to have dodged, without being unaffectionate, most of his subtle advances, like the jest he made about getting married to her in “The Confession”). Whether that assumption is true or not, the fact that Lucrezia decides to pursue Cesare instead of another random lover (much like Paolo, may he rest in peace, or the Pallavicini brothers, may they rot in Genoa) is consistent with Cesare having, on the surface, resigned from his pursuit of her during the Season 2 finale, his passionate lust for her being, oddly, a part of his innocence and the last thing holding him from moving on to achieve what he wished (as I theorized in my review for “The Confession”) and poses the question whether Lucrezia’s need for a stronger match than her husband, a match that will ensure the welfare of herself and her son and her prominent stature in society, perhaps drives her to manipulate Cesare in the only way she can: by giving him what she knows he wants. Though I will further elaborate on this when I review Episode 3 “Siblings”, for the consummation of incest to fulfill its narrative potential, much like an infidelity storyline only 100 times more twisted, it needs to be based on a triple axis, the Couple (Cesare and Lucrezia obviously), the Husband (Alfonso) and the Rest (Rodrigo, Vanozza, Giulia and others). While Cesare and Lucrezia are entirely successful and produce oodles of tension, angst and conflict come Episode 4 (quite possibly my favorite of the season) and beyond and while the Rest could be dealt with in the show’s planned end (Don’t give up hope! Stranger things have happened: who could have imagined that “Arrested Development” or “Veronica Mars” would enjoy a second life so many years after their cancellation?), Alfonso just doesn’t work as the Husband archetype or trope (the male vow of virginity is crap at its purest form -though an entirely original excuse to not have sex- but at least his submission to his uncle’s demand is a great deal more steady ground to create conflict on). Sebastian De Souza is a capable actor and perhaps perfect for the show to exhibit that Lucrezia’s plan to marry a husband she can easily control disappointingly backfires, still a boring wuss of a man instead of a dignified and likeable Alfonso is undoubtedly even less preferable than an unsympathetic, backstabbing, adulterous one, such as the one in Season 2 of Fontana’s “Borgia".
SEASON THREE EPISODE THREE: Siblings

Alternative Title:
Ross and Rachel, Only Ickier

Best Set Design:

The Neapolitan Palace has a wonderful understanding of space and exudes a sense of realistically amount limited wealth and decline just around the corner.

Best Guest Actor:
Matias Varela as King Ferdinand evokes Giovanni Sforza at his worst.

Cheesiest Line:
It seems only a Borgia can utter a line as cringe-worthy as "It seems, only a Borgia can truly love a Borgia"!

In-a-Nutshell:
A better episode than "The Purge", just not as good as the central, climactic plot development deserved.

Not-in-a-Nutshell:

The Inferior Sibling of Superior Episodes

“Siblings” may well be one of the most important, most earth-shattering installments in the entire run of “The Borgias” (it definitely is THE most important, perhaps even one of the best episodes for the considerably large category of fans that constitute the Cesare/Lucrezia shippers community). While I absolutely agree that this is one of the show’s most critical hours, given that it finally fulfils the promise of incest, teased and implied since the series started, it is in my opinion nowhere near being one of the show’s most well-constructed hours, neither its most eventful one, being relatively light-plotted otherwise and visibly relying on dramatic delaying devices that end up irritatingly suspending the episode’s climax rather than building up to it. Written by Guy Burt, the episode thankfully avoids the chattiness that plagued “The Purge” and is efficient for the most part, even if the crux of the hour, the foundation on which Cesare and Lucrezia’s up-to-this-point platonic incestuous feelings are consummated feels slightly feeble and forced. Jon Amiel (director of one of the show’s most uniformly flawless outings, “The Beautiful Deception”) returns to helm the hour and even if there is little he can do to enrich the hour’s admittedly sparse dramatic punch, he excels at evolving the show’s visual language, aided in this task by Trevor Morris’ marvelous musical creations.

From Riches To Rags

Rather surprisingly, “Siblings” starts with a line by Cardinal Versucci. The line itself is nothing remarkable -though its delivery, courtesy of a very underused but hugely talented Vernon Dobtcheff, is interesting- but the idea that the first three episodes of the new season have dealt heavily with the College of Cardinals is. Previously, all of Rodrigo’s abuses of power at the expense of his cardinals and all his petty torments or blatant disregard of them (even his going as far as granting Lucrezia temporary rule of the Vatican in Season 2, for example) were viewed by the audience as retribution for the cardinals’ hypocrisy, since most of them were seen accepting his bribes and voting for Rodrigo during the 1492 conclave, thus any need for consequences wasn’t explored by the writers (foolishly, if you ask me). Season 3 still doesn’t really care about the cardinals but it is nice to see some of the Consistory intrigue for a change and these moments prove to be satisfactory outlets for the talents of the show’s uniformly excellent regular, recurring and guest cast, comprised of actors of the likes of Bosco Hogan (who made an impressive exit last episode) and the afore-mentioned Dobtcheff. The latter, a veteran whose extensive CV includes tiny but memorable parts in various movies and television productions (I will always remember him as the hilarious Scottish butler in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”), has been with the show since “The Poisoned Chalice” (the original pilot script describes him as an “ancient Venetian cardinal”, which makes me think he could possibly be based on Maffeo Gherardo) and has mostly functioned as comic relief or another embodiment of the show’s Medieval cleric archetype (harmless and pious on-the-surface but in truth a greedy, socially ignorant old lech), which is exactly why this new dramatic arc, however short-lived, is pleasingly refreshing, at least as a farewell to the character. The mini-storyline is filler no doubt, but it doesn’t hurt that Dobtcheff’s body language is masterful, exuding patrician dignity and self-righteousness when Rodrigo banishes him, a nice contrast to his marvelously frantic facial expressions, cleverly captured by Jon Amiel, when he strips the Vatican Treasury clean afterwards. Early in, the episode also revisits Florence, now sunnier and in much better shape than Season 2, not only due to the obliteration of Savonarola’s grim regime but also the enhancement of Florentine backgrounds with the show’s new sets (most of them designed to serve other purposes throughout the season but helpful here as ambiance). The last member of the team that is to constitute Cesare’s future condottieri is introduced through a boring, unimaginative, implausible duel that feels like something you’ve watched a million times before, which is a real pity given that not only is the role itself, Gian-Paolo Baglioni, quite possibly the most interesting of the lot but he is also played by the quietly brooding, melancholic and earnest Bjorn Hlynur Harraldsson, almost hinting at a real character hidden within. His interaction with Rufio is pretty standard and while Thure Lindhardt elevates slithery to a new level, all of his scenes, either with Gina McKee’s wondrous Caterina Sforza or the rest of the “pack of wolves” feel oddly characterless and tedious, even if they are enriched with fresh plot devices (Rufio’s spy within the Vatican that informs the Borgia enemies of the pitiful state of the papal army).

A Two-Sack Episode

Other than consummating the incest (more on that in a while), the episode’s long-term contribution to the season is the introduction of the political plot, rather a remembrance that the old France Vs Naples issue will rear its ugly head again and that Rodrigo's cigar is pretty much here to stay now that his health has improved. Having linked Lucrezia to Naples through her betrothal to Alfonso and planning to bind Cesare to France, there are some unmissable double entendres by Rodrigo (some of the show’s best which really says a lot when that show is “The Borgias”) that talk about how one state is engaged in the problematic pursuit of the other and wittily foreshadow incest. We also learn of a new French king in urgent need of an annulment, the Pope’s leverage against him, and we actually meet the new Neapolitan king, housed in the show’s detailed and extensive, brand new sets of Naples (that will be exhaustively recycled throughout the season and disguised as Rome, Milan and Forli), played by Matias Varela. The character is successfully cast in the mould of the vilest, most irredeemable and least sympathetic of former villains, Giovanni Sforza (portrayed by the inimitably Alan-Rickman-esque Ronan Vibert), and it is a testament to the show that it has discovered a whole new level of fun to be had in the knowledge that certain characters scream “Borgia casualty!” from afar, the notion that someone is so openly obnoxious that for him to end up as the Borgias’ meal is a foregone conclusion. Varela helps create a role that only gets crueler with each new scene and serves as an able foil to Cesare who stands up to him but loses repeatedly and Burt is extremely cunning in disregarding historical fact and exploiting him to deepen Caterina Sforza’s conspiracy web. Speaking of that, the Great Arachne herself comes to Lucrezia’s wedding and evokes Maleficent crashing Aurora’s baptism: the triumphal music turns ominous (kudos to Morris) and we see the Borgias through her own POV, the Pope in full regalia sitting on his red throne like the horned Demon King in the center of a layout of villainous enemies and traitors. Gina McKee’s confrontation with Jeremy Irons oozes palpable hostility and seems to be a long-time coming (they last shared a scene in Season 1 Episode 3 “The Moor”), even if the fact that Caterina finally bows and kisses the papal ring isn’t at all convincing and doesn’t alter any perception on the status of the relationship of the two, either for the audience or the characters. Even if the costume and hairstyle department (especially for Caterina that is made to look a bit like Medusa) don’t disappoint, Lucrezia’s second wedding is a much quieter affair than the first (that had an entire episode revolving around it) but maybe that’s for the best, given the show’s tendency to avoid repetition. Still, I am unhappy that neither Vanozza (credited on the seating chart as “Vanozza Borgia”, which is historically correct since Vanozza was allowed to use the Borgia surname for certain business or social purposes) nor Giulia seem to be an integral part of the episode and there’s, regrettably, no sign of Gioffre also, even if this occasion is important enough to warrant at least a fleeting mention.

How I “JaimeandCersei”-ed My Sister

Most historical shows are entertaining because they tend to be all about venomous feuds, bloody battles and sexual intrigue, the keys to their success. But it’s rather rare for a historical drama to prosper on a conceit, an ongoing issue, a broader storyline that permeates all others and lends them, in the case of “The Borgias”, despite its dark, taboo nature, an astonishing amount of human warmth and emotional depth, transforming eventually into such an enormous, if subterranean, plot point that turns the show into appointment television (as much as it could have been considering Showtime’s lacking promotion of “The Borgias”). The fact that the issue itself, namely the sibling incest, is contested by historians helps even more and lends the show a validity, a much-needed one given the frequent and remorseless fabrication of events taking place at the center of the show. But more than that, the Cesare/Lucrezia “will-they-won’t-they-commit-incest” relationship has been part of the show’s DNA since the very beginning and the writers having realized the fan appeal have been clever to take Britain’s master of adaptation Andrew Davies’s (of “Pride and Prejudice”, “Bleak House” and my beloved “House of Cards” fame) advice to heart: always position sex at the center of the show, never make it peripheral, as it opens up the writing to countless options. “The Borgias” have been hinting at incest with taste, refinement, sensitivity and reservation, often putting such a positive spin on incest and downplaying the undeniable salaciousness of the subject to such an extent that the storyline can lose some of its scandalous glitz. The show’s wise to finally deliver on the promise of incest -audiences love a long tease but hate an over-long one (cough, How I Met Your Mother, cough)- and while the elements of success are all there, oddly there’s still something missing from the ground-breaking moments when Lucrezia finally climbs on Cesare’s bed (rather obviously interwoven with scenes of Alfonso sobbing alone under the sheets in his own bed) and utters one of the show’s cheesiest yet signature lines (“It seems only a Borgia can truly love a Borgia!”). The device that indirectly brings the two together, a seating chart transformed by Cesare into a “Friends and Enemies” cheat-sheet (complete with people we’ve never seen or heard of before and thus are totally insignificant to the audience, such as “Fabrizio Colonna”, “Ottaviano Petrucci”, “Juan Malatesta” and others) that places the could-go-either-way Alfonso in the middle, is neat if a bit too gimmicky and “Downton Abbey”-esque to cause such a domino of momentous developments (though Lucrezia’s unexpected F-bomb shatters any misconceptions on the elegance of the scene). The weak link is once again, unsurprisingly, De Souza’s Alfonso: his acting still seems lacking, even when the writing has little to be envied. He never elevates his lackluster material, like virtually every other actor on the show does, and his reaction (or “emoting” in acting lingo) to his spectacularly talented co-star’s delivery of lines leaves a lot to be desired. But the blame doesn’t belong solely to him but also the largely forced, artificial and calculated nature of the development, as if it absolutely HAD to happen. All the ingredients that further complicate the situation are there, even if some of the motives are unclear: not only have Cesare and Lucrezia been always attracted to each other -an attraction that comes with angst and desperate longing-, Lucrezia is also starved for sex by her virginal husband (cue laughter) which makes her horny and predatory (to such an extent that it feels largely out-of-character), Lucrezia is, what is more, obliged to Cesare and abominated by her spineless husband since the former championed her son’s cause while the latter stood idle and finally, to top it all off, Cesare and Lucrezia find themselves at odds due to the flux of politics that now want Cesare involved with the French at the very moment that his sister is tied to France’s enemy, Naples. Yet, siblings, friends, confidantes and now potentially enemies come together in a sex scene (unfortunately so obstinately soft-core it could appear on network television), that feels like a long-time coming and is accompanied by one of Morris’s most sentimental tunes. It is all very well, Arnaud and Grainger’s inarguable chemistry can sell anything, and the benefits of such a storytelling decision become apparent in the next episode, quite possibly the season’s best-written one, still, for all that, “Siblings” feels like an episode whose dramatic heft and credibility had to be sacrificed so that future ones can take incest for granted.
SEASON THREE EPISODE FOUR: The Banquet Of Chestnuts

Alternative Title:
The Banquet of Chest-grabs

Best Performance:
Holliday Grainger is unleashed and looks like she could give Glenn Close a run for her money.

Best Guest Actor:
For the second consecutive week the winner is Matias Varela as the unbearably haughty King Ferdinand.

Worst Hairstyle:
If you thought that Rufio could never be usurped of the honour, wait till you meet Alessandro Farnese.

The “Jeremy Irons” Award for Excellence in Effortless Scenery-Chewing:
The recipient of the award is -surprise, surprise- Jeremy Irons, whose bursts of anger feel at once terrifying and ludicrous.

In-a-Nutshell:
One of the best episodes of the season (if not THE best), one that juggles multiple storylines and characters with admirable efficiency.

Not-in-a-Nutshell:

A Christian Parable, Only With More Chestnuts, Boobs and Vaginas

“The Banquet of Chestnuts” is a model “The Borgias” episode. There have been episodes more eventful (Season 2 had a recurring Season 1 character die in practically every episode). There have been episodes more spectacular (half the episodes in Season 1, 2 and 3 feature at least one impressive sequence, either in terms of special effects or crowds and so on). But there has never been an episode more singularly focused on a theme and more determined to hazard, perhaps subconsciously, a guess of the answer that solves one of the show’s central questions: how does power transform people? “Banquet” takes place almost exclusively within the walls of the Vatican (save for some unnamed convent somewhere in Italy that plays host to a fugitive Versucci) and a considerably large part of the plot also unfolds at night-time, both creative choices that seem to enhance the feeling of loneliness, uncertainty and stifling claustrophobia and paranoia plaguing the main characters, all of them finding themselves falling in brand new traps as a result of their own “falseness”. Indeed, the “falseness of men”, as Rodrigo informs us, completely and characteristically oblivious of the fact that the criticism should first and foremost concern his own self, is the reason the vicious cycle of betrayal and Vatican intrigue never ceases. The episode, intentionally or not, deems every man to be a manifestation of that archetype and the men that prove to be weak or unworthy in one way or another within the episode’s span are Rodrigo, Cesare, King Ferdinand, Alfonso, Alessandro Farnese and virtually all the cardinals, old and new alike, but somehow the unimaginably talented Guy Burt, in his best episode yet (even without the splashy dramatic situations of his previous installments such as Season 2’s “The Confession” or Season 3’s “The Face of Death” and “Siblings”), makes it feel natural, like something that was always there and as a consequence this parade of “false” men doesn’t feel forced: in fact, this “falseness”, this weakness in the face of sinful temptation or, generally speaking, the lack of moral backbone is not only one of the more present themes of the entire series but also a central theme in any series dealing with power. In many ways “Banquet” is an intellectualization of that theme and even if the show is notorious for being rather superficial and generic with its own themes, the episode works best as a parable (its completely literal, descriptive and obvious title making it sound more and more like one), a simple cautionary tale with an easily digestible moral that is in the case of “The Borgias” no less compelling even so. Everything works wondrously in terms of this particular hour, even if storylines successfully introduced here will hardly pan out in future episodes (and not only due to the show’s cancellation) and Jon Amiel lends his steady hand to the episode’s direction, mining the tension by wisely employing hand-held camera and the episode’s crowning achievement is the darkly stylized and contagiously salacious depiction of the notorious Banquet of the Chestnuts, that is manipulated here to suit the needs of the storyline and puts a rather modern spin on the event.

The Borgia-fication of Giulia Farnese

One of the most refreshing plot threads in Season 3 is Rodrigo’s semi-constant paranoia and fear of being double-crossed (I say semi because it is largely absent from the previous episode and others, only rearing its ugly head when the plot demands it), both results of his poisoning and his shock and grief stemming from Juan’s death (while it is rarely explicitly stated in Season 3, Juan’s death has affected Rodrigo in a way that is not readily obvious: he’s much more downbeat, at times even depressed). This gives a Irons a chance to push the character forward, to make him less light and buffoonish (though, that is also terribly fun) and it foments the flames of inter-family intrigue and struggle that will pay off later in the season, as well as presenting an altogether more aggressive, more compelling Rodrigo. For some reason, while paranoia is a feature traditionally linked with those in the highest echelons of power, I can’t say I imagine it being a characteristic of the real Pope Alexander VI but, that being said, I think it greatly suits the role as conceived by Neil Jordan and I can’t help thinking how better it would be if that facet of the character, that much darker place he finds himself in, had been much earlier emphasized (late Season 1 or Season 2). In many ways, if there is a creative choice most -including me- would see as a flaw and possibly point it out as the reason why the show never really clicked with a large audience is that it took too long to fulfill the basic promise of many of the main characters. While Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia was from the very beginning given very meaty material, the same can’t be said about Irons as Rodrigo and Arnaud as Cesare (who, despite 3 full seasons having aired, was never allowed to enter the character’s arguably most dramatic phase and explore it in length, namely Cesare Borgia’s Italian conquests and power-plays). Thankfully, Rodrigo’s mounting insecurity that leads to his questioning of everyone in his inner circle and the decimation of his cardinals in the previous episodes is a welcome change to his resolutely carefree behavior. The introduction to the College (and the show) of various new cardinals finally brings us Alessandro Farnese (oddly the only non-fictional cardinal of the recurring ones introduced -Petrucci and Costanzo, played by Jonah Russell and Leo Bill respectively- but sadly still not a substantial role, Pope “Peter O’Toole” Paul III be damned), his elevation being part of Giulia’s “alimony” agreement. His College may be full with fresh blood but Rodrigo rather belatedly realizes that doesn’t exactly mean his cardinals won’t go after his own, having the same potential for treachery as the old ones. Rodrigo bases this assumption on a rather innocent incident of sibling affection -in a show full of it- and Giulia is, for one, organically woven in the narrative. If the Giulia-Alessandro relationship dynamics were a show staple since Season 1 we would be talking about a very complex, probably much soapier show (just like “Borgia”) but a hugely entertaining one nonetheless. The storyline helps make evident how much Rodrigo’s paranoia is currently his most prominent, most defining characteristic and the sight of her being dragged to his chambers in the middle of the night is a really nice reminder of the rather abrupt but not unexplained erosion of their relationship. I rather liked how, now that Giulia is in danger of being severed from the Borgia bosom, she finds it necessary to placate Rodrigo by acting as his agent provocateur in the matter of his new cardinals and that serves as a recurrence of the theme of everyone, including all the Borgia women, contributing to the family “business”, much like they did in Season 2. And of course it is an undeniable bonus that Giulia finally has something manipulative and Borgia-like to do, even if she doesn’t really reach the consistently operatic heights of the delicious Marta Gastini in “Borgia”. The show sells the “Banquet of Chestnuts” as a modern “artificial scandal” device to make it more comprehensible to a contemporary audience and disregards its historical origins, rather missing its point as a decadent frivolity, a mere occasion -of many, probably- that made the Medieval Vatican seem so much different to today’s (or not?), its shocking abandon only hinted as a front for a political trap. I always knew that Lotte Verbeek was much better a performer than the material the show was giving her but at least “Banquet” is an episode that tries to exploit her range more than others, even if it feels a bit too late, given that this is Giulia’s penultimate appearance on the series. Verbeek pulls off both the character’s despair at her separation from Rodrigo’s lavish affection, her having her brother’s back (that relationship is sadly never revisited, though I would bet that this is due to scenes having been left on the cutting room floor) and her relish at being able to orchestrate the entrapment of the cardinals. The Banquet itself is one of the most vividly outrageous, most sexually explicit scenes ever on the show and Jon Amiel perfectly captures it putting an appropriately colorful visual spin on the scene, everything about it screaming licentiousness, but it is Verbeek’s performance that holds the piece together, mainly her beyond excellent body language which makes it seem like she’s conducting the entire banquet as if it were an orchestra. Simon Mcburney makes an entirely welcome return as Burchard, his hilariously deadpan narration further enhancing the impact of the sequence, and the scene near the end when Rodrigo pretends to find out bears all the hallmarks of “The Borgias”, mixing infuriating hypocrisy with a proper dose of improper humour.

Consummation Witness Duty

The other main plot-thread that works wondrously in the episode is, no doubt, the aftermath of Cesare and Lucrezia’s night of incestuous sex. While no episode in Season 3 reaches the sheer level of tangible angst and conflicting emotions “Banquet” so effortlessly included -kudos to Guy Burt for that- and Neil Jordan didn’t seem to be terribly interested in capitalizing on this either in the episodes he wrote in Season 3 or in the draft of the “The Borgia Apocalypse” screenplay, in terms of Episode 4 itself the developments seems to change the show’s very DNA. Now that Cesare and Lucrezia’s fully physical relationship is a given and no explaining needs to be done, the situation is so much worse for the two characters that the audience can only benefit from watching the intense drama. Unwisely, the show never really exploits all opportunities this developments opens the storytelling to and doesn’t overcomplicate things by bringing far more characters into the eye of the storm, but for those watching the show exclusively for Cesare and Lucrezia, “Banquet” was an auspicious hour. Indeed, judging by how adeptly the episode tackles several storylines in a 50-min span and substantially enhances the drama, fans would come to anticipate more outstanding material, especially when it comes to more compelling Cesare/Lucrezia scenes but “The Borgias” sadly proves once more that it is more fascinated about forbidden love as an idea rather than a detailed, textured elaboration on it (like the work, say, “The Sopranos” did on its everyday themes). Still, incest works so excellently in “Banquet” in part because of the people that are drawn to its vortex, namely Alfonso, Rodrigo, Ferdinand and to a lesser extent, Vanozza. Alfonso’s attempt to physicalize his relationship with Lucrezia feels, appropriately, horrendously awkward and features perhaps the show’s best double entendre, when Alfonso accepts that the fact that his and Lucrezia’s connection might end up platonic, as a brother and sister’s, De Souza proving, refreshingly, up to the challenge of a more tragic role required of him this time. His conversation with Ferdinand that leads to the latter demanding an era-appropriate consummation witnessing procedure starts to set up Ferdinand as one of the vilest, most revolting Borgia adversaries ever while Varela’s negotiation scene with Cesare and Rodrigo is a great moment for all three actors to shine, Irons going once more into “Profion” mode (his most delicious and most hilarious “Profion” moment yet), Arnaud as Cesare pacing nervously in the background having all sorts of guilt written on his face and Varela getting to stand his alpha-male ground admirably against the both of them. Indeed, the consummation witnessing scene itself, that is one of the best sequences in the series, features Varela’s delightfully creepy commentary, the equivalent of an uncouth, lecherous Renaissance porn aficionado, and is otherwise full of subtext and suppressed, unspoken suffering but the real exceptional sequence for me is when a reluctant Cesare announces what is to be done to Lucrezia. The eternally reliable Holliday Grainger outdoes herself here, proving a force of nature and unleashing fury that evokes Glenn Close’s best and scariest outbursts as Patty Hewes in “Damages”. Lucrezia designating Cesare as the family witness to watch her marriage consummation is, of course, a stroke of genius on behalf of Burt and the episode gets much mileage out of it but what I also found terribly interesting is how resigned Vanozza seems towards Rodrigo’s outrageous decision. The moment is tiny and subtle and comes when Lucrezia, preparing for the humiliation, vows revenge against Ferdinand, with Vanozza quite calmly and tacitly standing behind Rodrigo’s call, always the pacifist keeper of the stability in the family, even at the expense of morals and reason. Scenes like that and the one when the two siblings reconcile and part ways amicably elevate the show above a confrontational soap opera (such as “Borgia”) and lend it a depth of real, uncompromising emotion at its best and at its worst and make it, as a consequence, all the more tragic given that the audience realizes, maybe even more quickly than the characters, that any attempt at happiness outside each other’s arms is doomed from the start.

The Suicide, The Leech, The B*tch, and the Cuckold

It’s the trademark of only the best of episodes to make sure that even secondary storylines are interestingly set-up and developed. First of all, Alexander’s “mighty crusade” that will become relatively important further down the line is successfully introduced here, mainly due to two factors: first, the Venetian ambassador, played by an actor I am unfamiliar with but has one of those extremely expressive faces that has elevated him to one of my favourite bit parts ever on the show and another formal banquet (in an episode full of them) that is a chance for Rodrigo to warm up to Rome’s business world, then strip them naked with his crusade taxes and levies. The scene is at once hilarious, witty and evocative of a modern White House luncheon/fundraiser, Jeremy Irons and Peter Sullivan relishing its every moment. Also, Versucci’s theft of the Vatican in “Siblings” is addressed here when it is revealed that he has started redistributing Alexander’s stolen wealth to its rightful owners as a means of both spiting the Pope and redeeming himself. Micheletto traces the “old goat” to a convent somewhere and comes to kill him but not before the former cardinal can slit his wrists and make sarcastic comments about the assassin’s employer. While I can hardly buy a Catholic cardinal committing suicide (even if they only paid lip service to God, I firmly believe that there were things they wouldn’t do out of their own self-seeking, their fear for their own salvation) and can’t really define the way that this storyline ties with the rest of the hour or the season for that matter, other than superficially exploring the theme of redemption and damnation and once again pointing out that maybe Rodrigo’s chief concern is money (ergo, power), the same concern that allows him to put his very daughter on display, it gives Sean Harris and Vernon Dobtcheff scenes that showcase their talents and the storyline is, additionally, very well-paced and filmed. Finally, we also catch up with our favourite “spider” Caterina Sforza, still in Rome and involving Francesco Gonzaga in her newest plot: while the majority of fans rolled their eyes at the Bianca Gonzaga storyline in Episode 5 I wasn’t too peeved about it (more on that, in my next review) and the recurrence of a very austere-looking and rigidly postured Patrick O’Kane as Francesco is entirely welcome. The affair of Bianca and Rodrigo in Season 2 seemed to me to be something casual and one-off rather than a periodic thing but the show finds it better this way, implying it might even be known to a few people so that Rufio and Caterina can learn about it (not that “The Borgias” pays much attention to such plot details) but the benefit of such a storyline is of course watching McKee command this single scene with her measured panache. While she doesn’t fully resemble what I imagined the real lady to have been like, the way the character is written and the way McKee inhabits her role, combined with the fact that the show gives her more and more farfetched nefarious plots to weave against the Borgias (even if some of them are based in history) make Caterina look more and more like a comic book vamp villainess, a joy to behold and totally synchronized with the show’s slightly stylized and elevated swashbuckling quality.
SEASON THREE EPISODE FIVE: The Wolf And The Lamb

Alternative Title:
Mantuan Woman, Stay Away from Me

Best Performance:
Francois Arnaud perfects his uniquely charismatic Cesare and excels, even if the materil itself isn't that dramatically compelling.

Best Guest Performance:
Sophie Goulet's Two-Sack Queen may not be so physically attrocious but she's an unbearable harridan all the same, courtesy of the magnificent actress.

Worst Guest Performance:
In a show full of idiosyncratically obnoxious royals (Augustus Prew's Alfonso, Michel Muller's Charles and Matias Varela's Ferdinand), why was Serge Hazanavicius' Louis chosen to play a character so boring in such a pedestrian manner? Joseph Beatie in the same role in "Borgia" really puts him to shame.

Best Production Award:
The French court at Avignon provides the show with new and uniquely flavoured surroundings, while hairstyle and costume design present an entirely different, equally luxurious fashion.

In-a-Nutshell:
A top episode of Season 3, but one that echoes what applies to most of the series: that it is better watched by those unfamiliar with the Borgia papacy history.

Not-in-a-Nutshell:

The Bull and the Tramp

“The Wolf and the Lamb”, other than having my favourite episode title in Season 3 (another one that makes the episode sound as a parable), is a pretty solid outing and quite possibly the most uniformly pleasing and entertaining episode in Season 3 in the sense that all three separate story-threads feature satisfying climaxes within the episode’s span. Writing-wise, Neil Jordan pens a worthy follow-up to the stellar “The Banquet of Chestnuts” and deftly juggles the episode’s geographically disparate storylines, turning in a surprisingly efficient and to-the-point hour. Travelling outside the walls of the Vatican is always a plus and renders this episode surprisingly refreshing, elevating it to the top of Jordan’s in Season 3, right up there with the season finale “The Prince”. Kari Skogland returns to direct and opts to keep the rather somber episode flowing smoothly, nothing feeling particularly unnecessary or excessive, but not forgetting to also selectively include moments that burst with colour, excitement and suspense, especially the moments focusing on animals as a means of underlining the characters' bestiality and animalistic traits.

Rodrigo Drives Women Crazy

Perhaps it is Rodrigo’s story in “The Wolf and the Lamb” the one to have raised the most eyebrows in Season 3 and generated a considerable amount of fan displeasure but, in my opinion, the criticisms are mostly unfair and the plot-thread is actually a pretty decent and satisfying part of the episode. Bringing back the Gonzagas (unseen since Season 2 Episode 4 “Stray Dogs”) is a move that stresses and enhances continuity, which I am a big fan of, and Jordan has displayed a welcome tendency to redeem and retroactively aggrandize seemingly inconsequential past characters. I blame the show for not having milked the soapy aspects of certain storylines such as Rodrigo’s romances with Vittoria and Bianca in Season 2 that could have proved far deadlier, especially if the other ladies in his life, mainly Giulia and Vanozza, were more actively involved, but Season 3 takes what was basically just another personification of sin that tempted Rodrigo further into lust and transforms her into a tragic figure, albeit in such a straightforward and simplistic way. Granted, Bianca’s Bible-quoting, sex-addicted wackiness gets tiresome soon but Kreiling’s acting helps support the script’s weaknesses and her performance renders the character at least partly sympathetic and gut-wrenchingly sad. Even better is Irons who successfully alternates between Rodrigo’s usual slight annoyance at the inconvenience that is a clingy girlfriend and some genuine grief and despair at seeing someone so vibrantly young and with all of life’s opportunities ahead of her wither away (it is almost a creepily paternal thing, which makes the story a bit eerier and more layered). The storyline itself is nothing too densely-plotted or extremely unique but the fact that Giovanni’s having been left behind with Rodrigo and Vanozza is incorporated into the storyline and actually features meaningful pay-off in terms of plot (which is surprisingly rare in “The Borgias”, by swift contrast to the show’s penchant for fulfilling and plentiful emotional pay-off) is unexpected and exhilarating, instantaneously raising the stakes of the storyline substantially (and in television it doesn’t get more serious than “Is the crazy lady going to hurt the child?”). The reveal that Bianca was indeed pregnant with a child that was not Gonzaga’s (but Rodrigo’s most probably) is a genuine twist, one of the few in the entire show, and if the child had not been earlier characterized as “the fruit of Rodrigo’s loins” the development would have carried far more weight, even if the water-eyed agony on Rodrigo’s face as he hears the doctor diagnose that Bianca’s unhinged as a result of her brutal abortion is eternally rewarding. Bianca’s eventual suicide is rather predictable but her running berserk and armed with a knife within the papal palace features its own set of thrills, still the best moments come when Rodrigo mourns over her dead body (really, Irons is one of the best mourning actors) or when Ascanio Sforza, with his natural darkness and no-nonsense attitude, pins everything back on Gonzaga, in a chilling moment that feels very “The Godfather”-y.

First and Last Tango in Avignon

Cesare’s storyline, perhaps the most successful in the episode (but also the one to have missed the most opportunities), takes us to Avignon, France, a first for the show to explore territories outside Italy (though a horribly generic and mundane French fort appeared in Season 1 when Della Rovere first met the French king). From a production standpoint, the scenes in the French court impress: the Forli Castle walls are digitally enlarged and cleverly transformed into the majestic French city, while interior set design offers an entirely new, part-Gothic part-Spartan outlook on space and decorations. The atmosphere of the French court has a much different feel to it, without lacking sumptuousness, but I would expect something even grander for one of the three super-powers of the time, budget restraints notwithstanding. Costume and hairstyle design though more than make up for it: voluminous, often grotesque headpieces adorn the female courtiers, the gowns have an entirely different understanding of texture and silhouette than what we have so far seen in the Italian kingdoms. The Two-Sack Queen (Jeanne de Berry, historically, but unnamed here) especially is a highlight (more on the delightful actress later), her dresses appropriately regally severe and all her hairdos comically resembling a snake’s head or a horned animal. In terms of the storyline itself, Jordan expediently trims the fat and manages in what is effectively 1/3 of the episode (or roughly 20 minutes) to narrate Cesare’s acquisition of a wife and valuable French military support. But, on the other hand, the precious opportunity for the show to expand its universe and bring new recurring characters and themes into the mix is criminally wasted and as a result the storyline feels rushed for those that know the real history and Cesare’s personal victories feel a bit too easy even for those that don’t. Cesare himself, as played by the wondrous Francois Arnaud, has another chance to shine (and although unintentional, it helps that Sean Harris isn’t there to steal his scenes just by standing still), proving suave, smooth and charming and at the same time cunning, nihilistic and calculating, the character’s core sympathetic qualities not having perished (I am talking about the scene he discusses Lucrezia, his true love, with his fresh bride). But if there’s a serious fault with the storyline is how Jordan once again lends it more civility than it needed. Cesare and Charlotte d’Albret (a very likeable and alluring Ana Ularu) seem to instantly click and agree on the terms of their relationship while their sex scenes lack the couple’s fabled carnality (the rumored 8-round sex marathon on their wedding night). It is all very good and heart-warming (especially the reciting of one of the most eternally touching verses of the Bible, the description of Christian love, found in the epistle to the Corinthians), it just misses a precious opportunity for tension and emotional conflict. On the political side of things, Jordan again keeps things simple: Machiavelli makes his first Season 3 appearance (and one of his best), offering his invaluable one-liners (“Keep it black, as you do so well”) and summing things up for Cesare (and the audience) in the most simplistic way possible. I quite like how the historical Machiavelli has been translated by Jordan into an ever-resourceful international political operative but the introduction of the new French king’s pursuit of Milan without any context is gratingly simplifying. Speaking of the new king, Serge Hazanavicius tries to differentiate himself from the inimitably over-the-top Michel Muller (I would have liked an homage to the character, such as a portrait hanging on a wall somewhere in the Avignon palace) but ends up coming off bland and uninteresting, a serious disappointment. Edward Hogg guest-stars as Cardinal d’Amboise, a character that initially seems to be far more important than he ended up being (Hogg was reported to appear in 6 episodes but is actually only in 2 - could that be editing, again?), and creates a vaguely intriguing figure, his eyes sparkling with greed and slyness. Finally, the Two-Sack Queen, the one Louis XII so fervently wants to get rid off and the show doesn’t bother to mention that this is due to his wish to be wed to his predecessor’s widow, is played by Sophie Goulet, a casting masterstroke: the actress imbues her role with the “The Borgias” signature mix of sarcastic wit and imperiousness, while also being responsible for one of the show’s most pleasingly pugnacious tirades (channeling Jeremy Irons), her fit of fury at the annulment of her wedding providing the mostly serene hour with a much-needed jolt of hysteria (and Cesare quietly calling her “b*tch” as she leaves really gives Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman a run for his money). I would have liked a mention or even better an appearance of Colm Feore as Della Rovere, already scheming in the French court at this time (since the “The Borgia Apocalypse” screenplay reintroduces him as Louis’ newest ambassador to Rome) but it didn’t seem to occur to Jordan, adding to my slight displeasure with an otherwise well-structured plot-thread.

Lucrezia's (Lam)prey

Lucrezia’s storyline is the most straightforward one in the episode but one that ends it on a fine note, even if, once more, things are kept pretty simple: still facing the intransigence of King Ferdinand of Naples, Lucrezia schemes to kill and supplant him in order to have the Neapolitan court welcome her illegitimate son Giovanni. The storyline could have benefited from introducing a few more characters to further complicate things for Lucrezia or at least a few more interesting interaction between the already existing ones. Indeed, Lucrezia has only a brief interaction with her husband (though by this point, I am grateful for the lack of Alfonso) or with her current enemy, Ferdinand. Before Season 3 aired, I speculated that Varela as King Ferdinand would actually be one of Lucrezia’s lovers this season and I am somewhat puzzled that the show didn’t take advantage of the fact that the character is conceived as a lech with a special interest to see the fabled Lucrezia Borgia in naked action during “The Banquet of Chestnuts”. In fact, Lucrezia herself is not above seduction or blackmail to achieve her goals, so scheming to outright kill him can only be explained by the humiliation he inflicted upon her in the previous episode. In fact, the only real intrigue of the storyline can be found in three places: first of all, the Lucrezia and Micheletto dynamic is imaginative and has not been done in most of the Borgia story adaptations. Sean Harris and Holliday Grainger have amazing chemistry and their scenes together while not quite thematically compelling, have an odd, subterraneous mother/son, sister/brother and father/daughter feel that is very touching. Secondly, Lucrezia’s encounter with the old herbalist lady/forest crone that will recur throughout the second half of the season (not surprisingly, she’s played by stage veteran Linda Marlowe) has all the hallmarks of one of the show’s favourite tendencies: to vividly recreate classic fairytale settings or tropes in the context of the character’s origin stories (more on the crone herself in a future review, since she only here introduces Lucrezia to another perky-sounding poison like cantarella: the mushroom gallerina). And finally, the manner of Ferdinand’s death is perhaps the most imaginative one in a show already full of them (need I remind you of death-by-chandelier?). It is a testament to the show that it has managed to stay immune to the predictability that comes with the territory when a new adversary for the Borgias is introduced in an episode only to be killed a few episodes later (or even within the episode’s own span) and that there’s an entirely new plane of enjoyment to be had when the viewer can instantly tell whether someone that’s antagonized the Borgias will soon be eradicated. Ferdinand’s death in the lamprey pool is the most gruesome one yet, totally appropriate for one of the show vilest mini-villains, and the sadistic satisfaction on Lucrezia’s face as his body is carried in the palace yard, scored with Morris’ ominous music, is an aptly dark note for the episode to close on.
SEASON THREE EPISODE SIX: Relics

Alternative Title:
The Evil that French Do

Best Performance:
Francois Arnaud may be currently rumoured as Charlie Hunham’s replacement in “50 Shades of Grey” but he proves, for the second, consecutive week, that his Cesare has already so much more than just 50 shades.

Best Moment:
Rodrigo in a big white hat sucking honey out of his own fingertips, while Cardinal Sforza talks finances. Too many jokes, too little time.

Best Interaction:
Cesare and Lucrezia emerge as the show’s real power couple, plotting from Naples the fate of the entire Italy.

Worst Production Choice:
We spent the last half of Season 2 in a Florence that seemed to consist only of the square in front of Savonarola's church (modelled after the Santa Maria Novella).How can we believe that this small square with a few barely noticeable modifications is Milan?

In-a-Nutshell:
A reliably solid episode that lacks the sparks flying in most of the rest of the season.

Not-in-a-Nutshell:

A Relic of an Episode

“Relics” is one of the most cleverly titled episodes of the show. On the surface, the episode’s title hints at Rodrigo’s fervent attempts to acquire a truly valuable Christian artifact that he is to showcase during his 1500 Jubilee celebrations, attracting pilgrim money, but I have to believe that Guy Burt, who returns to write his last episode this season, has slyly winked at us, implying that Cesare’s diplomatic victories with the French king have endangered the papacy as a political entity, practically rendering his father Rodrigo’s brand of politics antiquated and himself a political “relic”. Yet, the otherwise well-made episode suffers from mid-season tedium symptoms: neither the excitement of new beginnings (evident in the show’s season premieres), nor the satisfaction of watching the plot climax and tie up loose ends (as is the case with each season’s final episodes), merely a solid outing, with several nice moments (Rodrigo’s white hat returns!) and intriguing interactions as always. Guy Burt scripts the episode quite tightly, once again packing it with material (the introduction of Rodrigo and Cesare’s antagonism, Caterina Sforza’s plot against the Pope, Cesare’s acquisition of the condottieri’s armies) even if the sparks don’t really fly in the end (the eventual bloodless conquest of a Milan that looks alarmingly like Florence). Kari Skogland also returns to direct her last episode this season and, unlike the season premiere or the previous episode “The Wolf and the Lamb”, seems to be going through the motions, failing to find a specific visual signature for this hour, or maybe we have become spoiled by her innovative directing talent (that has since been recruited by HBO juggernaut “Boardwalk Empire” among others) that is evident in her other episodes.

Black P-Lag-ue

The episode opens in a razed establishment somewhere in Italy where Rufio goes to collect an infected piece of cloth, intended, no doubt, for the Pope. Skogland devotes much time to the sequence, more than it merits, and films it with a certain amount of moodiness and muted colours which are extremely appropriate, but choosing to show the entire process of Caterina penning the peace treaty that is to serve as a distraction so that the Pope will open the box and be infected is a bit drawn out, as if the episode has time to fill, the artsy choice of leaving big chunks of time with no lines spoken contributing to the tedium. Perhaps the greatest impediment to the storyline is that the way Rufio, played by the very talented Thure Lindhardt, has so far been written fails to convey any genuine sense of menace and by this point, if we haven’t as viewers feared Rufio for the first 5 episodes of the season, a slow motion sequence of him cleansing his naked butt from the threat of the plague isn’t going to make us. Maybe it is just me but Rufio feels very sly and slippery, even disgustingly so, yet he doesn’t have the beastly magnetism of Micheletto, the sense that he is danger personified and that he could at any given moment plunge his teeth at anyone like a wild animal. Expectedly, the letter reaches the Vatican and the show somewhat subverts expectations by having a recently introduced cardinal collect it (one would expect the plot to include Ascanio or another major character). Cesare soon appears and orders it destroyed, not because he suspects the hazard hidden within but because he doesn’t want his father consider peace and Burt successfully plays up Cesare’s manipulation. The plot is further spiced up when the young Cardinal Costanzo, complete with no personality other than his greediness despite the laudable efforts of Leo Bill, tries to gain leverage by keeping the letter but ultimately opting to destroy it, albeit it is too late and the plague takes over his household. And just when the storyline seems like it will claim some victims… to be continued with a drawn out “Plaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaague”.

Rodrigo’s Re-Jew-venation

The hour also introduces the last two recurring characters that feature in secondary roles in the season’s endgame, the Milanese Pascal (more on his character in the next episodic review) and the Unnamed Jewish agent (identified as Mattai in the episode’s plot synopsis) that will interact with Rodrigo from now on. As with most roles that are not Borgias in “The Borgias”, the actor playing Mattai, Brendan Cowell, is far better than the writing of his character but even that doesn’t make for a rounded or marginally more engaging character. Mattai, as it turns out in subsequent episodes, is even craftier than it seems judging by “Relics” but on-the-whole that calm cunning is the character’s only main characteristic, his past remaining irrelevant, his motivations one-dimensional and easy-to-grasp for the audience’s sake. Even though he and Rodrigo feel like kindred spirits, both being men of faith that are not restricted by their respective religions’ conventions, and share an odd rapport, rendering Mattai Rodrigo’s go-to confidante and conspirator in the next few episodes especially given his growing rift with Cesare, there is not much more to be found in the storyline and other than the pleasure of watching Rodrigo playing at being a beekeeper, complete with his wide white hat and sucking honey out of his own fingertips, the character is the writers’ device of an expedient solution on some of the season’s lingering plot-threads, namely the Pope’s costly crusade against the Ottoman Empire. I find it somewhat odd that even after 3 seasons, creator Neil Jordan and his writers still find Rodrigo’s schemes to be more interesting when they are “white-collar” (I am quoting David Nevins here, when he characterized thus the nature of the plot in Season 1 versus the visceral nature of the storyline in Season 2), meaning that most Rodrigo-centered storylines concern money and not violence (like in the previous episode) and that is even more puzzling here, given that the “Spear of Longinus” thread feels a lot like filler material, inexplicably and desperately struggling to give a few old and new characters something to do. Other than the fact that the idea behind the plot is based on history (the relic surfaced in Rome during Alexander’s predecessor Pope Innocent VIII’s time) and the classic debate on the existence, much less authenticity, of such relics there is not much else of note here. Why Burt (or even Jordan for that fact, he who decides the general structure and outline of the season) would choose to involve Cardinals Farnese and Petrucci in the storyline, having one champion the Jew’s artifact and the other working hard to disclaim it, with the added bonus of Cardinal Sforza (a reliably sardonic Peter Sullivan, no complaints there) fomenting the flames of their half-baked rivalry, is beyond me, being neither fun (“Young Farnese will go far”, is Burt’s rather heavy-handed foreshadowing of Paul III’s papacy) nor intense or important to the overall scheme of things nearing the end of Season 3. The storyline and the choice to involved the afore-mentioned characters doesn’t carry any real weight or long-term consequences, in fact I would argue it is absolutely superfluous since the two characters (Farnese and Petrucci) don’t get anything else to do for the rest of the season and can’t be said to come out of this episode significantly changed or developed as fictional entities (both actors are equally well-cast but their potential, especially Cyron Melville’s as Farnese who is credited 3 more times but only has a minimal amount of lines in the Season 3 finale “The Prince”, is criminally wasted).

Milan = Florence + Bronze Horse Legs

Unsurprisingly, the best part of the episode and the show’s strongest suit in general is the family politics at the center of the papacy and the Italian kingdoms. Lucrezia, who doesn’t really have a storyline in “Relics” (and that is to be expected given that the next episode is appropriately titled “Lucrezia’s Gambit”), appears in a few stellar scenes to show us the outcome of King Ferdinand’s death in “The Wolf and the Lamb” and to please the fans of her and Cesare’s incestuous relationship, that had to take a back seat in the previous episode. In an expertly lit, elegiac scene, Micheletto returns Giovanni to his mother and during Ferdinand’s funeral no less as if to add insult to injury: the costume and props department has topped themselves here, mourners’ outfits feeling every bit as sumptuous as the celebration gowns while a majestic hearse could very well be one of the show’s more detailed and elaborate constructions. Micheletto declares that Lucrezia and her child are not be harmed and Lucrezia strokes him as if petting him, in a wildly adorable and at the same time almost demeaning manner. In a subsequent scene Cesare visits Lucrezia in Naples and the changes in both their characters are readily apparent. The couple’s trajectory throughout the seasons is one of the few things that has been developed, despite the occasional fault, in a very cohesive manner and has been handled with grace, intelligence and measure. After the consummation of their incestuous love in Episode 3, both characters seem to have resigned to the idea of staying with their respective spouses, displaying a surprising pragmatism given the romantic notions the characters began with. The fact that the Cesare and Lucrezia characters, the very emotional core of the show, have since matured into much less innocent, much more ambitious -even cruel- creatures that seem content to be with spouses they don’t love only for the benefit of proximity to power is so much more dramatically pleasing now after we have watched them several times already discuss “impossible loves” or made promises to each other to protect one another from unwanted marriages, even politically advantageous ones. That facet of their relationship is visually underlined by Kari Skogland in an ingenious manner: the two no longer roll on the emerald green grass or sit near sparkling fountains but they make their way through fire and smoke in a chaotic Neapolitan festival (which is rather odd given that the King’s died recently), with a giant snake hissing nearby. Lucrezia and Cesare, unnerved, talk politics more and less emotions, juggling their father’s wishes, the French and the Neapolitan in a complex balance of power and as they walk a puppet play seems to demonstrate themes of courtly love but the most intriguing visual parallel for me is that now the two siblings have become puppet masters in their own right, deciding the fate of people and countries. Of course, the family politics don’t stop there: when Cesare leads the French to Italy, news reach the Vatican creating a shock effect that is both comical (with Rodrigo ridiculously hypothesizing whether Cesare behaved in a shameful way to drive the French king to invade) and suspenseful (though the suspense factor doesn’t last long). Cesare, with new-found swagger, a fresh army, a new BFF/French spy (Edward Hogg in his last, inconsequent guest-appearance as Cardinal D’Amboise) and, above all, an impenetrable poker-face returns to explain and Rodrigo, still furious, establishes his authority by having everyone hurry out of the Vatican situation room so that he can chastise Cesare in private. While Rodrigo and Cesare have from the very beginning been written as having a subtly contentious relationship, the episode, for the first time this season, makes the case that they could be the real nemeses of each other. As a schemer, though Rodrigo has often revealed hidden aces up his sleeve and proved his frequently carefree, buffoonish, Juan-like behavior to be merely an act concealing his bottomless megalomania, he still is no match for Cesare, mainly because the latter is far less warm and emotional (Rodrigo’s love for his children being his most mitigating, humanizing quality but also an impediment to being a totally cold and ruthless operator). The rivalry of the two, that will continue to be written with realistic subtlety, instead of boiling to an unbelievable confrontation (however fun that could prove), has its own share of twists but for the moment the two seem to reach a grudging agreement, even if Rodrigo feels usurped, a feeling he tries to suppress by presenting to the Vatican officials Cesare’s proposition as if it were his own genuine wish. From there on in, Rodrigo seems to trust mainly in others (especially after the events of “Lucrezia’s Gambit”) and Cesare to not really care, as he soon enlists the condottieri previously attached to Caterina’s camp. The characters of those Italian noblemen aren’t fleshed out further and the scenes leading to their joining the French encampment along with their large retinues (kudos to the VFX department once more, this show has done well to rely so often on their excellence and innovation) feel tedious and perfunctory, even if the afore-mentioned majestic sequence makes up for them and the suspense surrounding their galloping towards Cesare’s camp, the audience uncertain whether they are there to wage war or ally themselves with Cesare, successfully echoes the previous happenings with the French arrival in Italy and Rodrigo’s own panic. Benito Riario-Sforza (Noah Silver) reappears to prove Micheletto’s prophecy of his vengeful intentions right and he informs the Milanese in time so that Ludovico Sforza can leave before the French can lay siege to Milan, though at this point the show has done itself a disservice by once again avoiding direct conflict. The CGI far shot of Milan is adequately detailed (though I preferred the way “Borgia” presented it) but where the show really falls short is the exterior set design of Milan that is merely a poor rearrangement of the Florence, Naples and Rome sets that feel too familiar and not distinct enough for the Martian reputation of the city. On the plus side, the introduction of the Milanese boy that serves the storyline’s need for exposition and will prove critical to the plot leading to the season finale is not too in-your-face, even if Micheletto seems to rather suspiciously notice him from the very start.
SEASON THREE EPISODE SEVEN: Lucrezia's Gambit

Alternative Title:
Johnny Got His Arquebus

Best Performance:

While Arnaud makes his Cesare lose even more of his humanity without losing even a bit of his appeal, the episode quite simply belongs to Holliday Grainger, perfecting her sly smiles and piercing glares.

Best Character Interaction:
The first time that Rufio excites me as a character (rather a shadow of a character, but still an intriguing one) is the time he finds himself in Micheletto’s orbit, even if theirs isn’t an actual encounter in the flesh but rather that of one animal trying to get an idea about its enemy’s powers by looking into its habitat.

Best Costume Design:
Pretty much every single attire worn by Lucrezia during her Neapolitan schemes is majestically detailed and excellently showcased, especially the light green/blue and the deep blue/gold ones.

In-a-Nutshell:
An episode which plays it rather safe and straightforward with its otherwise meaty plot and characters and that is ultimately its greatest weakness.

Not-in-a-Nutshell:

Gambit Without Risk


“Lucrezia’s Gambit” is one of the more packed, storytelling-wise, episodes of “The Borgias” to-date (and that really says something in a Season 3 that has already provided several extremely juicy, in terms of plot action, episodes). In its short 48-min span the episode includes the resolution of the plague letter storyline, bids adieu to regular cast-member Lotte Verbeek as Giulia Farnese and recurring characters Benito Riario and Ludovico Sforza, narrates Lucrezia’s King-making schemes in Naples, furthers the rift between Cesare and Rodrigo and also provides a dozen, more or less interesting, moments with Micheletto and new character Pascal, as well as Rufio, Mattai, Machiavelli and more. While all storylines can be said to be well-handled by the confident writer/director duo of Neil Jordan and David Leland, there’s nothing here to bind all of them under a consistent theme or narrative purpose and the episode mostly feels as exactly the sum of its parts or worse a “dumpster” of left-over storylines in need of mention or resolution. The spine of the episode, Lucrezia’s Neapolitan intrigues, is slickly filmed if not perfectly scripted and provides for a strong axis (even if the climax is unfortunately predictable) as well as a lavish showcase for an increasingly frigid and majestically Borgia-fied Holliday Grainger but the non-existent historical basis for her storyline and the feeble characterization of the new roles involved (despite their being played by able performers) really undermines its credibility.

The Michy Show

Any talk about the legacy of “The Borgias” -if any is to take place at all- will most likely mention the character of Micheletto as a main part of it. The character is 80% Sean Harris’ creation, 10% the fandom’s demand for more of him and 10% the writers’ work. Each successive season of “The Borgias” featured more and more Micheletto, a background scene-stealer in Season 1 transformed into the Harbinger of Death in Season 2 (a dark aura following him everywhere) and an anchor of the storyline in Season 3, complete with his own arc. I could argue that the character was rather simplistically conceived: the stereotypical closeted homosexual/tortured soul projecting his frustrations to the world by doing evil men’s dirty work. But it’s due to Sean Harris’ performance and the writers’ willingness to give audiences what they want that turned Micheletto into a subtly and quietly dark, endlessly cynic almost depressive (and depressing) figurehead for nihilism during Medieval times, a man so aware of the bleakness and futility of his times for whom conventional morality means nothing. Season 3 gives Micheletto even more: a tragic love story ending in bloodshed, so clichéd that it is only salvaged by a number of interestingly shot and expertly performed moments, featuring a fine, if not terribly nuanced, performance by Charlie Carrick as Pascal. The episode opens with him in Milan leading Micheletto to Leonardo Da Vinci’s workshop, a satisfactorily well-designed set, even if the scene itself is perfunctory (featuring references to the Da Vinci of public perception ranging from Salai to the flying machine) and only leads to the two having a no-strings-attached quickie. While I hoped that Pascal, eerily resembling Cesare, would actually turn out to be Leonardo himself, long overdue for an appearance on the show, what with the implied homosexuality of the universe’s most legendary artist that could come to play in a storyline with Micheletto, Pascal turns out to be merely a Sforza agent, following Micheletto to Rome and upsetting his life. While Sean Harris acts the hell out of Micheletto’s heart-melting loneliness that makes him crave any kind of human warmth and leads to his acceptance of the boy’s affection, even if he denied it back in Milan, the storyline too quickly veers into the spy-in-love-with-his-victim kind of thing, that lacks proper foundation and build-up, even if there are some nice mentions of Micheletto’s magnetism stemming from his vicious nature and the spectre of doom that never leaves him. Rufio, who soon appears as Pascal’s employer on behalf of Caterina Sforza, also adds another layer of a deeply unnerving sense of foreboding, even if the two assassin’s promised confrontation wasn’t meant to happen in Season 3 (it does though in “The Borgia Apocalypse” screenplay, in one of the piece’s better scenes). But, the gratuitous shots of Micheletto’s penis and on the other hand the extremely puritanical sex scenes (really, Micheletto and Pascal’s intercourse feels more tender and soft-core than a ‘90’s Macaulay Calkin film) are at the same time hypocritical and unnecessary, adding nothing to the emotional weight of an already light-scripted narrative thread.

Game of Crones

Meanwhile, the episode’s focus, Lucrezia’s storyline in Naples is much better conceived (and shot) even if it lacks one or two more scenes to give us more background on the plot and the characters. Lucrezia interviewing the candidates for the throne of Naples is as outrageous as it sounds (and equally outrageous as “Lucrezia negotiates peace between Spoleto and Terni”, as a rather more comely and redhead version of U.N.’s former Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a Season 2 storyline of “Borgia”) but it is actually one of the larger-than-life things that broadens the show’s scope and exceeds the real historical characters’ constrictions elevating Lucrezia to the one of myth (not a bad premise for a plotline) as well as taking excellent advantage of Holliday Grainger’s perfected cat-that-ate-the-canary stares. What is more, the storyline offers another chance to ponder the question of where does Alfonso fit into Lucrezia’s grand ambitions, fuelled by her father and brother’s own ones, with Sebastian De Souza turning in an improved performance (though I still have objections to how spineless the character has been retroactively made to look in order to be as distinct as possible to Cesare and I could argue that the Season 2 finale introduces him as a completely different man than who he is now) and Grainger doing a bit of successful Lady Macbeth mustache-twirling, vowing to protect the family if he doesn’t (stopping short of declaring “Now I will be Queen of Naples!” and breaking into a cackling, maniacal laughter). Still, the storyline isn’t without fault: both Luke Allen-Gale and Jamie Beamish, as Princes Frederigo and Raphael respectively, provide very gripping performances for the short span of time they appear on-screen but they play it all rather straight, we as an audience being able to penetrate their thoughts when we shouldn’t and having no misconceptions about who is good and who is evil. The Neapolitan indoors and outdoors though provide beautiful settings for Lucrezia’s intrigues (especially the exhaustively detailed, gloomy dining room, seen a few times before, the setting of Frederigo’s “poisoning”) and her scene with the forest crone standing out as a marvelously creepy invocation of scary classic fairytale surroundings (the way the crone, played by Linda Marlowe, suddenly and silently manifests behind Lucrezia, visibly alone in the long shot, being one of the most imaginative moments all season). Nevertheless, the seemingly cruel and tough Raphael’s decision to abandon his claim to the throne, in fear of the crone’s testimony, feels weak and out-of-character -and honestly, much too easy-, but the storyline closes the episode on a positive note, Frederigo being enthroned in a lavish procession (his black-and-gold embroidered, ermine-lined cape being one of the show’s most magnificent pieces of apparel) with Lucrezia cheering and watching from above, like the puppeteer she is, and then the new king slowly being revealed (a shocker!) through the mirror (another classic fairytale instrument) as party to the Caterina Sforza-Pascal conspiracy.

Two Sforzas Down, One More to Go

The rest of the episode is spent on Rodrigo and Cesare each facing new challenges, as much as their father-son relationship is. Cesare’s meeting with the French King in Milan is a chance for the production department to show off the magnificent new facades it has created for this season, the only downside being that they feel a bit too flat (which could have easily been solved with different lighting) and that they are clearly visible in other places, such as Forli and Florence, on previous and future episodes as well. Cesare’s being dressed in a black/red combo and Louis’ gold/blue one are perfect visual guides to their exact relationship and their conflicting yet connected interests and this interaction is very efficient in conveying the message that Cesare is now the French King’s Italian executioner. Returning to Rome, Cesare also quickly burns the plague-infected palace of Cardinal Costanzo (an underused Leo Bill), much to Rodrigo’s chagrin: despite the fact that the cardinal’s sudden self-sacrifice lacks credibility, the sequence is pretty successful as it vividly references various horror clichés, such as the long, dark Bates-house-like staircase or the way the camera focuses on the elaborate container’s fall and landing on the steps straight up, as if by its own volition (rising to Pandora’s box heights of hidden terror). Machiavelli also makes a one-scene stop that is neither as good as his last appearance on “The Wolf and the Lamb” nor nearly enough for such an established fan-favourite but the plot point of Ludovico Sforza being willing to sell out his own nephew for the sake of amnesty is a commendable last-ditch attempt to render a criminally under-developed (and, in my opinion, rather miscast) character like the Duke of Milan marginally more interesting. The meeting between Cesare and his henchmen with Ludovico and Benito Sforza plays out exactly as expected, Ludovico’s head being blown to pieces by Da Vinci’s arquebus, an appropriately triumphant, bad*ss moment ruined only by the safety vest worn by Ivan Kaye protruding out of Ludovico’s fur cape. The Sforzas’ deaths instead of their incarceration expectedly sends a livid Rodrigo ranting against an extremely steely and apathetic Cesare (kudos to Arnaud once more, that is the first moment Irons loses the acting match in a scene opposite his on-screen son, even if the former’s over-acting is meant merely as another way to put emphasis on the fact that if Cesare is Ice, Rodrigo is Fire), though Rodrigo’s control-freak problems are exacerbated by a self-worth crisis when out-of-the-blue Giulia, last seen in “The Banquet of Chestnuts”, announces, via Vanozza (as if to add insult to injury), that she is to remarry. This season Jeremy Irons has had ample chance to further flesh Rodrigo out in smaller, subtler moments spread throughout the episodes (as opposed to a powerhouse performance in a single episode, like “The Confession” in Season 2) and he definitely delivers, his Rodrigo alternating between megalomania, paranoia, disappointment, rage and borderline depression. Rodrigo’s feeling besieged not only by Della Rovere, Caterina Sforza, Ferdinand or enemies within the College, as was the case in the beginning of the season, or the threat of the French, under Cesare’s leadership, invading Rome once again, as is his presently haunting fear, but also by the sense that he’s getting surpassed by young men, becoming weaker, irrelevant and redundant in the process. Giulia’s prospective new husband (though I don’t recall her marriage to her old one ever being dissolved) is a rich, handsome poet, much younger than her, called Vincenzo Salvatore, a name even Rodrigo dislikes the sound of, one of the times Jordan’s highly imaginative onomatopoeia that offered us gems like “Ursula Bonadeo” letting us down. Giulia’s seeking her former lover’s papal blessing, his approval being a foregone conclusion since he gently ostracized her a few episodes ago, but Rodrigo’s genuine interest in grilling and verbally tormenting Vincenzo drastically wanes as Cesare enters the garden to report on the anti-Sforza campaign and he leaves instantly, the audience being left with nothing even close to a goodbye between Rodrigo and Giulia. Giulia as a character (much more benevolent than Marta Gastini’s in “Borgia”) never clicked with the viewers regrettably, despite Lotte Verbeek’s wonderfully understated performance or the few feeble attempts by the writers to give her a heart and make her useful to the plot but I admit that this, her last ever appearance on the show, is rather successful and I like the matter-of-fact, unsentimental way it sends her off, implying that the rather cold Giulia, after her congenial separation from Rodrigo, either shed her few tears before starting the search for a new man off-screen or not at all.
SEASON THREE EPISODE EIGHT: Tears Of Blood

Alternative Title:
Shot Through the Heart And You Are too Gay

Best Performance:
Emmys may snub but I won’t: Sean Harris has long delivered award-caliber performances but his gut-wrenching turn in “Tears of Blood” easily outshines every previous one.

Best Character Interaction:
Lucrezia and the forest crone (or mystically and obliquely credited as “Old Lady”) feel like the present and future version of the same person, Linda Marlowe’s aged -but not faded- beauty as well as her poverty status almost providing Holliday Grainger’s radiant youth and dynastic aspirations with an indirectly cautionary tale.

In-a-Nutshell:
Easily one of the best episodes of the series as a whole, an example in efficient storytelling and character-oriented focus on the emotional impact of the narrative.

Not-in-a-Nutshell:

Before the Cancellation

“Tears of Blood” carries a rather odd legacy for me. When it originally aired, it was the episode that reasserted the show’s high quality after two rather average outings and cemented Season 3’s superior ratings attraction when compared to Season 2, reaching a season high in terms of viewers, a number that hadn’t been surpassed ever since the Season 1 finale. To many -among them, me- that meant that the long wait for renewal was extremely and dangerously suspicious on the one hand but also that no sane network would dare cancel such a solidly successful show. Instead, two days after the episode premiered, the show was unceremoniously and unapologetically axed by Showtime, while every self-respecting fan of “The Borgias” is still working hard to revert the show’s fate. For that reason alone, the episode was bittersweet for me and I though it would be hard-to-revisit, not only due to its rather dark and depressing dramatic content (that’s a lot about bidding premature and reluctant goodbyes) but now after several months and upon a second viewing, it really does stand out as one of the best episodes in the season and the series as a whole, definitely the best since “The Wolf and the Lamb”. Jordan’s script only suffers from some structural issues which is to be expected when providing such a huge quantity of action, magnificent spectacle and staggering character evolution and Leland’s direction is steady and understated, which allows for the narrative to develop freely and speak for itself.

Oil Magnates

The 1500 Jubilee is upon Rome, as the episode opens, with a mournfully-scored scene of Rodrigo being helped into his majestic regalia, visibly worried and sad, and I quite like how the show often uses the magnificent papal attire (especially, the long cape and pointy hat) to accentuate the villainous-King-like dimensions of the character in a more obvious, stereotypical visual method. The Jubilee celebratory procession is nicely produced (the peacock feathers accompanying the Pope’s chair are a wonderful touch to underline its occupant’s endless vanity) and filmed, even if the extras feel rather few, with Alexander knocking down the faux gate being a highlight, but once again it’s Trevor Morris’ score that makes it feel grand and sweeping in scope. The “bank of sinners” thing (one of Martin Luther’s subsequent accusations against the papacy) is very cleverly woven into the narrative (thanks to the show’s notoriously reliable editing) and gives Rodrigo a wonderful chance to appraise a valuable ring as a payoff for adultery just by looking at it, in one of the successfully ironic moments of a deeply dark and unsettling hour. Knowing that the vast proceeds will be channeled into defeating her, Caterina Sforza starts plotting with the former Cardinal DeLuca over her son’s dead body (Gina McKee sheds a few moving tears but is otherwise dependably steely). Why the show would choose to bring back DeLuca instead of another defrocked cardinal we are much more acquainted with (Piccolomini? Or even Della Rovere?) is a puzzling question, especially when Peter Stebbings, while perfectly able in the role in previous episodes, wasn’t particularly memorable, marginally more so than the character himself. But this is a minor complaint, given that the forged Shroud employed in a scheme to undermine Alexander’s lucrative Jubilee not only allows for a change of scenery (the creepy Marino ruins by night and the way Cesare and his men ride into the quarry something almost directly out of a western) but also for another depiction of the Cesare-Rodrigo relationship deterioration, when Cesare demands that Rodrigo pay him and his army to decisively deal with the Sforza problem (Irons gives an acting masterclass in disdain when he utters the words “some random rag”). The way Micheletto and Cesare both escape nearly unscathed from what looked like a terrible explosion as well as the fact that Caterina, despite practically having them at her mercy, doesn’t move against them afterwards seriously strains credibility but Cesare’s “Jesus loves me!” is an almost demonic moment for Arnaud, who roars like a lion in this terrifying, yet consisted with his character, hubris. Afterwards, while Cesare is occupied with decrypting Pascal’s letters (and Micheletto’s intentions), Rodrigo plots with Mattai to annihilate the Turkish fleet in Kefallonia (a still breathtakingly picturesque island in the Ionian Sea, not a long distance from where I come from) by means of… oil. While Mattai and Rodrigo’s interactions feel somewhat forced and the storyline itself is a rather simplistic way to get rid of the crusade plot-thread that was from the very beginning meant only as a front for a business endeavor, the sequence that closes the episode, cutting between the Jewish agents’ deployment of oil and subsequent destruction of the Ottoman naval and the signing of the bull exempting the Roman Jews from extreme taxation is impressive and very well-produced (even if I would have liked it to have occurred in the middle of the episode and the hour should have closed with the Sforza plot-thread).

Neapolitan Big Brother (or Wrong Brother)

Ever since Lucrezia relocated to Naples “The Borgias” was trying for narrative ways to bring her and Cesare together in the same place (only episodes 5 and 7 kept them totally apart, in fact) not only because it wanted to please the shippers but to also service the plot and character development and this is what happens again in “Tears of Blood” as the newly-crowned King Frederigo of Naples arrives to Rome to be invested by Pope Alexander VI (eliciting one of Peter Sullivan’s terrific signature glances as Ascanio Sforza). Once more, Sebastian de Souza as Alfonso is little more than an extra, which is perhaps appropriate given that he hardly exists every time Lucrezia and Cesare find themselves sharing the room, and as he acknowledges the fact that Frederigo was solely Lucrezia’s choice (with Grainger standing in the background and grinning slyly, in her flamboyant, crimson hat, a wondrous stylistic touch added to emphasize Lucrezia’s megalomaniacal tendencies) Cesare exhibits fear or reserve, perhaps worried for her choice or even displeased at his sister’s loss of innocence and transmogrification into a full-fledged politician. Afterwards, Lucrezia climbs on Cesare’s bed just to tease him, knowing that to have sex again could possibly be precarious in Roman soil but as she leaves Cesare sighs in disappointment at being parted from her again, being far less cool about the affair than her, which is to be expected given that she initiated it and also has a full-time family to fall back on elsewhere. Luke Allen-Gale as Frederigo (in effect, a less pretty but much more sinister Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, if that is even possible) also evolves into one of the show’s better villains, his youth and infuriating calmness making him a worthy opponent to Lucrezia, the less prone to weakness of the Borgias, what with her meeting Frederigo’s insults and threats first with her unfazed, cold smirk (Grainger could have a long and illustrious career in the business just playing this type of ice-queen blondes) and then with a direct confrontation: as Frederigo informs her that she’s not only powerless anymore but even worse actually, a prisoner (though the point could have been made without a pair of guards following her everywhere like robots), Lucrezia faints (and there’s some talk of pregnancy, only to be immediately shot down by Alfonso, who admits that they have less sex than Sheldon and Amy) but soon wakes up with a deathly complexion and renewed resolve. Soon, Lucrezia meets once again with the forest crone and the two women have one of the very best interactions this season: as if they have a connection on a mystical level, the crone apologizes to Lucrezia for having collaborated with an enemy against her, whom she recognizes as a sister witch and a “splendid” one at that, with the old witch mentoring the young one and passing the mantle, in Lucrezia’s case a hypnotizing potion to help her escape Naples. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds (perhaps even more) and despite the actresses playing it totally straight, the sequence oddly works and builds up anticipation for the next episode.

Pascaletto’s No More

Finally, it’s once again Micheletto’s storyline that is the emotional anchor of the episode, another example of an “impossible romance” and a very deft move by Neil Jordan even if writing the actual storyline leaves a few things to be desired (though, to be just, I always find any kind of 2-episode romances, heterosexual or otherwise, half-baked and lacking foundation). With Pascal now as his live-in boy-toy (and moonlighting as the Sforza-Frederigo spy that almost leads Micheletto to his doom in Marino), the assassin is seemingly happy or at least content, casually hanging out with his new boyfriend discussing childhood and the subject of loving and hating someone or something at the same time, in the very saccharine manner that only highlights Jordan’s eruditeness rather than a genuine storytelling, character-focused choice. Rufio here assumes the role of Pascal’s guilt rather than his employer, the ever-present, silent reminder that this is all temporary and predicated on a lie, the dark spirit that preys on Pascal’s treachery, that doesn’t let him for a moment think that his emotions are real because his intentions are not what they seem. Soon afterwards, Micheletto sees Pascal out of the attic -keeping the audience on the edge and not quite clear on whether the assassin is about to smell the rat or already has- and unearths Pascal’s coded letters to Naples, which he copies and decrypts with Cesare’s help (in a rather tedious, by-the-numbers sequence). The revelation that Micheletto is gay shocked viewers back in Season 2 (though we had speculated as much from earlier on and it’s by now the most commonplace back-story recruited to flesh out every furtive, hard-to-read character) and the natural second step in such a narrative is revealing the fact to another character. While Arnaud hardly reacts to the news, definitely more interested in his sister’s welfare than Micheletto’s choice of bedfellows in a refreshing bit of underplaying the sordid drama, it is Sean Harris’ performance that amazes, Micheletto’s instant willingness to kill himself overshadowing everything else on-screen. Micheletto’s having let his defenses down and loathing himself for that as well as the realization that his every hope has been false, every desire is in urgent need of suppressing and every witness to his delusion in need of extermination is articulated on Harris’ facial expressions with a devastating precision. Cesare, senselessly blinded by fear and rage, orders Pascal killed and gives Micheletto probably his best scene ever: the awakened Micheletto confronts Pascal (a Charlie Carrick who admirably steps up) quietly seething in a blend of rage and sadness, the only leniency he’ll allow his former lover being the choosing the method of his execution, his death being a preordained matter and thus not up for bargaining. Pascal’s reply may be rather clichéd but Harris’ tear-inducing breakdown renders it nevertheless powerful and heart-breaking.
SEASON THREE EPISODE NINE: The Gunpowder Plot

Alternative Title:
I Sulphur Without You

Best Performance:
There is an episode each season that reasserts with surprising magnitude that Jeremy Irons is indeed the show’s greatest asset and this is it.

Best Character Interaction:
It is a short and rather insignificant moment in terms of story, but there’s something delicious about the farewell between Lucrezia and the Old Lady, a.k.a. the Supreme of the Neapolitan Coven.

Best Costume Design:
The Bacchic ball is another chance for the show and Gabriella Pescucci to explore decadence through another prism and stage the kind of elaborately designed scene the show was adored for.

In-a-Nutshell:
A top episode, weighed down only by the knowledge that the show is ending so prematurely.

Not-in-a-Nutshell:

I Always Sulphur After I Say Goodbye

It’s getting harder and harder to really appreciate the value of these last episodes of the last (not if we have a say on it) season of “The Borgias”, given that the show’s cancellation shone a negative light upon them and made them impossible to fully enjoy, for me at least. In some ways, given that “Tears of Blood” was such a spectacular episode, in terms of both actual quality and ratings appeal, learning that the show was canned two days afterwards was so much more brutal and in much the same way a quite enjoyable and powerful episode such as “The Gunpowder Plot”, the first to have aired after news of cancellation broke, is undermined and feels like the penultimate chapter of a penultimate chapter, instead of the penultimate installment in a completed whole. The storylines that have so far driven the back half of Season 3 start intertwining in quite surprising and dramatically intriguing ways, while others climax in a tear-inducing manner, that feels like emotional and storytelling payoff for loyal viewers. Neil Jordan pens a largely satisfying episode, which only feels a bit sparse in plot but is otherwise very wholesome drama-wise and also directs in his signature efficient, serene method that helps ground and humanize the over-the-top conspiratorial machinations.

Even Micheletto Needs a Break

The episode opens with Micheletto’s execution of former lover/Sforza spy Pascal, which doesn’t prove as emotionally distant or as morally easy as any of his previous kills. When the dying Pascal embraces Micheletto for the last time, with his slit wrists oozing blood down his assassin face, the literal tears of blood appear, making me think that it is possible the scene was meant for the previous episode but was edited out, thus giving a double meaning to the former episode’s title (and a nice parallel to the fake tears on the Shroud of Constantinople, in the sense that these tears are absolutely, painfully real). With a simple goodbye written in chalk on his room’s floor, next to Pascal’s lifeless body, Micheletto disappears in a very interesting storytelling move by Jordan, who decides to take the assassin out of the equation heading into Cesare’s final confrontation (with Caterina or Rodrigo still unclear at this point). Micheletto’s absence is keenly felt when Cesare moves earth and heaven trying to locate him and swiftly berates anyone who tries to overtake the power vacuum left by him. The two men bromance is completed with scenes in “The Prince” but that is a matter for discussion in my next episodic review.

Sleeping Booty

When Lucrezia puts everybody to sleep in order to flee Naples, the fairy tale similarities (I may be wrong but I think the similar tropes were established much later in folk stories) are unmistakable even for her husband Alfonso who points it out. The fabled hollow ring (the actual veracity of which lies solely in the fact that such rings were in wide use since Roman times) finally makes its first appearance -though not placed on Lucrezia’s finger- and the forest crone (a.k.a. Linda Marlowe’s “Old Lady”) returns along with a crew of scumbags reenacting a Bacchic fete (the show mixing imperial Roman flamboyance with Renaissance frivolity and bloodlust very interestingly as always) to rob Frederigo’s napping guests, adding insult to injury (too bad the staircase in the Neapolitan palace is the exact same one, and visibly so, as the one present in Lucrezia’s NEW roman residence, formerly Giulia’s palace). Lucrezia and Alfonso’s escape is filmed atmospherically by Jordan who always takes advantage of the nightlight (and much of the episode actually takes place at dark) and the story point that Cesare and Lucrezia reunite amidst danger would have felt even more important had they not shared scenes again in the previous episode. The shot of Alfonso’s worried face, sensing something inappropriate going on and watching from a distance, is rather good in conveying the fact that he is slowly understanding and as a result changing, though I would have liked Baglioni pointing the detail out to him rather than the colourless Colonna (Baglioni famously had incestuous relationships with his own sister). Unfortunately, much as Sebastian De Souza proved able in playing that borderline depressive and disturbingly disappointed Alfonso, the character in his fierily wrathful version is rather ludicrous and relies a bit too much on channeling Juan (only in a much more earnest manner), though the latter is mostly a fault of writing. Lucrezia’s scenes with Vanozza, complaining about Cesare and Rodrigo’s ever-present clutches felt somewhat out-of-character and unfounded (especially given her own ambition, as well as her love for both of them, but especially her passion for Cesare) but Vanozza’s submissiveness and matter-of-fact acceptance of the price of power is very apt and consistent with the character, cleverly underplayed by Whalley. Lucrezia being back in Rome promises much more drama (even if it doesn’t actually deliver on that promise) but her storyline in this hour ends much less impressively than it started.

What Men Would Do For Sulphur

Naturally, the crux of the hour is the culmination of the half-season-long feud between Rodrigo and Cesare, though it offers less sparks than it promised, once again the result of “The Borgias” opting to be a much more grounded, tasteful and oddly warm drama at the expense of pulpy soapy pleasure. While I characterized this plot point as only a half-season-long issue, the feud between Cesare and Rodrigo runs back to the very conception of the show, to the story decision to have Juan be the carefree favorite son of Rodrigo and Cesare the dutiful, reliable one that has to carry the burden of the family’s dynastic ambitions, ending in bloodshed that pits brother against brother and eventually father against son. While the trauma stemming from Juan’s death seemed to have been somewhat relieved due to the family’s attention being diverted to their external enemies, it was brewing under the surface and comes to a boil in a very surprising and emotional way towards the episode’s close. Naturally, any conflict between the show’s two main characters is only compelling if there seems to be some kind of balance and consequently a level of suspense, something that didn’t seem to be the case so far what with Cesare constantly disrespecting and outmaneuvering his father. Thankfully, that changes in “The Gunpowder Plot”: inspired by his victory over the Turks, courtesy of a few Jews and quite a bit of oil, Rodrigo decides to secretly buy the entirety of Italian sulphur in order to deprive his son and every other opponent of the means to make gunpowder. While that would seem like a simplistic ploy and indeed it is, it works in the context of the Borgias’ often Bond-villain-like schemes as part of the show’s DNA. Indeed, this secret acquisition drives every camp insane, reaching both Cesare, who’s testing his new heavy weaponry (Why is Leonardo da Vinci yet to appear? This seemed like the natural point to do so), and Caterina Sforza, who returns from Florence to Forli (riding through a quite atmospheric and ominous fog) bearing the news that Machiavelli has pledged what Florence always does in the event of a conflict, another hollow “nothing”. The consequences though don’t end there: the treacherous Prospero Colonna, put by Cesare in charge of sniffing out the culprit of the sulphur purchase, turns on him and tries to enlist Baglioni (the successfully somber Harraldsson) in order to intercept the sulphur together and control the outcome of the war for the Romagna. Kalinda, I mean, Colonna soon finds where Mattai is storing Rodrigo’s bounty and, himself betrayed by Baglioni, ends up a human torch, covered in bright yellow sulphur. This aspect of the storyline is pretty well-handled given its nature as a mere pretext to have Rodrigo and Cesare come to an epic showdown and serving a dose of action, as well as the sole casualty of the night. Mattai, acting as a Renaissance family counselor, acts in a quite surprising and selfless way and instead of seeking to make himself perpetually useful to Rodrigo opts to get out of the job by reconciling him and Cesare. When father and son meet and recognize one another as each other’s foil they start spewing three seasons’ worth of complaints: Rodrigo’s lack of unconditional affection for Cesare and his insane expectations, Cesare’s unrelenting ambition and the murder of his brother are presented as reasons for the two to be apart until Rodrigo explodes and reveals what he hinted during the Season 2 finale, the real reason that father and son are relatively distanced: Cesare is exactly like him, unapologetically power-hungry and dangerous and, as a result, not someone one can grow completely fond of. Rodrigo’s tirade is full of nuanced self-loathing and Irons, unsurprisingly, amazes and gives a magnetic performance of sheer force, while Arnaud gives him some space taking a back seat. The confrontation ends on a twist, but not something contrived, such as Cesare stabbing Rodrigo in wrath or Rodrigo revealing that Cesare was never his biological son. The twist here is a totally unexpected one, of emotional nature: instead of having the two collide till the end of the season and set the next, final episode of the season around that, the two embrace and make up in a quite touching scene relying on the actors’ good acting and the script that Jordan enriches with some subtle irony: Rodrigo accedes to having led his family to moral decay and disaster but at the same time welcomes Cesare’s promise of an empire to rule jointly. It is obvious by now that the two men reunite on the basis of their common despotic aspirations and “business as usual” is the subtextual message of the scene, the two men being bound to repeat the same mistakes quite like characters in a Greek tragedy just before their final punishment. Too bad it may be a bit before we get to see them punished in the small or the big screen.
SEASON THREE EPISODE TEN "THE PRINCE" AND "THE BORGIA APOCALYPSE":

*This is going to be a 2-part review, Part 1 examining of the Season 3 finale “The Prince” and Part 2 analyzing the intended series finale screenplay “The Borgia Apocalypse”.

Part 1: The Prince

Alternative Title:
One Can't Put A Pri(n)ce on Happiness

Best Performance:
It may get lost in a sea of good performances by every single member of the main cast (Irons, Arnaud and Grainger excel as expected) but it is Gina McKee’s Caterina alternating between empowered and broken that makes as grand an exit as possible.

Best Character Interaction:
Cesare and Vanozza have not had a meaningful scene for quite some time so it is only pleasant to finally see mother and son in each other’s soothing company. Vanozza also gets to deliver one of the best lines of the hour when Cesare informs her that another well-reviewed and well-performing show is going to be cancelled: Not again.

Best Prop:
Caterina’s gilded cage is quite literal in her case but it seems to be the material incarnation of a long-running metaphor within the show, the danger that the more affluent and powerful you are the more you run the risk of living imprisoned.

Best Costume:
Caterina seems to be having her day and her black-and-gold tigress costume is indeed a magnificent and unique creation, further contributing to the tragic climax of her storyline in Season 3.

In-a-Nutshell:
A near-faultless episode that is only dragged down by an unevenly handled second act.

Not-in-a-Nutshell:

A Princely Episode To End a Princely Series (Until We Get To End It More Princely and Properly)

One thing that can be said about “The Borgias” is its ability to provide thrilling premieres and even more thrilling finales, even if some of the middle episodes inevitably feel lackluster by comparison. For each season the show’s tried something new with its final episode format: “Nessuno” was a happy-ending, Borgias-kick-ass kind of closing while “The Confession” offered rich and darkly harrowing personal drama ending in uncertainty and despair so it is only natural that “The Prince” couldn’t possibly fit in one of the previous two boxes but be one-of-a-kind as well. Indeed, “The Prince” is, as was advertised, a grand finale (but not an actual series finale in any sense of term, Showtime’s spin machine notwithstanding) and for it to be successful the hour would need to provide satisfactory climaxes for viewers on both of the show’s main storylines, namely the war against Caterina Sforza and the Cesare-Lucrezia-Alfonso underused love triangle plot-thread. While the former is treated with great invention by the script and direction, both by Neil Jordan, and provides the hour with an ample dose of epic action giving it a nice focal center, the latter is rather abysmally tackled and leaves much to be desired. Unsurprisingly, praise should also be placed upon the endlessly talented Trevor Morris, whose musical creations immensely accentuate the drama, and the very imaginative VFX department that the episode owes one of its major attractions to.

One Pope to Rule Them All

Rodrigo and Cesare’s reconciliation after the events of the previous episode avails the show of the father-son rapport that has defined the previous seasons and helps display the perfect chemistry of the two actors. Indeed, the Irons/Arnaud scenes have always been a highlight for me in any episode and it says so much about the acting on “The Borgias” that watching them plot together is oddly heart-warming. Apart from their special bond that has driven many of the show’s most important hours, the final piece of the show’s endgame is revealed: Rodrigo has from the very beginning been pursuing the chance to establish a hereditary papacy! As absurd as that notion may seem, the ridiculously nepotistic Renaissance papacies mean that Alexander’s megalomaniac ambition doesn’t really strain credibility all that much and I would argue this is a vital bit of knowledge to have, in fact this should have been revealed much, much earlier to shed light on the purpose of many of the main characters’ actions (along with the historical fact that Rodrigo had an uncle who was previously Pope, as not everyone who watches the show is expected to know the history and this helps explain a lot - alas it wasn't meant to happen). As usual, this scheme is sprinkled by Rodrigo with all kinds of ludicrous justification (the natural roots of primogeniture, the bureaucracy and unchristian intrigues of the College of Cardinals and so on) and its sheer hubris even scares Cesare. The latter is meanwhile preoccupied with Micheletto’s disappearance so much that he starts giving off gay vibes to his mother and she has to change the subject of discussion! It’s peculiar that Cesare has separate scenes with both his parents during the span of a single episode (that hasn’t happened for some time), discussing or rather alluding to their respective relationships and emphasizing their similarities and differences and some measure of unintended (?) closure seems to be provided on these fronts. Meanwhile, Cesare has already unleashed the French army on Caterina, crossing the Romagna under laughably obvious camouflage (they look like over-sized Ewoks having lost their way) and is soon to join them along with the freshly re-equipped papal troops, led by his bastard, in all senses of the word, captains who cheer “aut Cesar aut nihil”, intentionally mistranslated afterwards as “either Cesare or nothing” in what is my opinion an unnecessary and meaningless change (though Cesare’s sword replica and his armor are magnificent props). Cesare also meets with Machiavelli in his humble new lodgings and the latter offers some deliciously scathing, Frank-Underwood-like aphorisms for the Florentine republic, as well as comment on Juan’s murder (that soon will be indirectly revisited as a parallel to Alfonso’s death – cue applause) and Cesare’s handling of it as proof of his idealness as a leader (Machiavelli conspires with the Borgias again and starts writing “The Prince” in “The Borgia Apocalypse”, in some of that horrid screenplay’s good moments). Later in the hour and on the road to Forli, Cesare joins Machiavelli in a creepy-looking ruined church to discuss the conquest of Naples and to make a world domination scheme even more enormous Cesare entreats Machiavelli to broach a matter with the French king: once Forli is conquered and the Romagna subdued, Louis XII is bound to turn his attention to the South (which happens in “The Borgia Apocalypse”) and after he does eventually conquer Naples and overthrow the treacherous Frederigo, Lucrezia should become the Regent and rule it in the French king’s name, her husband’s place in the scheme conveniently omitted (as hilariously pointed out by a deadpan Julian Bleach).

Forlian Horse

As soon as the terrifying papal army leaves Rome for Forli under cover of night (nicely showcasing a few parts of the extensive Rome set), the ever-present Rufio (whose narrative purpose is revealed later in the hour, without adding anything new to his practically non-existent characterization) is already on his way to his mistress, reaching Forli (looking great, courtesy of a CGI shot from above) to warn Caterina of the invading Roman army, marching to one of Trevor Morris’ most ominous themes, similar to the one of Howard Shore’s creations for “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” that was accompanying Saruman's Uruk Hai army marching against Helm's Deep. Caterina summons her staff and starts strategizing immediately, planning for spiked ditches and enhanced defenses, but it is all to no avail as the camouflaged (cue laughter) French army that’s preceded the papal troops has already manifested at her doorstep. Her plans having turned to ashes, her city’s supplies running low and with the incoming winter (Did Jordan really have to mention that so directly? “Game of thrones” is at least partially responsible for the show constantly being overshadowed as Sunday’s reigning political epic) Caterina falls in a defeatist’s despair and starts making arrangements for her own death, like all incorrigible narcissists inevitably do. While the actual siege doesn’t really happen on-screen with all the familiar trappings of siege towers, stairs, flaming arrows and impenetrable portcullises, the time it takes to damage a fort is finely articulated, even if there is the complaint that the might of the combined French/Roman army is never revealed in its full glory, conveniently concealed inside the thick Forli forest (especially, as it should feel enormous by comparison to Juan’s army in Season 2). Cesare’s ineffectual barrage of the strong walls is a storytelling chance to re-introduce someone that the viewers missed even if he’s not gone all that long: one night as Valentino’s sleeping in his tent, a rugged hand comes close to caressing his face. We don’t need to see more: Micheletto’s back! The reemergence of our favorite assassin (and quite possibly the most resonant creation in the show’s character gamut) is a mere plot device, a deux ex machina to tip Cesare as to the castle’s weaknesses and inform us that the assassin has finally had enough after killing a loved one. Micheletto walks out unchallenged by a Cesare who has come to recognize when his former employee is deadly serious and his exit seems horribly permanent (until it isn’t, thanks to “The Borgia Apocalypse” that retroactively makes it seem all like a whim, a temporary breakdown instead of the result of deep meditation and soul-searching). Anyway, much to the derision of his captains (and Forli’s champions as well as Sforza herself, after she learnt her lesson with Juan and didn’t let Cesare use a white flag parley into his advantage or so she thought), Cesare starts bombarding a weak spot on the ground just in front of Forli’s gatehouse, knowing that it stands over an old quarry and thus is unstable. It takes a few, heightened-suspense moments to get there (love the way Jordan finds some way to accelerate and diversify the sequence, with the cannons loading and shooting repeatedly) but it ultimately works: the ground collapses and it takes a part of the wall with it, in what is perhaps the show’s most impressive VFX achievement, a near perfect, almost Biblically awe-inspiring and terrifying moment. With the wall breached, Cesare storms the city: the panicking people running through the city and Cesare’s arms colliding with Caterina’s is portrayed in a, thankfully, expedient way that is a bit too clean of violence and gore but at least the city with its half-destroyed buildings, all of which have previously appeared in other episodes’ Roman, Florentine and Neapolitan environments, is satisfactorily presented here and the afore-mentioned sets are cleverly rearranged and successfully disguised with various types of ambience. The unarmed citizens are soon trapped in an alley protected by a human wall of Sforza troops (love their shields, kudos to the props department once more) just before Cesare orders his army to abstain from massacring the people and Caterina, a textbook attention wh*re and corny to death (“Does it take a Caterina Sforza to kill a Caterina Sforza?”), tries to commit suicide in order to rob Cesare of the chance to kill her himself but she is foiled. I expected the writing to go down the Giovanni and Ludovico Sforza route and have Caterina, the Big Bad of Season 3 and a constantly disruptive force in Seasons 1 and 2, die but the show instead opted to be surprisingly historically accurate in that front. The vision of the “Great Arachne” confined to her canopy bed is endlessly satisfying (love the way her chains are the only ones to produce a clinking sound in an otherwise muted sequence) and feels like a triumph for Cesare who soon enters to throw Caterina in further ignominy, ordering her chambermaid to adorn her for the journey back to Rome and Pope Alexander VI. Appropriately, Caterina is dressed in a flamboyant black-and-yellow, tigress-like striped gown and dons a ridiculously elaborate, bejeweled hairstyle and paraded like a high-society courtesan before the furious eyes of her enslaved people through a combination of high sets posing as the entrance to Caterina’s citadel. Sforza travels to Rome inside a fabulously designed gilded cage, possibly the show’s best prop (better even than Ferdinand’s silver hearse), defeat being written all over the superb Gina McKee’s marble-effigy-like face, to be greeted by the seemingly gentlemanly and merciful Pope (and her cousin Ascanio in the background), approaching her with the curiosity one measures a jailed exotic beast. Irons injects Alexander with a false kindness hiding arrogance and patronization (“Wouldn’t it have been simpler, dear lady, to have come of your own free will?” delivered with absolute mastery of the phrase’s subtext) and Alexander hints at further humbling the beaten Caterina before she shows him she’s still vicious and with her teeth intact (an allegory that is mirrored in a few of the best moments of “The Borgia Apocalypse”). All in all, the resolution of that season-long storyline is the hour’s greatest strength, even if it isn’t nearly enough to atone for the subsequent poor handling of the season’s other main storytelling point and the fact that the show doesn’t seem to be able to provide an hour as big as “Philippi” in “Rome” or “Blackwater” in “Game of Thrones” despite having a budget that isn’t lacking all that much in comparison, especially to the latter.

Kill Alf, Vol. 1, 2 and 3

If it hasn’t yet been made abundantly clear, I liked the near-flawless way the conflict between the Borgias and Caterina Sforza is resolved, which leaves us with the question: Does “The Prince” end the series on a good note? The answer is yes. And no. The episode is exactly what it was advertised as: “The Prince” surprisingly delivers by being an impressively epic finale, the culmination of three seasons’ worth of intrigue and hubris with most of the characters finally getting what they wished for and facing the consequences of their desires. The episode also closes ALL of the show’s main storylines, just not in the way you’d expect it to. In that sense, it is also wholly original as no other Borgia story screen incarnation has opted to stop at this particular point in their lives: The Borgias emerge triumphant from their political struggles, united and more ambitious than ever and having set an example of their most persistent enemy which will tip others as to what to do when confronted with the dilemma “bow or fight”, the necessary first step in their megalomaniacal primogeniture and papal monarchy schemes. On the personal side, they all suffer: the relationship of Rodrigo and Lucrezia becomes increasingly fractured, Cesare is locked in an impossible romance and Lucrezia has to grieve one more husband. For those that know history, there’s tons more interesting stories left about the Borgias but drama-wise “The Prince” is a serviceable finale, containing scenes that sum up the characters dynamics (Cesare-Vanozza) as well as heart-breaking, seemingly permanent farewells (bye, bye Micheletto) and fateful reckonings (Cesare Vs Alfonso), with one of the show’s main antagonists (Caterina) finally getting her comeuppance. So where does “The Prince” go wrong exactly? First: it is not the intended series finale (in much the same way that the intended finale, “The Borgia Apocalypse”, is not the one the show and its fans deserved), but that will be discussed in the next part of this final review. And second: one of the most focal plot points of the season and the series as a whole is irreparably botched, namely the murder of Alfonso, notoriously attributed to Cesare. Feeling the need to include Lucrezia in the murder is understandable: it provides a nice, poetic close to the circle that started with her using her knowledge of poison to save a life by having her use it to end one. What is more, it raises the stakes and emotional impact of the development by making it even more personal for the main characters, the unholy effect of their twisted, incestuous romance being felt by someone else and wrecking him psychologically and in the end physically as well. The narrative choice to have Cesare employ a third party, Rufio instead of the absent Micheletto, is also clever in the context of the storyline and it gives a purpose to the introduction of the character in the season premiere (his extreme, irrational allegiance to Caterina remains unexplained, though “The Borgia Apocalypse” possibly hints at an unrequited romance). But with all those fine ingredients in the mix, the execution of the storyline still fails. To set it up, the season finale offers one of the best (for me THE best) Lucrezia/Cesare scenes ever, a sort of summation of their relationship, lyrically scripted and immaculately acted, especially by Holliday Grainger, only to have all the sweetness disrupted by a drunken Alfonso (the parallels to Juan being rather obvious and heavy-handed). Moreover, in one of the show’s classic ironical juxtapositions, Lucrezia, fearing for her husband’s safety now that the French are upon Italian soil with intention to stay, asks her father for assurances inside a confessional booth (all very nice callbacks to the very first episode of the show and Season 1 in general, when the confessional booth was being used as everything but, a place to plot, to flirt, even to kill) while Cesare is employing the imprisoned Rufio to carry out the very same dreadful deed. But then it all falls apart. Before Rufio can kill him, an inebriated Alfonso returns to his villa only to find Cesare. After verbal provocation (and mentions to Juan once more), the two men duel in a horribly unmatched showdown and then, unarmed, the foolish Alfonso charges against Cesare and gets impaled by his sword only for his mortal wounding to be witnessed by Lucrezia a few moments later. This is really the point that Jordan’s script and direction starts being good again but the well-handled aftermath of the duel can’t really salvage the sheer idiocy of what preceded it. Panicking and delirious one moment Lucrezia watches as medics attempt to save him but eerily quiet the next, she ends his life herself by poison upon his request. Lucrezia’s breakdown is totally appropriate and one of the reoccurring themes of her character’s psyche is her empathy for weak ones, her being unable to stomach the death of innocents (such as Paolo and Alfonso). Cesare tries to comfort her with promises that all will be well again but she’s in a weird rigor mortis, lying next to her dead husband and not really listening. An increasingly creepy Cesare declares that Lucrezia now belongs to him in another display of the stifling Borgia family affection, which is of course a fitting end to the episode, even if I would have liked a less abrupt ending, perhaps featuring a bit more of Rodrigo, who sits most of it out, or even a dramatically unrelated scene that could highlight another side of the storyline (e.g. Machiavelli discussing the developments afterwards as a form of epilogue or Della Rovere returning in a foreboding manner).

Part 2: The Borgia Apocalypse

A Screenplay Worthy of Ursula Bonadeo

The sheer atrocity of the “The Borgia Apocalypse” screenplay is unsurprising if one were to examine the juicy back-stage intrigue that spawned it. Much like its subject matter, the historical Borgias, accounts about what caused the need for such a script are conflicting. Per Showtime, Neil Jordan refused to oversee the writing of a full final season thinking the show had, for the most part, run its course and given the show’s steady yet unspectacular ratings, Showtime opted not to press him onto it but instead accepted his writing a 2-hour telemovie to close the saga, which ended up being very costly to produce and was scrapped as an idea altogether. Jordan, on the other hand, claims he predicted Showtime’s disinterest in a full season and wrote the script to provide the cable network with a viable alternative (though castmembers, such as Francois Arnaud or Jeremy Irons, claimed, pre-and-post-cancellation, to have gained knowledge of plot ideas that would materialize in a potential final season, such as the symbiotic sexual relationship between Cesare and Caterina Sforza or a new papal conclave, that don't appear in any form in TBA). Showtime turned it down even when all involved agreed, according to Jordan, to reduce their own salaries (yet, why Jordan, reportedly, thinks this is still a 15-million-dollar screenplay is beyond me). Others suggest that the Canadian production company couldn’t broker a practicable deal with the Hungarian studio in order to use its facilities for a much shorter time commitment than the show's usual 6-month shoot. Recently, Irons even added that he didn’t think that a full 4th season was necessary and he himself suggested that a telemovie be written to end the epic in a surprising and majestic manner (he thinks the script is amazing, which suggests he may have not even read it). All that being said, I wish “The Borgia Apocalypse” gets commissioned for the screen one day soon, if a continuation of the show in some other format proves futile. As always, Jordan turns in a script that tackles that specific phase in the lives of the Borgias in a quite original way and provides several moments of awesomeness, even if, as it reads, the script isn’t all that impressive or close to the epic, all-encompassing finale the show deserved.

“The Godfather, Part III” Sort-Of Ending to “The Borgias”

I know that fans wanted (and deserved) a full final season of “The Borgias” and I myself am such a fan as well, the type that would use cantarella if that meant that April would become a “The Borgias” month once again. After all, what was already a very good show, with 3 seasons of experience on what works and what doesn’t under its belt and not having overstayed its welcome in the slightest, could only merit one more season to perfect itself and end on a graceful note. But consider this hypothetical scenario for a moment: instead of a full season, a 2-hour telemovie is chosen to end the show. This opens the production to a whole new set of possibilities: Jordan, a filmmaker through and through, gets to exhibit his unique set of skills in crafting an awesome finale for an awesome show, capitalizing on the build-up and bonuses of long-form storytelling but compacting and intensifying them for a much shorter format. In other words, when the show’s best moments, the ones that make the show’s trailers so exhilarating, are spread throughout 10 hours, here we would get them in 2. And there lies TBA’s greatest fault: it doesn’t even attempt to do any of that. It’s structured like a regular episode of the show and an average one at that in terms of scale: I am not an expert but I don’t think that this screenplay would clock in more than 70-80 minutes if filmed, which means that it is hardly feature-length, being only half an hour longer than most of the show’s episodes, nor does it seem to me that it would cost so much more than episodes like “The Borgia Bull”, “The Choice”, “The Wolf and the Lamb” or “The Prince”. Utilizing a simplistic structure and not featuring any of the virtues that have so far characterized the show’s premieres and finales, the script also doesn’t seem to take advantage of the two formats’ differences: it is paced just like an episode of television, it feels rather boring and chatty, given its subject matter, while boldness or innovation seem to be forbidden words. Another problem that has been common with “The Borgias”, the matter of historical accuracy, also rears its ugly head here, only worse and impossible-to-overlook: while the script sticks to the general frame and features allusions to some of the major events that marked the final years of the Borgia reign, this time it feels like a missed opportunity too many. Cesare’s conquests are only indirectly mentioned and the script focuses on a fictional siege/biochemical genocide of Naples while the horrid events surrounding Rodrigo’s post-death drama are blatantly omitted. There are some merits to that approach elsewhere in the script’s plot, the choice of what to include and what to conveniently avoid (more on that on the next paragraph), but the screenplay doesn’t seem to be able to fit in either a substantial amount of plot or any meaningful emotional/character content. Out of the three main characters, Lucrezia stays largely on the sidelines while Rodrigo’s scenes feel oddly flavourless and perfunctory, even when one imagines Jeremy Irons’ ever-inventive delivery of his lines. Cesare becomes even more monstrous, which would make for entertaining viewing, but his characterization is rather annoyingly easy-to-follow throughout and he seems to be lacking its grounding human core. Secondary characters like Micheletto, Caterina Sforza, Machiavelli and Vanozza each get at least an interesting line here and there but none can be said to have anything close to resembling an actual storyline or purpose in the context of the plot. On the front of the introduction of new characters, I have counted only four (other than a handful of single-line-parts such as, for example, Fisherman): Caterina’s maid Adriana, the meek Sister Pia, Orsini clanswoman/Eileen-Atkins-caliber-austere Sister Benvenuta (Seriously? Why not name her Sister Pizza, Neil Jordan?) and Pietro Bembo, a colourless, on paper, role which takes up time that should have belonged to Leonardo da Vinci or the Estes or other much more important historical figures.

We Declare This Script Excommunicated and Anathematized

Ultimately, the script’s worst failure is that it unfortunately vindicates Showtime’s decision not to greenlight it for production: it indeed feels like an afterthought to Season 3, a half-baked, justifiably scrapped idea of an episode that lacks ambition, which ends the saga, yes, albeit it does so without any significant or climactic catharsis. It is not comprehensive, it is not “big” or daring and feels, for the most part, like ground already covered in the show’s previous three seasons: Caterina Sforza’s final plot against the family from within her dungeon feels repetitive, even if Cesare's cutting off her lips would have been a shocking moment in the vein of the show’s perpetually interesting stylized violence. Similarly, the schemed hatched by Cesare’s captains to abduct Lucrezia from the convent she’s find refuge in so that they can leverage Cesare (much like Frederigo essentially holding Lucrezia hostage in Naples) is a healthy injection of action in a rather mundane plot-thread and would have played nicely on-screen thanks to Jordan’s confident direction and the show’s eternally reliable editing and music departments but this kind of trap-the-trappers sort-of-story has happened many times before on the show and takes time from precious character moments that is what this script is desperately lacking. The decision by Jordan to move events around a bit and have Lucrezia stay in Rome instead of going to Ferrara for the majority of her screentime is wisely expedient, though it seems to have stemmed from the need to not complicate the plot by introducing a vast new team of cast-members (mainly, the Estes and Ferrara courtiers), which is after all something the show’s always avoided, and the consideration to keep costs down (a simple CGI of Ferrara towards the very end seems to have sufficed for Jordan and I am inclined to agree). Otherwise, the screenplay is full of misfires: the previously established skill of Micheletto to stay hidden from the world is subverted here due to the plot that wants Cesare and his henchman reunited (offering a few tantalizing homosexual insinuations) through the mediation of Rodrigo (who at least has a welcome first-time interaction with Micheletto inside the confessional booth). In fact, what did Rodrigo do to force the invisible warrior back to Rome? Issue a papal Amber Alert? I can almost imagine it reading something like that:

”MIA: Micheletto Corella, mid-20ties.
Profession: Assassin/ Spy/ Bodyguard/ Pretend-Medicine Student/ Torturer/ Executioner/ Babysitter/ Calligrapher/ Demolition Expert.
Last Known Location: Forli Forest Tent.
Dressed in: dirt-and-blood-stained tunic, often shirtless or completely naked.
*Can be seen having gay sex in graveyards. His life is not -repeat, NOT- in danger. Others’ though may be.*”

The camaraderie between Cesare and Micheletto is never tiresome, it just seemed to me that “The Prince” is a more satisfying farewell to Micheletto, even if he doesn’t die by Cesare’s side as he does in TBA. Also, the incest plot that could have greatly energized the final hours of the epic by maybe having someone discover it is squandered by Jordan’s decision to have Lucrezia suddenly remove herself from Cesare, grow alarmingly self-righteous and play mum to a boring, spineless nun (lesbian undertones notwithstanding). Meanwhile, big action pieces such as Cesare’s ploy in Senigalia (here, suggested by Rodrigo who is consistently presented as the calm brains of the entire Borgia operation) or the siege of Naples read well on paper, the former more than the latter, and would have provided some spectacle and the show’s signature gallows humor (Machiavelli’s inclusion in Senigalia and his chasing down the papers of his “Il Principe” being particularly hilarious) but both feel rather been-there-massively-murdered-that and so on. On to the actual ending, Jordan oddly opts to slow down the pace instead of speeding it up, what with the absurd idea of a Pope-regulated, Spain-and-France-jointly-ruled Naples and the sudden reintroduction of Della Rovere without any kind of background other than he is a replacement for Cardinal d’ Amboise who proves, you guessed it, useless in the context of the storyline (and I certainly wouldn’t have gone into the trouble of casting such a good actor as Edward Hogg for such a small and thankless part). The notion that Della Rovere would suggest that Rodrigo step down as Pope and be canonized in exchange is, for me, a stroke of genius, the culmination of three seasons’ worth of dealing with the themes of simony and greed, an extreme and rather incredible twist ripped from the headlines of Pope Benedict’s February 2013 resignation. Unfortunately, it steals the script of its final, climactic showdown when DR and the two Borgia men (Gioffre isn’t mentioned, not even in passing during the epilogue) reach a point of consensus, while DR’s involvement in Cesare’s eventual downfall is neither depicted nor even foreshadowed. Rodrigo’s death of malaria is portrayed in a rather clever and original way (through the POV of a… mosquito!) and I seem to have missed any hint to what most in the fandom have observed, that Lucrezia actually has a hand in the downfall of her father and brother by actively poisoning them and not only by warning DR. The screenplay utilizes her as a mediator between the two factions, keeping in tone with what the show has tried to do in previous installments to moderate success (and for that matter, “Borgia” as well has strived to include Lucrezia in most political storylines in rather annoying ways). The “totally biblical”, per Jordan, end with Rodrigo dying without confessing and going to hell would have definitely been scarily beautiful to watch from a design standpoint but I would take the real drama over it any day (really, the looting of the papal apartments and the mistreatment of Rodrigo’s lifeless body was one of the most interesting parts of Borgia lore). But for me at least, and I am aware that most people disagree on it, this ending is perfunctory and kind-of artsy, even in such a stereotypical manner, though without giving more context on Cesare’s death it would have felt inaccessible to most viewers. Not seeing Lucrezia’s reaction to her brother’s death is a loss as well but at least we get a sort of afterword of what happened to most of the main characters, even if several favourites are missing (Ascanio Sforza completely so) while other characters seem to have been introduced without much of a purpose (Alessandro Farnese?) when that hasn’t been true even for the stupidest and most unnecessary of secondary characters (such as Bianca Gonzaga or Ursula Bonadeo).

Love is Patient and Endures All Things. Even “The Borgia Apocalypse”...

So where does that leaves us fans? It’s been several months since the show was cancelled and any effort to revive it has yet to bear fruit. Is that sad? Yes. But it doesn’t mean that we will stop, as the admirable fandoms of “Veronica Mars”, “Heroes”, “The Killing”, “Ripper Street”, "Jericho", “Firefly” and “Arrested Development” didn’t. Since the show was axed, we have achieved several things: we created headlines by publicly pressuring (and borderline harassing) Showtime into a show of understanding or at least regret that led to the publication of the TBA screenplay. Even if it isn’t to our taste, it is a testament to us that it got to see the light of day in any form (this hasn’t happened for the vast majority of cancelled shows). Having been picked by the ground-breaking venture of SMGO, “The Borgias” may one day soon be the first show to be resurrected by means of direct public acclamation, right now considerably outpacing every other show on the platform’s site. Meanwhile Netflix, with a few not so loose ties to SMGO (former founder Mitch Lowe is on the board of SMGO’s directors), a key player in the industry of reviving cancelled gems, has also picked up the entirety of the show which is now streaming to great acclaim, having been rendered accessible to a whole new audience of binge-or-not-watchers, practically tantamount to Showtime’s base of 20+ millions of subscribers, earning great 4-star reviews and generating renewed social media interest (and Netflix is notorious for testing which show is worthy of a revival by sampling it to his customers). Thanks to all that, “The Borgias” fans have ample reason to hope that they will get to see an end to their favorite saga someday either in the form of another short season/miniseries or a remedied, maybe even brand new screenplay. I myself hope that I will soon be able to write another review for the show, this time for a properly filmed installment, as I have over these past two wonderful years. Thank you for reading and remember to vote on www.smgo.tv/shows/the-borgias, be active on social media and keep fighting to SAVE THE BORGIAS!