This review contains spoilers.
1.4 The Magician
One of the things I think I like about Da Vinci’s Demons is its use of anachronisms. It’s a thoroughly modern period piece with all the sex, graphic violence, and profanity that entails, but in The Magician, the show seems to turn that love of modernity to a new level. Riario, the show’s current villain and the devious representative of Pope Sixtus, is the bad guy. He wears all black, he has a beard, he has smug nineties fringe, and most tellingly, this week he gets two of the most prominent villain accoutrements: inappropriate sunglasses and a douchebag hat.
I’m not sure if sunglasses were a thing in Italy in 1476, but the pseudo-pork pie hat is a very nice touch. Those little touches, along with things like a syringe well before syringes were common and Leonardo’s more outlandish experiments, are kind of beneficial to the show because it changes it from a historical drama to the more fantastical historical fiction that Da Vinci’s Demons is trying to be. It’s not clock punk, but it’s edging very close to that. Even as the show throws in tidbits from Leonardo’s life to keep things grounded, it keeps indulging in fanciful elements to create separation from more reality-centric competition.
This combination of real and fictional becomes something of a theme in this week’s episode, as Leonardo seems to be increasingly losing his grasp on reality as the stress of being the lynchpin of Florence’s survival, the Sons of Mithras, the quest for the Book of Leaves, and all the other stuff he’s got going on seems to be driving him to crack. Rather than getting his usual rotoscope creation sequences, we get some pretty brutal hallucinations, and several of them.
At his core, Leonardo is a forward thinker who realizes that an arms race between Florence and Rome – one he started with his primitive Gatling gun – would lead to devastation on both sides, or at least ending up in a Cold War between the two states. In that sense, he’s an Einstein in a puffy shirt, right down to creating fantastic inventions and shaping crackpot theories. It’s an interesting interpretation on the man from David s. Goyer and co-writer Jami O’Brien, who manage to cram in some… strange things in this week’s episode. A reference to an apocryphal Churchill joke, for example. The very reference to an arms race is kind of odd, to be honest, and it seems like something someone whose weapons are limited in destructive power even when used in bulk, but perhaps it was something that really bothered Leonardo, or Goyer just wanted to work in a reference to gun control.
Does it work? Well, kind of. It works in the universe of the show, in the sense that it all fits into the show’s timely untimeliness, but it’s also kind of distracting. The show has enough going on with its multiple intrigues, plots, and subplots and it doesn’t need to throw any real-world symbolism into things. I spend enough time looking up potential Da Vinci references/looking up character name spellings and don’t need to know where Verrocchio got his joke on jealousy from and whom Churchill said it to (Bessie Braddock).
The script seemed a bit too clever this week for its own good, though it did contain some good moments where Leonardo shows off the power of perception and why bluffing can be more important than a truly big gun (though if he was really worried about antagonizing Rome, a giant fake weapon will only encourage the Pope to build a bigger real weapon and skew the balance of power further in Rome’s favor). Still, it’s a bit bland, in spite of some continued great special effects and one really effective visual.
As usual, Da Vinci’s Demons continues to overreach. I’ll give the show credit for trying, but not so much for clarity or success. It’s not cheesy enough to be entertainingly bad and not good enough to be actually good. It’s somewhere in the middle, trapped between the wild world of secret societies and fantastical machines and the dirty world of Renaissance politics and espionage.
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