This review contains spoilers.
3.3 Modus Operandi
There’s a murderer loose in the Vatican, and he’s leaving messages for the faithful within the walls of the building with his kills. Fortunately, while Pope Sixtus is busy poking caged Turkish men with his sword—not a euphemism—and enjoying hot blood baths, he’s got his top men on the case. Those top men would be everyone’s new favourite buddy cop duo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Count Riario. That’s right, they’re back and partnering up again to save Christendom.
The two of them together is one of the show’s strongest pairings, even stronger than Leo and Zo. Riario was a great antagonist for Da Vinci, and he’s an equally great partner in crime as the show’s constant collection of conspiracies-inside-conspiracies and the loose structure of just who Leonardo Da Vinci is fighting against for that moment. Riario’s seen enough of Da Vinci’s work to stay out of his way, but at the same time he functions as a grounding agent for Leo’s wilder theories. It helps that Blake Ritson has great chemistry with, well, everyone on the show, but Tom Riley and James Faulkner’s Pope Sixtus particularly.
Jesse Alexander’s script does a good job with character interactions, and the scenes where all three of the main conspirators—Da Vinci, Riario, and Sixtus—interact crackle with that give-and-take energy. The dialogue is a step above that of previous weeks, if only because it involves characters like Sixtus and Riario more prominently, and it’s a little more grounded in a specific location and a specific scenario. There’s a focus; yes, there’s the Sons of Mithras and the Labyrinth, but it’s in the background. The focus is a murder investigation, which Leo has to do in order to gain papal involvement for the real war effort.
It’s actually a good bit of character development for Sixtus. As the catspaw for the conspiracy, being worked at by both sides in different ways, his consuming paranoia about the killer in his household makes a great deal of sense, even though it comes against the bigger threat of the Ottoman Empire in Otranto. Sixtus is so used to being manipulated and manipulating, that the micro concerns of the faith have overwhelmed the macro, and that’s actually a very interesting development. The first season’s puppet master is now just another puppet, with Sons and Bulls on either side, tugging at his vestments. Isolated from the growing threat of the Ottomans, the conspiracy feels a little more meaningful, particularly when Da Vinci is involved, but when there’s an invasion force in Otranto heading towards Rome, the machinations of the powers behind the throne are less interesting, but on their own in a locked-room type of mystery story, it works much better.
However, I’ve noticed something in the third season of Da Vinci’s Demons that I didn’t really notice a lot in the first and second seasons. There’s always been a good supply of sex and nudity on hand, but I don’t remember the show digging this deeply into the seamy, seedy underbelly of Renaissance Italy before. At some points it seems like they’re showing certain things, like the corpse with the rigor mortis erection from the second episode, or the multiple brothels full of depravity, just for shock value, not for any particular storytelling element. This hasn’t been that type of show, traditionally; Da Vinci’s Demons is definitely for grown folks unlike the BBC series Leonardo, but it has never seemed this consistently salacious, nor have there been this many people doing terrible things like making water on one another.
I’m not sure what the point is to the tonal shift, aside from getting people talking about the show. Perhaps some sort of abandoned network note? Or maybe it’s a choice made by the new show-runner before turning Lucrezia into an opium addict and killing off another character well before her natural death date. Shaking things up to try and get interest built up is a time-honored tactic for a desperate show, but this just comes across as both inconsistent as to what the show was and feels very crass. It’s a bit of an ignominious end for a show that was, for the most part, pleasant and fun.
Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Abbadon, here.
Da Vinci’s Demons: The Final Season Sundays at 9pm on FOX