The Borgias episodes 1 and 2 review: The Poisoned Chalice and Assassin

Showtime tries to follow up the success of The Tudors with its latest historical series, The Borgias. Ti checks out the opening double episode...

This review contains spoilers.

1. The Poisoned Chalice2. Assassin

So, with The Tudors finishing its reign of historical inaccuracies and fleshy encounters, it’s time for Showtime to unleash their latest historical series, The Borgias. Based around the infamous 15th century Spanish family who became one of Italy’s most powerful houses, it tells of their ascent to power via the papacy and all the crimes committed in their name, including adultery, simony, theft, rape, bribery, incest, and murder. Fun for all the family!

The Borgias’ powerful reign is said to have influenced the major crime families throughout history, and, as a result, in film. In fact, think of them as a 15th century Corleone family, but with less of the Sicilian honour and horse heads in beds.

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Impressively, the opening episodes premiere feels like a feature film, with its 90 minutes running time, prominent stars and lavish sets. Considering Showtime’s success with The Tudors, it’s clear they’re not straying far from the formula, and its influence is notable from the opening credits to the political back-stabbing and the sex scene in the first five minutes.

Like The Tudors, The Borgias isn’t concerned about historical accuracy. It’s all about the drama, and from the premiering episode, it is shaping up to give Game Of Thrones a run for its money in terms of power plays and political intrigue.

The show starts with the death of Pope Innocent VIII in 1492 and many of the cardinals squabbling for the succession. Chief amongst them is Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons), a cardinal of Spanish origin whose family is regarded in the lowest terms because they’re not Italian. The fact that they manipulate, bribe and steal power also doesn’t help their popularity.

As patriarch of the family, Borgia is dedicated to his clan’s elevation as well as his own. While he loves his family, he loves power more, and despite being a man of the cloth, sees no problem with blackmailing anyone he can to get it. Of course, this wins him no friends among the other cardinals, but you get the impression they hate him simply because they don’t have the gall to do it themselves.

Borgias is aided by his eldest son, Cesare. Like his father, he’s a member of the church, but instead of being a cleric, he would rather be leading the armies in order to protect his family. However, Borgia knows that having a son in the Cardinal Assembly has its advantages, and is positioning all his offspring to secure the maximum amount of power for the family.

Luckily, Cesare was born with almost Machiavellian cunning and as well as playing the Vatican power game, enlists the aid of an assassin to help protect his family. Micheletto, the aforementioned assassin, could very well become the most intriguing character of the series. Played with an understated menace by Sean Harris, Micheletto’s loyalties seem hazy at first, but you soon discover this is a man with his own unique sense of honour and duty. In fact, he is not above taking a bit of a flogging to prove his worth. His development over the series could be among the most interesting to watch.

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Meanwhile, Borgia’s second son, Juan (Pillars Of The Earth‘s David Oakes in essentially the same role), is the military might of the family. Cocky and young, he doesn’t have the political mind his brother does, but loves the power he has secured for himself. Their younger sister, Lucrezia, may seem naïve, but is quickly learning ways to secure her own standing, unless Borgia decides it’s in the family’s best interest to marry her off.

In terms of style, The Borgias is a top notch production and has some of the finest actors that the Commonwealth can provide. Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Last King Of Scotland‘s Simon McBurney and Canadian resident Colm Feore all play their roles with the same measure of bombast and camp that the show deserves. Irons, especially, looks like he’s having a ball, chewing lines like “God with forgive us, but I will not forgive failure!” with relish. However, it’s scenes such as when he is crowned pope, that he really shines, as he positively trembles with ecstasy at the power he has achieved.

Also, despite being pope, it is clear that God’s work is not the only thing on his mind. When asked by the mother of his children, Vanozza (Joanne Whalley in a welcome return to the screen), if he must take vows of poverty as well as chastity, he simply replies in mock horror, “God forbid.” Chastity, it appears, is also optional when you’re God’s voice on earth, for it is not long before the new pope has secured a new, young mistress who clearly has her own end-game.

It is a gripping start to the series and while the intrigue and treachery are great for a first episode, one must wonder if it will get dull as the series progresses. It is a great debut with the younger cast members (watch out for Ashes To Ashes’ Montserrat Lombard) holding their own against their veteran counterparts. François Arnaud as Cesare was one actor who I initially thought was wildly miscast, but once the poison and blood started to flow, I found myself impressed with his portrayal of the protective and semi-conflicted son.

The stage is now set for The Borgias‘ evilness to run through Italy and with Camelot and Game Of Thrones hitting our screens in the next few weeks, it appears we won’t be short of historical drama.

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