Warning: as an introduction to the show, this feature contains mild character and plot spoilers.
This Sunday sees the return of Showtime drama The Borgias in the US. The plot is deceptively simple: it’s the story of the Borgia family living their lives in Rome. It just so happens this family’s father is the Pope, and this is the 1490s. It’s a different playing field from your average family drama.
That’s just the tip of the Borgia iceberg, and here are a few more points to whet your palate while we await the Sunday night premiere.
Because I’m the Pope, That’s Why
Since this is, in its way, a family show, we have to start with the trunk of the Borgia family tree: Pope Alexander Sextus aka Rodrigo Borgia aka Holy Father aka Jeremy Irons in a skirt.
Irons is fantastic as the Borgia patriarch. Yo-yoing between Shakespearean dramatics and quiet seething, if the actor isn’t having the most fun of his career, he’s certainly fooling me. Mercurial, in turns practical and so devout that he’s bought his own press, the character is easy to both love and hate. Irons never lets up on the dichotomy and neither do the writers. Holy Father is a mad mix of true believer, vain peacock, and pragmatic religious and political leader in a time where the position of Pope was the equivalent of being king of the Christian world.
Pope Alexander truly believes that he is the heir to the throne of St. Peter and the voice of the Church as ordained by divine providence. It makes for an interesting conundrum considering that all his sins are still there when the Holy Father’s piety is added to the mix. Sorting out which version of the man you’re dealing with is all part of the fun.
Fruit of the Borgia Family Tree
Now that you know about the Holy Father, here’s a look at the children that grew from the branches of his family tree.
First Born – Cesare Borgia (Francois Arnaud) – Cesare is the oldest of the four children Rodrigo had by his first mistress. He steals pretty much any scene he’s in, even when up against acting titans like Irons. Despite being capable of despicable acts, I find it impossible to do anything but adore him. He delineates his causes – church from family, love from duty, necessity from desire – even if it doesn’t change his behaviour. His self-awareness and depth of heart (for his friends and family in general; for his sister in particular) somehow counters the fact that he is a cardinal who on occasion murders people. I’m not sure how he does that, and Arnaud’s acting being just that good is my only answer. His devotion to both his whole family is heart-breaking in its sincerity and desperation. He doesn’t want the life he has been assigned by his father – the life of a priest. He’s an expert fighter, a mediocre clergyman, and a loving son and brother, in some ways to the point of insanity.
Current status: First cardinal to ever willingly leave the church, unmarried, alive.
Prodigal Son – Juan Borgia (David Oakes) – Juan is the second son, raised to be a military commander but was terrible at it. He was terrible at basically everything besides getting drunk, needling one of his siblings past the breaking point, jumping to the wrong conclusions, killing the wrong people, and sleeping with prostitutes. If you needed one of those four things done, then Juan Borgia was your guy. Juan was also Holy Father’s favourite of the three boys for absolutely no reason that anyone could see (except Juan). Sadly, Juan’s behaviour, some of the worst of which involves baby-dangling à la old-school Michael Jackson, lead to his untimely end. However, I imagine his presence will still be felt this season.
Current status: Married, minor lord, father-to-be, deceased.
Little Sister – Lucrezia Borgia (Holliday Grainger) – I won’t lie, Lucrezia is another one of my favourites. Her physical attributes are obvious but her personality traits are what get me every time. When we first meet her, Lucrezia is a sweet little kitten in episode one. By far one of the most glorious and painful things done over the two seasons we’ve seen so far was showing us how she learned less than friendly skills and grew from that kitten into a fierce jungle cat.
On the other hand, you have to admit that a huge part of Lucrezia is who she is in relationship to Cesare – much like how Cersei Lannister’s relationship to Jaime is so important in Game of Thrones though so far nothing’s happened between them. They’re chastely cute so we let that slide. Cesare’s love and support for her is unconditional. Counting on that allows Lucrezia to make bolder moves, share her secrets and through Cesare’s male smokescreen and accomplish things most women couldn’t have. Lucrezia’s always getting smarter and her metaphorical teeth and claws are just starting to be sharpened to a razor’s edge.
Current status: Betrothed to second husband, mother of Giovanni Borgia, living with her family in Rome, alive.
Baby Boy – Joffre Borgia (Aidan Alexander) – Innocent little Joffre’s the youngest of the lot, younger even than Lucrezia and perhaps all of ten or maybe twelve at the outside when they marry him off to Sancia, Duchcess of Squillaci (played by Emmanuelle Chiriqui) who is much older than him and sleeping with Juan when they meet. We haven’t seen much of Joffre yet but he’s young. Maybe that will change this year? It’s always fun to see the sweet ones corrupted.
Current status: Married to Sancia, in Castle Squillaci, alive.
Ladies, Ladies, Ladies
Considering the absolute power of the patriarchy in the period of the Borgia, the show manages to produce some of my favorite female characters on TV right now. Mistresses abound because when you’re dealing with institutionalized celibacy, wives are non-existent but a cardinal’s gotta get their kick’s somewhere right? In The Borgias we have the Pope’s amazingly self-possessed and gorgeous long-time mistress Vanozza (Joanne Whalley), the mother of his children. She has passed over for his new and equally awesome mistress Giulia Farnezi (Lotte Verbeek).
I’m a modern woman with modern values and I don’t like an old man going through mistresses like tissue paper but Giulia and Vanozza are so clever and classy and somehow join forces. The fact that these two women, who could’ve been torn apart by jealousy and position, instead come together to build an even larger stronger family with a greater purpose is mind-exploding.
The writing and acting between them, and later Lucrezia, is done so carefully and with such consideration that the progression is seamless. I can never pinpoint the exact moment they transition from nemeses to allies. The triad is complete when they bring Lucrezia into their circle, then woe unto the men who try to stand against them. Each woman as their own skill – for example, Giulia Farnezi excels in maths and proceeds to filter through the church accounts and find all the fraudulent entries in ledgers. Vanozza’s familiarity with the city gives her untold connections and she can get the three of them into dark places they couldn’t imagine otherwise to find information.
Lucrezia, well, in one of my all-time favourite moments of the series thus far Lucrezia is actually made the in loco parentis Pope while the Holy Father is out of town. “Can a woman occupy the chair of St Peter?” a cardinal protests to which Pope Alexander says, annoyed “Well, plainly one does.” She, her mother, and Guila then proceed to systematically upend the system to bring change to public works while Holy Father’s away, just to give you another taste of their awesomeness.
Trouble’s Always Brewing
At its heart, this show is about family and power, so naturally there are going to be epic battles. Our current anti-Borgia “villain” – a term I use loosely since no one on this show is an innocent – is Caterina Sforza (Gina McKie), the Duchess of Forli, cousin of Giovanni Sforza (Ronan Vibert), the gross, abusive, rapist ex-husband of Lucrezia. Caterina is a rich, powerful and independent woman in a time when the term ‘independent’ and ‘woman’ were almost never in the same sentence. We left Caterina and her personal army piqued by Juan’s torture of her own child. Pope Alexander wants her to come to Rome in chains and as of the finale, she hadn’t yielded.
Religious opponents have been popping up like weeds as well, but none have been as persistent as Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore). After the conclave to vote in the new pope the mixture for a nemesis was simple – an accusation of simony there, true belief that Borgia is a pretender on the throne of St Peter there add a heap of valid paranoia -mix it all up and you have Della Rovere’s pathos. Working through cat’s paws like old fanatical priest and a young acolyte, Della Rovere has no plans to stop antagonizing the Borgia pope any time soon.
Micheletto (Sean Harris) is the man I would argue is one of the most loyal subjects the Borgia have. Cesare finds him in a kitchen trying to poison the Holy Father and somehow, by beating the tar out of each other and pulling the switcharoo on the offending cardinal, they come to a truce. When Micheletto follows through poisoning the offending cardinal, they form an alliance. There’s some fairly intense voluntary flogging which somehow cements their relationship as lord and vassal. Micheletto is a conundrum. He is unendingly loyal, self-sacrificing to the point of death but he has strange moral standards of his own. Micheletto has a loving mother yet he is willing do anything up to and including killing a child if it serves a Cesare’s cause. All his kills serve some kind of purpose, even if they are merely the whims of Cesare.
More interesting is the way that Micheletto expresses himself through his kills. A reserved character, the nature of his actions in a kill speaks louder than most of his words except for a low “Yes my lord” or “So long as it please you, my lord” murmured to Cesare. The tones of Micheletto’s acts violence can vary wildly from the graceless intensity of smashing a fly on a wall to the caring intimacy of loving foreplay. The actor brings a type of soul-deep darkness to the character – something that in turns could be emptiness, sadness, or the spirit of the death he doles out so freely and skilfully. Micheletto is at once attentive, sympathetic, abhorrent, and compelling yet most of all, I need to know what is behind his eyes.
Everything is Beautiful… And Everything Hurts
So don’t expect any pulled punches. This isn’t a gore-fest like Spartacus but they’re not shy either. Christendom was as difficult and dangerous place as it was beautiful and graceful. The Borgias isnt afraid to show you that.
The show’s makers put their all into creating the world this drama takes place in. I don’t know how they do it but when you turn on The Borgias, it’s like falling into a fresco painted by one of the Renaissance masters. Every setting feels like you’ve stepped into a painting and suddenly you’re in the glory of 15th century Italy even though it’s all built somewhere on a sound stage in Wales or Vancouver or wherever it is exactly that they film such gorgeous vistas and twisting streets. The people could’ve stepped off the canvases as well, rich and brocade or grungy and brown with poverty. As glamourised as any historical drama is, they still try to keep it “ugly” for historical accuracy.
All of that combined is transportive. Turn it on and for an hour, you get to go to another time and place. It’s an ultimate escape – like all good stories do. You’re right there wandering through the cobblestone streets of 15th century Rome in a way that outstrips its predecessor, The Tudors, by at least a mile. It’s one of my favourite escapes and personally, I can’t wait for the show to welcome me back to Renaissance Rome on Sunday.
Season three of The Borgias begins in the US on Showtime this Sunday the 14th of April.
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