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TV Review: The Borgias – “The Poisoned Chalice; The Assassin”

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Ever since last spring, when Showtime’s The Tudors made its final curtain call, television viewers looking for rich historical dramas, saturated with greed, betrayal, manipulation, adultery, and lots and lots of sex have been out of luck. But even as The Tudors was ending, the network announced a suitable replacement would be on the airwaves next year. Next year has arrived, and last night presented the first two episodes of Showtime’s latest foray into the genre: The Borgias.

Both shows do have a number of similarities, besides the aforementioned elements. Both remind us that people essentially have not changed. Humanity’s character has remained the same throughout history. There are good people and bad people. Power corrupts. Everyone wants sex. Both also take sometimes boring stories from school and bring them to life in a way that proves events were anything but. While not completely accurate, high school students would do well to tune in and learn something, with parental permission, of course, because of adult subject material.

The Borgias is set slightly before The Tudors historically, so it is not a sequel. It is also set in Rome, instead of England, so there is a serious geographical distance, which also informs a dramatic departure in set design. And what a set design it is! The infamous city comes alive, and each interior feels right at home with the grand exteriors. It’s a place of abundance and riches, at least for the leaders of the church, and it shows in every chair and corridor. And while only just begun, I can’t help but feel that the acting is superior in this newest series.

It has been said that The Godfather movies are based on The Borgia family, so many viewers may already know the basic premise and a few of the twists. I have always wanted to watch The Godfather, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. The Borgias increases that desire, but I think I’ll continue to avoid it until after the series finale. It’s hard enough to not learn things when the show is based on true events recorded in the historical texts. For instance, one of the main characters not currently pope will eventually hold the position, which I accidentally discovered just by looking for a cast list on wikipedia. However, even knowing what may unfold before it does (there will be creative license taken, of course) cannot possibly lessen the enjoyment of such a gripping tale.

The initial event is the death of Pope Innocent VIII. The college of cardinals vies for position, with several wanting to take over the central seat. Rodrigo Borgia (the incredible Jeremy Irons) is Spanish, and the dead pope’s right hand man. He is at least as determined as anyone else to win, but in the first vote taken, he gets the lowest number of supporters. Going against the rules, which he says “God will forgive” him for doing, he offers bribes to a number of other cardinals, and after much exhaustive work, finally wrangles a majority.

Almost immediately after Rodrigo becomes Pope Alexander VI, several cardinals scheme to unseat him, two in particular. One is Rovere (Colm Feore), and the other is Orsini (Derek Jacobi). Orsini is blatantly disrespectful to Alexander, trying to poison him at a banquet at his palace. Alexander’s son, Cesare (François Arnaud), catches the assassin, and has Orsini poisoned instead. Alexander is not happy about the murder, not wanting to resort to those tactics. Rovere is more subtle, organizing a group of cardinals behind the scenes and looking for evidence to boot out Alexander.

Luckily for Alexander, because for some reason the show makes you root for the bad man, despite the acts of wickedness displayed for our perusal, he comes up with an ingenious way to control the college of cardinals. Rather than bankrupt himself by bribing others, or controlling through threats, both of which would take constant, diligent efforts, he just hires more cardinals. The newly appointed, whom he has chosen for their loyalty, will be so grateful for the position, they will do what he says. Except for Cesare, who will obey for other reasons. It’s a huge shakeup, and sets Rovere’s plans back to square one.

Irons plays Alexander with so many layers in just the first two hours, it is easy to begin to form a complicated picture of a complicated man. At first, he appears ruthless, and certainly conniving. But he’s also convinced that he is in the right, and that God wants him to be in charge. It’s an ends justify the means situation. Alexander stops short at condoning murder, but does not punish Cesare for committing it. Alexander, instead, basically tells Cesare to do what he has to do, but not tell him about it, and avoid death if possible. It’s almost a vulnerability being shown, and yet I can’t help but feel that Alexander is still exceedingly dangerous, and that the weakness is not as weak as it looks on the surface.

But will he keep his hands clean of blood as time goes on? Would he have murdered before he became pope? That is hard to answer. Alexander certainly seems affected by religious belief, and swayed by the weight of the office he now holds. His most vulnerable scenes show his struggles with moral dilemmas, such as whether or not to sleep with the young  Giulia (Lotte Verbeck), a young wife who came to his to confess after self-aborting.  Comforting her, Rodrigo cannot help himself. He feels God wants good things for him, including pleasures of the flesh, even if they are against the church rules. Which shows he has not been completely transformed.

Cesare, on the other hand, has no such qualms. While he does not desire religious office himself, he is forced into it by his father, and is not shy about protecting his family’s interests. He is ambitious, but not for the organization he is in, therefore posing no threat to his father. In fact, keeping his father in power may someday allow him to fulfill his dreams, even those his father is against, and so Cesare seems to have no hesitation to do whatever it takes to meet his goals.

In this, Cesare is a lot like the assassin, Micheletto (Sean Harris), in that he does not value human life above his own machinations. Micheletto and Cesare are both fine with being subservient. They want to be around the powerful, but not rule them. Their class separation is an interesting distinction, as you can see Cesare may have ended up like Micheletto if not for his father. I think that contributes to a firm friendship. Cesare does have trouble trusting, but should Micheletto keep performing so beautifully for the family, I believe Cesare will eventually even become arrogant about his assassin’s loyalty.

Something not often seen on modern television? Incest. The most taboo of sexual relations, it was a common practice throughout history until fairly recently. Cesare is definitely in love with his sister Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), and I would not be surprised to learn they have slept together on numerous occasions. The attraction is returned. In fact, one of the first things we see in The Borgias is Lucrezia delightfully watching Cesare have relations with some random woman he picks up. All that was missing was her hand beneath her skirt.

I think that if anyone would be offended by The Borgias, incest is more likely to be a turn off than murder. Why? I am not a proponent of incest, of course. It is a vulgar practice, in my opinion. But at least it’s not taking a life. Yet, we are perfectly happy to watch slaughter in the name of entertainment. Sex and violence are base human emotions. It’s interesting that one has openly evolved in video form, while the other, when displaying anything but the most basic forms of sex, hides in the closet. The Borgias goes after each with abandon, making it the ultimate guilty pleasure show for dark desires.

One last note, look for a character cameo by famous painter Raphael, who is the one painting Giulia’s portrait.

The Borgias is just getting started, but if future episodes maintain the quality of these first two, this could easily become one of my new favorite shows. I highly recommend you check out the series. Repeats of the first two episodes will run throughout the week, and new installments air Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET.

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome writes TV reviews for BlogCritics.org and Seat42F.com, as well as fiction. He is a frequent guest on two podcasts, Let's Talk TV with Barbara Barnett and The Good, the Bad, & the Geeky. All of his work can be found on his website, jeromewetzel.com