The Borgias has been renewed for another season (10 more episodes next summer) — not a great surprise, as this sumptuous show, starring Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, AKA Pope Alexander VI, has taken The Tudors blueprint and run with it. It doesn’t hurt that the show is helmed by Neil Jordan, a great fim director who has brought a cinematic eye and artistic flair and knowledge to blend seamlessly with Borgias’ deceit, lust and bloody battles. The Borgias is also one of the few cable shows that doesn’t seem to use its sex gratuitously. Maybe it’s because the Borgias managed to harmoniously combine their sex lives with their political maneuvering.
In the penultimate episode of the first season, “The Art of War,” the French are on their way to Rome, to oust the Pope. Also on the road to Rome are the Pope’s daughter Lucrezia Borgia (Holliday Grainger) and his lover Giulia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek). We learned in the last episode that Lucrezia is pregnant by her lover the stable boy, Paolo (Luke Pasqualino). A visiting Giulia wisely advises the young girl that they should hit the road, and quickly before Lucrezia’s husband, the nasty Giovannni Sforza, finds out. Giulia finds the groom in the stable, “Are you the one?” He answers yes and saddles some horses for their escape. But he doesn’t go with them. Lucrezia is concerned, “My lord will kill you.” “No, he’ll whip me.” (He’s right about that.) Giulia and Lucrezia ride off together, into the woods, without an escort.
The ladies are soon captured by French soldiers, and after identifying themselves, demand to be brought before the French King, King Charles (Michel Muller), who is surprised to hear he now has guests in his camp. “This Pope has a mistress?” Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore) visits them and invites them to dine that evening with the King. Lucrezia and Giulia decide that the best defense is a good offense and turn on the charm at dinner with the King and his top men. Lucrezia reads the King’s fortune in his cup and quickly enchants him and every other man at the table. Except Della Rovere, who watches helplessly, lost against this form of battle.
In Rome the Pope is beside himself. “Must we face this French apocalypse?” The Spanish ambassador is unwilling to help, as any support or Rome would be a declaration of war against France. The Pope still thinks his best chance is firstborn son Juan Borgia (David Oakes). But he doesn’t have any illusions about his son’s proclivities, as he tells middle son Cardinal Cesare Borgia (François Arnaud) to pull Juan out of “whatever whorehouse he sees fit to rest his head.” Cardinal Cesare does just that, searching from room to room until he finds him. “You have a priest for a brother?” Cesare corrects the prostitute, “Cardinal.” Cesare definitely suffers from second son syndrome.
The Pope wants Cesare to express his confidence in his brother before the congress of cardinals, who are talking about abandoning shipe (and the Borgias), especially Cardinal Sforza (Peter Sullivan), “Holy Father we should abandon Rome!” Cesare is forceful with the party line and seems to convince everyone but himself that they will be saved.
Cesare is concerned about the French use of cannons in warfare. And the fact that they are holding Lucrezia hostage. Juan claims to have a stratagem to fight the French. He believes if they meet them in an open field their cannons will be rendered ineffective as opposed to waiting for them to come and bombard the city. But he’s not convincing Cesare. And neither Juan nor the Pope seem too worried about Lucrezia, or Giulia.
Juan and his troops ride out of the city in shiny armor and much fanfare. The Borgias gets the look of this scene exactly right — the troops marching through the city, the French army assembling on the hills outside of Rome. Juan may look all fancy, but he had no idea what he would be facing — tons and tons of French soldiers. “My God.” He is completely out of his league. “Who gives the command to charge?” “You do, my lord.”
Lucrezia, King Charles’s new favorite, rides out with him to view the battle. She is horrified as he proudly explains they will not only be using their artillery, but the ammunition will be chained cannonballs — which completely decimate the Italian soldiers, butchering them on impact. The Renaissance battle is very graphically depicted, with body parts flying everywhere.
Lucrezia may be the fastest thinking Borgia of them all. And the bravest. She asks the King to hold his fire for a moment and rides across the field to meet Juan, who is shocked to see her. “We have a battle to fight.” Lucrezia tells him to offer the French safe passage into Rome, “Believe me, you have lost it already.” Juan is not convinced, and seems as fearful of the repercussions back home from his father as the enormous army in front of him, “He will pillage the place.” But Lucrezia is fully confident of her powers of persuasion. “Leave that to me.” She rides back and tells the King that the Duke her brother bids him welcome to Rome, and that she has assured Juan that the King’s goal is Naples — he certainly had no intention to sack Rome. Maybe it’s the pregnancy hormones, but there is no stopping Lucrezia. Her gambit works and King Charles agrees.
Cesare and his right-hand man Michelotto (Sean Harris) watch Juan and the soldiers slink back into the city, “Rome is like an old whore, waiting for her ravishment.” They may not have gotten the memo that the French are giving them a pass, as they are all acting as if they are about to be sacked. The Pope dismisses Juan, telling him to take his mother to safety. Cesare tells his father he won’t leave him, but then rushes off to ex-lover Sister Martha/Lady Ursula (Ruta Gedmintas), telling her to flee the city. The Pope, ever the strategist and showman, removes his fancy vestments and puts on a brown robe and sandals to face the crowds. Only one more episode this season and we know that the Borgias are not going to give up any of their power base without a fight…