New Showtime series The Borgias premiered Sunday evening. The series has been touted as “the original crime family” and its parallels to The Godfather are definitely pushed to the hilt. But it’s not such a bad conceit to contrast the familiar Mario Puzo saga with this historical family that used whatever means it had at its disposal to gain power. In Italy in the late 15th-early 16th century the seat of power was the Catholic Church.
The episode started off with a visual bang. The colors — the sets, the costumes — are great, like faded frescoes, with Holliday Grainger a perfect visual choice to play Lucrezia Borgia. She looks like she stepped out of an angel painting herself.
Siblings Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) and Cesare (François Arnaud) Borgia
Creator Neil Jordan has teamed up to co-produce the series with Michael Hirst, who has already proved he knows what he’s doing in a historical drama series with The Tudors. Following the now tried-and-true formula of mixing sexual and political machinations with sumptuous costumes and excellent actors, The Borgias is off to a very interesting start. Already the sex scenes in The Borgias are more tasteful, athe acting more nuanced, than the recent clunky Camelot.
The drama opens with Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) scheming to succeed the recently deceased pope while his family wonders what impact his undoubted success will have on them. Son Cesare is a cleric by day and “whatever he wants to be” by night. His younger and seemingly innocent sister Lucrezia is titillated and impressed by his amorous adventures, but Cesare is mostly worried about what his father will want him to do next.
Tired of waiting for the results and endless voting at the Vatican, Rodrigo orders Cesare to buy votes from the cardinals to secure his election. When the numbers finally go Rodrigo’s way, two cardinals, Orsino Orsini (Derek Jacobi), and Giuliano della Rovere (Colm Feore), have the nerve to question the honesty of the vote count and receive a distinctly unfriendly kiss from Rodrigo (Della Rovere will ultimately become Pope Julius II, who succeeded Pius III, who succeeded Borgia.) The election results go through. In a strange, yet interesting scene the new Pope-elect has to have his privates checked before they release the white smoke.
Rodrigo, now Pope Alexander VI, seems genuinely moved during his coronation, but it is hard to tell if he is moved by anything divine or just the sheer, unmitigated power at his fingertips. “I am Rodrigo Borgia no longer. I am Alexander Sextus. When the crown touched our head I was humbled, even frightened,” he tells Cesare. Irons plays the Pope as such a powerful, self-centered and demanding person that he makes his son, the infamous Cesare Borgia, seem almost sympathetic. Almost.
Jeremy Irons (Rodrigo Borgia) and Orsino Orsini (Derek Jacobi)
Jacobi finds himself in a similar situation to his signature role as Claudius, in I, Claudius, where he had to humor his nephew, the willful and deranged Emperor Caligula. Vocally opposing the Pope in front of the other cardinals he is advised by Della Rovere to kiss the ring of the Pope and swallow all of his objections. But in private he and Della Rovere plan to make the new Pope’s reign a short one. While snooping around Orsini’s palace during a banquet he and his father are attending, Cesare soon discovers Orsini’s plot. But as a spy and fighter he is not as slick as he thinks. He unearths a hired assassin who quickly outmaneuvers him, but fortunately for him, also as quickly offers his services to the Borgias. Alas, poor Derek.
Cesare forms a twisted alliance with his newly-hired assassin and effectively becomes Pope Alexander’s Capo withoiut having to get his own hands dirty. They “go to the mattresses.” The Pope, who says one thing and does almost always the opposite, claims they should “Draw the line at murder.” Cesare assures him that line has already been crossed. He sighs, but takes it in stride.
Vannozza dei Cattanei (Joanne Whalley), Rodrigo’s mistress, presides over his home, at least for now. Her lover, now newly-elected Pope Alexander VI tells her, “Not only must the Pope be chaste, he must be seen to be chaste.” Ah, the hypocrisy. The Pope may acknowledge his (four) children, but not his mistress, their mother. Of course his proclamations of intended chastity don’t stop him from taking an active interest in lonely and available Giulia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek), who he meets in the confessional. It’s good to be the Pope.
Pope Alexander hasn’t been in office very long before there is already an assassination attempt on his life which is quickly reversed and revenged (“Try the veal.“), as well as a newly installed mistress with accompanying scandal. He and his son have a bickering push-pull relationship (Cesare has shades of both Sonny and Michael Corleone), but they make an effective team. The Pope seems unfazed by all opposition, “What would Rome be without a plot?” He seems more than capable of making some offers that can’t be refused.
The Borgias is off to a rollicking start, with possibly even more dramatic potential than The Tudors. There was drama and pathos galore in the story of Henry VIII and his many wives, but his family’s story and legacy is far more well-known and familiar than the Borgias’. Pope Alexander VI was bold in his politics, and tolerated no adversaries. The most well-known probably was Savonarola, who Borgia eliminated in quite a public and dramatic fashion. Alexander VI pushed his family forward unrelentingly, but was also an avid patron of the arts, supporting such artists as Michelangelo and Raphael. There are many stories to tell. Hopefully The Borgias will continue bring the fascinating history while allowing Irons and Co. to make us want to watch this family as much as the Corleones.