The Borgias: Season 2
The headlines of the press around the globe were recently dedicated a considerable number of inches to the Roman Catholic papacy. With the announcement by Pope Benedict XVI of his resignation and the subsequent election of Pope Francis the world once again turned their attention to the highest office in the Catholic Church. Coincidentally the new season of Showtime’s historically based drama, ‘The Borgias’. The series follows one the most powerful and ruthless families of the late fifteenth century. The brutal methods they employed within the Church and through extension the world are widely accepted as the basis of the perennial work on obtaining and holding power by any means necessary, ‘The Prince ‘by Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, who was a contemporary of this family and depicted in the series. When the patriarch of the Borgias, Rodrigo (Jeremy Irons) ascended to the mantle of Pope Alexander VI he did so by methods comprised of full measures of deceit, subterfuge and violence. He immediately consolidated his far reaching authority and political power by stacking the College of College with his own appointments. He further secured his position through the carefully planned placement of his children. Eldest, Cesare (François Arnaud) became the Papal consigliere to handle matters directly concerning ecclesiastical matters. Juan (David Oakes) was made Gonfalonier of the Papal Armies to overseer the secular concerns of war and his youngest, daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) was married to a powerful family to secure a political foothold. She would go down in history as a beautiful yet dangerously devious young woman with an astonishing understanding of the art of poisoning. This is more like the Sopranos if instead of controlling localized regions extended their amoral reach alter the fate of entire nations.
The first season exhibited a certain amount of inconsistencies in the way the action progressed. After getting into this second season it becomes obvious that the pitfalls that affected the initial episodes suffered, to at least some degree, a phenomenon common in the comic book venue, the origin story slump. This describes the intrinsically slow pace of establishing the characters and defining circumstances necessary to continue on in the desired direction. ‘The Borgias’ is an incredibly textured series set in a socio-political era that in many ways was vastly different from the political correctness that dominates our culture. It required substantial time to build the foundation of one of pivotal times in world history when much of the political environment was initiated. As Rodrigo set upon his global chess game that led to his donning the Papal Tiara as Alexander VI. With the pieces deployed and base of his authority established the inevitable point in his career has arrived where he has to work harder than ever to hold on to what he took. The enemies he made on the way to the Holy See have risen in power themselves with their sights set the Papacy and its power.
The adult children of Alexander VI have their own ideas for how their lives should unfold a dangerous concept for the Pope who needs their complete obedience. The mother of Rodrigo’s daughter and, Vanozza (Joanne Whalley), and his longtime mistress, Giulia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek), have been undergoing their own campaigns to ascend to heighten social positions. In several instances they prove superior to the men in such machinations; able to put aside their differences to work together when their goals happen to overlap. The women in this drama demonstrate just how dangerous the so called fairer sex can be. Lucrezia was never reserved when it came to the use of sexual politicking to get what she was after. In this season the deadly methodology that had been the purview of her older brothers by discovering her inner murderess. Meanwhile Cesare, nominally in Cardinal Red, has been covertly directing ‘God’s own assassin’, Micheletto (Sean Harris), a well-trained psychopath that Luca Brasi look like an altar boy.
Alexander turns his attention to the increasingly disgruntled common class trying to gather some grass roots support. To this end the Pope decides to throw a lavish pagan celebration followed by an in mufti tour of the city streets for a firsthand look at the woes of the population. In order to maintain his power he seeks the consul of some of the most influential and designing men in Europe, Piero de Medici (Cesare Taurasi) and Niccolo Machiavelli (Julian Bleach). This represented a brain trust that literally could rule the world. Juan, with the Spanish Conquistadors under his command, returns from his foray to the New World with examples of its untapped bounty. The younger song faces some personal issues when diagnosed with syphilis. He worsens his circumstances by turning to an import from the Far East, Opium. The military situation of the Holy Roman Empire is dire, new technology in canons and other types of firearms developed by the French, the primary enemy of the Pope. Collaborating with them is the main enemy of Alexander VI, Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere (Colm Feore). Since it is a matter of historical record it is hardly a spoiler but he would eventually become Pope Pius III better known as ‘Il Papa Terribile’, the Fearsome Pope, a brutal warrior and despot. He lost the election that won Rodrigo the Papal throne.
Like most of the historical dramatic series found on the upper tier cable networks, ‘The Borgias’ does owe much to the established historical account albeit with the usual admonitions concerning the writers dependency of dramatic license. What is so well captured in this show is the essence of this era and the people that chartered the course of nations. The Borgias have been referred to as an organized crime family and certainly certain aspects of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act in use today could be rightfully applied to the Borgia global enterprises. The main difference, at least on a superficial level, is the commitment to opulence embraced in this world. This was long before the inception of the middle class; the separation between the rich and poor was staggering and absolute. The Catholic Church was not just a religion; it was a global power competing with the likes of England, France and Spain. The office of the Pope was on par in power and social standing with a monarch; a religious leader and head of State. The writing is impeccable; presenting a complexity of story lines, sub plots and nuances ideally woven into a rich tapestry of sex, violence and intrigue. Brining the stories to life the cast is amazing. Irons commands the screen demonstrating why he is still a sought after actor seasoned by a long and varied career. François Arnaud may not have quite as lengthy resume but it doesn’t diminish the fact that he is an emotionally intense actor perfectly suited to this textured role. Holliday Grainger has split her time between television and movies honing her considerable skills. Here she portrays a young woman in a time when her sex was supposed to be quite, have babies and run the household. In truth women like Lucrezia were smarter, more ambitious and better suited to the trappings of power than many men but were precluded by their gender from the conventional means of obtaining and wielding it. Grainer embodies the intelligence, strength and beauty her character exhibited. This series is getting better and has become a serious contender.