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The Will of God: ‘The Borgias: The First Season’

Showtime bills creator Neil Jordan’s The Borgias as “the original crime family”, and it wastes no time in getting to the dirty secrets of one of the most powerful and influential families of the Italian Renaissance.

Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons is Rodrigo Borgia, a cunning, calculating cardinal who has his eye on the prize when the Pope dies. Through deceit, trickery, blackmail, bribery and even murder—all conveniently, if not completely, disguised as “The Will of God”—Borgia ensures his victory in the papal election, thereby becoming Pope Alexander VI. He promotes his eldest son Cesare (François Arnaud) to the College of Cardinals, despite Cesare’s desire to live and serve in a more secular fashion. Second son Juan (David Oakes) is appointed leader of the Vatican’s armies, and famously beautiful daughter, Lucrezia Borgia (Holliday Granger), becomes a bargaining chip with which the Pope hopes to secure more influence and military protection.

Of course, following in the footsteps of its predecessor in the field of historical soap opera/sex romp, The Tudors, The Borgias has plenty of sex and scandalous affairs between scads of all-too-pretty-for-the-time-period people. First, there’s the fact that the Pope has children, declared openly and acknowledged publicly. Then there Guilia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek), widely proclaimed the most beautiful woman in Rome, married herself, and chosen as His Holiness’s mistress in the confessional. Talk about abuses of power!

But Irons portrays the Pope as more of a man of machinations, manipulating the office to suit his worldly needs, than a man of any supreme spiritual calling. He is a ruler, rather than a representative; he is a political prince, not a spiritual conduit. As the season progresses, however, it sometimes seems as if he truly does respect the religious gravity of his station, and he struggles with his spiritual duty and the weight of his heavily burdened soul, just as much as he grapples with the grand schemes going on around him in the earthly realm.

Irons is the center of this show, as Borgia is the center of his family and Pope Alexander is the center of the Catholic Church, but Arnaud as Cesare is equally strong and just as imminently watchable. Not only is he visually magnetic, but with Cesare’s internal struggles displayed much more obviously, he’s infinitely more compelling in an emotional sense.

Cesare is the romantic, longing for the storied love of Abelard and Heloise. He never wished to enter the church. His desire for a life of his own is at odds with his sense of duty to his father. His close relationship with little sister Lucrezia, his willingness to fight for his city, his small rebellions, and his own tragic love affair are all supplanted by his loyalty to his father and his father’s plans for the family Borgia. Arnaud lets this wretched turmoil play across his face magnificently, even when Cesare’s words and manner would never betray them. He’s a treat to witness and the easiest with which to empathize. And yes. He, too, has some steamy love scenes.

The Borgias: The First Season on Blu-ray contains all nine original episodes on three discs. The third disc also holds the special features which, like other Showtime DVD and Blu-ray releases, include episodes of other Showtime shows and sneak peaks at upcoming productions. This one has an episode of Dexter from its sixth season, two episodes of Episodes from its first season, and the pilot for House of Lies starring Kristen Bell and Don Cheadle, which looks like it’s going to be a fantastic series.

The “BD Live” portion of the special features, only includes one feature that is actually related to The Borgias, and that’s a piece on the casting of Cesare. Otherwise, it is just another teaser episode of Dexter, and two episodes each of Gigolos and Californication.

Clearly, Showtime chooses to use its Blu-ray releases as built-in, heavy promotional vehicles for other shows in its programming line-up. That’s fine. The Borgias itself has more than enough to ensnare and reward its viewers without having to relying on bonus materials. Once you’ve immersed yourself in this family’s tantalizing intrigues, you may be prepared to sell your soul to see season two.

RATING 8 / 10