The tagline for Showtime’s The Borgias reads “The Original Crime Family”, echoing The Sopranos but, in the context of the promotional imagery which sees the characters clinging together about Jeremy Irons’s Pope Alexander VI, glowering at each other, it promises little more than a sensationalistic take on historical fact: Popes Behaving Badly. The crime angle suits the direction of the series well, however, as The Borgias seems to forget for long stretches of the story that the patriarch of its titular royal family represents Christ on Earth — besides holding considerable political power in Europe at the turn of the 16th century.
Once one recovers from the novelty of Irons shedding his vestments to frolic in the bath with his mistress or engage in a soon to be forgotten menage a trois, things settle into a fairly straightforward historical power struggle complete with French-baiting, sieges, and cameos by recognizable names like the skull-faced Niccolo Machiavelli.
The Borgias mainly suffers from the unfortunate truth that its salacious subject matter, for the most part, happened. Certainly there are leaps of fancy throughout the show’s narration of European history (notable the fate of Lucretia’s brutish ex-husband, Giovanni Sforza), but that Alexander VI was known to have mistresses and to have engineered corrupt political wheelings and dealings prevents the series from being quite so scandalous as it would like. To a degree, executive producer Neil Jordan and his writing partner David Leland seem to have realized this as well, as Alexander’s sex life becomes muted midway through the season and a tone of foreboding begins to dominate the events of his papacy.
Despite the show’s growing confidence in its later episodes, many minor plot points are brought up never to be addressed again. What of the girl who Alexander adopts as his second mistress in the first episode, “The Borgia Bull”, who vanishes after playing a major role in episode three, “The Beautiful Deception”? What eventually becomes of Lucretia’s public works project, aside from the experience she gains in twisting arms and closing deals? As is to be expected of a show so committed to gauzy, slow-motion love scenes backed by violins.
And this is truly one of the most beautiful shows on television. While there’s none of the shaggy dynamism present in TV’s best-shot series, The Borgias opens up new dimensions to its story by composing each shot of its impeccably designed and costumed scenes as though it were its own Renaissance-era painting. There are even winks to The Last Supper and Ophelia, motifs that enrich the often staid drama.
Characters are aestheticized to a fault, no one more than Lucretia in her ornate gowns, transformed into portraits and typifying ideas of characters in historical fiction rather than fully developed persons in their own right. There is no Lucretia Borgia in this series, only an illustration of her as a woman with a sexual appetite of her own and a resistance to the idea of arranged marriage: in other words, the most basic sketch of this sort of character. But in the lingering shots which place her among tapestries, pillows and curtains in an intoxicating rush of period detail, it becomes very easy to forget that a television series should aspire to something besides a gorgeous, moving painting.
There are many ways in which serial dramas can surprise viewers. Shows like Breaking Bad excel at picking up minor plot threads from episodes past to cultivate an entire arc’s worth of drama, as anyone who sat riveted through the final hours of the third season can testify. At least on the surface, producers of historical drama have it a little harder, since the audience can go online or to the library and easily find out where everything, roughly, will end up. The Borgias largely subverts this problem with an unusual tactic: every plot development broadcasts itself episodes in advance as characters announce their plan and then spend the following few hours carrying it out, with minimal opposition. Surely this should lead to dull television, yet Jordan and Leland bet heavily on the basic appeal of their familial drama, and win.
The season finalé, “The Confession”, furthermore, draws the series’s themes together in a rapturous, spellbinding hour of television that redeems many of its problems; an episode so good that it manages to elevate everything that has come before it. Two characters in particular who were transformed into caricatures over the course of the story become elegant metaphors for the central themes of The Borgias, which snap into sharp focus in the season’s last outing.
If the characters’ repetitive plots and one-note motivations have begun to grate, it’s toward the end that Jordan and Leland weave them into a more ambitious work, one which cannily evokes the inevitability of historical fiction as unstoppable forces – grief, ambition, vengeance – find themselves confronted with immoveable objects. No matter the shrewdness Cesare Borgia showed in “The Beautiful Deception”, his ken ultimately comes down to a willingness to cheat and to elide failure, ignoring that even in the Enlightenment age, some forces are irrational and beyond control. Fitting, then, that one of the season’s final scenes sees Cesare issuing a series of orders to continue with the family’s public appearances in the wake of a personal calamity: “Life does not hold for one man’s grief.”
While the finalé delivers on some characters’ long-hoped-for desires, major events within their lives that promise to upset many of the power dynamics at play, the final moments slam home with explosive force the full weight of the season’s most understated continuing storyline, the inevitability of which resonates with astounding force throughout the final image. The Borgias risked serious lethargy in isolating the first year’s primary villain from the main storyline for virtually the entire second season, but Jordan and Leland assert themselves as creative forces to be reckoned with by summoning a scene of intense, almost silent power from an antagonistic force that faced no real opposition at any point. In doing so, the series shrugs off the idea of adding further dimensions to its characters in lieu of providing television’s bitterest history lesson: All this, more or less, happened, and all of these people are dead.
The extras are negligible, with some trailers for other Showtime series alongside snack-size interviews with a Cambridge historian offering his take on the realities of the period. Beware in particular of the episode summaries offered, as they go far beyond a relevant logline to providing spoiler-filled synopses of the entire hour.