Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been having several discussions with people, both in and out of the comment sections, about how this season of The Borgias compares to last year. While it’s too soon to form a concrete answer—especially given how the last two episodes of last season stuck the landing in marvelous fashion and this season could very easily do the same—as it stands right now I would put season three just under season two. Part of that is due to the fact that the qualitative leap the show made between seasons one and two was so noticeable that it made that latter stand out more in comparison, and since the third season has been operating on the same wavelength in terms of acting and production it feels less distinctive in comparison.
The larger part of why I’d put last season above this one is that while this season does have a central conflict driving it in the Borgia/Sforza feud, it feels a bit more formless than last year because it lacks the same degree of familial tension. The second season was about the ways that Cesare, Lucrezia and Juan were growing out from under their father’s shadow, and how in the case of Juan that growth led to his siblings conspiring against him and ultimately destroying him. This year there hasn’t been a similar narrative spine, as Cesare’s going through the same motions of demanding papal army command and Lucrezia’s forging her own path in Naples. Yes, the two consummated their relationship in “Siblings,” but that plot has been more understated as opposed to being the focal point of the action.
From that perspective, “Lucrezia’s Gambit” is an encouraging step forward for the season’s structure. Despite largely being a place-setter for the second half of the season, it’s encouraging because what it sets in motion is a return to those familial tensions upon which The Borgias is grounded, an emphasis on the “family” portion of the “original crime family” tagline the series is so proud of. More importantly, it recaptures one of the series’ fruitful core ideas, the idea that Alexander raising his children to be brilliant and manipulative so often turns around and bites him.
The particular tension the episode focuses on is the growing split between Alexander and Cesare, the former of whom still hasn’t forgiven his son for his role in bringing the French armies into Italy. Cesare continues to take the initiative, entering the plague-swept household of Cardinal Constanzo to learn the truth of Caterina’s trapped plea for peace, and then setting the whole house alight to contain the plague. Alexander’s displeased at this being done without consulting him, but moves past that to issue more important orders. Ludovico Sforza’s flight from Milan has left a high-profile enemy out there, and Cesare is instructed to do what he failed to do with Caterina and prove their superiority by bringing the former duke back to Rome in chains.
The request dovetails with a similar request from King Louis, who has a similar interest in seeing Ludovico neutralized in order to remove a potential claimant to the throne, so resolving this request is entirely in Cesare’s interests. Thanks to consulting Machiavelli for advice (Julian Bleach woefully underused for the second time this season), he’s able to discern Ludovico’s location and draw both him and Caterina’s son Benito out of hiding with the promise of amnesty. But after being robbed of what was supposed to be his first great military triumph, he’s not much inclined to take prisoners, and thins the Sforza ranks by two Benito is cut down by a bolt from Micheletto’s crossbow and Ludovico’s head is blown open by an experimental rifle acquired from Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop. Alexander sputters in rage at this decision, but Cesare dismisses it with the coldness that’s become second nature to him, highlighting he took Louis’ instructions first and stating his father has no alternative but to rely on him.
The fraying of the relationship between father and son has been one of the more understated arcs this season, but it’s been one that’s slowly built over the course of the episodes—Alexander has never truly forgiven him for what happened to Juan, and his continued refusal to grant Cesare papal command has only further festered that wound. Alexander muses his doubts over his son to Vanozza (another satisfying scene between Jeremy Irons and Joanne Whalley), even going so far to question the parentage. Vanozza dismisses this immediately, and were Alexander thinking more clearly he’d do the same. Stubborn, arrogant and making choices without consult—how could Cesare not be his? And how could he not see that he’s reaping what he sowed in these decisions?
To the south, Lucrezia’s decision to have King Ferdinand removed from power has left a vacuum in the court of Naples, one that she’s keen to see filled by a more receptive monarch. She floats the idea to Alfonso, but there are two cousins in front of him for the position, and even if they were removed he has little desire to hold that level of responsibility. The frustration on Lucrezia’s face at this decision speaks again to how her choice of Alfonso hasn’t been exactly what she wanted—she picked him because she wanted a partner she could control, and while he’s been docile and receptive to her needs she can only push him so far. In her perfect world she’d be molding him to be more like her brother, sweeping past his rivals and setting herself up as the queen of Naples Lady Macbeth-style.
Sadly, with that option off the table she’s forced to consider other options, namely which of the brothers in line for the throne is the lesser of two evils. Last week I had a lot of praise for François Arnaud’s evolution in the course of the series, and Holliday Grainger deserves as much praise for how she’s come to balance Lucrezia’s angelic facade with the calculating Borgia mind underneath. She courts both of the brothers with elan, finding a clear difference between the two: Prince Rafael is an arrogant man in the same vein as the late King Ferdinand, who sees through her ruse of wanting to learn to play chess and promises her that if made king she and her son will be rendered powerless. Prince Frederigo on the other hand seems more in the vein of Alfonso, a man who speaks of how Naples has terrified him since he was a child and how death is a regular guest to the city—an observation that turns into near-prophecy when he is left vomiting blood and nearly choking to death on a table.
With Lucrezia’s burgeoning interest in poison, it doesn’t take her long to see where this could have come from, and she goes back to the old woman in the woods who informed her of the toxic mushrooms she’d originally planned to use on Ferdinand. She challenges Rafael with this knowledge, impressively not even blinking when he threatens her personally (“You are on dangerous ground my lady.” “Yes I can see that, you have your fingers around my throat.”) and forces him to yield his claim to the crown or risk scandal. It seems that her plan has worked out for the best—but as I’ve said time and time again, not a single person is trustworthy here, and it turns out that the new King Frederigo is corresponding with Sforza agents.
We can guess where events will be going from here (as I’ve said before nothing is more adorable than seeing men think they’ve outsmarted Lucrezia) but it’s Frederigo’s correspondent who’s stirring up attention. Pascal, the young man who announced to Cesare’s army that Ludovico had flown the coop, catches the eye of Micheletto, giving him a glimpse into Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop and even daring to gently caress his back and initiate a sexual encounter. Micheletto dismisses him outright afterwards—“Affection leads to weakness. And I have no use for either”—but the younger man isn’t turned off by the darkness he sees and even journeys to Rome. At first angered, Micheletto moves to intrigued, showing him his quarters and laying down a series of ground rules for him to stay.
I am disappointed that Pascal didn’t turn out to be da Vinci traveling incognito—as several of you speculated in the comments last week—though that’s tempered by my newfound interest in this exploration of another side of Micheletto. While we learned last season in “The Choice” that Micheletto was homosexual, the detail was underplayed after that episode save a reference or two during the torture of Savonarola. At the time I was fine with that as I preferred Micheletto kept in the silent, mysterious human weapon camp, and now seems like the right time to revisit this territory. While Sean Harris maintains the soulless bearing of Micheletto, he also brings across a faint flicker of humanity at what this new relationship could mean, offering the closest thing to affection he can amidst laying out the terms for his new lodger: “If you are here when I return, I would like that.”
Thankfully for Pascal, Micheletto doesn’t return that night, as any thoughts that his affection for the killer might be genuine is dispelled by Rufio daring to set foot in Micheletto’s quarters. He encourages the other man to continue the relationship, continue sharing the devil’s bed and provide the Sforzas with information. And more importantly, he wants a better idea of the man who serves the same function to the Borgia family he does to the Sforzas, extending all professional courtesy you’d expect: “He’s my double here in Rome. We will meet one day, he and I.” And with the stakes quickly becoming personal for all the involved parties, that’s a day that can’t come soon enough.
- Alexander’s partnership with Mattai continues, as he is now a welcome guest at the Vatican discussing strategies to remove the Turkish fleet from existence. As with Vanozza, it’s always nice to see Alexander speaking to someone he sees as an equal, letting his guard down for a bit and speak honestly in a way he almost never allows himself.
- I need to stop hoping the show has a long-term plan for Giulia Farnese, as I’m always disappointed. This episode sees her bringing a new prospective husband for Alexander’s approval, a plot point noticeable mostly for Alexander’s utter contempt for the man and Vanozza’s inability to keep a straight face at said contempt.
- I’ve criticized the show for adding random slow-motion shots into its fight scenes and climactic moments, but using it as Constanzo sends the box down the stairs added nicely to the atmosphere of the plague-ravaged palace. Props to the makeup team as well, as Leo Bill looks absolutely dreadful as the dying Constanzo.
- Micheletto calls back to his warning of “Truth And Lies” after putting Benito down: “That dog will bite no more.” Micheletto does not like loose ends.
- The glimpses of da Vinci’s workshop and machines reminds me that Da Vinci’s Demons is a television program that exists. Despite my love for Renaissance drama I have not yet caught up with that—is anyone here watching it and can tell me if it’s worth it?