Of the many relationship subplots that monopolized time in season one of The Borgias, the dullest offering was the romance that sprang up between Lucrezia Borgia and her new husband’s groom Paolo. It was a painfully told storyline that didn’t ask enough from either of the actors involved, reminiscent of the worst moments in Attack Of The Clones as it tried to show these two young lovers casting themselves in an almost mythological light. With so much of the season’s best moments taking place in Rome, it suffered from being disengaged from the action, furthering the sense that Neil Jordan and company still hadn’t discovered the show they wanted to make.
So when I saw this episode shared the name of Lucrezia’s love interest, I braced myself for The Borgias to fall back on bad habits after last week’s encouraging start. Bad news: It did so. Good news: It didn’t do so to such an extent that it’s worried me for this season going forward, as it closed off that part of the story for good and continued “The Borgia Bull”’s trend of setting up more interesting action.
But first, the matter of Paolo. Having survived the whipping he took in the first season finale for letting Lucrezia escape, he follows her to Rome, determined to get a glimpse of the son she has borne him. Thanks to the help of a prostitute named Beatrice (winner of the Most Encouraging Prostitute in Rome award), he’s able to get close enough to beg for whatever time he can get. Lucrezia’s not stupid enough to think that she can talk her father into letting him stay, but she is persuasive enough to enlist Cesare into coordinating one last night together.
It’s a reunion that provides both with the closure they need—and Showtime audiences with the soft-core action they pay extra for—but it’s still a reunion for a relationship that sucks the life out of the show. Grainger and Luke Pasqualino do their best with what they’re given, though there’s not much anyone can do with dialogue that sounds like bargain bin Shakespeare. (“I would see my boy before I die.” “Please do not mention death, for you may die if you stay in Rome.”) The score, normally so effective in raising the show up, becomes overwrought as it tries to build the tension, and Jordan’s decision to shoot the initial reunion in a 360-degree tracking shot is a dizzying one that only adds to a sense of nausea about the scenes.
Thanks to Juan Borgia however, the relationship is closed off definitively. Already notoriously prickly about his own bastard heritage, and grown so drunk with his new status that he compares himself to a stallion among mules in the Roman populace, the sight of this commoner sniffing around his sister is more than he can bear. Recruiting a prostitute spy to pin Paolo down, he and a pair of toughs seize him and hang him from an overpass. It’s a confrontation that’s much better in every way than the lovers’ reunion: better shot, better acted, and much better at stirring up the show’s consequence.
Aside from the relationship drama, “Paolo” continues Alexander’s quest to restore life to the old glories of Rome—now newly invigorated by the “trinity” formed between himself, Giulia and Vittorio/Vittoria. Unlike his second son, being so close to a commoner intrigues him, and he asks his new mistress to do what the papal armies cannot and take him into the streets to see how his congregation lives. The end results horrify him: people sleeping in the streets, women begging for dead children, broken aqueducts leaking dirty water, and more pigeons than he can shake a sword-cane at.
The glimpse gives him a new sense of outrage to fix the problems of Rome, but in classic Alexander fashion, he’s missing the big picture in favor of how much something personally interests or offends him. He pawns the busywork of auditing the Vatican’s public works budget off on Giulia, while he turns to eradicating Rome’s pigeon problem with the help of some starving Umbrian hawks. Much as he was with the festival, he’s all about the spectacle and instant gratification, so caught up in the sight of falcons tearing pigeons apart he doesn’t give a thought to how this really helps the people or how much it will cost. (Or the cost to Cesare’s doves, whose service as messengers sealed his papacy and are torn to shreds by one of the loosed birds of prey.)
If there’s any important details Alexander should be focusing on, it’s the loose thread of Cardinal della Rovere. Fully recovered from Cesare’s poisoning attempt—and cautious enough to have a Capuchin monkey to taste his food going forward —he’s decided to make a pilgrimage back to Rome. And the della Rovere bound for Rome isn’t the same one who left it before, as a pair of robbers on the road learn to their misfortune when he dispatches them with such bloody efficiency you’d think Jordan finally found a way to cross over with the Assassin’s Creed universe. Where della Rovere once ran screaming from the sight of a dead body, there’s now an icy nonchalance about being so close to death, which is something that the Borgias don’t need in an enemy.
But again, Cesare probably thought he did a service by leaving della Rovere alive to serve the family, much as Juan thought he did a service by killing Paolo or Alexander did a service by loosing falcons upon the city to feast on pigeons. Be they groomsmen or doves, the best intentions of the Borgia family tend to leave a lot of innocent bodies behind.
- Other old relationships are brought forward this episode, as we see Cesare is still fixated on Ursula Bonadeo, the noblewoman who fled to a convent when she learned he killed her jealous husband. He’s found an excuse to get close by gifting a new fresco to her church—and in a sign he’s still not taking her decision well, tears off her habit and forces her to pose for the painter.
- Speaking of scenes that are hard to watch, we confirm that Prince Alfonso expired under the weight of Charles’ tortures and is being prepared for mummification alongside his father’s vanquished foes. I’ll miss him about as much as Cesare (who had a hilarious deadpan delivery of “That is tragic indeed” upon hearing the news).
- We finally get a name for Lucrezia’s son: Giovanni. Named for her abusive ex-husband, who it’s established is not the child’s father? That doesn’t seem very healthy.
- If we are spending more time among Rome’s poor, I hope we get more scenes with its prostitutes. They have a sense of fun the show could use more of.
- Lots of good material for Micheletto this episode, as he both escorts Paolo to Vanozza’s villa and efficiently disposes of the prostitute Juan paid to follow the groom. He also gets the episode’s funniest line: “You’re saying I’m not pretty? I’ve killed for less.”
- “Sometimes goodness needs the help of a little badness.”
- “Is that what it is like? Love?” “It must be.” “I’ll save myself for business then.”