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The Borgias: “Relics”

Illustration for article titled iThe Borgias/i: “Relics”
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With The Borgias possibly coming to an end sooner than expected—as I mentioned in last week’s review—I’ve spent some time over the last week looking back over the life and growth of the series. And while I’ve talked many times about the concrete improvements the show made as time went on, it’s clear that the most remarkable development between the first few episodes and the current state of affairs is how definitively François Arnaud has taken over the show. Leading up to the show’s premiere Jeremy Irons was the biggest draw for name recognition, and during the first season attention was directed largely to Sean Harris for his charismatic yet soulless portrayal of Micheletto. Arnaud wasn’t bad, but his performance of a Cesare Borgia caught between what he wanted and what his father wanted was largely unremarkable starting out.

As the series has progressed though, Arnaund has stolen the spotlight from Harris and even Irons as he’s been in possession of the show’s best character arc. Arnaud’s had to play more beats than anyone else in the cast over the course of two and a half seasons, with Cesare’s impatience at being a cardinal leading him to take out his frustrations on nobles who insulted his family, invent the tactics of commando warfare, and dare to bluff an entire French army. And he’s grown stronger as an actor as more demands are made on him, with the end of last season and the start of this one putting him through an emotional wringer with the turmoil of killing his brother and bedding his sister. The Borgias has been largely ignored by the awards community save a few technical awards, but I’d argue Arnaud’s work—particularly in the stellar “World Of Wonders”—makes him fully deserving of a Supporting Actor nomination from either the Emmys or the Golden Globes.


And the Cesare of “Relics” is another strong example of this character growth, as he’s now at the height of his power and influence. His successful negotiations with King Louis XII have granted him the service of an entire French army, whose arrival in Italy sends Alexander and the Vatican court into conniptions. Alexander is of course quick to blame this on his headstrong son (“Has he insulted the king or raped some poor princess?”), and desperately tries to rally whatever resources he has, a move that becomes irrelevant as Cesare strides into the war room every inch the conqueror to take credit. The arrogance Arnaud projects in this matter is delightful—even daring to ask his father’s blessing on his new marriage—particularly when paired with the increasing look of silent rage on Alexander’s face as he realizes the depth of the liberties his son has taken.

Alexander’s practically livid at the lengths to which Cesare has gone, but he can’t argue with results, nor can he find a diplomatic reason to send the army back to France. This decision then allows Cesare to stack another victory on top of that, using the army to strong-arm Caterina’s coalition of Roman nobles. This result was expected—the nobles had little stomach to fight the warlike Cesare and were uncomfortable taking orders from Caterina—though there’s an interesting twist placed on it when Cesare’s not only able to push them away but persuade them to pledge their swords to his cause and take Milan.

And therein we see just how good of a tactical mind he is, and why he may still have the edge in this conflict with the Sforzas. Caterina saw them chiefly as people who despised the Borgias, but Cesare saw also that they were second sons, and took his own frustrations at being a pawn of his father to play to common paternal frustrations. He promises them the same lands and titles that Caterina did, a continuation on his leadership qualities from “Stray Dogs” as he makes them more than a coalition of rivals: “Ride with me, my bastard army. To the only future allowed us.” It’s a strong culmination of where the character has gone, even if his yell of victory at the united army turns out to be premature as the Sforzas have taken their ball and gone home to leave Milan unguarded.

While he may be displeased with the level of initiative taken by his son, Alexander can’t argue with the results, especially as he’s got more immediate issues on his mind. With the unpleasantness of Bianca’s fate in “The Wolf And The Lamb” swept under the rug for the time being, Alexander’s back in his favorite role as pontiff, that of master of ceremonies. With the approach of the year 1500, Alexander sees as an opportunity to turn the sesquimillennial into a grand opportunity, declaring it “The holiest year of Jubilee in the history of our Holy Mother Church.” Like Cesare, Alexander’s enjoying a position of authority after some painful setbacks, and he amusingly asserts it by making his bench of novice cardinals stand or sit depending on his whims. It also further highlights two of Alexander’s more tragic flaws, his inabilities to learn from his mistakes or to see beyond spectacle, as he’s already forgotten that the excesses of “The Borgia Bull” left the church coffers empty and Rome avoided a French sacking only by Cesare’s cunning in “The Beautiful Deception.”


However, while Alexander hasn’t learned the lessons of that event he has remembered the costs, and between the jubilee and his nascent crusade he’s looking to squeeze every penny out of those he feels can spare it. And one of his targets is a favorite of the church, the Jews—or more precisely a population of refugees from Constantinople looking to set up trading in Rome, which he’s prepared to tax them dry for. The traders are distressed, until one particularly resourceful member of the group, Mattai (played by Australian actor Brendan Cowell) sees an opportunity to exempt them from taxes by gifting the Vatican with a true relic: The Spear of Longinus, the blade that pierced Christ on the cross.

Characters on The Borgias have always walked a fine line on how seriously they take their faith and how much of it is a means to an end, and the introduction of the relic is a fine example of that. As Alexander and the consistory unveil the ancient spear, and talk of how it trembles in the hand floats through the room, there is a definite atmosphere of uncertainty mixed with hope. All of them want to believe it’s the real thing, to validate the church they have given their lives to, even at the same time they acknowledge there’s no way to be certain. (As Blackadder taught us, there’s a thriving market for such relics in the church, along with curses, pardons and selling the sexual favors of nuns.) And while nothing can be known for certain, the church is prepared to take it on face value—especially after testing Mattai by pretending to drop it—a choice Alexander sums up in private: “Our church is driven by belief, and we choose to believe this is the Spear of Longinus.”


And the move also promises a shift in the power structure, as Alexander invites Mattai to join him with the question “What other gifts do you have?” in a tone that doesn’t suggest a man squeezing blood from a stone but a man who’s found a kindred spirit in pragmatic faith. The transaction also provides some shifting in the hierarchy of the new consistory: Cardinal Farnese is back in the pope’s good graces by serving as the intermediary in the transaction, while Cardinal Petrucci is shamed quickly by Mattai for a weak attempt to discredit their relic.

Of course, he’s certainly doing better than Cardinal Constanza, who takes too much initiative and it ends up costing him dearly. Caterina’s coalition to undermine the Borgia armies has hit a snag in their defections, so she’s pursuing a new approach to exterminate Alexander: rags taken from the body of a plague victim, sent in a sealed box to the Vatican that theoretically contains an offering of peace. Rufio’s preparation for this act—first in acquiring the rags from a plague-ravaged town, then crafting the package of death and burning his clothes—are a dark and unsettling series of sequences as Rufio conducts his business entirely in silence, accompanied only by a Trevor Morris score channelling Akira Yamaoka’s disquieting Silent Hill soundtracks.


Cesare dismisses the offering outright—not willing to risk his promised glory on a likely ruse—but Cardinal Constanza opts to hang onto the box as a bargaining chip. The end result? His servant is struck down with the plague, and promises to be the first of many as the bullet narrowly dodged by the Borgia family seeks a new target. There are still plenty of threats to the family’s safety, but at the moment, they seem to be coming out ahead.

Stray observations:

  • The episode finally provides a bit of chronology to the show without the aid of a history book, as the announcement that the year 1500 is approaching means Alexander has been pope eight years since the election of 1492 in the pilot episode. (Though this is also a reveal that asks more questions than it answers, given that Giovanni appears to be barely two years old, and therefore apparently the first season took six years. It was a slow season, but it wasn’t that slow.)
  • While Jeremy Irons doesn’t bear a great physical resemblance to the actual Rodrigo Borgia—the latter was a corpulent man whose weight reflected his appetites while Irons is lean bordering on cadaverous—I was pleased that Alexander’s in-progress official portrait bears a striking resemblance to the real version.
  • Cesare stops by Naples to visit his sister on the way to war, and the relationship between the two is decidedly frosty, with Lucrezia repeatedly reminding him that she’s now married to Naples and he’d do best to keep his army far away from there.
  • More beautiful direction by Kari Skogland this episode, particularly in the aforementioned way Rufio silently prepares his plague trap, the view through the chandelier of Cesare arguing his case and the framing of Cesare and Lucrezia against the spinning fireworks of Naples.
  • Triumphant return of Alexander’s straw hat as part of his beekeeping ensemble, and another priceless look of contempt from Cardinal Sforza at the attention the pope gives his new hobby.
  • Caterina’s spy on the French army is none other than her son Benito, spared by Cesare back in “Truth And Lies.” Looks like Micheletto was right and Cesare will yet regret sparing him.
  • “You have suffered your mother’s absence too long.” Between kind words and carrying young Giovanni through a funeral procession with no regard for decency, Micheletto remains the world’s best babysitter.

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