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The Borgias: “Siblings”

Illustration for article titled The Borgias: “Siblings”
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While Mario Puzo is best known as author of The Godfather and other contemporary Mafia novels, history was one of his lifelong passions, and over the years, one of his side projects was working on a novel about the Borgias, published posthumously as The Family. In the early chapters of the book, prior to Lucrezia’s marriage to Giovanni Sforza, Alexander instructs Cesare to take his sister’s virginity, rationalizing that “the man to whom she first surrendered would command her love and loyalty” and this will help preserve familial loyalties. The event touches off an affair between the siblings that lasts for years, with Cesare even fathering her first child and murdering her second husband.

I say this to give the following review context, as I first read The Family 12 years ago when I was in high school. That plot point has been rattling around in my head ever since, and consequently, I’ve been expecting what happens in the final moments of “Siblings” since The Borgias started. Not that the show has ever worked to subvert these expectations—since their opening scene Cesare and Lucrezia have enjoyed an uncomfortable closeness as siblings, and François Arnaud and Holliday Grainger enjoy a chemistry that would generate a community of shippers on any other show where they weren’t playing brother and sister. Even the score’s been on the side of this relationship, with the track “Cesare and Lucrezia’s Theme” being a tender piece of music easily classified as romantic.


Seeing the results coming doesn’t make the course of events any less simultaneously uncomfortable and fascinating to watch. Indeed, that’s been one of the most interesting parts of The Borgias, as the Cesare/Lucrezia relationship is one of the rare incestuous relationships on television that we’ve been allowed to see evolve over the course of a series. As a counter-example, Game Of Thrones has a similar relationship as part of its central narrative, but that relationship has been going on for years and was established in the first episode. The motivations behind it are limited to explanations that accordingly leave others horrified. Here, though, we’ve had 20 episodes to witness the abusive relationships both parties have been in, their father’s repeated emphasis on the importance of family, and the fact that in a world where both are treated as political pawns, they’ve seen each other as their only safe harbor for years. (It also helps that the show’s creative force is Neil Jordan, who in such films as The Miracle and The Crying Game proved he’s a sympathetic storyteller when it comes to unconventional or taboo relationships.)

And in this episode, both are faced with considerably more obligations heaved on them. Cesare is still denied his command of the papal armies and is turned into Alexander’s agent in dealing with Naples and France, while Lucrezia’s husband is proving to be less advantageous of a match for the family than was originally believed. Both feel beset and can only find comfort in each other’s company, meaning that the moments of inappropriate closeness from “The Purge” are even more numerous this week, and kisses that would be innocent turning into a passionate embrace until one of them storms away cursing in fear. And when Alfonso storms off from Lucrezia following the wedding after he glimpses a makeshift diagram of Borgia enemies and allies that puts him in the unknown category, she finds the course of action that makes the most sense to her. Her entire family is a slave to ambition, her enemies have already slandered her reputation, why shouldn’t she take the one thing that seems real to her?

That depiction of the relationship between the two—less out of a sense of physical lust and more of a desperate reaction, accentuated by the nonjudgmental feeling of the score choices—makes it easier to accept in the course of events. Lucrezia’s more childish instincts often lead her to do things without considering the consequences, and Cesare’s already committed fratricide, so it’s not hard to believe he’d take another unforgivable sin on. And given that the show has never tried to portray members of the Borgia family as admirable, it’s not going to suddenly turn around and turn this into a show-driving romance, but more a decision that’s sure to have calamitous repercussions.

The denouement of the episode overshadows much of what comes before in “Siblings,” but the political events that Cesare and Lucrezia are reacting to are still worthy of attention. Undaunted by the fact that he had to fight off yet another attempt on his life from a recently defrocked cardinal, Alexander’s inquisition’s here and it’s here to stay, with the College now stripped of the majority of its members. (It makes for a nice bit of irony, given in the series’ second episode he more than doubled its ranks to undercut della Rovere’s authority.) With that problem solved, his attention turns back to strengthening his position against external threats, most noticeably the fact that the papal army is barely at half strength. One of the reasons why I enjoy the machinations on this show so much is that despite Alexander’s ostensible position as most powerful religious figure in the world, he’s so frequently at a disadvantage in terms of resources and allies and often has to scramble for any kind of advantage.


Even the allies he thinks they have in Naples aren’t turning out to be very useful. Cesare pays a visit to Alfonso’s uncle Ferdinand, only to be disenchanted by the poor state of the city post-French invasion and the conditions of their armory. Played by Matias Varela, Ferdinand is a sign of how far the show’s come in its depiction of the Italian nobles arrayed for or against the Borgias, who in early episodes were over-the-top and grating. His contempt for both Cesare and Alfonso here is a thing of beauty, as he refuses to honor Cesare’s desire to have Lucrezia’s son in the Neapolitan court (“My family has never encompassed the offspring of stable boys”) and doesn’t allow Alfonso to view his marriage as anything other than political (“Fuck the pope’s daughter and leave the serious matters for your elders”). And in a brilliant tactical move, he uses his position as uncle of the groom to send wedding invitations to the various noble houses who have allied against the Borgias, even sending one to Caterina Sforza, “to show that the alliance with Rome is one of many he would consider.”

Once again, we get to see why this opponent is more dangerous—and more entertaining for viewers—than previous Borgia adversaries. Della Rovere struck from the shadows, and Savonarola was a larger-than-life public figure, but Caterina’s another political animal altogether, and one who understands the psychological value of being able to walk right up to her target and feign obedience in front of an entire city. “We had almost lost hope of having you kneel before us,” Alexander says cautiously. “I kneel before no man, unless I choose to,” Caterina responds, a delicious callback to her words in “The Choice” when the pope’s first effort to win her loyalty failed. An even better callback comes when Cesare confronts her at the wedding reception and she reminds him of their earlier tryst, adding more fuel to how incredibly frustrated the evening makes him: “You could sink your steel into me. To the hilt, if you wished.” (The Family described her as a virago, and there’s few better words I can think of.)


Unsurprisingly, this brazen display leaves the Borgias looking into other options, and one of those may be a potential alliance with their old enemies the French. King Charles died in “Truth And Lies,” and now France has a new king in Louis XII, who is in a rather unfortunate arranged marriage according to the ambassador. Here’s where being pope pays off for Alexander, as he has the authority to grant an official annulment to the marriage—this being in the days when divorce attorney wasn’t a profession—and knows exactly how valuable this card is to play. It’s good to see France brought back in as a player, as sometimes on The Borgias the difference between all the various Italian factions leaves you needing to consult a history book, and France has been established as a player whose resources could make or break any alliance. Small wonder that Alexander sends Cesare as his emissary to the French court, with the suggestion of adding another alliance to the deal: “While you’re there, find yourself a bride.”

That is, if the events of this episode don’t shatter what discipline Cesare has remaining. In The Family, following Cesare’s deflowering of Lucrezia Alexander notices a look in his son’s eye, and realizes a potential error: “He had not thought to warn his son of love’s one true pitfall: True love empowers a woman and imperils a man.” And while the events of their coupling are much different in The Borgias, our history with these characters tells us the two versions have one thing in common—this isn’t going to end well for anyone.


Stray observations:

  • Motivated by this episode, I picked up a copy of The Family and reread it for the first time since high school. It hasn’t held up well with age—Puzo’s prose has never been the most energetic, and its commitment to incorporating as many historical details as possible means the characters aren’t as well-drawn as they could be. It’s also not as florid and entertainingly awful as Smash’s source material was so I can’t liven things up the way Noel Murray did in his reviews, but if I do find any other points of interest, I’ll be sure to bring them up.
  • While the first two episodes lacked for grand events, Alfonso and Lucrezia’s wedding allows The Borgias to once again interweave pomp and circumstance with scheming in darkened corridors. It’s an evening that nicely turns up the tension on Cesare.
  • Amongst the defrocked cardinals is Cardinal Versucci, whose authority as head of the Office of Public Works was undercut last season by the Lucrezia/Vanozza/Giulia triumvirate. He takes some measure of revenge by looting the treasury, setting it ablaze to cover his theft, and disappearing into the Roman hills whistling nonchalantly.
  • Rufio continues to recruit for Caterina’s cause, this time calling up the skilled condottieri Gian Paolo Baglioni from Florence. Hopefully this means a direct rival for Micheletto, whose body count remains disappointingly low since the premiere.
  • “Does he bring murmurings of peace or war?” “Peace.” “Tell us more of this considerate young man.” It’s always fun to watch Alexander’s tonal shifts as he decides how he’s going to treat his supplicants.
  • Alexander’s smoking a cigar again! All is right with the world.

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