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The Borgias: “The Confession”

Illustration for article titled iThe Borgias/i: “The Confession”
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In keeping with the title of tonight’s episode, here’s a confession: I didn’t expect much out of The Borgias this season. True, I watched every episode of the first season and had positive things to say about it, but it was also a show I didn’t trust to stay good for a consistent period of time. I’d seen flickers of what I thought could be quality in the first season—“Lucrezia’s Wedding” and “The Borgias In Love” in particular indicated a stronger direction for the show—but almost immediately after, the show steered into the skid of melodrama and directionless plots. Fittingly for a show full of duplicitous characters, it seemed those improvements were as much misdirection as the lies Alexander, Cesare, or Lucrezia told to get what they wanted.

So when I took on this assignment after nearly quitting the show twice last year, I braced for disappointment. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: This season, those flickers of quality caught fire and started to burn with a surprising intensity. A show that previously came across as aimless now had a sense of focus, with tighter storylines that carried across multiple episodes. Where the first season’s presentation felt artificial, the producers took advantage of what they learned and fleshed out their world, weaving multiple narratives against the backdrop of lavish celebrations and expanding the scope of its fight scenes. And they weren’t afraid to take a sword to the cast as necessary, giving appropriate farewells to prior antagonists Giovanni Sforza and King Charles VIII, and removing interminable love interests Paolo and Ursula Bonadeo in a way that turned them into plot catalysts.


The Borgias also had the good sense to find a uniting thread amid all the sex and violence that followed its ruling family around: The widening gap between Alexander’s expectations for his dynasty and how committed his children are to that plan. Cesare was being groomed to be his father’s successor, but instead shunned his cardinal’s robes in favor of midnight raids and murdering those with whom he was supposed to negotiate. Lucrezia realized just how much power she had in her father’s need to marry her off, and used it to taunt and tease suitors for her own amusement. And Juan found himself completely unqualified to bear arms in the family name, indulging his darker urges so frequently that Cesare sent him into the Tiber after deciding he’d gone from being an irritant to a direct threat. “How refreshing our children still manage to surprise us,” Alexander says at one point in the finale, and while it may have occasionally been refreshing for him, it was rarely convenient.

And, of course, the biggest surprise sprung on him in “The Confession” is the fact that for as much as he loves and protects his children, it’s still possible to lose one of them. Juan’s been missing for days since Giovanni’s baptism, and while Alexander dispatches scouts to all his old haunts, Cardinal Sforza entertains the possibility that they should expand the search to the mortuary. Unable to shake the thought, Alexander turns to Giulia Farnese to help him search the city himself shades of their fact-finding mission in “Paolo”. And soon enough, a body turns up with a distinctive leg wound: the pope’s favored son, now a bloated corpse pulled ashore with dead cats and refuse.


Jeremy Irons has done some terrific work this season by giving free reign to the bluster and cunning that define his best roles (even though I still wanted to see a deeper crisis of faith after the lightning strike) and Juan’s death coaxes the rawest emotions to date. It’s a startling demonstration of a father’s grief, this always-prepared pope lost for words, desperately trying to figure out how this happened. And the emotion gets even deeper as Cesare and Lucrezia admit they are far less broken up about the matter—Lucrezia, calling up the lie agreed upon following Paolo’s death, admits she’s wished him dead a hundred times over. If anything, this throws Alexander into a worse state of distress and rage, Irons becoming all the more pronounced next to the unflappability of Arnaud and Grainger.

Tragically for the pope, this news comes when his empire should be at its peak. After the debacle of Calvino and Rafaello, Lucrezia has a new suitor, the young noble Alfonso of Aragon. Opting out of her mother’s interference, Lucrezia decides to play with this one directly, presenting herself as her own handmaiden who vets suitors “just as a groom breaks in a new horse.” She sways Alfonso almost immediately, getting him to pledge his love to her over her “mistress,” and then pulls the rug out from under him by revealing her true identity right in front of her father. And even more startling, then she says “yes.” Where Giovanni Sforza was too hot and Calvino too cold, Alfonso seems just right for what Lucrezia wants in an arranged marriage—the upper hand. While he’s not the intellectual equal I was hoping she’d find in a long-term match, the introduction of a partner she dominates but yet is also fond of gives the character an interesting new leverage.


And in terms of Alexander’s enemies, another story comes to an end with the burning of Girolamo Savonarola. The friar doesn’t break on the rack despite Micheletto’s best efforts, and Cesare’s grown desperate to give something to a father who’s only concerned with results. So what does he do? Well, Cesare may be a smart, tough individual, but there’s not a single thing he obtained this season without deceit, and after killing his own brother, falsifying a man’s confession means practically nothing. He forges Savonarola’s signature, has the friar’s tongue yanked from his mouth, and sends him to an enormous pyre erected outside the Vatican. Steven Berkoff nailed the air of the fanatic all season, and his final actions this hour—pouring ink on confessions, sneering at Micheletto, screaming the falseness of Alexander even as his tongue is pulled out, spitting blood on the pope’s face as the grieving father tries for one last act of mercy—make for a violent and effective denouement.

It’s after that burning that “The Confession” starts to lose a little momentum—not that what comes next is bad, but for a show so committed to its spectacle, eventually it becomes tiring. Cesare admits what he did without actually saying it, and with the wool finally pulled from Alexander’s eyes (that primal moan of Irons is the most genuine reaction we’ve seen from Alexander to date) he limply releases Cesare from his cardinal vows. From there it’s a blur of action from Cesare as he sheds his robes, declaring Lucrezia’s wedding go forward immediately, with Juan’s funeral following. It feels very abrupt, even if the show does acknowledge so: Vanozza even goes so far as to accuse her eldest son of dancing on her second son’s grave.


Alexander has a different way of dealing with the grief, which is even more alien. Separate from the event, desperately seeking God’s light as he prays over his son’s body, and then gripped with the sudden idea to bury his son personally in the garden. Certainly Irons conveys a terrific sense of blind grief in the moment, and the scoring by Trevor Harris as always matches the mood of the scene perfectly, but there’s a fantastical sense to it—particularly the way that Alexander imagines Juan as the boy he once was, before his demons consumed him—that feels out of place with the show’s aesthetic. Far more effective is what he does afterwards, walking into the wedding reception in mud-stained robes, taking Cesare aside and finally admitting the role his favoritism played Juan’s death. “What you’ve done is our doing also,” he sadly muses to Cesare. “We brought you to this.”

And it almost seems that like the first season, we’ll once again end on a note of family togetherness, the sense of unity Alexander preaches still there amid all the costs. But appropriately, for one last time Alexander misses something critically important, as Antonello selects this time to add a lethal dose of cantarella to the pope’s wine. Blood pours from the taster’s eyes and mouth, his martyrdom completed, and Alexander crumples, shaking in the arms of his son.


So The Borgias leaves us on a cliffhanger, and while I can guess the outcome—change-adverse Showtime’s not going to let a show this young remove its Academy Award-winning lead actor from the equation—the mere fact that they’re doing it causes me to ask a question: This show’s been surprisingly willing to shake up the status quo this year, so could it take that step and still survive? I honestly believe it could, given how fleshed-out the surviving characters all became this year. Arnaud in particular grew to essentially be the lead actor of the show, and his journey toward Cesare’s fratricide and resigning the cardinalate was easily the season’s most interesting narrative. Were it to reorient itself as a show where it’s Cesare fighting to hold power against della Rovere and the cardinals, it would certainly be a different show, but it could still work.

Again, the odds of this happening are phenomenally slim, but the mere fact that I’m even considering it as a possibility speaks to what Neil Jordan, David Leland, and company achieved over the course of these last ten episodes. The Borgias may have been the forgotten Sunday night drama between the juggernauts of Game Of Thrones and Mad Men, but in that niche it turned into a solid, entertaining, and often thrilling show. Long may the family reign.


Season grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • If I do have a bone to pick with the way the show was structured this year, it’s that I don’t think Cardinal della Rovere was as well-integrated as he could have been. It was certainly an improvement over last season, where his aimless wandering to find allies led to a clownish assortment of Italian nobles popping in for an episode, but too often he felt like a satellite to the show’s action, on the edge of every major event without really participating. That being said, Colm Feore remains every bit as charismatic a presence as Irons (especially with his impressive beard) and with his scheme finally reaching fruition, he’s in prime position to move into the direct antagonist role vacated by Savonarola.
  • Also a bit bothersome were the abandonment of various subplots. Sculptor Vittorio/Vittoria vanished after only four episodes, and the Lucrezia/Vanozza/Giulia team-up to improve Rome seemed to fall by the wayside. I hope those and others will be pulled out for season three, as the show does have a good recognition of what’s in its back pocket.
  • I just remembered there’s supposed to be four Borgia siblings, and we didn’t see or hear about Joffre Borgia once this year. Not that he was particularly vital to the action last year, but his complete absence is a little odd. We’ll see if he comes back next year to fill the Juan-sized hole in the cast—according to history his wife Sancia is a relative of Alfonso, which would certainly complicate matters.
  • Fun fact: Alfonso is played by Sebastian de Souza, better known as Matty Levan from the third generation of Skins. With her baby-daddy Paolo played by Luke Pasqualino (a.k.a. Freddie McClair from second-gen Skins) Lucrezia’s starting to establish a pattern.
  • Lucrezia idly asks Cesare in a quiet moment if he’ll marry her, and he spins a tale of them moving away and changing their names in some small town. She clarifies that she’s talking about her and Alfonso, and he moves on quickly, but it’s hard not to see how Juan’s opium-laced thoughts about the two got started.
  • Cesare: “Rome needs this confession.” Machiavelli: “Then give it to them.” Things are simple from Machiavelli’s perspective.
  • Typically fine work from Sean Harris this episode as Micheletto takes the lead in punishing Savonarola, particularly his matter-of-fact response to the latter’s pride at purging homosexuals from Florence. “And yet here I am.”
  • Micheletto’s body count for the season: about 12, give or take a couple French troops. Much improved average from last year.
  • Cesare’s take on killing Juan: “The act that no other would dare commit, though its doing benefits us all.”
  • Finally, a big thanks to all my commenters, regardless of whether you stopped in once or have been following along weekly. While the volume pales in comparison to comments on other Sunday dramas, there’s been a lot of lively discussion going on and I’m happy you decided to join in. Hope to see you in season three!

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