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The Borgias: “The Face Of Death”

Illustration for article titled iThe Borgias/i: “The Face Of Death”
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One month ago, the Catholic Church elected its newest spiritual leader in wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation. As has been done for centuries, the College of Cardinals sequestered itself within the halls of the Vatican for a conclave, not emerging until a cloud of white smoke indicated that they had selected one of their own as the new pope. It was an affair relatively free of drama, with Jorge Mario Bergoglio elected within two days and five ballots. There was little time for speculation in the media between the sequester and the white smoke, or time to debate who would be filling what position in the church hierarchy after the choice was made.

Thankfully for those of you who were hungry for a more dramatic power struggle for control of one the world’s oldest religious orders, Showtime’s The Borgias returns to fill that niche expertly. Last year, The Borgias was a pleasant surprise, mostly ignored in the shadow of more established dramas on AMC and HBO but still making the coveted second season qualitative leap. What had been a mostly clunky Renaissance soap opera evolved into a taut and bloody political thriller that delivered its share of memorable moments and that I had no problem putting in my top ten list for the year. It was ten episodes of deception, fratricide and assassination, held together by the imperious performance of Jeremy Irons and an cast that grew in stature as they got more interesting things to do.


And “The Face Of Death” gives no indication that Neil Jordan, Jeremy Irons and company have any intention of slowing down—if anything, it’s a premiere that promises an even tighter and more vicious third season, alliances chosen and conspiracies forged in the wake of last season’s shocking climax. The episode picks up immediately after said climax, where the machinations of Cardinal Della Rovere finally bore fruit as his sleeper agent Antonello—under the guise of papal taster—delivered a supposedly lethal dose of cantarella to Alexander. It’s an explosion of manic energy as the ailing pope is borne onto a table, as everyone is faced with the possibility that this charismatic figure may be vulnerable, and the expressions range from rage to desperation to calculating. The physician claims no antidote for cantarella, but Lucrezia proposes charcoal may have some efficacy, and the result is a disturbingly graphic moment as a tube is forced down Alexander’s throat to pump him full of the stuff. As he’s taken to the papal chambers, Lucrezia stumbles away with her hands stained black, and it’s as upsetting as if she had her father’s blood on her hands.

Indeed, darkness is a prevalent element of “The Face Of Death,” as the pageantry and opulence of the Renaissance festivities is traded for the shadows of Rome. The action all takes place in dimly lit corridors, as Cesare and Micheletto attempt to locate della Rovere in the confines of the Dominican abbey—slaughtering everyone in the process—while the cardinal himself moves back through the Vatican halls with all the dignity of a conquering hero. Cardinals, politicians and assassins discuss the nature of events in dark alleyways and unlit rooms, only a glint of candlelight catching off jewelry or weapons as they conduct business under uncertain terms. Even the efficacy of Lucrezia’s cure is bleak, as Alexander rises from his sickbed vomiting black ichor onto the robes of Cardinal Versucci, not relieved at his survival but horrified at the lack of divine presence he saw between life and death. (In a particularly tragic moment, he asks where Juan is, and after a moment of silent remembrance he weeps tears equally stained with charcoal.)


But even with Alexander surviving the poison, this attempt has rattled the power structure of the Borgia family to a not inconsiderable extent. Back in “Day Of Ashes,” after Alexander was going through a crisis of faith, I said that I would be interested to see the power vacuum that would happen if he was temporarily removed from the central scheming. Here, we finally get to see what happens, and it’s as much of a free-for-all as I hoped for. All of the cardinals are turning amongst themselves, muttering over who amongst their number has the best odds to succeed Alexander and what financial advantage they might gain out of it—a discussion smartly directed by Kari Skogland, who depicts it as whispers dimly heard by the ailing pope in his delirium. (“They circle like crows around me, and I heard them praying for my death,” he mutters angrily, a righteous indignation that builds along with his returning strength.) And the Borgias’ backs are to the wall, and they know it, as Vanozza serves as a cool head between Cesare’s murderous rage and della Rovere’s machinations: “Do you think we’ve made friends here? Do you think we can turn to our allies?”

Keeping a clear head is a skill Cesare’s had to learn, and he manages to do so in this instance. He turns to Cardinal Sforza to demand his intelligence on the cardinals, dispatches Micheletto to ensure that Lucrezia and Vanozza are kept safe, and manages to apprehend della Rovere trying to leave the Vatican. Now that David Oakes has departed the show it falls to François Arnaud to carry the majority of the non-Irons workload, a responsibility he’s proven capable of doing while still showing off the rage quivering under the surface, particularly in the scenes where a seemingly penitent della Rovere offers an alliance and Cesare responds promising torture without set duration. The rage builds even more when a rival cardinal conspires to get della Rovere out of the cell, leading him to sneak out of Rome on a corpse cart and striding off through a cemetery—yet still every bit as imperious as he was in the halls of the Vatican.


Della Rovere’s plans now seem almost secondary though, as the possibility that Alexander may die leads many of his enemies to come out of the woodwork. Chief among them is Caterina Sforza, who dispatches her emissary Rufio to Rome to take advantage of the chaos. Played by Danish actor Thure Lindhardt (of Keep The Lights On and Flame & Citron) Rufio is cut from the same cloth as Micheletto, someone who has spent years sharpening themselves into a weapon for the right person. But where Micheletto rose from the gutter, Rufio has grown up within House Sforza, and his approach is much more diplomatic. He approaches Cardinal Sforza smoothly, suggesting that the vice chancellor could use his knowledge of the other cardinals to his own advantage, perhaps to even place himself on the throne. “Are you saying you would refuse if it were offered?” he asks his ally, in a silken tone that suggests such a decision might be hazardous to his health.

The callous nature of Rufio in purging the Borgia line (“The whole brood of bastards die tonight. So you should decide where you would be come the dawn”) doesn’t sit well with Sforza, who is caught between two masters, right up to the point of almost stabbing the pope dead with a crucifix-concealed dagger until Cesare interrupts. This is the part I’m a bit unsure of as I don’t entirely buy the choice that he makes here to side with the Borgia family over his own—Sforza has for the most part been a reluctant ally to Alexander, nominally his second-in-command but disgusted at his excesses. It remains to be seen what role he’ll play now, especially given Cesare’s not so subtle insinuation that his loyalties will be closely watched in the days to come.


And his decision does lead to the other side of the show, its ability to move between interpersonal and political conflict into outright bloodshed. Cesare races home to save his family, but the ever-loyal Micheletto has been keeping watch, and smells the betrayal of the Borgia maid Rufio co-opted—“You do not even hear the child crying?” is delivered chillingly by Sean Harris. What follows is a brutal misdirection carried out on the Sforza assassins, as a disguised Micheletto bludgeons one to death, and tricks the other with the dead maid as a decoy, sending him directly onto Cesare’s blade.

Caterina, however, remains undeterred by this failure and betrayal, and reveals to Rufio she considers this only first salvo of the conflict. I’m excited by this show’s decision to move her into the chief antagonist role, both because I like Gina McKee a great deal in this role and also because two seasons have built a history that’s ripe for conflict. Della Rovere and Friar Savonarola made for fine antagonists in season two, but their conflict was more political than personal. Caterina on the other hand saw her cousin murdered and son tortured by the Borgia family, and the olive branch that Cesare gave her son in “Truth And Lies” is clearly not enough of a peaceful gesture. Between her threatening talk of rallying the disparate nobles of Italy to their cause, thoughtfully stroking her pet bird like Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and the closing shot of the episode—her smiling venomously under a black cloak as she glances at the Borgia villa—I look forward to their realizing this potential.


And the Borgia family seems to have the same idea after two of its worst days in history, as Vanozza tries to put things into context for her family: “This night is done, it is daylight. Open your eyes. We’re not safe.” “No,” Alexander agrees, some measure of strength returned to his voice. “We are at war.” At this point, there’s no putting that blade back in the crucifix. And if that’s an indication of where the season is going, we should all be pleased about that.

Stray observations:

  • It’s great to be back discussing this show with all of you again. There were some great discussions held over the course of last season in the comments, and I hope to see many of you return for what’s promising to be a fun ride.
  • Going back to the real-life papal elections, I was disappointed that Showtime didn’t use it as more of an excuse for real-life marketing, but I can also see the desire to ward off potential controversy. And we did get ads like this, so it wasn’t totally ignored.
  • I cannot give enough credit to Trevor Morris’ score, which does as much work setting the mood as the period furnishings do, especially in the scenes at the Borgia villa and the moment where Cardinal Sforza makes his choice. And have I mentioned how much I love the opening theme? Because I love the opening theme.
  • Given Colm Feore’s increased role on Revolution, I do wonder how much of della Rovere we’ll be seeing this season. I’d hate to lose him even temporarily, but after the events of the episode, it’s entirely feasible he could vanish for a while to lick his wounds and plan a new attack. (And hopefully grow his beard back in the interim.)
  • Micheletto: Best person in the world to keep your child safe, so long as you know he’ll forget to turn the child away from the person he bludgeoned to death five minutes earlier.
  • Lucrezia’s new husband Alfonso wants to help, but Lucrezia urges him to safety: “When this is over, I will send for you, never fear.” She picked him because she wanted a docile pet, not an attack dog, and I wonder if he’s even capable of picking up on that.
  • Rufio loves his grand gestures: “This is a dagger’s tip upon which all events turn.”
  • Cardinal Sforza on Alexander’s talent for survival: “By now he’s probably fucking some servant girl with a wine jug in one hand and a swan’s leg in the other.”

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