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The Borgias: “The Purge”

Illustration for article titled iThe Borgias/i: “The Purge”
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After the frenetic, almost desperate events of “The Face Of Death,” “The Purge” is a comparably more slowly paced episode of The Borgias. This is a bit disappointing after the highs of the première, but it’s also not unexpected—The Borgias is a show driven chiefly by plot, not in the storytelling sense but in the conspiratorial nature of the word. As it was with the second season, the third season is almost certain to have a few installments where it steps back from immediate threats to put the pieces in place for bigger events to come, as both the Borgias and their rivals know the value of playing the long game.

Thankfully, at this point in the show’s run it knows how to handle these episodes, and “The Purge” isn’t a dull episode by any stretch of the word, able to rouse a viewer from complacency with a few strong character moments and shocking notes of climax. In a sign of the higher standards I’ve come to hold the show by, I’m classifying this episode as “slow”—but it’s still an episode that features the Holy Father driving a stiletto through a cardinal’s throat.


Following the failure of both della Rovere and Caterina’s schemes, both sides of the conflict have fallen back to lick their wounds and marshal their forces into a position of strength. Alexander, livid at della Rovere’s escape and the close call his own family has, announces to Cesare and Cardinal Sforza his intentions to launch an inquisition into the College of Cardinals to determine if there are any conspirators still in wait. (And given he’s Spanish, nobody will expect it.) Elsewhere, Rufio gathers members of Rome’s great noble houses—Vitelli, Orsini, Colona—to propose a temporary alliance, their long-standing feuds put aside in favor of knocking the Borgias even further off their pedestal.

These events are conducted with the usual aplomb of The Borgias—the scene where Rufio meets the nobles in the Roman ruins is particularly well-shot—but at the same time there’s an emptiness to them that comes as a letdown. Some of this comes from a lack of context, as while we’ve heard the names of these houses several times before and know that there are cardinals who belong to these houses, there’s no real connection to them the way there was with the Sforza internal feud last week. Consequently, as Cesare and Micheletto move through the city to isolate and interrogate the nobles, the scenes are interchangeable with each other in spite of being appropriately tense. More context could certainly be delivered in future episodes, but it’s not there just yet to anyone who’s not a Renaissance history buff.


The nature of some of the dialogue being used is also a problem. The Borgias is a highly theatrical show, given to grand statements, but occasionally it feels like Neil Jordan (who’s the credited writer on this episode) and company are trying a bit too hard to impress in the material they give their actors. And much of the scheming in “The Purge” falls on the side of exaggerated: Rufio talks about cutting out “the black heart of the Borgia nightmare,” and Alexander goes off on several metaphorical tangents about how Rome is a great spider’s web, with Caterina as “the great Arachne” having laid her eggs within the Vatican. “Every egg wears a cardinal’s hat and a smile of obedience and piety,” he spits with contempt. (To be fair, Jeremy Irons continues to deliver these lines with his usual equipoise, and it’s not hard to imagine the temptation to keep giving him such material.)

And some of that theatricality is appropriate, as Alexander’s entire scheme is a bit of theater by itself. His inquisition is less about punishing guilty parties than removing any potential threats among the cardinals he appointed, and if he cannot prove a conspiracy he’ll create one all his own. Cardinal Sforza identifies a particularly weak-willed cardinal and has him moved into the Castel Sant’Angelo, encouraging him to come up with a list of accusations. And after a couple days in chains—and Micheletto off to the side whispering threats of torture—he’s more than happy to spill his own metaphorical story of a multi-headed hydra conspiracy to kill every member of the Borgia family. (And, solving Cesare’s problem, pinning responsibility for Juan’s death on said conspiracy.)


Where the show does better is in the more personal side of what the attack has done. As a result of the poisoning, Alexander is unable to perform in the bedroom and the loss of his vigor is preying on his self-esteem. He tries to dismiss it as being for the best as his passions won’t control his every decision, but there’s definitely consequences as he starts pushing Giulia away. No stranger to the ways of the world, Giulia realizes she needs to secure her position and turns to Vanozza for advice. The odd friendship between the two has been an interesting evolution to watch (“I who was once you, you who will become me? I should be hating you, not providing a sympathetic ear,” Vanozza says with amusement) and should Giulia move even further outside of Alexander’s orbit, could develop further.

Giulia moving away from Alexander means that Vanozza draws closer, leading to the episode’s most stirring scenes. As Vanozza discusses Giulia’s future with Alexander, he’s truly penitent about how his scheming almost got her killed, and he speaks wearily of the simple life they could have shared: “We would rather be a peasant in a garden with a pitchfork, if that would keep you safe.” In “Day Of Ashes” where Alexander and Vanozza discussed Lucrezia’s future engagement, there was an easy chemistry between Irons and Joanne Whalley, which made it very believable that these two had been together for decades and were used to sharing their problems with each other. In a world where deception is prevalent, theirs is a partnership that feels legitimately romantic, and a moment of reality that grounds the theatrics.


Alexander’s daughter is going through her own sexual frustrations, as her new fiancé Alfonso is proving to be less pliable than she first expected. Not only is he determined to remain a virgin until marriage, his family refuses to allow Lucrezia to join the court of Naples with her bastard son Giovanni. Lucrezia’s plots remain disconnected from the big picture scheming, but there remains an element of instability to the character that makes her still worth watching. Lucrezia started the show as something of a sheltered child, and the harsh circumstances that forced her to grow up too fast have given her an almost sociopathic air at times—a disconnect made all the more unsettling by Holliday Grainger’s cat-who-ate-the-canary grin.

Consequently, there are several moments this episode where she toys with people for her own amusement, all of which are deliberately uncomfortable to watch and trigger the right levels of cringing. She plays with her future husband’s chastity by fondling him repeatedly—when he’s holding Giovanni in his arms no less—and calls Cesare into her room to see her wedding dress, which she happens not to be wearing. The former is amusing for how little regard she has for Alfonso’s wishes, and the latter holds some unsettling possibilities. Cesare and Lucrezia have always been too close for comfort—Juan suspected such congress last season in his opiate haze—and this gesture takes things far past the point that either party should have stopped things.


And of course, there’s the whole knife to the neck I alluded to at the start. Alexander launches his Spanish inquisition against the College of Cardinals, and Sforza’s stooge places the blame across the noble families, providing the ammunition to excommunicate them and banish them from Rome. Most stick to loud protests, but Cardinal Orsini—the man who facilitated della Rovere’s escape—plays it quieter and asks Alexander to hear his final confession. He acquiesces, but given his track record with hearing Cesare’s confessions, it’s not a surprise that this one falls apart as well. Orsini lunges at him with a knife preparing to send him to hell, a scene which has some unfortunate slow-motion in the opening but recovers by turning it into an intensely personal struggle. Alexander recaptures his vigor, forces Orsini’s hand to the other man’s jugular, and whispers words of darkness as the arterial blood stains his vestments—and poor Cesare, for the second time that day, enters a room where a family member’s appearance leaves him wide-eyed and speechless.

“God must want us to live,” Alexander says simply, no trace of his usual theatricality. And it’s that delivery that makes it all the more frightening—Alexander has spite and vengeance to spare, and an additional layer of zealotry only makes the events to come all the more dangerous.


Stray observations:

  • No sign of Cardinal della Rovere this week, and no Colm Feore in the credits. Looks like my earlier hypothesis that his time on the show will be limited this season is correct. (Also no Gina McKee, but she’s still an active presence through her surrogate Rufio.)
  • In addition to his paranoid mutterings and impotence, Alexander is also suffering from dreams of his deceased son, with the latest seeing the young child fall into a bottomless pit. I wasn’t fond of this device in the season finale as I don’t think the dreams mesh with the show’s style, and this appearance doesn’t change that feeling.
  • Also, following that dream Alexander wearily refers to Cesare as “our only son.” It looks like we can assume young Gioffre Borgia has become a victim of Chuck Cunningham Syndrome.
  • If there is a way to make that sun hat of Alexander’s an official part of the papal vestments, I would like to know it.
  • “My love, it happens to every man once in a while.” Giulia saying this to Alexander is an unintentionally hilarious moment.
  • Alfonso has sworn an oath to the saints to remain chaste. As a Borgia, Lucrezia unsurprisingly finds this ridiculous.

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