Potential bad news, everyone: As Deadline reported this week, there are murmurs that Showtime may defy its reputation of never canceling anything and not renew The Borgias for a fourth season. According to the story, Neil Jordan has expressed some reservations about the effort of doing ten more episodes, saying that a two-hour movie to close out the story might make for a better course of action, and Showtime execs are evidently on the fence about renewal. While no decisions have been made for certain—and the show continues to retain the viewership levels that got it to seasons two and three—the possibility of this happening makes me decidedly unhappy. To see The Borgias’ life cut short as it’s in its creative prime would be incredibly disappointing, and any time any network talks about wrapping up its show’s story with a movie it causes my never-healed Deadwood scars to flare up with pain again.
And from a narrative standpoint, this move is disconcerting because there’s still a large chunk of the story left to tell, and the show’s already starting to feel bloated on plot lines. To date this season we’ve seen a series of assassination attempts, a noble conspiracy, a wedding, a crusade, an incestuous relationship, and half a dozen other power plays I’m sure I’m forgetting. The Borgias has always been a busy show—I talked only last week about the enjoyments of its never-stable alliances—but this is the first time it’s felt a bit overstuffed. Season two benefited from a strong season-long arc in the parallel rise of Cesare and fall of Juan, and the Caterina Sforza conspiracy has yet to take a similar narrative prominence to hold the rest of the action together.
“The Wolf And The Lamb” is an installment that feels particularly scattered as a result of having so many moving parts, partially because it’s one of those episodes that splits its three major cast members into three entirely different locations rather than having at least two of them interacting in the confines of Rome. Cesare has been sent north with the papal bull to annul the marriage of King Louis XII—and ask a high price for the privilege—while Lucrezia finally heads out to join her new husband Alfonso in Naples, sadly without the company of her son. Alexander remains in Rome, trying to find a way out of Lord Gonzaga’s accusations of adultery, a move made all the more difficult by the fact that his wife Bianca has taken up residence in the papal apartments and refuses to leave.
The Bianca story is the most problematic of the three, largely because it lacks a particularly interesting context. Last week I praised the show for introducing Bianca as a wild card to further complicate Alexander’s state of affairs, but this episode treats her solely as a complication as opposed to an actual character. At the start of the episode I predicted her refusal to leave meant she was playing a longer game, stringing the pope along as part of Caterina’s game—a notion that is dismissed as the character grows increasingly disconnected from events, murmuring Biblical passages and repeatedly lashing out at Alexander over small things. The focus on the personal over the political detracts from the central threat she poses to his papacy, even if it does invoke a wonderful “Oh shit” expression from Jeremy Irons which grows all the more horrified when she reveals she is with child and is positive that it’s his.
These dicier issues are abandoned fairly quickly, as the court physician reveals that Bianca was pregnant at one time but is no longer, and the trauma has led her to be increasingly unhinged. I always support the option of shows going crazy to keep things interesting—it’s the only thing keeping me interested in Revolution at this point—and Melia Kreiling plays the character’s loopier beats well, her mutterings paired well with director Kari Skogland’s framing of the character through drapes and shadows. Her inevitable downfall is treated with the operatic grace I’ve come to expect from the show—even if, as with the attack by Cardinal Orsini, I don’t know why the show thinks it needs to add occasional distracting slow-motion moments—and there’s a definite poignancy to the matter in which she cuts her throat wide open to die in Alexander’s arms.
Unfortunately, the resolution of the entire affair is so prompt it makes what’s come before seem inconsequential. Cardinal Sforza smoothly steps into his role as Vatican fixer, placing the body in an overflowing tub right over the room where Gonzaga is waiting for a papal audience, and upon “discovering” it throws out a judgmental speech that implies he drove Bianca to this, undercutting his position of morality. I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that the show likes to gloss over some of its dicier questions about propriety—Vanozza’s gone from being a pariah within the Vatican walls to one of Alexander’s most trusted confidantes—but this comes across as a solution that would raise more questions than it answers. Surely had Micheletto been on hand, he could have finagled a more efficient solution with the body, much as he did with della Rovere in the show’s second episode.
Then again, Micheletto’s busy with another Borgia problem, as Lucrezia continues to find her new conditions less than ideal. Ferdinand’s refusal to allow her to bring her son to Naples continues to grate on her, and her usual displays of wit and charm don’t work on the arrogant king. In a particularly cringeworthy scene, she attempts to turn his speech at her welcome dinner back around on him (“I have a child your highness, he must someday hear these words”) only for him to coldly throw them back in her face (“All other fruit is best forgotten, as if it never existed”). And we as viewers know exactly what’s coming from that point, as few things on The Borgias are more amusing than when a man treats Lucrezia as his inferior. Her innocent attitude has turned into more and more of a facade the longer the series has gone on, and with each scorning her reactions become more and more deadly to her scorner.
A chance meeting in the woods provides her an idea—a dose of fatal wild mushrooms slipped into his food—but her guardian angel steps in to caution patience. I’ve talked about the shakiness of trust in the universe of The Borgias before, but the one person who the Borgias can trust implicitly is Micheletto. Others in this world define themselves by status, but Micheletto defines himself by his role as a human weapon, and a weapon he will only allow to be wielded by Cesare and his immediate family. Sean Harris portrays him as an emotional vacuum, one who only lets flickers of humanity out around his employers at choice moments, and we see one more of those instances this week as he calms Lucrezia’s nerves. And in an effort to spare her the trouble, he follows Ferdinand on a boar hunt, taking advantage of one solitary moment to push him into a pool and let the resident lampreys finish the job.
This is probably one of the most erratic things the show has done in recent memory, and calls back memories of the first season where every lord had a strange fixation on death: As you may recall, one noble kept his enemies mummified in a parody of the Last Supper, and another left his cousin chained under the dining room periodically. It strains credulity a bit—even though the Seneca reference gives it correct historical context—but as a device to remove Ferdinand from the picture it serves its purpose, and does so in a far more visually interesting way than Lucrezia slipping him a toxic brunch. Lucrezia’s expression as Micheletto relays the news also continues Holliday Grainger’s string of looking satisfied as terrible things happen, one of the show’s more reliable pleasures.
Compared to crazy mistresses and man-eating eels, Cesare’s plot is comparably tame, as the most problematic elements he’s dealing with is a queen who undercuts him immediately with questions about why he abandoned his cardinal’s habit. Amidst the French court he’s out of his element to some degree, but he finds an ally and a potential bride in noblewoman Charlotte d’Albert (Ana Ularu), who’s similarly scorned by the queen. Given Cesare’s track record—an incredibly dull romance in season one and a decidedly uncomfortable one this year—it’s a nice change of pace to see him in a more straightforward relationship, and with a woman who can spar with him verbally: “She hates me.” “She must, she recommended you to me” “Ah, then she hates you too.” “She hates us both.” “Hardly a reason for courtship, surely.” And while the marriage seems to be a good bet for both, there’s still plenty of indications—his hesitation in speaking of past love—that Lucrezia hasn’t yet left his mind.
And thanks to the fortunate coincidence of Niccolo Machiavelli being in France on official Medici business, Cesare’s able to obtain a few pieces of advice from his old advisor. It turns out that Louis XII has some of his predecessor’s warlike instincts, although he covets the province of Milan rather than Naples, and the promise of letting his army take it in the process of aiding Cesare in his conquest is the right carrot to dangle. And it’s here the plot thickens, because Alexander told his son to get as much as he could for the annulment, but nowhere in the negotiations did he say Cesare could hand over an entire province. Yet even if he’d expressly prevented that, Cesare would have done it anyway, because the one thing he wants more than anything is to play soldier.
It’s a move that establishes him as the wild card in the Caterina Sforza conspiracy, which has hit a roadblock as her collection of rogue nobles is less than thrilled about facing down the warlike Cesare on the battlefield. She counsels them that the Borgias’ own internal conflicts will weaken the foundation first, and Cesare’s actions in France certainly seem to fall on the level of those that will pull out a few key blocks. A further knot in the tangled web that is this feud, and one that will hopefully be drawn back into focus for the second half of the season.
- Julian Bleach was sadly underused in his one appearance to date this season, but he made the most of his brief scene by lecturing Cesare on both the right attire for the French court and the king’s ambitions of conquest: “He has a fondness for Milan. But I didn’t say that.” (Cesare, quickly catching the point: “No, you said black.”)
- Is the papal guard just utterly useless? Between Bianca running freely through the halls and the ease various people seem to have at getting an audience with Alexander, they’re not as efficient a force as one would expect. Then again, Cesare did point out they were at half strength earlier this season.
- The conspiracy also seems to have little interest in taking orders from a woman, but Caterina’s had to bear that perception her entire life—as she described so memorably in “The Choice”—and smoothly reminds them of her military superiority as she expertly guides her pet falcon along.
- RIP Ferdinand. You were an admirable foil to Alexander and Cesare for not giving a damn about their superiority, and you paid for it—even though I expected you to last a bit longer than this. We’ll have to see who steps in as the fifth king of Naples in two and a half seasons.
- Roman meat and Spanish blood: Bianca’s recipe for a perfect child.
- “The queen might see her destiny protruding from my bastard Borgia ass.” Cesare takes no shit.