Top 10 Most Ridiculous Things To Ever Happen On The Borgias (And They’re All From The Latter Half Of Its Third Season!)
What the fuck is even happening on The Borgias right now.
If you haven’t been watching, Showtime’s show about the much-maligned (yet still tantalizingly poisonous) Renaissance family started in a pretty good place. Maybe too “good” a place, if by “good” we mean self-serious—the first season walked a shaky line of historical adherence and fictional fill-in-the-blanks. Right from the start, creator Neil Jordan seemed to be taking his material more seriously than his Showtime-historical predecessor Michael “gross sexist, gratuitous dumbass” Hirst of The Tudors (and also, subsequently demoted to Starz, Camelot, if anyone other than me remembers that particular disaster): the vistas were prettier, the costumes were lush and didn’t look like they’d been stolen from a high school theatre closet, the big-name miscast at the heart of the show (Jeremy Irons plays Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, a stocky Spaniard three times his size who if you check the portraits looks almost exactly like Alfred Molina) was at least talented, and the up-and-comers were bright-eyed and up to his level. Right off the bat, Jordan put his alliance with the family, rather than with the historical semantics: the show has always cared most deeply about the bonds between the family members, between Rodrigo and his beloved children Lucrezia and Cesare and in particular Lucrezia and Cesare’s passionate, insular, innately romantic love for each other. He’d read the right biographies: Sarah Bradford’s Lucrezia Borgia and Paul Strathern’s The Artist, The Philosopher, and the Warrior were in the Showtime gift shop. The physical facts of the history were negotiable. What mattered was the family. The storytelling decisions made a kind of precise sense when looked at like that—and I loved them for it. It always had a sneaky, goofy sense of humor even in its most dramatic moments that derived from its focus on the personalities and its profound affection for them. One of its theses was more or less: Family, man.
The show got a lot of flak in s1 for being dull despite all that, but s2 picked up the pace, decreasing the pretty but slow Vatican semantics and upping the battle scenes, switching the focal antagonist from the wretchedly-accented Charles VI and his French forces to Gina McKee’s wonderful Borg queen of the Renaissance Caterina Sforza, who has stuck around into s3. The timeline was shuffled, but everything that happened more or less had happened (i.e. that time the roof fell on the Pope: real! Premature, but real! Juan hadn’t led an army against Caterina, but she had, at least apocryphally, become famous for defiantly flashing an army before her and Cesare’s rivalry, etc.) or had justification for happening on-show in despite of history (it’s not like Giovanni Sforza ever went on to do anything after that divorce) or frankly was just bomb-ass narratively structurally delicious (did Lucrezia, Vannozza, and Giulia ever stalk the streets of Rome like the three faces of Eve personified? No, but if you have a show featuring all three of them, why would you EVER NOT DO THAT). And s3 started out with a bang: the Pope recovering from poisoning, the family huddling together in the threat of assassination in a deliciously tense 24-hour bottle episode, Caterina Sforza’s plague scheme (see again, the thrill of: real!), the sense of insularity pushing the family together, pushing the rest of the world further and further away and escalating their claustrophobic love for each other, Lucrezia and Cesare consummating their knifeblade love-lust stranger-distrust courtly love in one of those examples of ahist0rical-but-intelligent (and delicious) show-specific storytelling, complete with physical and script-based callbacks to all the setup that had led them there.
And then…something happened.
Weird shit has been happening in regard to the show’s future—it might not get renewed and both the network and Neil Jordan are cagey both about what and why. For his part, Jordan has cited a certain amount of exhaustion with the show. And, well, it shows.
In the middle of this season—bang in the middle, dead center—you can watch this show give the fuck up. Throw in the towel, and subsequently realize that throwing things is actually REALLY FUN, more fun than history books, more fun than structuring arcs, more fun than pretty much anything. For the past several episodes, this show has ceased to be a show. What to call it, I am not sure, but it’s not a television programme with a story, it’s not even an act of historical retelling, it’s not—
Hang on. That sounds like I hate it. That sounds like it’s lacking.
No, no! I’ve never watched a show jump the shark in my life, and watching it happen is enthralling. Watching has become that much more viscerally exciting: I watched episodes 8 and 9 back-to-back just last night and ended up panting with laughter, tears in my eyes, deadass sober but delirious as though I’d just drunk a full jug of communion wine spiked with equal parts God and VOD(ka). I am so sad that there is only going to be one more episode a) of this season b) maybe ever; that’s SO NOT ENOUGH ROOM FOR THE POTENTIAL INSANITY HEREIN. I want this to go on forever!
Maybe I wouldn’t be taking this in so much stride, but Sarah Dunant just published an exquisite and exquisitely researched Borgia novel, Blood & Beauty. So now I have an objectively good piece of fiction about them and the burden of “the best fiction we have” is off Showtime’s back (as it was before—both because of its genuine affection and brief but searing flashes of history-storytelling intelligence and because, believe me, the rest of Borgia fiction is not just shitty but offensive), to say nothing of the fact that there’s a backlog of terrific biography. What I have now is a different gift: the biggest, most delirious fucking disaster I’ve ever watched happen to any show ever. I want ten more seasons of this.
Of what, exactly? What the fuck is happening on The Borgias?, you ask?
I so can’t answer that question. But I can tell you some of the things that have happened, thus far:
10. LUCREZIA’S HUSBAND, THE LESSER ALFONSO, DRIVES HER INTO HER BROTHER’S ARMS OVER AN EMOTIONAL MELTDOWN OVER PUNCTUATION
Poor Alfonso, you know. Historically he might’ve been the only husband Lucrezia ever loved, but on this particular show he had the misfortune of being a) the second Neapolitan Alfonso and intrinsically lesser in interest than Augustus Prew’s witch-cackling ex-king b) the kid known for being the worst actor on a season of Skins, I repeat, the WORST ACTOR, on A SEASON OF SKINS c) a Lucrezia love interest on a show that’s so never pretended to give a fraction of a fuck about the kids’ romantic ancillaries. So he was brought in as a pawn, with Lucrezia knowing he was a pawn, and proceeded to get real mad about being a pawn. Which, okay, we never expected anything better, but as he’s not the sharpest knife in the armory I suppose his offense is acceptable. What’s ridiculous is the manner of how his offense manifests:
- He catches a glimpse of the board formerly used to demarcate the wedding seating arrangement (anachronistic? who knows, in any case, nicely crafted by mother-of-the-bride Vannozza), now rearranged by Cesare (CESARE YOUR MOM WOULD BE SO MAD) into a makeshift map of pro-and anti-Borgia political alliances
- In which he is in the center, marked with a question mark
- He sees this as he’s about to fuck Lucrezia against that same board and is so angry/sad/Alfonso about it that he can’t fuck her at all that night
- All he can do is shout in her face: A QUESTION MARK????????
He shouts it about five times, for the illiterate in the audience and those of us in the nosebleed sections, then stalks out in tears. Lucrezia, of course, can only do the sensible thing and go to her brother that night—who is and always has been a far better husband than her actual husbands. Alfonso’s self-definition as Question Mark continues to this day. As Cesare and Lucrezia’s affair has escalated—with both genuine sensuality and also actual ridiculousness; witness him chewing on her fingers last ep like he was eating Doritos in bed and subsequently attempting to talk politics with his mouth full—Alfonso has served as consistent a baffled backdrop, and the camera is absolutely gleeful with the opportunity to poke fun at him for it: last episode, Lucrezia and Cesare reunite with a passionate kiss on the road (the one road, apparently, in all of Naples, and the camera pulls back slowly to reveal Alfonso staring at the camera for a minute (near a full minute; below the frame, you can watch his horse walk around in almost a complete semicircle), like:
Like what, exactly? I think he told us.
9. THE CREDIT MUSIC CRESCENDOS OVER…WHAT, EXACTLY?
Every episode begins with crashing, vaguely-clerical bombastic title music. Episode 8 starts out, following those credits, with…the same music, even more bombastic, as the pope is being carried through the streets on a litter. We follow him as the chorus roars and soars and he takes a ceremonial hammer in hand and taps on the gate of the church to open it for the Jubilee celebrations he’s leading and THE SOUND OF DIVINE APOCALYPSE IS ROARING AROUND HIM LIKE THE ORCHESTRA OF INCIPIENT DISASTER, AND
I DON’T KNOW, MAN, I’M STILL CONFUSED. I EXPECTED LIKE FIFTY PEOPLE TO DIE, OR POSSIBLY A HELLMOUTH TO OPEN UP IN THE VATICAN. Instead, the Jubilee looks like…a pretty typical day in the papal life. Which I admit is not your everyday everyday, but it is a show about the pope, you guys. You have to be circumspect with your bombast.
8. LEONARDO DA VINCI INVENTS THE SNIPER RIFLE
“Whoa nelly, I wasn’t expecting this for another two decades!”
7. THE KING OF NAPLES GETS EATEN ALIVE BY EELS
The Borgia family this season has a touching affinity for their own brand of Renaissance humanism. Did you know this was a Seneca reference?
(Wonderfully, it is Lucrezia who tacitly commissions the murder, in so many words, after the King refuses to let her bring her illegitimate child to court, and it is Michelotto who steps in to carry out her wishes; one envisions Cesare, sending Michelotto off with her, lecturing him sternly, now, while she IS a Borgia and therefore WILL want to commit murders, YOU DO THOSE MURDERS FOR HER, YOU KEEP HER PRETTY HANDS CLEAN, Y’ALL HEAR? Michelotto returns from the murder to ask about Lucrezia’s familiarity with the family’s library of the Classics; this is funny because Michelotto cannot read.)
6. CESARE BLOWS UP AN IMITATION SHROUD OF TURIN INSIDE A MINE
No, you don’t understand me: the false Shroud is in the mine, the explosives are in the mine, Cesare is also in the mine. He really didn’t think this one through. He reacts with abundant good cheer to his continued existence:
It’s been a few episodes since he literally said “God doesn’t exist, bitch!” to the queen of France, but Cesare believes in anyone that loves him: the list is short.
5. LUCREZIA KINGMAKES A PUPPYKILLER
After the old King of Naples gets THROWN INTO THE EEL POND (see #7), Lucrezia must needs be sure the next king will be nicer to her and her child. She investigates the two brothers vying for the claim: one is a total dick to her over chess (though to be fair she’s not great at chess: “Is there room for a Pope on this board?”), one is sweetness and light and almost-dead-from-a-poisoning-scare. Easy choice, right?
Cesare gasps, learning that the new King is plotting against their family a few beats ahead of Lucrezia from a mirror-written letter found under the floorboards in Michelotto’s sex dungeon (wait for #2): “She chose the wrong brother!” The King of Naples, having taken Lucrezia hostage, cackles in their next scene like a Snidely Whiplash villain who happens to watch The Borgias in his spare time: “You chose the wrong brother!” As subsequent proof that Lucrezia did, in fact, choose (which?) the wrong brother, we are treated to a flashback of said wrong brother smearing his mouth with fake blood and POISONING HIS DOG.
Oh, and the flashback looks like this:
Which is to say, it looks like it’s been filmed on a Mac webcam through the sepia filter. In short, the King of Naples takes super cool Facebook selfies.
4. WE ALMOST DO AL PACINO’S MERCHANT OF VENICE
Anyone who understood what the Jewish plot was actually about at the end of the day is a sharper mind than me. It starts with a conversation about fake Spears of Longinus, which also touches on fake Shrouds of Turin, which subsequently makes #6 totally fucking confusing because nobody remembers the Jews talking to the Pope about how the Shroud is totally 100% in Constantinople a few episodes ago. It involves the exiled Spanish Jews in Rome stealing all the sulfur in Rome so they can blow up the entirety of Constantinople, possibly with olive oil, but mostly so Cesare can’t make gunpowder. It might have to do with Caterina Sforza, only it has nothing to do with Caterina Sforza. It involves Rodrigo making a Jewish BFF and forcing him to fake Christianity, making everyone really uncomfortable but also making me vaguely wish for an Al Pacino – Jeremy Irons ham’n'stage-splinters special. It features Cesare lighting a sulfur-covered dude on fire while the Pope’s new favorite totally-Christian-yes-sir stands in the corner, watching the makeshift Wormtongue run around and clearly thinking what the fuck is wrong with gentiles. It ends with Rodrigo’s Jewish BFF standing in a corner while Cesare and Rodrigo fight about their Abraham/Isaac/Cain/general biblical-begetting damage and then yelling LOVE EACH OTHER!! at the top of his lungs until they shut up. (HE IS ME!!, Jeremy Irons shouts tearily in possibly the show’s worst script moment ever. Wait, no, that’s also covered in #2. But this is up there.)
3. LUCREZIA MAKES A WITCH FRIEND
Lucrezia’s brief foray into murderous thinking, before Michelotto swans in and takes the responsibility off her hands (#7), involves her skulking around in the forest at midnight in search of poisonous mushrooms. She got the idea from a witch she met in the woods, as you do. I’d explain more, but you’ve read Baba Yaga stories. There’s a witch. They’re in the woods. It goes exactly as you expect.
It looks like it’s going to be a one-off incident, only she KEEPS MEETING THE WITCH (IN THE WOODS) (AS YOU DO).
This pays off in the end when she ENCHANTS AN ENTIRE CASTLE INTO SLEEPING.
No, no, Lucrezia does.
LUCREZIA ENCHANTS AN ENTIRE CASTLE INTO SLEEPING.
Her witch friend is really proud of her, because Lucrezia plays for keeps. Lucrezia lets her witch friend bring friends to loot the castle for her troubles, because she is a true friend. “We are in a fairytale,” she gloats to her husband, stepping over prone and dozing bodies, ”and I am the witch!” The unbirthed fetus of Charles Perrault writhes in the cosmic womb and then goes back to sleep: he doesn’t have to wake up for another century.
2. MICHELOTTO MAKES A SEX FRIEND, AND EVERYTHING GOES ABOUT AS BADLY AS POSSIBLE
The thing about The Borgias is that when the opportunity presents it’s quite game to give you explicit gay sex scenes and casual penis-swinging to compete with its ratio of naked bosoms—far more game than the tit-saturated yet timid Game of Thrones, for instance. Unfortunately, the only opportunities it’s ever presenting are with Michelotto, who looks like he was dredged up from the bottom of the Tiber, and who is in general a murderous feelingless weirdo who was last seen grinding his ex’s naked body onto the dirt of his father’s grave. So, not so sexy, is what I am saying.
Here, Michelotto is fondling Da Vinci statuary and anachronistic guns (#8) when he meets the most obvious spy of all time. Said spy follows Michelotto to Rome (which is the first hint: who would wilfully follow Michelotto anywhere for dick alone?); Michelotto, when Captain Obvious offers to be his boyfriend, is like, “okay,” and proceeds to keep him in a basement somewhere with no furniture, no bed, and a jarful of money, so Captain Obvious can order pizza when Michelotto’s out—which he’ll be for anywhere from days to months, he says to new-boyfriend, slamming the door behind him. Captain Obvious, whose name is Pascal, like the triangle, though I don’t think he’s French, brings nothing but his dick in hand and his copy of Catullus, which he uses to write encoded letters to Caterina Sforza and the Puppykiller of Naples that he slips under Michelotto’s floorboards when Michelotto is sleeping. He also READS CATULLUS TO MICHELOTTO, WHO CANNOT READ, WHICH IS THE SECOND SIGN HE DOES NOT REALLY THINK HIS PLANS THROUGH, the first being “trying to honeypot Michelotto, who doesn’t have a soul.” Michelotto, despite not being able to read or write, has a photographic memory because he is a magic killative convenience machine, and proceeds to write out copies of the letters—which he FINDS IMMEDIATELY, DUH—for Cesare. Holding a mirror over the letter, Cesare realizes: “It’s mirror writing!”
Obviously, Pascal is going to die. What you are not prepared for as a viewer is exactly how, and for how long. How? Why, he offers his wrist to Michelotto, murmuring odi et amo because this is once again the season they decided to go full humanism hog, as a violin plays so loudly that I looked around my apartment to see if a busker had snuck into the corner while I wasn’t looking. Michelotto slits, and Pascal proceeds to stare glassily into the wound and murmur I SEE COLORS. Like any kindergardener, his response to the colors is to play with them, so he raises his arm and makes it rain all over the both of them. He fingerpaints tears of blood onto Michelotto’s face and whispers ”CRYING!” to his murderer/lover/canvas. Somewhere in there, he dies.
Michelotto’s left with a lot of paint on the floor, so to speak, which he decides to use to full fuck-this advantage. The last we saw of Michelotto?
Hey, that’s what I was thinking all episode!
1. BIANCA GONZAGA
I can pinpoint the exact moment the show gave the fuck up, the moment I watched it give the fuck up. It was The Bianca Episode. Which, first off, who even is Bianca? She’s Francesco Gonzaga’s wife—historically, husband of Isabella d’Este, legitimately famous art collector/Renaissance woman/future rival to, who?, oh, yeah, Lucrezia Borgia—so who even is “Bianca Gonzaga” other than an embodiment of the show looking at the historical record and saying, “Well, we could tell that story, but then again, we could also not.”
Who is Bianca Gonzaga, then? Well, she’s Francesco’s nymphomaniac mad wife in the attic who lost her mind after he cut a baby out of her womb and now swans around the Vatican quoting snatches of Song of Solomon while Rodrigo tears out his hair and wishes he had better taste in mistresses. (Remember Giulia Farnese? Don’t you miss Giulia Farnese?) Bianca Gonzaga loiters over Lucrezia’s baby but somehow despite spooky shadows and her general Bertha Rochester damage doesn’t even attempt to murder it. Bianca Gonzaga is bounced out of the Vatican by nuns, at Rodrigo’s request, only she runs away and stabs herself in the stomach over the cradle rather than ever getting her to a nunnery. Rodrigo holds her, getting blood all over his papal robes in the worst Pietà ever, and it’s the end of a story that was somehow the A-plot of an episode. (An episode that should have been about Cesare in France, which totally half-asses the hilarious history of Cesare in France, which is a shame but in keeping because this is the episode where the show gives up.)
So, Bianca Gonzaga in general. Bianca Gonzaga the character, Bianca Gonzaga the narrative marker, Bianca Gonzaga the writing choice But more specifically: I can tell you the exact moment the show gives up, no turning back, jumps the shark and commits to it forever after. And it’s on Bianca Gonzaga. Because when Bianca Gonzaga is throwing off her nun-shackles, she runs down the hallways, her skirts swirling round her ankles in slow motion, screaming ESCAAAAAAAAAAAAPE! at the top of her lungs.
Yes: in episode 5 of season 3 of The Borgias, as a woman escapes, she yells “ESCAPE!”
You really can’t go back from that.