This isn’t the review I wanted to be writing. Whenever a season of a show that you like—and many times love—comes to a close, you should be spending your time talking about what worked in the season and what didn’t, whether or not you preferred it to previous seasons and where you think the story will go next. I should be devoting this review to a summary of my thoughts from the last nine weeks, talking about how I think the third season was a solid whole despite lacking the particular energy that season two grabbed onto in its early goings, how the show’s depiction of an incestuous relationship was a bold and mature take on the subject, and how the arc of this season now sets the Borgia family up for a disastrous fall as they try to build their empire in earnest.
But I don’t have that privilege this time around, because Showtime has taken it from me with its decision to cancel The Borgias. Despite pulling in roughly the same numbers as season two and a critical response that grew steadily better between seasons, the show apparently came across as too expensive for the network given its lack of awards attention and the numbers it drew. (Numbers that were never in its favor, as it’s been sandwiched between the Sunday cable drama juggernauts of Game Of Thrones and Mad Men for its entire lifespan.) And while I have to give the network credit for at least giving enough advance warning that the season finale would in fact be the series finale, and therefore giving me a chance to say a proper goodbye to the show, the fact that the show is ending just shy of the four seasons Neil Jordan projected he’d need to tell the story (or three seasons and a movie as he speculated at one point) is a taste as bitter as any poison in Lucrezia’s medicine cabinet.
So instead of discussing the things I would like to discuss, I’m left having to answer one question before everything else: does “The Prince” work as a series finale? Is this an episode that lets the show leave on a satisfactory note, one that can be slotted alongside other accidental finales that worked as series-enders? Neil Jordan gave that impression in the initial press release, talking about how he felt he’d reached a natural conclusion for that particular stage of the family and he was comfortable leaving it at that. But as much as Jordan’s given me reason to trust him over three seasons, this is the sort of thing most showrunners say when their shows end early to remain in the good graces of the network, and must be taken with a grain of salt.
Thankfully, there’s next to no salt necessary, because the “The Prince” is not a disappointment, as either a series or season finale. While it fails to provide a full sense of closure to the saga of Pope Alexander VI and his children—three years still to go before his death—it manages to be the right accidental finale, leaving potential stories to be told but tying up the immediate loose threads. If it’s a disappointment at all, it’s only because we know we won’t get to see any more episodes like this, because “The Prince” also happens to stack up against the best episodes of The Borgias.
Interestingly, the strength of the episode parallels the strength of the Borgia family, which is similarly in the strongest place it’s been all season. Alexander’s crusade was a success, the Jubilee has swelled the coffers of the Vatican, the papal army is restored to full strength and the alliances with France and Spain are holding together better than ever. All that remains is to squash the threat of Caterina Sforza, a role now given to Cesare as he finally holds the role of Gonfalonier of the Church and general of the papal armies. There’s an air of triumph and grand power as the armies march forward to Forli, soldiers and cannons rolled out to a Trevor Morris arrangement reminiscent of Howard Shore’s Isengard theme from The Lord Of The Rings. And it’s a two-front army that descends on Forli, as Roman forces march out under cover of night while the French slide through the forests bordering Florence, clad in ghillie suits. Thinking back to the early days of The Borgias, it’s almost funny to remember the big battles had a bad habit of looking cheap, because this force assembled onto Forli is anything but.
Sitting triumphant at the head of all of this is Cesare Borgia. As discussed back in “Relics,” the arc of Cesare from unwilling bishop to defiant mercenary to military commander has been the core of the series, and it’s fitting that in this final episode we see him at the zenith of his power, clad in full armor, riding at the head of his army and raising his blade with every bit of the attitude that cowed the venomous condottieri into submission. And he proves himself not only a firm warrior but a shrewd tactician, meeting with Machiavelli at several options to weigh the consequences and options—a foresight that would go into Machiavelli’s famous treatise that shares the name of the episode—and remaining at Rome separate from his army to throw off spies. (The latter decision also gives Alexander the episode’s funniest line as Cesare says he was never here: “We address an empty bed! We have never realized it would provide such sport.”)
Even with all his tactics, breaching the walls of Forli is a considerable task for the young Borgia commander—thankfully, his absent assassin has a parting gift for his master. Micheletto feels too shamed by his failure with Pascal to ever serve Cesare again, but he has a native’s knowledge of Forli, passing on the existence of a Roman quarry coincidentally located under the north tower. Everything about the ensuing sequence is perfect: Cesare striding forward with a white flag ostensibly as surrender but truthfully a marker for the mortars, a series of blasts striking the spot and the rocks gradually falling as the foundations crumble. And when the final blow is struck it sends the wall down in gorgeous fashion, the laughs and japes of the Forli guards turning to horrified yells, the army swarms in like halberd-wielding locusts, and the guards of Forli are cut to pieces by an army hungry for a good fight.
While Cesare is ascendant, Caterina has fallen. Gina McKee proved on multiple occasions that she was perfect casting for the virago considered one of the Renaissance’s most fascinating figures, and her performance in “The Prince” is the best she’s been in the role. She is outflanked by Cesare and she knows it, going from ruthless tactician in her war room to loosely fencing towards her falcon, investing her words to Rufio with a resignation that shows she’s looking ahead to the next world. When the walls of Forli fall she tries for a final death as triumphant as her “ten more sons” threat—in a nice touch her life is saved by the same da Vinci-designed rifle that killed her cousin Ludovico—and her subsequent captivity revives the old charisma that McKee and Arnaud shared from “The Choice.” It’s the ending the character deserves, dragged to Rome in a gilded cage yet never cracking her facade of control to the public, only snapping once at Alexander when he mockingly extends his ring for her to kiss.
The removal of Caterina from power deals with the immediate threat to Alexander’s rule, leaving him in precisely the position he wants to be. Here, Jeremy Irons gets one last chance to demonstrate why he was a perfect choice for this role despite bearing little resemblance to the real Rodrigo Borgia, as in a dimly lit scene beautifully directed by Jordan he expresses his desire to sweep away the system that put him into power: “Is God served well by the papal elections? Is the College of Cardinals mentioned in the gospels?” At many points during the series Alexander has spoken of his ambitions to unite the great boot of Italy, but never before has he sounded so brazen in just what legacy he intends to secure, to supplant the entire Catholic Church to his will and install primogeniture as the law. Even Cesare, so ruthless and driven, is stunned into silence by the revelation of these ambitions, to which Alexander can only smile knowingly and promise him the chance to be king and pope.
But planning such an enterprise requires many promises, and one of those is keeping the French alliance alive. This ties off the second major arc of the season, as the Borgias plan to hand Naples to King Louis with Lucrezia as regent, a move that leaves no room for poor Alfonso. Not that Alfonso’s made himself seem useful, as he’s spent the majority of the time in Rome drunk, to the point that Lucrezia’s comparing him to Juan with the smell of “indulgence” about him. And given what happened to Juan, the writing’s on the wall for everyone—Machiavelli, who made some wry comments about the “perfect crime” of Juan’s death, sees the course of events immediately when discussing tactics: “And her husband, will he have a role to play? … I shouldn’t have asked that, should I.”
It seems Lucrezia will be the only one who would miss Alfonso, even if she’ll miss him less than she thought she would. Of the Borgia family, Lucrezia is the one who is finally weary of all the death and destruction they have wrought, begging reassurance in confession that her father either can’t or won’t provide, unable to feel any joy except in her brother’s company—a company she acknowledges she can’t fight anymore. “Why are we cursed with this feeling that seems so natural? Why when we are together does God seem to be in the same room as us?” And the look on Cesare’s face, both there and when he confronts his brother-in-law on the steps, indicates that he’s done answering to anyone, and one last obstacle to his happiness is nothing to remove.
To that end, Cesare pulls out a hidden blade, releasing Rufio from the Castel Sant’Angelo dungeons to take Micheletto’s place. It’s a decision that seems surprising—the whole season seemed to be building to have the other man paying the price for his crimes—but it’s entirely in keeping with how both Cesare and Rufio operate. Cesare knows a stray dog when he sees one now, how to make a man like this valuable to him, and that with the right guiding hand even a weapon once single-mindedly devoted to his family’s destruction can be appropriated. And Rufio knows his nature and his options too, and hostility is absent from his voice as their conversation becomes less order than a negotiation amongst equals: “And if I’m caught at the task?” “Will you be?” “What do you think?”
The passions that rule so many of these characters turns out to get in the way of this scheme, as Alfonso is there to meet Cesare in the courtyard of their villa. As naïve as he’s been, even he knows what options are left to him, and he claims the final victory by initiating direct conflict—one that ends with Cesare’s blade buried in his gut, in full view of Lucrezia. The physicians claim his death within days, and he begs his wife to reach for whatever scraps of affection she held for him to end it with her poisons. She pleads not to, and he offers a reason, the name that is interchangeable with honor and curse: “You’re a Borgia.”
And in the final scene of the series, we see what that term means, as Cesare enters to Alfonso’s limp hand on the toxic goblet. There is moment of stark terror for both Cesare and the viewer as it seems she may have joined Alfonso, but she’s only laying there in a state of shock, finally having committed an action that even her Borgia upbringing regards as a sin. And Cesare tenderly takes the damp rag to his numb sister’s face, making a promise that are the final words of the show: “You will be naked, clean. Bloodless again. And mine.”
It’s on that final, unholy moment, the grandeur of the Vatican lit only by candles and marked by death and sin, that The Borgias ends. And if it must be an ending for the series, it’s an ending that feels right, even if the family will never get to embark on its great quest for an empire. Because even without the historical context some viewers may have for the show on how this turned out, it’s obvious that goal will never be reached. The family that was supposed to be impregnable can no longer truly trust each other: Alexander knows Cesare will always keep him in the dark, Lucrezia knows her father and brother’s ambitions will forever supersede hers, and the love Cesare and Lucrezia considered the only constant in the world is now forever tainted by the memory of Alfonso’s corpse in the bed between them. This is the final moment of greatness for the Borgia family, the moment where the world is theirs for the taking—but the bonds of family have been strained far beyond where they were ever meant to go, and the rot that will eventually consume them all has been set in. And leaving this world on the pride before the fall is fully appropriate for a family that never acknowledged its weakness, and an ending I can feel comfortable with.
Yet that doesn’t change the fact that it hurts a lot to lose this show. I’ll miss the level of venality and cunning that Jeremy Irons brought to his portrayal of the most notorious pope in Catholic history. I’ll miss watching Cesare climb the ranks with a mix of his brutal temper and understated charm, and I’ll miss Lucrezia’s angelic smiles that conceal fangs beneath. I’ll miss the dead-eyed stares of Micheletto, the contemptuous glances of Cardinal Sforza, the smugly contented grins of Vanozza and Giulia Farnese. I’ll miss the lavish level of production the show achieved, I’ll miss the well-orchestrated and atmospheric Trevor Morris score, I’ll miss those moments where the show reached operatic moments of glory and violence as it did several times in its final outing. It was never the most well-known show, nor did it receive the accolades I always felt it deserved, but in its short time here it gave me more pleasure than many other shows. Requiescat in pace, The Borgias—you end with a solid place assured amongst the ranks of historical dramas.
Episode grade: A
Season grade: B+
Series grade: B+
- So, wishful thinking time: Were I to put together a season four, it would be all about how Alexander’s reach exceeds his grasp, and the empire that he tries to carve out starts rotting from the inside as his enemies become too numerous. Cardinal della Rovere returns to unite with Cardinal Sforza—increasingly disgusted by the Borgia ambitions—and the two conspire for a successful poisoning of Alexander and a season finale that sees him on his deathbed as Irons delivers an Emmy-worthy series of farewells and confessions. And then a two-hour movie that depicts Cesare’s attempts to reclaim power from a della Rovere now ascendant as Pope Julius II, and its failure because of his inability to unite his forces without Alexander that led Machiavelli to eventually disown him in the course of The Prince. It would match the historical circumstances, and give all the characters tremendous arcs and final acts. Sigh.
- In that vein, things I’m upset we won’t get to see: the return of Colm Feore (who is at least now thankfully free of Revolution), the final showdown between Rufio and Micheletto, the resolution of Caterina’s captivity, whether or not any other members of the family discover Cesare and Lucrezia’s secret.
- I’ve tried hard in these reviews not to compare the show to Game Of Thrones—as Todd pointed out in his review of the first season, it’s an unfair comparison to keep making—but the show hasn’t made that easy at times. And the most egregious example came tonight when Caterina pointed out they weren’t ready for a siege, plus “winter is coming.” That’s so on-the-nose it had to be deliberate.
- Speaking of Game Of Thrones, they must be casting for the fourth season fairly soon, and in my dream casting pool I’d put François Arnaud into consideration as Oberyn Martell. As Cesare he certainly displayed the force and wit the Red Viper was known for, and given the hot-blooded and sexually active reputation of the Dornishmen it’d be an easy transition from the lusty Renaissance of The Borgias. And I’m sure there’s room for Sean Harris amongst the wildlings or Holliday Grainger in the Tyrells’ entourage.
- Good historical detail: Cesare’s sword was inscribed with the motto Aut Caesar, aut nihil (Either Caesar, or nothing) which the real Cesare was rumored to carry.
- So, it looks like Giulia Farnese’s brother being made cardinal was just a red herring, or at least a detail they never bothered to do anything with. (Though given where Alessandro Farnese eventually wound up, it’s a good bet that may have made it into season four.)
- Micheletto and Cesare’s final meeting is a bittersweet one. “Where have you been?” “Talking to God.” “What did he say?” “Nothing.”
- And with that, the show and our coverage comes to a close. This one hurts to say goodbye to—The Borgias was the first show I ever pitched to review at The A.V. Club and the first show I ever wrote about on a weekly basis. I wanted to cover it because I thought I glimpsed a better show amidst the tawdry relationship drama and weak plotting that spanned the first season, and it’s been an unequivocal pleasure to be proven right and follow that creative leap over seasons two and three. And it’s been a joy to have these reviews as a place to discuss the show’s growth and attendant history with all of you—we’ve never been the most numerous Sunday cable drama comment section, but there’s been a passion and interest in the shows that’s made it as the strength of ten. Thank you for making these two seasons as much fun to talk about as they were. I hope I’ll see you again in another corner of the site.