How fully does Alexander believe in God?
This might seem an odd question to ask about a character who’s ostensibly the head of his era’s most powerful religion, but it’s a question The Borgias has made me ask more than once. For the most part, it portrays him as being faithful in name only, concerned chiefly with using his position as a political weapon. It has regular flashes where he seems gripped with the weight of his role as pope or the “silence of God”—his coronation in the pilot, his humble appearance in the face of the first French invasion—but almost immediately afterward it comes across as pragmatism that abuses the faith of others, as opposed to any real devotion.
However, Alexander’s rarely been put in a position where he feels God is threatening him directly, which is why the ending of last week’s “The Choice” intrigued me. With a blast of lightning shattering the ceiling of St. Peter’s and choir boys crushed before his eyes, I hoped this week we’d finally see the truly penitent Alexander, withdrawn from the scheming to truly contemplate his part in the divine plan. Beyond the potential to give Jeremy Irons an exceptionally strong solo episode (and easy Emmy submission), it’s a plot that could create a “center cannot hold” moment which dramas like The Sopranos and Deadwood used previously, to great effect. Take its charismatic lead out of the picture, and everything falls into entertaining chaos.
Sadly, “Day Of Ashes” doesn’t provide that moment, and falls into the previously established mold of Alexander paying lip service to God. With the incident occurring right at the start of Lent, Alexander’s penance is a fairly light one by comparison, living off a fasting diet of sardines and forsaking intimacy. It seems like it’s getting closer , he beseeches the silence for some sort of clarity (“To whom does the pope confess, oh Lord? Who would hear his sins?”) but that’s almost immediately broken by Cesare breaking down the door to confess his own crimes. Once that happens, the switch is flipped and we’re back to his traditional scheming. “The Choice” made it seem like his repentance was going to mean something, and that work is undone almost immediately.
That disappointment aside, this was still an active episode of The Borgias, as Alexander being in control of his organization certainly doesn’t mean there’s a lack of chaos in the world. In fact, things feel almost desperate. Cesare’s killing of Giovanni Sforza cuts off any chance of an alliance with Caterina, and to obtain new allies Alexander has to return to the possibility of marrying Lucrezia off, a decision she greets with understandable reluctance. (Her reaction: “I am to be put back in the marketplace… lie on my back and be ravaged by a beast of your choosing!”) Savonarola’s revolt has now grown so powerful it’s sent Piero de Medici running to Rome, and jeopardized the Borgia/Vatican wealth storied in the Medici bank. And Alexander’s reminded for the first time all season that della Rovere is still at large, also keeping company with the friar (and gradually nurturing an assassination plot with small doses of poison to toughen up his disciple Antonello).
“Day Of Ashes” is the first episode of the show no writing credit for Neil Jordan—the script is instead attributed to David Leland, who previously worked with Jordan on the 1986 film Mona Lisa—and while the writing isn’t inconsistent with hours penned by Jordan, there’s a sense the episode relies more heavily on techniques the show’s used several times before. Unfortunately, given the dodgy quality of the first season, doing so borders on falling back into bad habits. Besides the aforementioned reluctance to get into Alexander’s moral code, it brings in suitors for Lucrezia (who were, in season one, a sea of broadly comic caricatures) and Cesare’s petulant nature about being passed over for general in favor of Juan.
But despite approaching these flaws, the episode still manages to pull out of danger largely because of the character work the show has done since those flaws first appeared. Lucrezia’s not the same naïve girl who was used as a bargaining chip before: This is a woman who came dangerously close to fratricide by chandelier, served as papal regent, and is a member of a trio that successfully muscles the College of Cardinals into delivering boxes of gold to fund an orphanage. She bucks hard enough that Alexander has to forge a compromise where Vanozza will interview the suitors herself, and Lucrezia gets to vet them from a distance.
Beyond giving Joanne Whalley more material that’s connected to the main story—something I’ll never complain about—it gives these scenes a necessary sense of distance. Lucrezia’s at her best when she’s on the offensive, and here she’s snarking her way through a variety of suitors from the balcony, giving a nice flustered quality to Alexander as he tries to sway her to a decision. And given that the other lesson Lucrezia learned in her first marriage is how to have an affair, it increases the odds that when she eventually marries it won’t be for long, particularly if those meaningful glances with one suitor’s brother are any indication.
Cesare’s complaints about his clerical role are also easier to stomach this time around thanks to a key ally he’s made in the role: Niccolò Machiavelli, now in Rome to prepare for the Medici family’s exile. Out of patience with his patron’s lax leadership (“Signor Medici values my opinion, especially as he does not have one of his own”) he decides to hedge his bets and throw in with the Borgias. With the Medici bank’s funds being split across Rome to keep them from Savonarola’s horde, the location of a traveling caravan or two make for excellent bargaining chips, especially when it gives Cesare a new strategy to pursue. He can’t negotiate for a generalship, so perhaps he could buy his way out of the priesthood?
A sound strategy—particularly given the weakness of Alexander’s crisis of faith—and one Cesare leaps to take advantage of. It leads to the welcome return of his condottieri killers, who take the caravan down in an entertaining battle with more than a few shades of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Machiavelli’s tip was good, and Cesare brings wagons loaded with gold to his father’s doorstep, grinning in anticipation of his award. But alas, Alexander’s commitment to having a military son and a holy son was equally unshaken by the lightning strike last week and Cesare’s request is denied. (And for added salt in the wound, Juan’s returning from Spain with a conquistador army at his back—a far more attractive force to Alexander than Cesare’s mercenary pack.)
Alexander, it seems, will never be able to change who he is completely—and it's possible The Borgias will never quite change those little parts that always come across as annoyances. “Day of Ashes” came close to a lot of those annoyances, but didn’t trip over them, and while it didn’t take the show to the new level I hoped for it still seems to be moving in the right direction. And as we head into the second half of the season—with the promise of a third season to come—that’s a good feeling to have.
- The episode shows to chilling effect just how much power Savonarola now exerts in Florence. His devotees whip their backs raw on Ash Wednesday, jeer and spit on a chained group of accused homosexuals, and the friar himself declares he’ll wipe his ass with Alexander’s cease-and-desist order.
- Peter Sullivan’s Cardinal Sforza hasn’t had the juicy material the rest of the cast has been given, but I’ve grown increasingly fond of the way he doesn’t even bother to hide his contempt for Alexander. His reaction to the cardinals complaining about the extortion of Lucrezia and company is an episode highlight: “Shut up and pay for it.”
- A nice bit of misdirection when it seems for a moment that Machiavelli gave Cesare the location of a decoy caravan. Perhaps it’s historical knowledge of what Machiavellian politics means, but Cesare should be careful in choosing his allies.
- The scene between Alexander and a bathing Vanozza was fairly terrific. Irons and Whalley haven’t had a real scene together since the pilot—a consequence of Alexander distancing himself from his past—but their dynamic was strong and natural, like that of a couple that had been together for decades and were used to coming to each other with their problems. Nice to see Vanozza get the last word too. (“Have you not forsaken intimacy for Lent?”)
- In that familial vein, good banter between Alexander and Cesare as Lucrezia’s marriage is discussed: “Save your thoughts, say nothing!” “I haven’t uttered a word!” “No, but we can hear you thinking.”
- Alexander’s spin on Giovanni’s death: “He fell onto a knife that Cesare happened to be holding.”