When The Borgias premièred, the media it was most regularly compared to wasn’t its Showtime predecessor, The Tudors, but a video game: Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II. An epic tale of a vendetta spanning decades, Assassin’s Creed II brought the world of Renaissance Italy to life in so memorable a fashion that it couldn’t help come to mind when discussing a show set in the same era. Rodrigo Borgia is even the main antagonist of the game, portrayed as the physical inverse to Jeremy Irons—but a schemer of equal proportions to The Borgias’ Pope Alexander VI. Jokes about crossovers between the two flourished, commenters asking when François Arnaud or Sean Harris would start leaping from buildings and pulling targets into haystacks.
I mention this because after watching this episode of The Borgias, I’m almost convinced Neil Jordan read the same comments and decided to humor the viewers who made them. While it doesn’t have the white cowls and sleeve blades of Assassin’s Creed, “Stray Dogs” is the bloodiest, most kinetic episode the show’s done yet, with the humiliation of the French army giving many Italian noble families a taste for both glory and revenge. The rising body count is accompanied by several additional encouraging elements in terms of plot development, buoying hope that “The Beautiful Deception” was not a fluke but a positive sign of things to come.
The noble with the greatest desire for blood is Cesare, who barely gets a day to enjoy the success of his deception before Micheletto brings dark news. The retreating French troops are cutting a swathe through the papal states on their way back to Paris, and one of the casualties was the massacre of the convent where his former mistress Ursula was sheltered. The sight of her raped, earless body crystallizes something within Cesare, and within seconds he forms a dark new strategy. He instructs Micheletto to gather a collection of his fellow “condottieri”—mercenaries, soldiers, and displaced nobles who are very good at killing—and offer them a chance to take the fight to the French. Not on the open battlefield however, but as a new kind of unit operating at night and vanishing like smoke, claiming its kills with garrotes and light crossbows: essentially, he invents commando warfare.
Granted, none of the condottieri have a personality beyond being a group of Micheletto clones: unshaven, grimy, and soulless. But considering that Micheletto was the most entertaining part of the first season, a dozen variations on the character are similarly entertaining. The Borgias has always been well-choreographed, and it takes advantage of this switch to a grittier style of combat, whistles, and arrows in the dark. The condottieri’s operations are more fun than the show usually allows—fun in the manner of a carefully executed Assassin’s Creed encounter: Eliminate all targets without being detected. Take prisoners to gather intel for the next mission. Identify the munitions and destroy them.
Cesare’s never lacked for the ability to improvise, but the lengths to which he’s willing to go and the free reign he allows Micheletto in torturing the survivors speaks worlds to how dark he’s becoming. Although Arnaud’s given to shouting his intents—a contrast to Harris’ silken menace—he retains an aura of command with these clearly dangerous men, either in offering them loot or tightening vices around their heads. And given he’s once again producing results—learning the true blame for the convent attack is lies with his sister’s ex-husband, Giovanni Sforza—it bodes well for more of these sequences to come.
Of course, Alexander isn’t ignorant of his son’s extracurricular activities, but for now only encourages him to practice more subtlety in the art of revenge, as larger issues demand the pope’s attention. The heads of Venice, Milan, and Mantua have chosen to band together in an league to expel the French once and for all, with an army under the leadership of Mantua’s Duke Francesco Gonzaga. The opposite of Cesare’s mercenary forces, Gonzaga is a man of honor, who would ask the blessing of the pope in what he perceives as a righteous war.
The pope is happy to provide his blessing in this matter, but as always his pragmatism is the driving force. There’s not a single reason for Alexander to withhold his judgment: the league’s army exhausting itself on the French weakens all potential enemies; Gonzaga’s honor is so strong he’ll trade the army’s entire spoils to the church for a blessing; additionally, Gonzaga’s new wife Bianca happens to be the prostitute whose company Alexander enjoyed in the première. Irons’ performance seemed occasionally phoned in last year, but he’s killing it in season two, while his character takes what he wants. Irons is particularly good in rare instances where he fights these urges, only for his true nature to take over: When Bianca offers herself up again, his reluctance to bed his host’s wife flips to raw lust in less than five seconds.
And who wouldn’t be confident, when after praying for a “benediction of rain” to silence the French cannons, he awakens to the sound of precipitation instead of explosions? Alexander brags to the victorious generals that it was God’s will, but when Gonzaga says it wasn’t rain but a collection of “brave Roman souls” that destroyed the munitions, the pope’s mood changes considerably. Cesare denies his involvement far better than Juan denied murdering Paolo, and he has a card to play by subtly hinting he knows precisely what appetites Alexander was indulging the night before. Alexander has always sought to counsel his eldest son and groom him as a clerical replacement; now, the stunned look on Alexander’s face suggests he may have passed on one lesson too many.
Also learning too many lessons from their father is Lucrezia, whom Alexander names his proxy as he travels with the league’s army, and who’s similarly courting her own agenda. Giulia’s asked for greater permission to dig into the Vatican’s office of public works, and to that end she recruits both Lucrezia and Vanozza to form an alliance working against the College of Cardinals. It’s a shrewd move for the plot going forward to unite these women—both Giulia and Vanozza were marginalized early this season—but unfortunately, the grandeur of both the bloodier plots in “Stray Dogs” means that Rome’s domestic action gets something of a short shrift. (Not that it’s without charm, as the sight of Lucrezia on the throne of St. Peter is awesome. Holliday Grainger offers some wonderfully smug looks as she glances over at the dumbfounded sea of cardinals.)
While it’s a step down from last week, “Stray Dogs” is another reassuring stride in the right direction for this second season. Episodes like “The Beautiful Deception” show just how epic and suspenseful The Borgias can be, and episodes like this one prove that, just like Assassin’s Creed, it can have import while also having some bloody fun.
- Another episode directed by Jon Amiel, and one that again uses dual scenes to great impact—this time, Alexander’s adultery interwoven with the condottieri laying waste to the French gunpowder supplies. Other standout scenes include Alexander’s candle-lit final meeting with the increasingly ill King Charles and Micheletto moving through a crowd, tapping the shoulders of condottieri to gather his brother wolves.
- Only a brief Cardinal della Rovere sighting this week as Alexander leaves Rome, but we do learn he’s bound for Florence to speak to fanatic preacher Girolamo Savonarola.
- One moment I wasn’t fond of: Micheletto taking way too long to kill the French captive, and getting way too close to him. It’s been implied he’s entirely dead inside, and to see him possibly getting off on the bloodshed cools my appreciation of the character somewhat.
- Cesare’s mercenary outfit of cloak and half-mask is designed to keep his appearance cryptic. However, all it reminds me of is a certain NBC superhero who shall remain nameless.
- I’m not too proud to admit I may have yelled “Reeeeeeeeeeeveeeeeeeeeeeeeenge!” to the sky at least a few times during this episode. Revenge has conditioned me in this fashion.
- Cesare to his troops, setting the foundation of his philosophy: “There is talk of something called honor. Let us show them another way.”