In the course of these reviews, I’ve talked many times about the use of spectacle on The Borgias, as both the show and the world within the show rely on it to a considerable degree. From a production standpoint, some of the show’s finest moments have been its depictions of grand events, from Alexander’s coronation as pope to any number of weddings to the Bonfire of the Vanities to the burning of Friar Savonarola. Neil Jordan and company are well aware of the level of celebration that went along with the Renaissance and the Borgia family’s historical love of such pomp and circumstance, and have taken full advantage of the budget Showtime affords them to go nuts in replicating these grand galas.
And one of the reasons why these spectacles work so well as opposed to seeming indulgent on the part of the creative team is that in every instance there’s an awareness on the part of the characters on the meaning of these spectacles. Alexander talked in the second season premiere about his pagan celebration for the people as an excuse to “Let Rome be full of joy!” but that decision was also made with full awareness of how the people would view the Borgia family who put on that celebration. Cesare’s push for an engagement ceremony for his sister in “The Confession” was as much about disregarding the memory of his dead brother, and Ferdinand’s invitation for Caterina to attend Lucrezia’s wedding was carefully calculated so everyone in the party would know exactly where he stood. Spectacle alters perception, and the illumination of a grand event can facilitate many schemes and killings outside of the dance floor and banquet hall.
“Tears Of Blood” shows that these grand events can be not only a tool for shaping opinions, but also a potent weapon if you know how to use them properly. With her various assassination attempts failing to yield results, Caterina decides to hit Alexander where he hurts— in the treasury— countering his grand Jubilee with her own relic and her carefully planted spies. It’s an episode where the dominoes that have been carefully stacked are starting to fall over, forcing characters to improvise and come to terms with the fact that they’re in bed with the wrong people, literally and figuratively.
Fittingly, the episode begins with an event designed to be one of of the grandest spectacles in all of Christendom, as the year 1500 kicks off the Jubilee celebration. A great deal of time is spent showing Alexander enter into full vestments, Trevor Morris’ score building to a grand crescendo as layers of fabric and jewelery are placed on the pope as Jeremy Irons keeps his expression carefully neutral. While the faith of its central characters is often left in doubt or depicted as secondary to their ambitions, The Borgias never shies away from making faith deeply central to the majority of the population— witness the rapid rise and fall of Savonarola last season. And the grand show of Alexander being carried through the city followed by the reveal of the Spear of Longinus proves how with grand expressions of heaven on Earth, they can keep the entire populace under control.
This grand spectacle is then cleverly balanced with its dark mirror, as the “bank of sinners” one of the cardinals suggested to Alexander has been instated. In a series of confessions and filling of coin boxes, the Vatican enters the business of trading forgiveness for ducats to swell the fund for “the Constantinople endeavor,” accessible only by Alexander and Cardinal Farnese. If the show wasn’t already so debauched and devoid of piety— “The Banquet Of Chestnuts” put paid to that definitively— this would the sort of spectacle that would lead you to wonder when Jesus Christ will show up to throw the moneylenders out of his temple.
Caterina, however, is greeted with a far different spectacle: the body of her son Benito. And for all her bold talk about bearing ten more sons in “The Siege Of Forli” she’s consumed with sorrow at this loss, and fear for what Alexander will do to her with the funds the Jubilee is raising. She decides to deploy her own relic, a duplicate of the Shroud of Turin, displayed in the catacombs of Sforza-controlled territory and stemming the flow of pilgrims to Rome. The move works to keep the coffers of Rome light—particularly with the aid of a contraption to simulate bleeding tears on the Shroud in front of the first group—and then works to draw papal attention as Cesare and Micheletto investigate, only to be nearly blown to bits by a gunpowder trap.
The near-execution of Cesare leads Alexander to conclude there is a spy in their midst, but his identity— that of Micheletto’s lover Pascal— remains a mystery. Micheletto remains cautiously happy with his domestic life (and comfortable enough to stroll around his home nude, which I’m sure will please a subset of The Borgias fan base). Pascal however is far less comfortable in the devil’s embrace, particularly when his employer Rufio stops by in the middle of the night to leave a message. This is a terrifying scene, both in the darkness of the cinematography and in Thure Lindhart’s bearing— complete and total silence, an expression loaded with threats mockingly putting a finger to his lips. Micheletto is direct in his ways, but Rufio likes to play with his food, knowing both that he could have killed Micheletto if he wanted to and just how much danger this put Pascal in.
At the very least, Pascal takes comfort in the fact that Micheletto is illiterate, and he can read to him from the Catullus he uses to decode these messages without him being the wiser— that is until Pascal fails to retrieve the note from under the loose floorboard, which Micheletto discovers (accompanied by an well-timed ominous cello score). While Micheletto is entirely illiterate, he has an almost photographic memory for shapes and figures, and is able to transcribe the note to Cesare. This is the best episode Sean Harris has had since the start of the series— he’s always been one of the show’s most valuable assets, but it’s chiefly been as a carefully used supporting player. Here, he allows his walls to come down ever so slightly, and makes the wrong choice to do so. And it shows, as he dares to raise his voice to Cesare for the first time in the show’s history as the latter presses him on where he got this intel, and once the truth is exposed he twitches slightly before drawing his dagger and asking Cesare to end him.
To cite another Mario Puzo work, I’ve always seen Micheletto in the same vein as Luca Brasi and Albert Neri in the original The Godfather novel, human weapons who can be controlled as Don Corleone said so memorably by the following method: “The trick is since he does not fear death and indeed looks for it, the trick is to make yourself the only person in the world that he truly desires not to kill him.” As such, Micheletto’s moment of penance is a moment of total abandon for the character, the truest indication he feels he has failed, and it takes one aback as much as it does Cesare, who refuses the offer immediately once he recovers from the shock. In its way that moment is even more upsetting than when Micheletto leaves Pascal in his quarters, throwing his pretty words back at him and offering the other man a choice of death, and all Paolo can say is “In your arms.”
And as Cesare learns too late from the deciphered notes, Caterina’s other spy is more successful in his aims. Having earned a papal investiture, King Frederigo requests that Lucrezia be made a special ambassador between Naples and Rome, a role she quickly learns should be one that favors the former as that is where her loyalties must lie. Lucrezia is understandably suspicious at this move, particularly as he seems far more like his devious brother Rafael than he did at their first conversation: “Your tone has changed, my liege.” “Of course. I am king. What else did you expect?”
Those suspicions quickly escalate once Lucrezia realizes two members of the royal guard are following her at all times. When confronted, Frederigo doesn’t even make an attempt to conceal his cockiness, stating her ambassadorship is simply a diplomatic prison sentence, and she is being kept as a hostage against any of her family’s moves against the Sforza family. The flashbacks to reveal how he faked the poisoning are out of keeping with the show’s existing style— Luke Allen-Gale looks fairly ridiculous spitting words out of a fake blood-splattered mouth. That said, he’s still chewing the scenery in the same way that Matias Varela did, this time so ruthlessly Lucrezia passes out from shock.
Here is where context matters, as we all know Lucrezia doesn’t faint even when she’s caught off-guard. Instead, it’s an excuse for her to call in some special medical attention— in this case the old woman from the woods, whose intelligence led Lucrezia to denounce Rafael. She’s unapologetic about this, but feminism wins out as she’s angered by Lucrezia’s confinement, which she states so aptly (“I did not know he would confine such a splendid witch as you”) and offers Lucrezia a full vial of a sleeping potion to tip the scales in her favor. This season the show has been trying to introduce the historical detail of Lucrezia as a poisoner, and I don’t feel they’ve done it spectacularly well— it’s felt forced, particularly given she hasn’t successfully poisoned anyone— but there’s still time to show her taking the initiative and applying what she’s learned. (And given that in her fake faint she certainly heard Frederigo utter the phrase “Borgia bitch,” he’s sure to get the even uglier end of the stick.)
For Caterina’s sake, she should hope that Frederigo’s bluff succeeds, because Alexander has finally removed the last obstacle to declaring total war on the Sforzas. Mattai’s plan to eradicate the Turkish fleet— hashed out in secret counsel with Alexander— has borne fruit, eradicating the docked ships with a series of oil spills where the ships are docked. The crusade has felt like a superficial part of this season for the most part, something suggested by Alexander to distract from the main issues of the day and line his pockets, but the resolution of it is filmed beautifully. Once again the show deploys its cross-cutting, moving seamlessly between the explosions ripping the dock apart in a crescent of fire across the coast, and Alexander quietly signing Mattai’s papal bull under candlelight. And it bodes well for the last two episodes of the season, as it proves an important truth: Alexander and Caterina both love their pomp and circumstance, but when that doesn’t take they’ll set the world alight without hesitation.
- The relationship between Alexander and Cesare grows increasingly strained, as Alexander refuses to spare any of the Vatican’s resources to shut down Caterina’s hoax and says he will simply pay him out of his pocket for whatever expenses it needs. “Your mercenary, Holy Father,” Cesare says with a mocking bow bordering on contemptuous.
- Even in a grand celebration of faith designed to be over the top, Cardinal Sforza still manages to maintain an expression of contempt for Alexander’s behavior as the latter knocks down the “gates of justice.” As with Harris, Peter Sullivan remains a wonderfully understated resource for the show.
- Nice touch: When Frederigo prepares for his investiture, Alexander first makes him wait and then makes him move closer before kissing the ring. After Ferdinand’s disobedience Alexander wants this new king to know for certain who’s in control. Not that it helps much in the grand scheme of things though.
- Interestingly, while he reacts strongly to the revelation that Micheletto was sleeping with the enemy and his subsequent wish for death, Cesare has no discernible reaction to the reveal that Micheletto is gay. It could be that Cesare is more open-minded than your typical 16th century nobleman, or that he’s well aware given his own sexual predilections he has no room to judge.
- Speaking of said predilections, Lucrezia visits Cesare in bed during her visit to Rome, and while nothing happens the atmosphere remains disquietingly sexually charged. “And my embassy awaits. I have everything I wanted.” “Everything?” “...Almost everything.”
- “Adultery no doubt. Diamond and black pearl.” Alexander is a savant when it comes to apprising the cost of sins.
- “Could she be with child?” “I truly doubt that possibility.” Poor Alfonso.