If one thing can be said to unite the characters of The Borgias beyond their various appetites, it’s that every single one of them is forced to appear as something other than they are. Alexander must be seen to be pious and concerned only with the rule of God, when he's actually a power-hungry amoralist engaging in nightly trysts with two mistresses. Cesare, Juan and Lucrezia must appear to be the dutiful children who work to cement their father’s legacy, when in fact they chafe at those roles behind his back. And men like Micheletto and Cardinal della Rovere must appear to be anything other than what they really are, if they want to get close enough to drive their blades home.
“The Beautiful Deception” pulled the curtain back on all of these facades—and not coincidentally, was also the best episode the show has done to date. While early in The Borgias’ run it sometimes felt like it was pulling its own illusion, hiding behind lavish historical drapery to appear better than it was, this episode takes away every bit of artifice to create real stakes, pacing and a sense of tension as it pushes its central family to the very edge. And while they manage to pull back at the last second, it’s only by constructing yet another layer of lies agreed upon that could fall down just as easily as the first.
Of the many lies told by the Borgia family, there are two important ones the episode centers on. The first is the murder of Paolo, which Juan thought to pass off as a suicide by leaving the body hanging from a noose with a note to dispel any suspicions. Unfortunately, since Paolo could neither read or write, suspicions are the first thing to pop into Lucrezia’s mind—and given Juan nearly cut Paolo’s throat on their first meeting, she identifies the culprit almost immediately. It doesn't take Alexander or Cesare long to come to the same conclusions, and Juan being Juan he doesn’t even try to deny it when confronted, sarcastically claiming he did it for Alexander's “perfect family.”
Not dragging out the mystery is a great move for the episode, because having to dealing with it gives the family their most legitimate emotions to date. Alexander has been operating on his own deceptions for so long that having the cracks in his potential dynasty exposed nearly leaves him powerless: terrified at the thought of losing his first grandchild to Lucrezia’s grief, and so enraged at Juan's agency he leaps across the table to throttle him. He’s now forced to nod to reality, placing concessions and restrictions on his previously idealized children. Paolo gets a Christian burial to appease Lucrezia, and Juan is sent to Spain to choose a bride and stay out of trouble for a while.
Juan swallows the news through clenched teeth, but Lucrezia decides not to let this slide without a parting shot. After “accidentally” interrupting her brother mid-coitus, she leaves a few hints that she knows exactly what he did—and also leaves behind a candle strategically placed under the rope holding a chandelier in place. The sequence that follows is dark in a fantastic way: Lucrezia rocking the cradle in sync with Juan’s grunts and thrusts, the rope smoldering ever quicker, and then the snap at the score's apex. Both Oakes and Grainger have always done well when given the right material, and each has some terrifically frightening silent moments: an uncontrollable clenching of fists from Juan as he is exiled to Spain, a subtle grin from Lucrezia as she hears her brother's groans of pleasure shift to agony.
The chandelier only manages to pin Juan down—thanks to the unfortunate prostitute who happened to between the two at the time—but Juan sees the candle, and he knows what it means as surely as Lucrezia interpreted the faux suicide note. And now, another deception replaces the status quo, as each sibling knows exactly what the other one knows and how far the other is willing to go. The threat of Alexander’s retribution is enough to keep them in cease-fire mode, so for now they confine themselves to thinly veiled threats around the table at Juan’s goodbye dinner. (“You have no regrets, do you dear Juan?” “No burning ones, no.” “Good. Then perhaps I shall drop in on you unexpectedly.”)
Juan’s exile turns out to the the best thing for his health, as not only is he getting away from his siblings but he’s also running ahead of a much bigger problem. The top targets on Alexander's vengeance checklist, Giovanni and Caterina Sforza, decide to act first and persuade King Charles to make a return trip directly through Rome. Faced with the threat of French cannons that leveled cities and carved through Juan’s troops, Alexander has a typically ambitious plan to surpass the artillery of the French, calling on Vittorio/Vittoria to suborn every foundry in Rome for the forging of a hundred cannons. However, there’s yet another consequence to break through his illusions: the “priceless joy” of his city-wide festival cost the city too much, including every bit of bronze needed for the artillery.
So now it's Cesare’s turn to deal with adversity—and in doing so proves he may be the smartest one of his siblings. Juan reacts with bold anger, Lucrezia with icy short-term vengeance, but Cesare knows how to play on a grander scale, and not to tell his father if it's something he can handle. If he can't produce a hundred real cannons, a hundred fake ones of plaster may do the trick just as well. And if they're going to commit to this illusion, might as well do so full-scale, even if it forces Micheletto to knife a loose-tongued soldier or two.
The tension builds throughout the assembly, and when the battle lines finally meet and the results revealed, The Borgias reaches a level of suspense unprecedented in the show’s history. Even if intellectually we know the trick’s going to work—history aside, Rome being leveled would similarly level the show’s structure—that doesn't make it any less artificial as the French commanders stare down the line, heart in everyone’s mouth as you wait for even one cannon to crack and take the illusion down with it. Funnily enough, what sells that deception and forces Charles into retreat may well be Cesare disregarding his own illusions: trappings of docile cardinal thrown aside, looking every inch the controlled general his brother isn’t.
I've talked before about how I could see a better show scratching to get free from the soap opera trappings of early story lines, and I hoped this season would validate this faith: I just wasn't expecting it to happen three episodes in. Assuming this isn't Neil Jordan and company playing a trick of their own, when this season ends we might be marking “The Beautiful Deception” as the moment where The Borgias became the show was always meant to be.
- This episode was directed by Jon Amiel, who was responsible for 2010's Creation and the BBC miniseries The Singing Detective—and not coincidentally, it's the best-looking episode of the season to date. The cuts between Juan’s grunts and Lucrezia’s lullaby as the candle burns are wonderfully tense, as are both contentious family chats around the Borgia dinner table.
- Once again, della Rovere’s action is secondary to the main story, but he's now completed his journey to Rome and joined an order of Dominican friars who might provide the tools necessary to unseat Alexander. And given he’s the only one to bet on “Borgia duplicity” winning the day against the French, he's still foreshadowed as a much more dangerous enemy than the Sforzas.
- Michel Muller reacting to a room of taxidermied corpses is just inherently hilarious.
- Micheletto is averaging a kill and a threatening interaction per episode. This is much more encouraging than last year when he seemed to disappear for weeks at a time.
- Cesare, upon learning the truth of Vittorio/Vittoria's identity, says what we're all thinking: “Is nothing in this damned city what it seems?!”