Watching the first season of The Borgias was an exercise in measuring expectations. It wasn't that the show was ever truly awful or even mediocre in its worst moments, but it was a show that never quite knew what to do with either its source material or the resources it had on hand. Rather than construct an elaborate political thriller or medieval crime drama, more often than not creator Neil Jordan chose to interpret the time period as elaborate soap opera. Plots seemed to revolve chiefly around mistresses, adultery, tawdry affairs, and seemingly endless scenes of pillow talk that dragged out every aspect of the show by comparison.
For all the annoyances that the first season offered, I still watched every episode, because I continued to see moments where a much better show was trying to break free. Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, the corrupt Pope Alexander VI was the primary reason to stay, of course, but several of the supporting performances—François Arnaud as Cesare Borgia, Holliday Grainger as his sister, Lucrezia; and Sean Harris as his personal assassin, Micheletto—continued to get better and took the characters to interesting and compelling places. The production values were solid, with celebrations in the Vatican often reaching epic status, and as time went on, the show also got better at explaining the politics of Renaissance Italy and how the Borgia family sought to take control of it.
“The Borgia Bull” doesn't dispel the problems of the first season, but it does feel like Jordan and company are getting closer to that better version of the show. It's lighter on the relationship drama and heavier on political elements, and this helps make some of the characters more consistent in their motivations. More to the point, it gives The Borgias a sense of direction going forward, something the relatively scattershot first season couldn't claim.
The episode picks up after comparatively little time has passed between seasons—a few weeks at most, based on the growth of infant children and facial hair. Having successfully bribed King Charles VIII to spare Rome by offering him a blessed kingship of Naples (a Naples riddled with plague, unknown to the king), Alexander now turns his attention to a two-fold strategy of securing the legacy of the Borgia name. First, as an effort to raise his popularity with the common people, he proposes a grand event to celebrate the once and future glories of Rome: horse races, a classical masquerade, and the burning of a massive wooden bull. And off to the side, he recruits his sons to begin taking revenge on the noble houses that allowed the French armies to pass by unmolested, “forcing them back to the arms of Rome.” (Injustice deliciously squared, as it were.)
This twin focus on restoration and revenge is a welcome direction for the Borgia papacy. When The Borgias has objectives, it's simply more interesting to watch, as in season one when Lucrezia found a way to disable her abusive husband or Cesare worked to undercut the restrictions of a cardinal's office. Setting up these political gambits early means the plot has somewhere to go right away, and it opens the action to Rome and its surrounding city-states, rather than just the bedrooms of the Borgia clan. It also means that Alexander has to be engaged on every level—clever, ruthless, commanding and lecherous at various turns—which lets Irons use more and more of his remarkable skill set. (Even in the sillier moments, as when he brings his newborn grandson to a meeting with the French ambassador, the character now feels shrewd rather than eccentric, a well the show fell down more than once in season one.)
But despite his engagement with building a dynasty that will last a hundred years, Alexander is neglecting the fact that the most important pieces of that dynasty hate the other with a passion. The relationship between eldest son Cesare and second son Juan has been tense ever since the pilot episode, and Juan's now so drunk with the power of heading the papal army that he's forgotten how weak of a general he actually is. He tosses dueling blades in Cesare's hands, throws caltrops under his horse in a race, and flaunts his popularity as general with such aplomb he should be grateful fratricide is the one sin the brothers' father would never forgive.
This conflict is certainly more personal than Alexander's ambitions, but as with the politics, this one is off to a good start. Like Irons, Arnaud and David Oakes do better as actors when their characters have more agency, and there's a believable tension between the two in their scenes. Given Cesare's already proven tendency to buck the rules when necessary, it's likely the caltrops he tossed back under his brother's feet during the masquerade will only be the first shot fired in this salvo, and there's plenty both men can do to each other without forcing their father's interference.
Of course, these directions don't mean that the show's abandoned its romantic drama. If anything, it's expanding along with the pope's ambitions, as Alexander's appetites have grown to the point he's bringing prostitutes directly into the Vatican when his mistress Giulia Farnese is out of the city. He does his best to keep this under wraps, enlisting some very reluctant papal attendants to do so, but it certainly doesn't help matters when he gets close to a female sculptor hiding her gender to get an apprenticeship while Giulia's in the next room. No shrinking violet herself, Giulia asserts her dominance over the younger Vittoria by borderline sexually assaulting her in the Vatican's art gallery. And when that's not enough, she swallows her pride and asks the pope's last mistress for advice and takes Vittoria aside for an even closer encounter that the pope happens to be watching. The romance remains weaker than the politics, but Lotte Verbeek plays it with an icy calm that's compelling in its own right. When she reaches out to Vanozza for help, it gives me hope the equally talented Joanne Whalley might have more to do this season.
Also to the benefit of The Borgias, the series hasn't abandoned the story arc that drove most of the first season's political action, as King Charles is feeling his own desire for vengeance after being crowned king of the Naples charnel house. Unable to act against the well-protected pope—and suffering from the plague himself—he finds his satisfaction in tracking down the rogue Prince Alfonso and subjecting him to his father's infamous torture chambers.
This is probably going to sound sadistic, but I regard this as the most promising of developments. Alfonso was unquestionably the worst part of the first season—Augustus Prew gave a performance comparable only to a squawking goose. He served as a symbol of the show's baffling tendency to insert broad gallows humor alongside its political machinations. So to put that character on a “Judas cradle” as an ambitious king hums along to his screams and looks ahead to the destruction of much bigger foes? It gives me a great deal of hope that The Borgias is prepared to strip off its flaws and move to something better this time around.
- Lucrezia doesn't have much to do this episode beyond take care of her newborn son, but she makes it very clear to Alexander she's bracing herself for a second arranged marriage. (“If the need arose, you would marry me to the moon,” she tells her father. “What? Does the sun threaten our papacy?” he responds jokingly.)
- Also mostly absent from the action is Colm Feore as Cardinal della Rovere, who retreated to an Umbrian church after his plot to unseat Alexander backfired. It's proved an awful hiding place, as Cesare very quickly bribes an altar boy to poison the cardinal, and then easily gets to his sickbed to remind him he's better off on their side.
- Alexander sports a two-faced mask at the masquerade. What would The Borgias be without being stupidly obvious in regards to at least one part of its symbolism?
- As competently done as it was, that horse race really made me miss Luck.
- Facial hair appears to be in style this season in Rome, as Micheletto's let his beard grow out and Juan's now sporting a ragged goatee he probably thinks makes him look rakish. (It doesn't.)