It’s an undisputed fact that when it comes to historical accuracy, The Borgias isn’t going to win an award anytime soon. Neil Jordan and company tend to treat the actual sequence of events depicted on their series as more like guidelines than actual rules, shuffling chronology and the exact details of why various factions went to war on a regular basis. And by and large, they’re able to get away with it because in addition to creative license for televised historical drama (See also: Boardwalk Empire, Magic City, Spartacus) the changes they make are done to further story and character development. Lucrezia sitting as Alexander’s regent last week, for example, is a real event that didn’t happen exactly as presented, but as it stands gives Lucrezia and her co-conspirators more power in their quest to better Rome.
Similarly, when it comes to incorporating the more well-known players in Renaissance history, the show has taken several liberties with their historical reputation while earning a pass on the strength of the actors it chooses. Steven Berkoff as Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, Julian Bleach as Medici adviser Niccolo Machiavelli, Gina McKee as Forli countess Caterina Sforza—all three performers distinguished themselves in the first season of The Borgias, playing well with Jeremy Irons and Colm Feore as allies or antagonists.
All three of these characters return in “The Choice,” an episode which lacks the force and action of the last two installments but maintains The Borgias’ solid second-season track record. There are a lot of moving pieces this week, to the point where while the episode is never boring, it does feel a bit on the overstuffed side. After the collapse of the French army last week, it’s time for Alexander to move down his checklist of enemies, and having these charismatic guest starts helps to ward off some of the doldrums of an episode that’s clearly setting things in motion for the next act.
The most prolific figure this week is Caterina, who (along with Lucrezia’s ex-husband Giovanni) backed King Charles’ efforts to unseat Alexander from the papacy. With the French army tricked and defeated, Caterina has retired to her castle at Forli with a regiment of French cannons, a position from which Alexander is determined to dig her out. He dispatches Cesare to Forli to offer Caterina a choice—either come to Rome willingly to kneel and kiss his ring, or be dragged back in chains—but the proud woman chooses not to give him an answer. As she tells Cesare, with a knowing smirk on her face, “I only kneel when it suits me.”
McKee’s had a long career in both film and television (audiences probably know her best as the white queen/dark queen from Mirrormask), and she does an outstanding job with this character. As Caterina, she’s imperious without being haughty, seductive without being overly sexual—qualities that appeal to Cesare, whose recognition of a kindred spirit leads him to eventually give in to her charms when she “accidentally” has a steward point him toward her room. Unlike Cesare/Ursula or Lucrezia/Paolo, this is a meeting of equals, one who’s a warrior constrained by his role as cleric, the other a woman who’s defied expectations to become in her words “a freak of nature, an abomination—a free woman in a man’s world.” It’s the most charged relationship we’ve seen yet in the show, and it’s fun to watch Arnaud and McKee banter as the Trevor Morris score lends an almost primal intensity.
And given the personalities involved, it doesn’t take a history lesson to predict where this ends. When Caterina refuses either of Cesare’s options to return to Rome and makes it perfectly clear she never had any intention of doing so (“I am so bad at choosing,” she muses over dinner), Cesare doesn’t take it well. Despite being a cooler head than Juan, people still tend to die when Cesare doesn’t take things well, and a few sarcastic comments from Giovanni are all the impetus he needs to stab the other man to death with a dinner knife and flee the city immediately after. (Though to be fair, he’s been looking for an excuse to do so since episode four, so much so he saves the murder weapon to present to Lucrezia as a trophy.) Certainly not the result Alexander wanted, and I look forward to Cesare’s spin on the event.
To the south in Florence, Alexander is busy touching base with Machiavelli and Piero de Medici, who are essentially under house arrest as a result of Savonarola’s preaching. His sermons are the equivalent of an Occupy Florence movement, fiery cries which call for not only the abolition of all banking and currency in Italy but the removal of the pope who’s benefited so greatly from that system. Most of Alexander’s enemies hate him for purely political reasons, and it’s interesting to see him deal with this new threat, and improvise a solution apart from his usual tactic of bribery and persuasion. It helps that Berkoff—who also played Savonarola in the 1991 television movie A Season of Giants—invests the character with the perfect degree of fanaticism, sermons and quieter moments driven by an unblinking intensity free of the cynicism that pervades Alexander and the College of Cardinals.
The focus on Savonarola manages to bring Cardinal della Rovere back into the main story, dispelling worries the writers don’t know what to do with the character. (In a terrific moment during Savonarola’s sermon, Alexander and della Rovere stand no more than three feet from each other, but as both are in disguise they don’t even notice their archenemy.) With the friar’s blessing to carry out Alexander’s murder, della Rovere turns to the details, opting to pierce the pope’s “ring of steel” with poison. And with the introduction of a young Dominican prepared to die for God—unfortunately introduced in a thunderstorm so timely it crosses into cliché—this story appears to be going from distraction into a part worth watching closely.
But the most important piece of history incorporated this week isn’t any of the three dramatis personæ, but the bolt of lightning which struck St. Peter’s during the time of the Borgia papacy, and comes in now as Alexander is in the middle of offering communion. All season, Alexander’s used the reputation of Rome’s power to justify his actions and cow his enemies; now, with cardinals and altar boys alike crushed by rubble in front of his horrified eyes, his impregnability seems like little more than bluster. Sitting numb amongst the rubble, for once Irons is made to look defeated, not a single scheme humming behind his eyes.
At the apex of their conversation, Savonarola issued an order to della Rovere in his vengeance: “Be the sword of the Apocalypse, the sword of righteousness. Ride out like Death on a pale horse.” For all the work Alexander’s doing to remove his enemies from power, the expression on his face shows he hasn’t ruled out seeing the real thing in his lifetime.
- Showtime announced on Friday The Borgias has been renewed for a third season. Huzzah!
- The Lucrezia/Giulia/Vanozza committee to restore Rome still feels like a story in development, as the three make a deal with a madam to refurbish her brothel in exchange for information on the cardinals who frequent it. Thankfully the three actresses make an entertaining team, and I remain hopeful that like della Rovere’s plot this will cycle back to the main action. Plus, it offers the return of Beatrice (Katie McGuinness), whose fun performance in “Paolo” earned her the Most Encouraging Prostitute in Rome award.
- We learn an awful lot about Micheletto this episode: Not only is he from Forli, but he has a mother who thinks he’s studying to be a doctor, killed his father for “many” reasons, and has a lover named Augustino who he meets for trysts in the cemetery. How do we feel about giving him a past? Maybe I’m just upset he didn’t kill anyone this week, but I think it messes with the character’s mystique somewhat. As Cesare put it “I can’t imagine you being born, Micheletto.”
- There’s not much Machiavelli this episode, but Bleach (a.k.a. Davros from Doctor Who) makes his time count, particularly with a subtle gesture that stops Piero from sitting in the presence of the pope. Both he and Berkoff were in the main credits this week, so hopefully his role expands in coming weeks.
- Micheletto’s mission statement: “I punish this world for not being as I want.”