Of the many improvements The Borgias made from its first season to the second, the most important one—and the foundation from which all the others stem—is the fact that there’s a far more cohesive sense of storytelling from episode to episode. While the first season moved between assassinations and affairs in a manner that felt disconnected and even haphazard at times, this year, the various pieces are certainly clicking together. Even plots that come across as aimless, like Giulia Farnese’s quest to restore Rome’s public works, still serve a purpose by contributing to Lucrezia’s confidence (and subsequent affair), or further agitating the cardinals Alexander is already at odds with.
That narrative development means that even an episode like “Truth and Lies,” a less dynamic hour than earlier installments, stands out for more than setting the stage. It’s an episode without the charismatic presences of Machiavelli, Savonarola, or Caterina Sforza; one without the kinetic action of “The Beautiful Deception” or “The Siege at Forli”; and one where Alexander’s children and rivals are busy laying plans, as opposed to executing them. Yet even though the episode is clearly building up to the climax of the season’s last two episodes, it doesn’t feels slower as a consequence—rather, it’s an effective illustration of how fortunes have risen and fallen since we started.
The farthest fall belongs to Juan, who returns to Rome for the second time in as many weeks and is much worse off this time around, now in a wheelchair instead of on a horse and bearing tales of defeat instead of cigars. His defeat at Forli has become public knowledge, with Caterina’s proclamation of bearing 10 more sons to replace Benito humiliating the papal forces across Italy. And health-wise he’s doing even worse: His leg wound from the battle is infected, and combined with his worsening syphilis, he can barely go five minutes without shaking uncontrollably. Not that it’s rendered him mute though, as he offers Alexander a tale of fighting back-to-back against the Sforza army and angrily accuses Cesare of sending no warning despite advance knowledge of the army.
Shifting blame is certainly in character for Juan, but the twist here is that he’s right. Cesare’s unperturbed by the accusation though, because he’s got an even bigger card to play in their fraternal grudge match. Juan’s conquistador associate Don Hernando has returned to Rome with the wounded Benito and brought Cesare the truth of Juan’s actions: When danger reared its ugly head, he bravely turned his tail and fled. Cesare’s wanted Juan’s position for his own since the beginning, and now that he’s got solid proof he’d be better at it than Juan, he’s playing that proof very close to the vest. (Arnaud plays Cesare’s smugness incredibly well, saying “My brother, the hero” without irony to the injured Juan and throwing Alexander’s edict that the brothers play nice back in his face.)
The widening gap in fortunes between the brothers is what drives “Truth and Lies,” and it continues to fulfill the promise that the conflict displayed in the season premiere. When Juan gets in Cesare’s face demanding to know what Don Hernando told him it’s another of those wonderful interactions like the family dinner in “The Beautiful Deception” where both parties know exactly what the other one knows, but speak in veiled threats as opposed to exposing the other. And in a late-night conclave between father and sons there’s even more boiling over: Juan angrily spits slurs of Cesare “laying siege” to Caterina’s bed, but all the latter has to do is mutter “Ten more sons” under his breath and Juan leaps across the table practically frothing at the mouth. Adversity has worn Juan down to his weak rotted core, while it’s taught Cesare to erect more impenetrable walls around himself.
And once the brothers are miles apart—Cesare sent to escort Benito back to his mother with an offering of peace—the differences between the two become even starker with a question of honor and a knife at the throat. Juan, now smoking opium at his doctor's suggestion to ward off the pain, deals with Alexander’s suggestion that he temporarily step down as general by playing chicken with his dagger and carotid artery, saying he’d rather die than lose what’s left of his honor. (His father talks him down, but the look of defeat on Alexander’s face after suggests he’s tired of lying to himself about Juan’s weakness.) Cesare uses a blade for a similar message, reminding Benito that he could have taken his life at any moment and that he’d do well to remember that going forward. This may turn around and bite Cesare—as Micheletto warns it will—but not being like his brother is enough motivation for the eldest Borgia.
On the domestic side of things, Lucrezia remains mired in a relationship subplot, but there’s improved execution this time around as we see how much she’s learned from Giulia and Vanozza about having an affair. Unlike the overwrought romance with Paolo, this is a professional approach and she sets up the dominoes with exquisite finesse. She baits Rafaello with one hand on his shoulder and one word or praise for his art, “accidentally” visits his brother’s quarters and asks offhand where the other’s room is to set the trap, and reels him into bed by dropping a piece of paper with time and place. Between this and her eventual acceptance of Calvino’s proposal—a surprisingly tense moment where Lucrezia drags her answer out just long enough to be on the edge of uncomfortable—it’s still duller than the politics but thankfully moving out of the interminable courtship process.
A more interesting long game comes to fruition this episode as della Rovere’s scheme nears its endgame, Antonello now heavily resistant to the cantarella poison. All that remains is to open the taster position with the removal of current occupant Brother Bernadino, a move della Rovere is hesitant to take but one Antonello embraces. It’s a tense sequence that gives the show another welcome chance to deploy its Assassin’s Creed tendencies: Antonello stalks Bernadino through the crowd in silence, waits for the right out-of-sight moment to strike and earns extra mission points for making it look like an accident. This plot’s been on the edge of the action for weeks now, and with Bernadino out of the way, it’s time for della Rovere (and the show) to justify the amount of time it’s taken.
With all this scheming, is it any wonder Don Hernando wants no part of any of it? “All of you in this beautiful land—God gives you riches and you kill for more,” he declares to Cesare before returning to Spain. And with Juan descending into opium addiction, Cesare granted papal authority to declare Savonarola a heretic and della Rovere only inches from the chair of St. Peter, there’s every indication there’s more killing to come.
- Cardinal Sforza confirms that King Charles has expired, having banged his head after playing tennis (the king’s true fate in reality). Sadly, this means we’ve seen the last of Michel Muller, but I feel Charles got a good sense of closure in “Stray Dogs” in his final talk with Alexander and a primal scream after his army’s defeat. (For season three, might France be talking kings and succession? If so, Alexander best not be caught unawares.)
- While the episode was conspicuous for its lack of guest stars, Jordan and company handle their absence deftly: Cesare’s action is all on the road to Florence, and takes him to the edge of Forli but not inside.
- I really do enjoy the sense of divine gravity della Rovere instills in his words and schemes. “Our mission remains in Purgatory,” he muses of the Bernadino obstacle.
- Micheletto is a scary bastard, as if we needed reminding. He didn’t kill anyone last week, and he must be getting bored considering his taunts to Benito about the closeness of death.
- Fourteen days left of Lent according to Alexander. The cardinals must be ridiculously sick of sardines.