The first time we see Cesare and Juan together in The Borgias pilot episode, it’s a contentious meeting quickly established as the norm for the brothers. Juan gets himself into trouble by exchanging insults with a few young Roman nobles, and quickly initiates a duel against the two boldest. As the fight goes south for Juan, Cesare steps in and holds his own blade to one of their throats, begging their forgiveness for his brother’s attitude. “I should have let them do it,” Cesare says after, with a weariness that implies it’s not the first time he’s saved Juan from himself. “Kill me, your younger brother?” Juan laughs in retort. “Father would never have forgiven you.”
And the fact that fratricide would be unforgivable in the eyes of Alexander has been the only thing keeping Juan safe from the spite he inspires in Cesare and Lucrezia. For two seasons now Juan has thrown his father’s favor in his siblings’ faces, spun blatant lies to make himself seem more powerful when they are in danger of supplanting him, and committed acts ranging from adultery to murder without their blessing or knowledge. And all of it done, he claims, in the name of defending his family.
But what happens when you have to defend your family from the person defending your family? When does unforgivable sin become outweighed by the consequences of doing nothing? That question hangs over the climax of “World Of Wonders,” an elaborate, thrilling hour that exhibits the best of what The Borgias has to offer.
But before the Borgias can deal with their internal feud, there’s the external threat of Girolamo Savonarola. The friar’s grip on the city of Florence is so intense that ashes from the Bonfire of the Vanities blow through the streets like snow, and an impatient Alexander has granted Cesare full papal authority to bring him down. Machiavelli, so carefully tuned to the fickle nature of the common people, offers Cesare a suggestion to do so, illustrated by way of a witch-burning. Savonarola came to power by preying on fear and superstition; take that away, and all that’s left is a man with an angry mob.
Cesare’s no stranger to the art of a grand illusion, and with the series of successes he’s racked over the course of the season, he’s more than ready to go on the offensive. Clad in his cardinal robes, he appears as a blood-red avatar amidst the ash-covered world of Savonarola, answering the man’s insults with a formal challenge to walk unmolested through fire. Cesare’s confidence has directly correlated with a better performance by François Arnaud, and the authority by which he throws down the gauntlet is so forceful it’s no surprise Savonarola stammers for the first time before agreeing to the challenge.
The Borgias loves both a spectacle and its cross-cutting techniques, and the two combine to marvelous effect in the fall of the house of Savonarola. At the same time Savonarola tries (and fails) to reach the red target of Cesare at the end of the fiery tunnel, Alexander performs a ritual of anathema to excommunicate the friar from the splendor of heaven, and the words of hellfire come in at exactly the same time literal fire is taking the robes and skin off Savonarola’s back. I questioned Alexander’s faith in an earlier review, but the imagery of the ceremony and the conviction in his words—a definitive “Fiat!” and a candle hurled down at the same time Savonarola falls screaming—leaves an incredible impression of God-given authority. And with Savonarola dragged back to Rome in a cage, certain to face the artistry of Micheletto’s torture, that authority appears to have returned to its height.
Not that Alexander is prepared to see it that way just yet, as even with this success and the advent of Lent, his crisis of faith continues—“lost in the wilderness” as he puts it. Giulia manages to shake him from his funk by reminding him of all the good works being done under his papacy and persuades him he needs to do right by his family by baptizing his grandson. Lotte Verbeek’s been somewhat of an afterthought in the second half of the season, and it’s nice to see her proving what a shrewd mistress she is, offering him full credit for her charitable efforts. (The decision also has the inadvertent consequence of spoiling the plans of Antonello, now finally seated as Alexander’s taster, who’s forced to dump out a cantarella-laced pitcher of water when the pope ends his fast calls for wine instead.)
It’s in this baptismal setting, another of those lavish productions The Borgias prides itself on, that Juan’s final act begins to play out. If Juan was ever in control of himself he is no longer, with opium and syphilis leading him to mutter in the shadows, trying to remind his nearly useless private parts of the good times (“We did everything together!”) and speculating that Cesare and Lucrezia have engaged in sinful congress. The spectacle of his nephew’s baptism only reminds him of his own bastard heritage, and seized with resentment towards his family he makes them his next targets. He knows the right knife to twist in each of his family members—Vanozza’s pain at being cast aside by Alexander, Cesare’s frustrations at being kept in the priesthood, Lucrezia’s longing for the father of her child—and it’s a cruel series of twists, a splendid mirror image to the earlier detente of Juan’s goodbye dinner.
And in twisting those blades, the farce of peace between the siblings is stripped away. Juan’s misguided notions of family purity have led him to do some reprehensible things, and drugs and illness have stripped away his restraint to the point that he’s now seeing even his nephew as a threat. Dangling little Giovanni over the balcony (a terrifying moment with shades of Michael Jackson) crosses a line that neither the boy’s mother nor his godfather can find forgiveness for. Alexander implores them to think of how they once loved Juan, but the two have gone from seeing their brother as an inconvenience to a threat, and the look exchanged by Cesare and Lucrezia—a wonderful piece of silent acting from Arnaud and Grainger—implies a far different tactic to help Juan through the dark night.
What happens next is a foregone conclusion, but one that’s no less spellbinding for how it unfolds. This is a conflict that’s been building for the entire life of the series, so paying it off is the greatest test The Borgias has yet faced, and it passes with flying colors. Micheletto tracks Juan to the opium den—after sending him packing from an attempted rape of a dancer—and asks the proprietor Muhammad to fetch the errant Borgia as “his brother would speak with him.” So high he doesn’t even feel the need for his cane or an apology, Juan heads out and grants Cesare forgiveness for any slights immediately. It’s beautiful cinematography, particularly in the way that Micheletto’s never quite out of sight, cracking Muhammad’s neck and then moving into the shadows, drawing closer to the two with every step.
And in the last talk the brothers will ever share, there’s not just a sense of building tension, but a sadness that this is what it’s come to. Juan’s speech of the “world of wonders” granted to him by opium not only speaks to physical pain, but the long-buried regret that he could never be the Borgia his father wanted him to be. It’s a pain Cesare understands and shares, but one he realizes his brother can never be cured of, with too much of his true nature exposed to allow for any change. And awash in a mix of motivations—revenge, jealousy, pity, duty—he buries his dagger deep into Juan’s abdomen, again and again and again. Cesare takes one of his brother’s arms, Micheletto takes the other, and Juan’s dying form is hoisted over the rail—looking almost Christ-like for a split second—to enter the literal dark void he saw in his visions, one more body consigned to the black embrace of the Tiber.
Going into the finale next week, this death asks a lot of questions. Will Alexander learn who is responsible for his second son’s death? If so, will he find forgiveness, or will his favoritism for Juan damn Cesare one last time? Or will Antonello render it moot by finding a new opportunity to poison his supposed benefactor. “World Of Wonders” doesn’t provide anything concrete to answer these but it answers one question definitively: The Borgias is no longer the show it was in the first season. It’s something far, far better.
- Requiescat in pace, Juan Borgia. Several of you in the comments have been calling for Juan’s head for weeks, and while I think the character had reached the end of his usefulness to the story I will miss David Oakes on the show. Like the show, Oakes improved dramatically between the first and second season, and I enjoyed the craven desperation he instilled Juan with throughout this fall from grace.
- Lucrezia’s engagement to Calvino lasts all of ten minutes this episode, when Rafaello confesses the affair to his brother and asks for Lucrezia’s hand himself. Sputtering in almost comical rage, Alexander denies his daughter to the “pauper with a paintbrush” and sends them both running from the Vatican. It’s rewarding to see the show was as uninterested in that plot as I was by the end.
- Nice bit of foreshadowing from Cardinal Sforza: “Bodies are pulled from the Tiber every day.”
- I assume Machiavelli’s choice of witch-burning was motivated by the fact that the Florentine peasants had no ducks to weigh against her.
- So many good Cesare moments this week, but my favorite was the silent “Burn” as Savonarola falls prey to the flames. One consistent thing with Cesare, he demands satisfaction for insults.
- Micheletto’s reaction to Juan’s killing is appropriately deferential, with a touch of professional courtesy: “I stand in awe, your Eminence.” Cesare: “You killed your father!” Micheletto: “Still I stand in awe.”