For all the wealth and power that goes along with being part of the Borgia family—all the access to fine weapons and jewelry and estates—when you get down to it, being the child of Rodrigo Borgia isn’t that great. As Pope Alexander VI, he’s a man with a focused vision for both his papacy and Rome, and as much as he loves Cesare, Juan, and Lucrezia, they remain pawns for this vision regardless of their desires. A warlike son can be forced into clerical robes for the purpose of ensuring a line of succession, a cowardly son can be made a general and forced into marriage, and an independent daughter can be married off in a manner she compares to selling a sheep in the marketplace.
The efforts of all three children to make their own way have been a key part of The Borgias, and in “The Siege At Forli,” all three come to the forefront. While none of their circumstances are new to anyone who’s been watching this season, there’s a sense of increased stakes as Alexander’s support system continues to shrink. How well do the three rise to the occasion of getting their father what he needs? Well, let’s just say their average isn’t what he was hoping for.
Let’s begin with the Borgia we haven’t seen for two episodes, and who now seems the most like the child his father hopes for. Juan has returned in triumph to the papal court from his marriage in Spain, bringing exotic gifts such as a panther for his sister and a box of cigars for his father. And it seems like we’re seeing a new version of the often petulant Juan, more in control of himself than ever: He has a child on the way with his new wife, has forsaken alcohol to maintain a clear head, and his bearing seems to match his armor for the first time. Beyond impressed at this change in his second son, Alexander gives him Cesare’s failed mission to bring Caterina Sforza to heel, this time with the papal army’s backing to drag her to Rome in chains if necessary.
But as with so many things involving the Borgia family, appearances can be deceiving. Juan’s swagger may seem to have more spine than ever, but he’s having a hard time standing upright thanks to a bout of syphilis. (Treatments for which, involving doses of mercury and a hook-like apparatus, add Juan to the ranks of Deadwood’s Al Swearengen and Boardwalk Empire’s Lucky Luciano as painful demonstrations of early urology.) Upon reaching Forli, he’s willing to discuss terms with Caterina, but the minute negotiations break down he panics, opting to seize her son Benito as a bargaining chip. And once he has the chip, he’s not even clever enough to ask the boy about how to exploit the castle defenses, opting to torture Benito in full view of the gates and bray his terms.
Once again we’re getting a battle of wills between Caterina and a Borgia son, and this time the volume’s amped up considerably. Gina McKee is again terrific with a new version of Caterina, the quiet manipulations of “The Choice” replaced with a proud martial bearing Juan pales in comparison to. Her face remains expressionless even as silent tears fall down her face at Benito’s screams, and once again she finds the upper hand, this time in a brazen display of maternal power: proudly lifting her dress to the army, stating that she can bear ten vengeful sons for every one Juan kills.
And on the other side, it’s nice to have David Oakes back in the spotlight. Usually it’s Jeremy Irons who gets the honor of chewing scenery on The Borgias, but Oakes does a fine job with this bolder version of Juan, who becomes increasingly unhinged as the episode progresses to the point he’s cutting off fingers and screaming obscenities at the castle walls. He builds up nicely, but his tipping point is narrowly avoided as Caterina’s cousin Ludovico brings his own army to grind up Juan’s forces, allowing The Borgias to indulge its taste for stylized violence as heads are lopped off and arrows pop eyes across the battlefield.
Lucrezia is waging her own battles in Rome, though sadly these aren’t nearly as interesting. Alexander and Vanozza continue to push for her to choose a husband, but she’s content to toy with various suitors much as her new pet panther would toy with its prey. True, she has every reason to dread another marriage, but it’s now turned into something of an effort to purposely agitate her father. She’s encouraging the affections of the merchant prince Calvino (“I would meet with him if just to determine the color of his eyes”) while also keeping a close eye on his more attractive brother Raffaello.
It’s great to see Lucrezia exercising more agency in her life—here dispatching her handmaiden to follow Raffaello and contriving an excuse to run into him while he’s painting—but quite bluntly, watching Lucrezia in a courtship isn’t interesting. Her love interests are regularly depicted as either too brutish or too mannered to fit in with the scheming that surrounds her family, and neither of these brothers breaks the mold in a way that stands out. If The Borgias does marry her off—as it seems will happen soon, given a tense family meeting where Alexander strong-arms her in that direction—I hope it marries her to a character with enough dynamism that he’s on an equal footing with his new in-laws.
The only one of the Borgia siblings doing relatively well for himself is Cesare, who made the smart decision to be far away from Rome and has returned to Florence to find a weakness in Savonarola’s dogmatic grip of the city. And that grip is tighter than ever, with the onset of the “Bonfire of the Vanities” in which supposed objects of sin—paintings, furniture, and musical instruments—are put to the torch as a demonstration of faith. Smart enough not to challenge Savonarola directly, Cesare’s content to sit back with Machiavelli and watch the fires climb, gathering evidence and bearing the taunts stone-faced. (And, perhaps, find a way to unseat his brother in Alexander’s esteem, opting with a knowing smirk not to send Micheletto to warn Juan of the incoming Sforza reinforcements.)
After the bloodshed of the broken Forli siege, the scenes of the Bonfire and its preparation are the episode’s best moments. Steven Berkoff’s performance reaches new heights with every sermon, and his most fervent followers—young boys in black robes, knocking on doors and demanding riches for the fire—are frankly terrifying in their similar devotion to God. (Though still children, and ones Machiavelli enjoys playing with as he negotiates the safety of his house for a stuffed owl.) The Borgias has always done well with spectacle, and one of the most famous events in Renaissance history is done justice: rabid crowds, flames consuming the wealth of nobility, smoke rising in sync with Savonarola’s ever louder words.
“Months to paint, a minute to burn,” Machiavelli muses as a painting by Botticelli goes up in flames, and it looks like Alexander’s plans could be going up just as easy. Months and years to groom his children as instruments of his will, a minute for them to knock it down and limp away from the wreckage.
- History lesson: The moment where Caterina exposes herself to an invading army is based on actual legend, where the real Caterina Sforza dealt with the siege of the rival Orsi family. I’ve been waiting to see if they’d depict that moment since the first time the character appeared, and between the buildup to it and McKee’s performance, I was not disappointed.
- My mileage on when The Borgias tries to be broadly funny is pretty low, and consequently I didn’t enjoy the confusion where Alexander’s presented with a box of cigars and mistakes them for “turds.” Did any of you?
- I don’t care what context, there is no way the sentence “The instrument is withdrawn, and thus it will scrape clean the pus and discharge upon its exit” can ever be uttered in a comforting way.
- Caterina mentions that her cousin Ludovico (who previously allied with Alexander against the French) isn’t a reliable ally, but the Sforzas have a pact that to always come to each other’s aid as necessary. Alexander’s probably right not to trust his vice chancellor—another of her cousins—with anything too vital.
- Worth noting: Savonarola taunts both Cesare and Machiavelli with ease, but the one thing that shuts him up is the equally intense gaze of Micheletto.
- The Borgias is taking next week off for the holiday, and so am I. See you on June 3!