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Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Borgias Stares Into "The Face of Death"

Article first published as THE BORGIAS Season 3 Premiere Review on Seat42F.

Grade: 82%

Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons), the lead in Showtime’s THE BORGIAS, has stared into “The Face of Death,” and as season three begins, the wait is on to see if he returns to talk about it. It’s not much of a cliffhanger, of course, as the show would not kill off such an important character this early in the run. But many are anxiously awaiting the results of last spring’s death match, and wonder what consequences it will bring.

I admit, THE BORGIAS is far from the best show on television. It’s schmaltzy and soapy and lacking much historical accuracy. But like The Tudors, and to a lesser extent, the new Da Vinci’s Demons on Starz, it’s a guilty pleasure period piece, full of betrayal, murder, intrigue, and sex.

“The Face of Death” puts sex on the backburner in favor of politics and violence. The Cardinals await the fate of their leader, some of them praying for his survival, many likely hoping for the opposite, though they would never admit it publically until the time is ripe, for fear of losing their positions, while less involved factions plan their next move, hoping to get one up on the crooked leader.

Rodrigo’s family gather by his bedside. There’s: Cesare (Francois Arnaud), who has just admitted to killing his own brother, and awaiting to hear not only if his father lives, but what his dad’s reaction will be to the news; Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), who sends her infant son away under protection, but refuses to budge from her father’s side, and actually outsmarts the doctor in saving him, since the doctor isn’t an important character, and so can’t do something so vital, even when it’s his job; and Vanozza (Joanne Whalley), mother of Rodrigo’s children, who has earned her place by his side.

It’s strange that young Joffre is absent. While not a main character, and missing from season two entirely, he is part of the clan. Why is he not given more prevalence in the story? He is young, to be sure, but the tale is moving along. Will he start to be included at some point, or will he remain a forgotten footnote from the first season?

Less weird is that Giulia (Lotte Verbeek) barely appears in “The Face of Death.” She is Rodrigo’s beloved mistress, but in times of great crisis, only the legitimate family is allowed to be around, not some girl Rodrigo plays naked games with.

As bad as the titular family may be, viewers will still root for them. They are the heart of the show, and painted as sympathetic as they possibly can be, while not shying away from their more heinous acts. Not one wants Rodrigo to die, even though his enemies may be more noble, because we’ve gotten to know him and his family. We want them to survive, as when they are vanquished, their adventure comes to an end, and we lose our show.

Most disappointed when Rodrigo awakes is Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore), of course. He is the man that tries to poison Rodrigo, poetic justice since the Pope did the same to him the season before, and like Della Rovere, Rodrigo survives, bent on vengeance.

Della Rovere returns to the Vatican with the other Cardinals, but perhaps shows his hand a bit much when he states he is there because he heard of Rodrigo’s demise. It is true, whatever Della Rovere says he has heard can be chalked up to a rumor. But Cesare doesn’t take it as such, assuming Della Rovere is giving himself away. And for power players like the two of them, that’s exactly what has happened.

It’s not the most realistic occurrence. There are plenty of plot devices that could explain away this seeming slip of the tongue. And yet, that’s the way THE BORGIAS rolls, allowing one to “figure” things out that can’t be proven, as that’s the only way to move the story forward, and the target audience won’t accept too much ambiguity.

Luckily for Della Rovere, even though Cesare locks him up, he has friends. The pope is unpopular, so of course some are willing to risk their necks to help him escape. He seems to be the likely successor if anyone could ever oust Rodrigo, and historically, he actually does eventually get to serve as pope.

It will be interesting to see if Della Rovere triumphs in the series, or not, and if victory comes at the end, of before. If that were to happen, I think he’d need to be made a more sympathetic character because somehow, even though he’s in the right, I still root for him to fail.

The Borgias’ other enemies are the Sforza family. Cardinal Sforza (Peter Sullivan) has a choice to make when his sister, Caterina (Gina McKee), asks for his help in the murder of the Borgia clan. The good Cardinal chooses his position over his blood relations, and Caterina’s plot is thwarted.

I don’t know if one can call Cardinal Sforza noble. I feel like he only turns because he’s almost caught, and yet, he’s also a bit of a coward. Unlike Della Rovere, it’s hard to see him as a true rival. Instead, he seems like a helpless tool, caught between his powerful family and his powerful boss, unable to truly make up his mind about where his loyalites should lie. Kind of like the rest of the Cardinals, but slightly more involved because of circumstance.

As usual, Micheletto (Sean Harris) proves brave, deadly, and an invaluable help to the Borgias. I wonder if a day will come when he may betray them, or if we will find out why exactly his loyalty runs so deep. As long as he is around and fighting for them, it is doubtful that anyone will get the better of this particular family.

“The Face of Death” is a fitting continuation of the story for those who love the show, but hardly a good introduction for the unfamiliar, nor a prime example of what great television can be. It will remain an entertaining, but not high quality, offering.

 THE BORGIAS returns Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.

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