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The Borgias (Premiere Review)

I have to admit, I expected The Borgias to be significantly trashier than it actually was. Instead, the show seems to be something of a more mature and considered big brother of The Tudors, instead of serving as an Italian twin. That’s an observation, and not praise or criticism – there’s something to be said for the energy that cheap blood and sex can instill into even the most flaccid television show, and attempting a slightly more restrained tale of political intrigue is a far more difficult matter. Still, The Borgias has two distinct advantages: Jeremy Irons, and Neil Jordan.

Oh, he just can't wait to be Pope...

I’ll be the first to concede that Jordan can be hit-or-miss as a creative talent. I mean, the director is undoubtedly one of Ireland’s finest creative exports (which is saying something, given the fantastic talent we’ve shipped overseas), and he always has a wonderfully ambitious vision to bring to the screen, but his work can be incredibly impressive, or blandly banal. Here, the writer and director is walking a fine line – he lends the series a wonderfully cinematic scope, one which truly suits it, and lends the whole show a hint of class, but there’s never an impression that the director is swinging for the fences or going to pull the rug out from under us.

We all know the stories of the Spanish dynasty that rose to the Papacy, infamous for their plotting and criminal dealings. “What’s Rome without a good plot?” our lead character, Pope Alexander VI, muses to his son. We all know that there will be blood on their hands, that they will be challenged, and that they will succumb to the temptations of the flesh. Even if the audience isn’t too well-versed in history, the advertisements have done a good job informing us.

Oh, brother!

Indeed, before ascending to the throne, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgias has already produced a brood of offspring, and is wheeling and dealing to assure his place on the throne of St. Peter (“simony,” as his enemies accuse him). So there’s no tension to be had, no sense of declining moral standards, no real sense of compromise. Indeed the only line that the Pope insists on is that they will not murder – but the show is unambiguous as to who will take his commandment as idle advice.

So there’s very little real tension here, at least in reconciling the things Borgias must do to preserve his position, and his obligations to God. On the one hand, it feels like a bit of a waste – the show opens with the conceit the Papacy is a tainted chalice, and that his predecessors didn’t necessarily have hands that were any cleaner, so it’s hard to be too shocked or concerned about what Borgias and his family will or won’t do to survive. On the other hand, both Jordan and Irons seem to suggest that the lead is a far more complex character for all this – and I think that angle works.

Our father, who art not yet in heaven...

In a way, the show inverts the dramatic tension we expected. The story of a Pope forced to take radical action to preserve his divine authority suggests a character struggling against his moral code to do what needs to be done. The script and Irons make it clear that Rodrigo Borgias is not that man. Instead, the character’s arc seems to move in the opposite direction. He is a flawed and petty human being (“you don’t poison a Pope!” he insists at one point, seemingly more upset that he was targeted like a mongrel dog than at the assassination attempt itself), but he wants to be better. Rather than a good man in a desperate situation, Pope Alexander is a bad man in strange surroundings.

He seems to want genuine reform, while still needing to cement his power. He is humbled during the ceremony that appoints him Pope, to the point where he nearly collapses from the metaphorical weight upon his shoulders. He describes the moments as a strange feeling of isolation and loneliness, as if discussing a near-death experience, one that granted the character a strange empathy. He uses the royal “we”for the rest of the show, but he seems to appreciate that he represents simultaneously the body of the Church and the will of God. Irons does a tremendous job here, and the actor deserves a massive amount of credit for resisting the urge to chomp down on the very tasty scenery. I’ve always harboured a soft spot for Irons, and especially his voice, and he lends the production a lot of class.

Man of Iron...

Jordan is also enjoying himself, both in writing the show (there are tonnes of lovely lines) and directing it (adopting a stately style that runs contrary to the “trashy” approach one might expect). It’s not exactly historically accurate, and it’s certainly more than a bit sensational, but the show does have a strange dignity about it, managed by a strong cast and production crew. The problem is that this sort of class might make the show a bit of a tougher sell than a more over-the-top production, but I’m on board to the end of the series at least.

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