The third season of Neil Jordan’s The Borgias picks up as Pope Alexander VI (Jeremy Irons) narrowly escapes a plot hatched by Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore) and Catherina Sforza (Gina McKee) to poison him and slaughter his entire family on the eve of the marriage of his daughter, Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), to Alfonso of Aragon (Sebastian De Souza). Of course, this is only one of a half-dozen or so direct attempts on His Holiness’s life within the sprawl of Jordan’s narrative, and though the repetitiveness of the series, both in form and in story, weakens the potency of its ideas, it cannot be said that The Borgias is bashful in expressing its elemental subversivism.
Indeed, the show’s frothy mixture of costume drama and soap opera, taken to hedonistic extremes, allows for unapologetically rich and sublimely perverse moments, such as when the King of Naples (Matias Verela) demands details on how Alfonso took Lucrezia on their wedding night, only to then order Alfonso to consummate his marriage under the king’s gaze. The show’s defining aberration, however, is the sexual desire that’s been rampantly mounting between Lucrezia and her brother, Cesare (François Arnaud), since the first episode. Their smoldering inclinations toward one another is hardly handled with kid gloves, befitting of a series that features Pope Alexander sucking voraciously on his mistress’s toe. In fact, this incest is perfectly utilized as a symbol of the papacy’s indulgent self-regard and, by extension, the church’s.
For Jordan, Ireland’s most elusive auterist, The Borgias’s vast narrative offers a repository of the thematic obsessions that have sculpted his unique oeuvre thus far. The difference between duty (summoned by destiny or will) and action (both unmerciful and forgiving) can be found in intriguing variations throughout Jordan’s films, as can the immense power of fantasy, which charged the central conceits of In Dreams, The Butcher Boy, and Breakfast on Pluto. In the latter two films especially, the sanctity of Catholicism is treated as dangerous fantasy, and The Borgias takes that idea to its logical, scandalous conclusion, as all manner of indiscretion, torture, bribery, prostitution, and violence are employed to keep the titular family in total power and Rome as the throne of the world.
As deceptively trashy and tawdry as the series is, the ideas at play in the intertwining plots brandish moral outrage and a blunt understanding of politics, and subtly foretell the abhorrent sexual crimes that the church now finds itself expected to answer for. The tremendous international influence of the pope powers the story, which now heads toward an agreement between Rome and Louis XII of France, who’s in desperate need of an annulment, but Jordan favors intimacy in his shooting; he prefers discussions behind closed doors or hidden in plain sight and affairs built on whispers of secrets. This visual tendency blunts the sharp edge of the series, as does his understandable but limiting focus on the eponymous family.
What often forgives the lurching pace of Game of Thrones is its unerring fascination with even seemingly minor characters outside of the scope of royalty, and The Borgias could spare to locate such democracy of characterization and plot. Like Game of Thrones, however, The Borgias has a potent interest in women that’s constantly reinforced. Lucrezia, above even Pope Alexander and Cesare, continues to be the show’s most unpredictable and engaging character, and the influence of both Vanozza (Joanne Whalley), the mother of the pope’s children, and Giulia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek), his mistress, on matters of state and family is given surpassingly due attention. Even more so, the ascension of McKee’s Catharina as the pope’s ferocious yet becalmed arch nemesis is birthed from her disinterest in being subservient to a man in her duties, whether it be the pope or her cousin, Cardinal Sforza (Peter Sullivan). Would that Jordan, who wrote the lion’s share of the episodes, truly rebuked the show’s unyielding concentration on the so-called “first crime family” and found the radical transcendentalism that seems to be constantly lurking below the costumed veneer of Pope Alexander’s Rome.