The Borgias outshines its first season

Corruption, lust and murder — welcome to the Vatican of the Italian Renaissance. Showtime’s second season of The Borgias continues the saga of the notorious Spanish family and its machinations in 15th-century Rome. If Sunday’s premiere was any indicator, the second season looks even more promising than the first.

The first season of The Borgias followed the family’s rise to power. Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) became Pope Alexander VI, named his son Cesare (François Arnaud) a cardinal and annulled his daughter Lucrezia’s (Holliday Grainger) marriage to a brutish nobleman. The central conflict was the Borgias’ fight to stay alive after Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore), an avatar for Vatican justice, talked the King of France into attacking Rome. A dash of quick thinking, bribery and Lucrezia’s brave intervention staved off the French and drove Della Rovere into hiding.

In the second season, with their power secure, the Borgias have fewer outside enemies — and thus fight more among themselves. The simmering rivalry between Cesare and his hedonist older brother Juan (David Oakes) boils over into open fighting. Rodrigo’s mistress, Giulia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek), has realized that even her beauty and kindness aren’t enough to keep his eyes off other Italian strumpets. Lucrezia, meanwhile, cares for her illegitimate son and tries not to think about the next grubby noble she might have to marry.

Season one of The Borgias had several strengths. Creator Neil Jordan captured Renaissance-era Rome as a beautiful, ancient figure with seeping cracks of corruption. The visuals were gorgeous, especially for television. The costumes and sets were striking and lush. The acting was strong for the most part — Granger as Lucrezia’s character arc from sweet, precocious child to angel-faced manipulator was especially compelling.

Yet, the series wobbled with first-season indecisiveness — was it a gritty historical drama á la HBO’s Rome, or a history-flouting Harlequin fling akin to Showtime’s The Tudors? For so much subterfuge and violence, the story was sometimes cold and apathetic. In its second season, The Borgias appears to have a better handle on its direction, which seems to lean closer to Rome than The Tudors.

The strong points of season one have all received upgrades. Rome is as impressive as ever, considering much of it was actually filmed near Budapest. The camera work has improved too: The brothers have a close-quarters swordfight that drips with swashbuckling awesomeness and foretells bloodier confrontations to come; a rough horserace is tightly shot and exciting.

With a season for the cast members to grow into their characters, the acting now feels more even, and the writing has clipped some of its filler in favor of performance. Now, characters have greater opportunities to be more conflicted and less schizophrenic.

History remembers the Borgias as cruel and cunning manipulators. Rumors of poison, incest and corruption dogged the family even before Rodrigo keeled over and took his family’s power with him.

But no one is a villain in their own story.

Rodrigo is an intriguing character: He chides his cardinals for their austerity and speaks of bringing more joy into worship. Whether this is a genuine wish for reform, or an excuse to throw wild parties, is unclear. In one snarky scene, he cradles his infant grandson, hissing at a French diplomat to keep his voice down. In another, he beds a female apprentice artist with the silent threat that he could reveal her female identity to her master. Somehow, amid his self-delusion and vice, he loves his family and sees himself as a man of God, with no feelings of hypocrisy.

His son, Cesare, is less sure of himself. Is he a good man who often does bad things or an evil man who sometimes does good? He does not know. Conventional history brands him, at best, as an intelligent villain, but this gray area is far more interesting.

Even murkier than his penchant for knives and a friendship with a child-killing assassin is Cesare’s relationship with his sister Lucrezia. Rumors and propaganda have suggested how close the siblings were. Often their scenes are the sweetest in the series — a spark of platonic affection unmarred by their family’s corruption. But is there nothing creepy about asking Lucrezia if he should be jealous of her stable boy lover? Let the speculation fly.

The first season of The Borgias was far better than many other shows in 2011, but it had the misfortune of premiering the same year as HBO’s violent and devious Game of Thrones. Though Game of Thrones is a superior series in scope and writing, The Borgias was dealt a colder hand than it deserved. The show’s second-season opener surpasses its first in every way and is a very promising start to the season.


The Borgias airs on Showtime on Sundays at 10pm.