selenak: (Borgias by Andrivete)
[personal profile] selenak
Aka the European-produced series which debuted exactly in the same year as Neil Jordan’s The Borgias did, and got three seasons as well. I had seen the pilot back in the day and hadn’t liked it much, but as Amazon Prime put it up, I thought, why not. Also back in the day: at least two articles proclaiming Borgia (with each of the seasons having subtitles “Faith and Fear” (s1), “Rules of Love, Rules of War” (s2) and “Triumph and Oblivion” (s3)) being the superior show with more “historicity”, which put my back up, since I happen to be fond of The Borgias (well, fond of the first two seasons and two or three s3 episodes). That was another reason why I delayed watching Borgia beyond the pilot until this year.

Having now accomplished this, here are a few impressions: Borgia on the one hand does use a lot more actual events from the historical characters’ lives than The Borgias did (including such very Renaissance trivia as Lucrezia’s later father-in-law, Duke Hercole d’Este of Ferrara, collecting nuns with stigmata, I kid you not) , but on the other hand is no slouch when it comes to breathtaking dramatic license. (Cesare Borgia did many gruesome things, but I don’t think ordering pants made of the skin of his enemies was one of them. Also, I really doubt that a bunch of 15th century cardinals would have conspired to replace the Pope with his daughter, no matter how impressive a job she did when the Pope made her regent while he was indisposed. Michelangelo creating the David in Rome instead of Florence is almost harmless as an invention by comparison. And then there’s the drug addiction plot complete with cold turkey conclusion…) The first season suffers from several instances of telling over showing when it came to some important relationships. However, this was mostly remedied in subsequent seasons. And it was really interesting to see both the differences and similarities in the storytelling choices based on the same basic material. Not to mention that the series Borgia actually includes the decline of the family fortunes; Rodrigo dies mid s3, and the rest is Cesare’s falling apart until the series finale ending with his historic death and some other spoilery (not for history) stuff.

One of the biggest differences is the overall emotional arc for the Borgia family. In The Borgias, we start with the featured members more or less affectionately close to each other (even the Cesare-Juan relationship isn’t yet worse than mild fraternal rivalry), and end with them having outwitted and outplayed all their enemies, but lost each other in the process, or have their former closeness turned dysfunctional. In Borgia, otoh, we start with the Borgias dysfunctional and estranged (this Rodrigo hasn’t yet admitted to his children that they are his children but still employs the “niece and nephews” excuse even in private), it gets worse except in one regard from there until Juan’s death at the end of the first season… and then it gets better. From mid s2 onwards, there are family reconciliations all around, and for the rest of the show, the strong affection the Borgias have for each other are often their saving graces, so to speak. When near the end of the show Lucrezia’s third husband, Alfonso d’Este, ruefully observes to his wife that the D’Estes are worse than the Borgias and that she can show them how to be better (as in, a family), he’s not kidding.



This is very much connected to the way Lucrezia’s character gets developed on the show. In The Borgias, Lucrezia goes from being an innocent girl to a power player in her own right who, however, has learned how to employ ruthlessness, hate and murder. In Borgia, Lucrezia goes from being something of a spoiled brat and shallow teenager to a woman who, having committed murder out of hate, doesn’t become more ruthless because of it but more forgiving of others because of the awareness of her own sins, and determined to overcome cycles of hate and vengeance by reconciliation. (Both in terms of her family and in terms of how she conducts politics as governor of Spoleto – this is another actual detail the show uses, Rodrigo made Lucrezia, not husband No.2, Alfonso d’Aragona, the governor of Spoleto – and during her regency interlude on the Papal throne.)

Cesare’s development is also quite different in its start if not in its conclusion. Cesare in The Borgias starts out as a dutiful son, but one who already knows from the get go he loathes being a priest, and isn’t really interested in anything a clerical career has to offer, hoping for a release from priestdom and a military career from the get go. As opposed to his father Rodrigo, who is corrupt but also a true believer, and one for whom the felt absence of God at the start of s3 is a devastating experience, The Borgias’ Cesare could not care less about God. Meanwhile, Cesare in Borgia in the beginning actually tries his best to make this priest thing work, has his father and God emotionally confused and monologues at both in churches in a variation of the most famous line Milton gives to Satan (“If I can’t be in your paradise, I will rule in my own hell”, says Cesare to God and the absent Rodrigo both). Both Cesares come into their own after Juan’s death and turn into military geniuses and terrors, with their unswerving devotion to Lucrezia as their sole remaining human trait, but while Cesare in Borgia frequently is known to declare there is no God in s2 and 3, it turns out he’s kept his Cardinal’s hat all this time and can’t really get over God any more as he can completely get over his father issues (which Guiliano della Rovere aka Julius II uses against him to devastating effect). The difference is highlighted in the way both shows handle the Savonarola episode from Cesare’s pov; Cesare in The Borgias has no mixed feelings re: Savonarola – the guy is a political threat whose theocracy in Florence also is a loathsome state, he needs to be brought down. Cesare in Borgia also sees Savonarola as a threat who needs to be brought down, loathes what Savonarola has made of Florence and uses much the same methods to get rid of him, but he’s anything but immune to the fact that Savonarola is also that rare specimen, an uncorrupted priest (who turns down a cardinal’s hat), whose accusations against the church are dead-on, and who appears to have a true spiritual calling and connection to God. This Cesare stuns his companions by declaring “I believe in him”, though being show writer Tom Fontana’s version of Milton’s Satan, this isn’t helpful to Savonarola, because remember, this Cesare has God issues and is all the more determined to bring God’s favourite down.

The two Rodrigo Borgias differ more in presentation than in characterization, with two exceptions. Both Rodrigos are power hungry, set on founding a dynasty, fond of sex in general but also deeply in love with two regular characters of their respective shows, with their affection for their children true and deep but also with huge blind spots and of course not mutually exclusive with using them. Both Rodrigos are corrupt priests while at the same time true believers, with the occasional impulse for spiritual renewal coming through but always competing with and eventually defeated by their appetites. The differences in presentation are already apparent by the choice of actor; Rodrigo in Borgia is played by John Doman, who was Rawles on The Wire, and looks a lot more like the portrait of Pope Alexander VI than Jeremy Irons does, but otoh while having presence and charisma lacks the charm which Rodrigo Borgia even according to his enemies had, and which Irons has in the role. You believe this Rodrigo to be able to make his enemies quake in their boots when he’s on top of his game, but you don’t believe him able to actually bamboozle the French King Charles, and it’s also harder to understand why Vannozza was and Giulia Farnese is actually in love with him, and not just with him for money and power.

The two exceptions not just in presentation but in actual writing in terms of different characterization for Rodrigo Borgia on either show come with his relationships with Lucrezia and Cesare, respectively. With Cesare, the difference is a milder one, starting with Rodrigo withholding his acknowledgement of his fatherhood until mid s1 when he makes a big public declaration in the middle of Cesare’s elevation to Cardinal, and continuing when Cesare is in his post-Juan Renaissance Genius Bastard Prince phase, while Borgia’s Rodrigo tells his confidant and BFF (who is the show’s one significant OC, more about him later) that he’s become afraid of his son, whereas The Borgias’ Rodrigo might have developed trust issues at this point but more significantly has problems with Cesare precisely because he sees himself in his son, and he’s got growing self loathing going on. The Borgias solves this in my hands down favourite s3 episode The Gunpowder Plot by letting father and son at last talk it out and forgive each other. Borgia, otoh, adds a double twist – a drunken Cesare ends up having a one night stand with Giulia Farnese at a point where she herself is estranged from Rodrigo, she flings it into Rodrigo’s face a few weeks before his death and while he doesn’t talk to Cesare about it, it makes for a distanced relationship when he dies. Cesare tells himself he’s solely sad the Pope (i.e. the source of his power) is dead, not Rodrigo the man, only to hallucinate Rodrigo several times from this point onwards and realize that his father did love him unconditionally now when it’s too late.

The two Rodrigo-Lucrezia relationships on either show are even more different. In The Borgias, they start out as a loving patriarch, trusting teenager type in the pilot, get more on an even footing but also more distant after Lucrezia in the second season negotiates some independence and choice for herself, and end up estranged when Lucrezia in the s3 finale stops her father point blank from assuring her he loves her by voicing her disillusioned statement it doesn’t mean anything. In Borgia, the beginning is spoiled brat, fond (if distant and unadmitted) father , goes on to estrangement via the way Rodrigo uses Lucrezia for various alliances – and then becomes close again very much as Rodrigo starts to see and treat the adult Lucrezia as councilor in family and political matters. This gets complicated by the fact he also becomes aware of having developed incestuous feelings for his daughter, which he feels massive guilt for, but in a show where otherwise sex and crime are no sooner thought of than done, this is actually the one sin Rodrigo doesn’t commit, and at no point tries to, but represses, making extra efforts to be a better father instead. (Incidentally, sexual incest does not happen with Cesare and Lucrezia, either. They get as far as a kiss and then an interruption in the s1 finale, which btw was very ill prepared – they hardly have any scenes in s1, and then we suddenly get “everyone thinks we’re having sex anyway, why not prove them right?”, followed by plot interruption, but no more than that. In s2 and s3, the tell instead of show mistake with Cesare and Lucrezia is revised, and we actually see their emotional closeness instead of just being told about it, but the relationship stops short of ever turning sexual again.)

On to the supporting cast. Another big difference between the shows is the way Borgia handles the Farneses, who are the other central family in the series, with Giulia and Alessandro as its main representatives and main characters. As mentioned, Borgia uses more actual historical circumstance, among other things Cesare studying for the priesthood in Pisa together with Giovanni de’ Medici and Alessandro Farnese. (Neither show, though, uses the fact that this is actually where historical Cesare met Micheletto, who also studied in Pisa. Micheletto in Borgia shows up as a mysterious masked assassin whom Juan hires, who changes loyalties to Cesare, and who disappears from the plot mid s2, never having taken his mask off. Not nearly as interesting a character as The Borgias Micheletto, but neither man has anything to do with the original.) Whereas The Borgias has Alessandro Farnese only show up in the third season for a very few episodes, Borgia uses him as a main character, both in his capacity as Cesare’s friend in s1 and Giulia’s younger brother throughout (theirs is the one close family relationship without any incestuous overtones – while there is also Vannozza and her children, she’s not nearly as strong a presence in this show as in The Borgias).

He’s also arguably the sole decent male regular, and only not the sole decent man of the entire show because Lucrezia’s admirer Pietro Bembo is also around in a few episodes. Mind you, “decent” in this context means he’s still a Renaissance cleric with a mistress, several illegitimate children, giving in to the urge to enrich himself in late s2, and after three seasons of trying his heroic best to balance lingering feelings of friendship for Cesare and general loyalty to the Borgias with the fact that Cesare is an increasingly ruthless, not always sane bastard in more than one sense who can turn on you with lightning speed finally puts self interest first and betrays Cesare. But compared to everyone else, Alessandro still at no point a jerk and in many ways a hero. (Just as well, since he’s going to become Pope Paul III one day.) And it’s hard not to feel for him when he tells Cesare in season 3, exasperated: “I’ve tried to be your friend, I’ve tried to be your enemy, I’ve tried to be indifferent, I’ve tried to be just a business partner, but nothing ever works with you!” (At this point, he’s defending Cesare at a show trial Pope Julius II has organized and Cesare is the worst client ever.)

Meanwile, his sister Giulia is a strong player from the pilot to the finale. Definitely not a heroine – Giulia’s most despicable moment is when she drives a completely innocent woman into suicide just because Rodrigo has expressed admiration for her - , but a smart survivor as devoted to her family (read: Alessandro, though their mother and other siblings also make a few token appearances) as the Borgias are to theirs. The The Borgias’ Giulia Farnese sincerely befriends and mentors Lucrezia, and has respect for her predecessor Vannozza; Borgia’s Giulia only pretends friendship with Lucrezia in s1 and despises Vannozza, though she can make alliances of necessity with either at different points in the show when needs must. Her Achilles heel is that she’s actually in love with Rodrigo instead of being just in the relationship for the status and the gain, which means that starting with their first breakup, she also begins to hate him, not least because Borgia’s Rodrigo is selfish enough to prevent any marriage despite Giulia pointing out she needs the security of one once he’s dead. (History’s and The Borgias’ Rodrigos both weren’t, btw. As far as we know, the relationship ended amicably. And she did get married again during his life time.) Still, love wins over hate for her; this series’ Giulia is with Rodrigo through his painful death and together with the fictional OC BFF and chronicler Johann Burkhardt is the only one present at his funeral despite his corpse already rotting in the Roman summer heat. None of this stops her from ingratiating herself to the new Rovere regime; Giulia is deeply practical, after all, and set on making her brother Pope one day. The tag scene of the show reminds the viewers that she’s actually portrayed on his tomb as the figure of justice (you can google it).

About the OC: He’s Frances Garcet, played by Art Malik, a converted Muslim from Spain who was Rodrigo’s best friend from boyhood onwards and is an ideal First Lieutenant to Rodrigo’s Overlord, smart and devoted, with iron self control. (Well, nearly so.) Giuliano della Rovere and several other Cardinals try various schemes to get rid of him in order to weaken Rodrigo through two seasons in vain, but in the third, alas, they finally succeed, and it’s painful to experience. However, he makes a comeback just in time for Rodrigo’s death, and makes it out of the show alive and in a good position. If you have a weakness for ultra competent sidekicks, Garcet is your man.

In conclusion: the show kept me interested enough to marathon it in its entirety, in all its over the top ness. (Once you’ve seen young Cesare sacrifice his firstborn baby on the top of a mountain because he thinks that this way, his father will become Pope, complete with Abraham and Isaac quotes, you know just how melodramatic it can get. Don’t worry about the baby, btw – Alessandro Farnese saves it. As I said: Alessandro is a champ.) At the same time, I wouldn’t call it a must of historical shows, and since most of the characters are unironically terrible people and s1 is somewhat uneven, it might be hard to get into. Not to mention that between various physical torture scenes, threatened rape and emotional torture, it could be triggery for some of you in the extreme. But if you've already watched it, or are now curious to, I'll gladly discuss it further.

Date: 11 Jul 2017 16:18 (UTC)
makamu: (Default)
From: [personal profile] makamu
Thank you for this review! I had seen the series was on Prime and had contemplated watching it (because, like you, I was rather fond of The Borgias ), but have not got around to it yet. This review nudged it a bit higher on my (insanely long) (re)watch list, though. I am particularly interested in the way the show seems to use religious imagery, which was very important to Renaissance thinking, it seems to me, but Borgias always seemed to struggle with

Date: 12 Jul 2017 09:11 (UTC)
makamu: (Default)
From: [personal profile] makamu
I don't care how heavy a point about irony you want to make, there's no way even the worst and most corrupt cleric in the world would have ordered a cruxificion. Lots of other painful executions, absolutely, but the cruxificion, never

Scenes like this one really make me want to know what historical consultants on shows like this get to do. The ancient historian/ classicist on Rome must have had quite a large amount of influence, but stuff like the above makes me think his colleagues are mostly just fig leaves...

Date: 11 Jul 2017 21:24 (UTC)
dhampyresa: (Default)
From: [personal profile] dhampyresa
I really doubt that a bunch of 15th century cardinals would have conspired to replace the Pope with his daughter

I also have my doubts about this.

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selenak

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