Since their success with The Tudors, Showtime has decided to continue historical dramas by showcasing the scandals of one of the most infamous families in history.
The Pope is on his deathbed and the ruthless, ambitious Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) knows soon the cardinals will enter conclave to select a successor. Intensely disliked by his rivals for his licentious lifestyle and Spanish heritage, he quickly maneuvers himself into a position of power through the outside influence of his eldest son, Cesare (François Arnaud). His success in purchasing the position alters the lifestyle of his illegitimate family forever -- his beautiful teenage daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) now has become a commodity for marital prospects, his mistress Vanozza (Joanne Whalley) must refrain from affection toward him in public, and his enemies are numerous.
Now that he has claimed what he wanted most, the trick will be hanging onto it, with the cardinals baying for blood and seeking reasons to have him removed. The bitter battle for the papacy turns into a bloodthirsty aftermath when one of his strongest opponents (Derek Jacobi) tries to have him assassinated. In the meantime, a beautiful temptation has arrived in the form of the lovely Giulia (Lotte Verbeek) -- an unhappily-married woman who chooses to live apart from her husband. Her earnest confession of sin to Rodrigo leads him to offer her a place near the Vatican, an arrangement that draws the attention of those attempting to undermine him and threatens his delicate position…
Everything about this production is sumptuous, from the costuming to the script. The writers have taken more care than in previous productions to focus on the most important characters and stay with them; because of this, it proves a much superior offering in terms of characterization than The Tudors. It is predictable in the sense that we suspect we know what may happen (or in some cases, already do if we've brushed up on our history) but the pacing is such that we're never bored even with the political undercurrent. It's both fascinating and horrific to see the underhanded tactics employed to secure the papacy, right down to notes tucked into freshly cooked poultry. The design is gorgeous and feels very big in scope, with luxurious glimpses into Vatican corridors. The cast is also incredibly strong, led by Jeremy Irons, whose voice contains just the right element of surprise when considering accusations made against him. His Rodrigo is unforgivable in his actions but so charming that the audience cannot help liking him.
Some might also be offended at the depiction of the 1400’s Catholic Church as totally corrupt -- Rodrigo buys his way to power through bribes and claims “God will forgive" his many sins (which includes adultery, murder, and fornication); those of a stronger, more earnest faith fade into the background or are swiftly killed. The show is never shy about revealing the hypocritical behavior of these characters and doesn't glorify their brutal lifestyle. If anything, it shames it -- when one man says he would like to become a Christian because they've “treated him so kindly,” not realizing they intend to murder him for financial gain, our hearts hurt.
The history is good on some points and shaky on others, with liberties taken to further the plot. Given the amount of scandal surrounding this family, its emphasis on immorality isn't unexpected. Readers may find it interesting to know that historically, Rodrigo was the Cardinal who presided over the official paperwork for the marriage of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. Later, it is he (and various successors) who Martin Luther references with contempt when speaking ill of the evil and corruption of Rome. The Borgias are notorious for having been the first "mafia" family... I'm just not sure we needed to see all their sexual exploits in such intimate detail.
The majority of episodes feature sexual encounters and/or nudity. Fourteen year old Lucrezia is raped by her uncaring husband several times. Most of the characters take mistresses or lovers outside their marriage/celibacy vows. Juan is often in the company of bare-breasted women, and beds his younger brother's wife... once right before her marriage is consummated. Sexual conversations are present -- a man is told to prove his virility by bedding a woman in front of a room of cardinals (he declines); there are bawdy theatrics and a hint of “something” between siblings but it is never fully explored.
Profanities here and there, mild abuses of deity.
Sometimes mild (obscured stabbings) and sometimes gruesome (poisoned individuals vomit up copious amounts of blood) and sometimes graphic (a man is stabbed in the eye and blood spurts everywhere; , people are garroted, and a battle turns gruesome with decapitations, men and horses cut in half through cannon fire).
Few members of the Catholic Church are depicted as anything other than libertines.