Season 3: Now with double the gay sex and three times the incest!
As before, it seemed to take four or five episodes for the story to get to where I wanted it to be; dealing with the historical elements (at least as far as The Borgias can be perceived as doing so). Unlike before, it only seemed to fizzle from there.
Once we hit about Episode 5, we find Cesare Borgia assuming his historical role in bringing France into the Second Italian War.
For me the high point of the season is when the French army arrives on the coast of Italy. I was impressed with the historically accurate depiction of the ships in the bay, in the background as the army gathered on shore. The style of the papal armies again show that mix of the Roman empire and the early modern that, while I don’t know how accurate it is, really appeals to me.
The war, the season, and ultimately the series ends with the siege of Caterina Sforza’s castle. Consistent with the rest of the series, no attempt to rely on the historical arc of the battle is attempted. Instead, a story of a secret cave below the walls is inserted, perhaps due to its relation to the gay sex at the beginning of the season. In the end, Caterina is captured, imprisoned in Rome, and the season comes to a screeching halt that was obviously unanticipated by the writers.
The series was suspended due to the expense of production. A backup plan involved a two hour “movie” treatment to wrap up the story, but that also did not acquire the necessary funding. In the end, the movie script became available for purchase as a e-book to give closure to fans and Showtime’s Borgias called it a day. One wonders whether the downward trajectory was due to the waning support for the series, or support was vanishing due to the perceived loss of direction. To my mind, the series comes to an end just before the payoff – the point where Cesare begins to exert political control on his own.
All the focus on the gay sex did have one payoff. I actually looked up the name Micheletto Corella to find he was actually a historical persona although, in the fashion of The Borgias, not very much like his on-screen portrayal. The series has him a shadowy rogue who meets Cesare Borgia after being hired as an assassin to kill the Borgia family. Cesare senses his quality and brings him on as his most trusted servant. We later find out he grew up (gay) in the streets of Forli, a plot element important in the final episode. While Corella’s true life is not fully documented, it is known that he was a childhood friend of Cesare and probably of a similar social status. They attended university together and certainly would have had a very different relationship with Cesare during his rise to power.
While reading this, I also read that Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was, in some ways, a contemporization of the Borgia story. Puzo explained in an interview how he saw parallels between the family of the pope and the structure of current crime families. For decades, he had considered writing an actual story based on the Borgias, but died before completing it. His girlfriend released, posthumously, the book The Family based on those notes. I am tempted to read it, but I’m very wary of books purportedly by an author but really based simply on notes that he had made.
In a little tidbit for the watchful eye, Pope Alexander is shown getting his portrait painted during several of the Season 3 episodes. Portraits of Alexander are preserved and the man looks nothing like Jeremy Irons. The painting in the show attempts to bridge that gap. We see that the painting could be of the posing Pope on one hand, and it really resembles the actual portrait of Alexander.
One other interesting diversion. Upon entering Milan, we find Leonardo Da Vinci’s workshop abandoned when the ruling Sforza duke was forced to flee. In the workshop, we find an arquebus, which Da Vinci has outfitted with an open iron gun sight, presumably of his own invention. I am not aware that Da Vinci did work with gun sites, so that part seems entirely fabricated. He did, in fact, invent a multi-barreled cannon and a machine gun, proposed within the context of Italian Wars. One assumes this particular plot point was a lead-in to Season 4 and the introduction of a Leonardo Da Vinci character into the series. Cesare did, in fact, employ Da Vinci as an engineer in 1502 and 1503. Leonardo’s main contribution was not, however, designs for weapon systems, but rather a detailed map. Maps were rather rare at the time and a detailed map for use in planning battle tactics would indeed have been a treasure for a commander.
For all its faults, the production values of The Borgias remain high. I’m now tempted to find if anyone else could have done better. A French TV series (although filmed in English) was created concurrently with the Showtime series and shows some promise. It also ran for three seasons, but may have advanced the story further. I notice that Alexandre Dumas wrote an essay on the Borgia family, but I’m not sure if I’m ready for another Victorian read. There are some contemporary historical novels, some of which are well regarded, that may be worth a try.