I finally finished the first season of Borgia. My chances of finishing before the series is pulled is looking pretty grim at this stage. I don’t know how far I’ll get before the end but the transition from one season to another seems a decent place to take stock with what we’ve got.
Season 1 of Borgia ends with the same plot point as Season 2 of The Borgias. Juan Borgia’s body is found, following his murder by persons unknown, and Pope Alexander falls into despair while demanding to know who killed his oldest (remaining) son. The details, including the eventual reveal of whodunnit, differ between the two versions but the main plot is very similar. Contrasting these two isolated plot points tells us a lot about the differences between the series as a whole.
In Borgia, we see Rodrigo/Alexander in anguish. He locks himself away, wailing and smashing things, heard but not seen (either by the other characters or by us, the viewing audience). Cesare finally breaks down his door to find him stripped of his robes and flagellating his naked body. The show relies on the actor, as well as the made-up marks upon his body, to convey the sense of grief. It is done well enough.
Until you compare the equivalent scene from The Borgias. There we see Alexander digging a grave for Juan with his bare hands, soiling his papal robes as he does so. In his mind’s eye he sees Juan, not as he has become – a failure as a leader, infected with syphilis, and addicted to opium – but as his young child. It is one of the more effective and powerfully-emotional scenes I’ve seen on television. Ever.
This small difference emphasizes the difference in production values (read expense) between the two versions. I’m not sure the lower budget Borgia could have pulled it off and, in any case, it would have been a departure from the style of that version.
Borgia, also in that final episode of Season 1, shows some flaws that I’ve noticed occasionally throughout the season. Particularly, the opening scenes feel choppy, as if they’ve been edited down to fit more story into the time constraint of the episode. I also had been coming to appreciate the introduction to each episode by Johann Burchard, the master of ceremonies to multiple popes, including Innocent and Alexander in the series. He begins with the date and a summary of the state of Rome, supported by the “previously” footage taken from earlier episodes. Burchard is critical historically as his records of the papal court provide one of the major primary sources for today’s knowledge of early-modern Rome. It is nice to have the drama framed so easily within the historical context. The problem is, that framing isn’t quite accurate.
Season 1, as we know from those opening titles, spans mid-1492 through sometime in 1494 and covers the election of Alexander VI, the first Italian War, and Juan Borgia’s death. Alas, Charles’ invasion of Italy lasted into 1495 and Juan Borgia survived through 1497. One wonders what, during the production of a historical drama, possesses writers and producers to create such a gap between their own story and reality. I would think it would make everything harder going forward, now that you’re on this alternative timeline.
Beyond that, there were other plot devices with which Borgia surprised me. The historical record of the Borgia family is distorted with the rumors that floated at the time. I prefer Borgia‘s treatment of them, explicitly acknowledging their distorting effect. Naturally, the show is going to need to present definitively events that we don’t know if they were fact, speculation, or deliberate misinformation spread by the Borgia’s political enemies. Nevertheless, there are clearly ahistorical plot points. As an example, the character of Micheletto Corella is, much like in The Borgias, portrayed as a mysterious figure risen from the underworld. Yet it seems more likely that the real figure was a childhood friend of Cesare and from similar social status as Juan and Cesare themselves. What is the common source from which both of these shows borrowed?
While we are comparing and contrasting with The Borgias, the on-screen depiction of the First Italian War is dramatically different from one show to the other. I marveled at the portrayal of the armies in The Borgias, particularly within the context of a made-for-TV series. Borgia didn’t have that kind of money. The Battle of Fornovo is included only off-screen. A minor battle, the retaking a French-garrisoned fortress after Charles’ departure, is displayed with a momentary shot of an infantry clash. “Battles” tend to be depicted by a dozen or so costumed troops simply to convey the idea that fighting has taken place.
It is, nevertheless, good to see the use of firearms portrayed properly. In contrast to The Borgias, which treated firearms like some advanced technological mystery, Borgia properly shows the arquebus in common use. The Borgias had tried to make a plot point out of the failure of the Italian armies to “modernize” and took it too far.
Like the Borgias themselves, I shall race against their clock to try to advance their fortunes during the brief time they have remaining to them on this mortal coil we call Netflix streaming.