Rating: 9 out of 10
We begin off with Rodrigo Borgia himself, tired of the backbiting and jockeying for position among the college of Cardinals here in Rome, but wait, the Pope is about to die. This means chaos in the streets of Rome until the college of Cardinals can elect a new Pope, by vote no less. And any vote, especially in Rome in this time period, can be bought – which is exactly what Rodrigo Borgia does, with sons Cesare and Juan’s help, with gusto. Cunningly disguised in food, scrolls that promise titles and lands and coin and all manner of things are distributed among the Cardinals and slowly Borgia’s influence grows until finally he gets the required majority of votes and poof, Borgia is crowned Pope of the Known World.
But wait? Rodrigo Borgia the man, regardless of being a Cardinal is his red, had a wife and three children – Juan, Cesare and Lucrezia. Very soon after he is crowned Pope he informs his long suffering wife they have to part, at least on a physical level. He hastens to assure her they will remain connected on a spiritual level, but of course the Pope can only be seen to love God. This is while son Cesare, as a Bishop in his purple too, is running around commiting every last crime of Simony (bribery) and all other sorts the college of Cardinals is accusing the Borgias of; yes he is actually doing these things.
Things continue on apace, and Rodrigo Borgia is crowned by the triple crown of the Pope in a glittering ceremony attended by a great many Romans. The Cardinals in tow mutter among themselves about “monkey” and “Spaniard”, the people make the sign of the Cross and kneel, and Borgia himself generally wears a strange expression of both serenity, humility, and one that just says, “How the hell did I get here anyway?” Soon after the ceremony, Rodrigo begins demonstrating the rather infamous Borgia instability, when he is being unvested of his Pope raiments he begins almost rambling in a religious trance, and all but faints into Cesare’s arms after insisting he, is now we, the new Pope of the People, Alexander Sextus.
But now there are plots within plots, enemies everywhere both without and within, and with this new weight of responsibility Rodrigo seems to go more crazed than ever. He takes a Mistress, installs her in the left-behind palace of a dead Cardinal with an adjoining tunnel to the Vatican for pete’s sake, and then proceeds to make merry with her, to the chagrin of everyone. The college of Cardinals is running around trying to find something, anything to use against Borgia as grounds for his expulsion as Pope, including notorious or public adultery, and here he is, actually merrily doing that anyway, right under their noses! Getting away with it right nicely too.
So everything culminates at a dinner party a sullen Cardinal gives, which inevitably involves a plot to poison His Holiness. Cesare Borgia is there of course, dutifully by his father’s side, how fortunate Rodrigo is that is, for Cesare discovers the would-be assassin before he’s had the chance to make his move. And, in a move reminiscent of Michael Westin, or Walsingham if you prefer, Cesare immediately turns that would-be assassin into an asset. He makes that asset, Micheletto, work for it too – it’s not until Micheletto has killed a handful of times for the Borgia more or less, that Cesare finally stamps the man with Borgia ownership. There is where the astounding first episode takes its’ leave of us.
Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia makes the series. Now I admit, a great many of the other actors did a fantastic job. Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia Borgia is a sight to behold, all gold and white and deadly poison like oleander. We don’t see a whole lot of David Oakes as Juan Borgia, the haphazard soldier second son of the Borgias in the first episode, but I’m sure he gets more prevalent. Francois Arnaud stars as Cesare Borgia, in his favored black, hard working and cynical, always loyal and wry with it. Several of the Cardinal enemies of Borgia are famous faces; Ronan Vibert, Colm Feore, Bosco Hogan. But Irons, with his Lecter-like hiss and voice that he rarely raises, his compelling madness and passion even for an older man who just got wrapped in robes of Power that can squeeze the world, makes the opening series of The Borgias an absolute masterpiece of a dramatic opening. Stay tuned to Showtime to see what Rodrigo Borgia and his family do next!