THE BORGIAS 1.01 & 1.02 ‘The Poisoned Chalice’ & ‘The Assassin’

Rodrigo Borgia takes control of the Catholic papacy through bribes, murder and treachery.

Blair Marnellby Blair Marnell

Episode Titles: "The Poisoned Chalice" & "The Assassin"

Writer: Neil Jordan
Director: Neil Jordan
In the late fifteenth century, Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) fulfills his lifelong ambition by becoming the Pope of the Catholic Church through underhanded means. Now with the help of his equally corrupt family, he struggles to hold on to his newfound power. 
Italy, in the 1490s… Pope Innocent VIII lies on his death bed and he invites his Cardinals to see him before the end. He implores them to cleanse the church of its corruption. Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia is the first to swear that it will be done, followed quickly by the rest of the Cardinals. Meanwhile at Borgia's lavish estate, his oldest son Cesare (Francois Arnaud) has sex with a woman while his young sister, Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) spies on them with seemingly incestuous lust.
Later, we see Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere (Colm Feore) compliment Cardinal Borgia on his organizational skills, but he openly states that he believes Borgia doesn't deserve to be Pope and he vows to fight him in the coming election. We soon learn that Cesare is an official within the church. Borgia smuggles his son out of the Vatican shortly before the Pope dies and they work out a way to communicate through carrier doves to figure out who they can "compel" to win Borgia's ascent to the papacy. After several votes (and lavish bribes), Borgia is named the next Pope.
Rovere and Cardinal Orsini (Derek Jacobi) instantly challenge the validity of the election, but Borgia silences their criticisms by seemingly promising them the vice chancellor position. However, soon after the final ceremony, Borgia reneges on the implicit promise… earning more outrage by Orsini. Rovere is astute enough to bow and kiss the Pope's ring before quietly urging his friend to do the same. Orsini saves face by doing so and by inviting all of the Cardinals and the Pope to a lavish feast at his estate. Cesare accompanies his father to the event as his personal bodyguard.
Upon spotting suspicious activity in the kitchen, Cesare encounters Michelletto (Sean Harris), an assassin who easily bests him in speed. He offers Michelletto double what he is being paid by Orsini to work for Borgia and himself. But Cesare briefly revokes the offer before Michelletto has him at knife point again and agrees to his terms. By Cesare's command, Michelletto serves Orsini the poisoned wine meant for Borgia. As Orsini dies, he tries to accuse Borgia but he collapses before he can. Afterwards, Michelletto helps Cesare save the rest of his family from the murder plot originally planned by Michelletto himself.
When he is captured, Michelletto offers to let Cesare to whip him harshly so that he can gain the trust of Cardinal Rovere. Meanwhile, Borgia's elevation to Pope causes strain on his family, including his mistress (and the mother of his children) Vannozza dei Cattanei (Joanne Whalley), whom Borgia claims he can no longer be intimate with. But Borgia soon takes a new mistress, Giulia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek) and sets her up in Orsini's estate adjacent to the Vatican. One of the female slaves at Orsini's estate spies the Pope fornicating with Giulia.
Vannozza learns of the affair accidentally through Lucrezia and she publicly confronts Borgia in the Vatican, starting rumors of his transgression. Realizing that this may be the key to getting rid of Borgia, Rovere has Michelletto bring the female slave from the estate to unofficially testify before the Cardinals opposed to Borgia. For his part, Borgia plots to add an additional 13 Cardinals to insulate and protect his reign as Pope. When he unveils these plans, Rovere threats to produce proof of Borgia's sexual relations. Undaunted, Borgia urges him to do so.
But when Rovere returns to his estate, he finds the female slave murdered in his bed (killed after sex by Michelletto). Rovere flees and Cesare leads the investigation while "interviewing" Michelletto. Before parting, he tells the assassin that he has earned his trust.
The first episode "The Borgias" is well made and well acted with sharp production values and very good writing for the most part. There's only one major problem.
I don't see how this is going to work as a series.
By the end of the pilot, most of Borgia's problems are solved and he seems firmly entrenched in power. The historical Borgia was Pope for over a decade, so there's no suspense that any of the plots against him will succeed. 
To be sure, this is an interesting and even compelling story. But with a tighter ending, this could have been a stand alone feature film. There doesn't seem to be a strong enough narrative to carry this show for another eight episodes, much less a long run as a series.
I would like to be proven wrong in that regard. If "The Borgias" can remain this entertaining throughout the first season, I'll gladly eat my words.
The strange relationship between Cesare and the assassin Michelletto was easily the highlight, though I can't quite put my finger on the dynamic between them. In his debut appearance, Michelletto has proven to be just as cunning a planner as Borgia himself and there were times when I wondered where his loyalties truly were. Cesare was also the most interesting member of the Borgia family, adding some much needed life to what could have been a flat character.
Early in the episode, some of the strongest scenes depicted Borgia and Cesare's elaborate scheme to win the papacy. It was also refreshingly amusing to see just how corrupt every single one of the Cardinals was despite their claims of purity. Borgia put it best when he said that they were just upset that he was better at the game than they were.
As for Borgia himself, Jeremy Irons does seem to embody the role. But there are a few times that he seemed bored to be there. Some of that may have been as written, since it plays out to comical effect during his last scene with the assembled Cardinals. However, Irons doesn't always seem to bring the fire to fully bring life to Borgia. It seems strange to say this about such a veteran actor, but he needs to bring more consistency to the role.
Derek Jacobi and Colm Feore were both at the top of their game as Borgia's rival Cardinals, which makes it almost a shame that they're both seemingly sidelined after this episode. Although Feore's Cardinal Rovere isn't dead, I can't see him easily explaining away the dead slave in his bed.
Regardless of my reservations about whether this series is viable, it's definitely got my attention. We'll soon know if it deserves a long reign.
Crave Online Rating: 8 out of 10.