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Review #2511: The Borgias 1.6: “Death, On a Pale Horse”

Posted on the 10 May 2011 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

The previous episode gave me some hope that Neil Jordan was breaking out of the expository phase and letting the story breathe a bit more. It certainly upped the sensual quotient significantly. So why does this episode feel like such a step backwards?

Review #2511: The Borgias 1.6: “Death, On a Pale Horse”

I found it hard to care about the various developments in this episode, and began dwelling on the technical side of the production. You know it’s a bad sign when I’m more intrigued by the choreography of the fight scenes, and how they staged the invasion of Lucca, than the implications on the story as a whole.

Part of the problem is that I simply don’t care about the characters right now, which is a shame. The previous episode set up the characters well enough, in terms of personal situations, that I should have been invested in the threat that the French invasion of Naples might pose. Yet I just don’t care.

That’s a serious problem. Really, the depiction of the Borgias, particularly Rodrigo, should amount to one of two directions: engendering sympathy or emphasizing villainy. As an audience, we should want these characters to succeed despite their flaws, even as we want them to receive just desserts. Think of “The Sopranos” or “The Tudors”, both key influences. Even though we knew Tony Soprano and Henry VIII did incredibly immoral things, the writers framed them in such a way that we liked them. Or, at the very least, loved to hate them.

Only one character has been given that kind of nuance, and to make Lucrezia that sympathetic, they had to overemphasize the brutality of her first husband. It’s not unlike the depiction of the French king; both men are practically caricatures. Perhaps they really were that loathsome in real life, but they seem awfully overdone in this regard in the series, as if that is the only way to make the Borgias seem palatable in comparison.

This extends across the board; every episode has featured some character that is ridiculously over the top when compared to everyone else in the scene. It’s hard to take Cardinal Rovere seriously when the French king is busy chewing up the scenery. It’s the inverse of the scenes in recent episodes, where Rodrigo is forced to deal with idiotic suitors for Lucrezia or marriage opportunities for his sons. They are meant to be broadly comedic, yet are staged too seriously for their own good.

And this is the ultimate problem with this first season of “The Borgias”: it just doesn’t seem to be finding a consistent tone, either with the characterization or the story as a whole. As a result, as I said before, I’m finding it hard to care about what happens. I can’t help but contrast this with “The Tudors”, which by this point in its first season had me captivated by the seduction of Henry VIII by Anne Boleyn and the various political and religious implications. That’s just not the case with “The Borgias”, and with only two episodes left, I’m wondering if they can bring the first season to a rousing finish, enough to draw the audience back for the second season.

Writing: 1/2
Acting: 2/2
Direction: 2/2
Style: 1/4

Final Rating: 6/10


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