The Borgias – consistently confusing

I finished the first season of The Borgias a little while ago. I was disappointed, because there was so much potential.

Historically, the period The Borgias is set in is fascinating. Like all politics, I suppose, there are complex, interlocking networks, and at the same time there are historical trends shifting the way things work (think the French development of cannon from a siege weapon to something you can use on the battlefield).  And the show does deliver some beautiful cinematography; rich colours, sometimes juxtaposed in what could be a still life – some of the scenes can be quite beautiful.

But for all that, the show falls over quite heavily on the writing side. The characters felt terribly stilted to me; most simply because they seem inconsistent over time, verging on the incoherent at points. Rodrigo Borgias, the patriarch of the family, is shown in an extended montage in the first episode, bribing his way into the papacy. That’s a nice piece of one of the underlying ideas in the show – that here is this deeply cynical, corrupt person who’s made their way onto the papal throne. But in the first few episodes, we see the same man refusing to hear his son tell him about an assassination, on some pretence of upholding his honour. That’s just one of a number of points where Rodrigo flips back and forth between pious and deeply cynical. There’s no coherence to it that I can detect, no underlying rationale, or story about why this character might be changing. It’s simply as though there’s some kind of coin that’s being flipped, as to whether he’ll be cynical and manipulative, or pious and godly.

Which makes me think about the writing process. I think it can be very hard, sometimes, when you have a scene in mind – a particular image, or a sequence of events you want to see play out, or even just a piece of snappy dialogue – not to focus on that, to the detriment of coherent character development. I guess that’s what happened here; the writers had particular scenes, particular ideas, and they ended up bending the characters, awkwardly, to fit into their preconceived set pieces.

Which is a shame, because there is so much potential here. If the characters were just filled out a little more, a little more coherent, this would be fascinating. It’s an intriguing setting, and there are some rich stories; it’s just that none of it quite comes together. I want be watching beyond the first season.

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