Lately, I have been watching Borgia on Netflix. I enjoy political backstabbing more than anything in fiction, and it is my firm opinion that all the best crosses are doubled and redoubled. Borgia, a series focusing on the lives of the most famously corrupt papal family, seemed like something I would enjoy.
The series begins as Pope Innocent VII is dying. Cardinals squabble over lands and money, each hoping to be the next pope. Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia is just one of those cardinals, but perhaps the most cold and ruthless of them all. He and his illegitimate children will stop at nothing to gain the power they believe they deserve.
The general tone is quite pro-Borgia, which is an interesting choice. They are portrayed as corrupt, but less than anyone else is, and you end up on their side quite quickly. At points, I’d prefer them to have been a little more like the Borgias of legend, when they eschew necessary violence for agonising angst. I am not a crazed incestuous poisoning pontiff, but if I were and a cardinal spoke to me the way they do on Borgia, I would have them flayed. It’s strange to watch a show about the most corrupt and venal pope in which he continually exercises restraint past the point of reason.
The show has definite flaws. The accents are a big part of that – not all the characters commit to an accent consistently, and those at the extreme ends of the spectrum – unapologetic American twang, lisping French – seem all the more obvious in comparison. Distances are occasionally given in kilometres, which, as far as I understand it, didn’t exist until a century or two later.
One particularly annoying issue, though I can’t blame the show for it, is that the episode descriptions often give away the twist, focusing on the end rather than the start. Any sense of suspense, any will-they-won’t-they, is ruined by a one-line description that tells you that they do.
The show is extremely gratuitous, in both sex and violence. I don’t have a problem with graphic scenes, but they have to serve the narrative, not be added in just to show how edgy and hard-hitting the series is. Borgia is one of those shows that revels in nudity and gore, often distracting from the main events. One thing I find particularly irritating in historical fiction is the apparent necessity to show a topless woman once every half hour or so, just so you know it’s gritty. Similarly, it falls into the same trap as shows like Vikings of filling in gaps in the historical record with bizarre and acrobatic deviancy. In one case, a scene appears that is almost identical to one in the show Spartacus – character names and motivations and everything; I’m not saying that either copied the other, but it shows the seams. Gratuitous anything is lazy writing, but it seems to be the norm now for dramas that want to be taken seriously.
Borgia is one of those delightful dramas where a lot of thought has clearly gone into symbolism, and it desperately wants you to notice and approve. After a cardinal is appointed against the wishes of the others, the camera lingers on an irritating fly buzzing around the conclave. Single tears roll down cheeks, and action pauses to let them. Similarly, characters have a habit of slowly explaining the obvious, so you don’t miss the intrigue. Borgia wants to be complex and many-layered, but it has no faith in its viewers; they are guided slowly through the key points.
But despite the many flaws, I’m finding it rather engrossing. Mark Ryder, Diarmuid Noyes, and Isolda Dychauk are compelling and sympathetic enough to keep watching despite the flaws. Frankly, any show which devotes two full episodes to people slowly filling out ballots will have my approval. Borgia is not brilliant, but it is engaging, and I will keep going into the later seasons.