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The Bloody Borgias

Last week I watched, via Netflix, the first four episodes of Season One of The Borgias. I had company on the sofa, and afterwards the living room reviews were mixed. Yes, the acting was good, yes it was a visual feast (except for the blood and gore), but how are we supposed to warm to a show in which every major character is either a villain or the tool of one? How much time do we really want to spend with people like that?

It’s a good question, for novelists as well as for screenwriters.

In spite of his mournful expression when he prays, and in spite of his insistence that all he does is for the good of Rome, Jeremy Irons’ Pope Alexander VI has few redeeming qualities. He loves his children – and that character trait, it appears, was based on fact. (One reviewer called the children “heinous”. I suppose snakes love their offspring, too.) The trouble is, Alexander is not very much fun to watch. Unlike Shakespeare’s Richard III, there is no gleeful relish in his villainy. Unlike MacBeth, there is no noble mind here beguiled into evil by twisted prophecies. This Pope has much more in common with Don Corleone and Tony Soprano (I was no fan of either) than with any character that Shakespeare penned. The poster depicting The Borgias as The Original Crime Family, with an architectural halo placed strategically behind the Pope’s head, says it all. This is The Bad Seed run amok, only we are not meant to be horrified but, I think, to be impressed at the level of mayhem. Hmmm. What does that say about us?

Visually, it is an astonishing production. Even the opening credits are stunning, grim as they are. I was delighted to learn that the series was filmed in Budapest, for I have a fondness for the city after visiting there last year. The hills around the Korda Filmpark, 18 miles west of Budapest, became Rome and Florence, and the soundstages became the interiors of churches and palaces. According to Cinematographer Paul Sarossy, “There’s nothing in front of the camera that hasn’t been manufactured for telling the story.” The website has some fascinating information and videos about it all, if you’re interested.

Henry VII Funeral Effigy, Westminster Abbey

Henry VII Funeral Effigy, Westminster Abbey

I did a little research to put the Borgias into historical perspective. Who was on the throne of England while Pope Alexander VI was plotting in Rome? Henry VII, the first of the Tudors. In The Kings and Queens of England , author Jane Murray describes Henry as “too clever by half…But he knew how to get along in the world. He was a wise and far-seeing executive. With solvency he had brought peace and prosperity and law and order to England, and in this atmosphere the arts and trades and crafts flourished.” A far cry from Borgia’s Rome, although art and architecture flourished there, as well, in between the murders. Henry Tudor, of course, was no angel. He snatched Richard III’s crown from a hawthorne bush after killing him in battle, and he handily disposed of Richard’s two relatives who had a better claim to the crown, Elizabeth of York and Edward Plantagenet. (He married one and executed the other.) Yet this first Tudor king is the least familiar to us of all his clan, and his royal crimes seem insipid compared to those of the Borgias.
It’s a truism that villains are much more fun to write – and to act – than heroes. But how many hours can one spend watching a show bereft of any character that is even likable, no matter how handsome the faces, the sets and the costumes? A really good villain has to be someone that you love to hate, which means there must be a hero somewhere pitted against him. In The Borgias, there are no heroes as yet, only villains of varying degrees. Will I continue to watch? Yes, I’ll take a look at the next DVD, if only for the glory of the sets and the costumes, but unless someone surfaces who I can root for, I suspect that my fast forward button is going to inflict a little carnage.

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