“The wolves are bearing down on the papal states.” There are few people other than Jeremy Irons who could make that line sound so deliciously sinister yet plausible as Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander VI, explains the family’s political danger to his middle son, the hot-headed soldier Juan. If you haven’t kept up with The Borgias, Neil Jordan’s sweeping, visually sumptuous series about the 15th century family of sexy, manipulative powermongerers, you’re missing a very smart guilty pleasure.
More than half-way through the nine-episode season – episode 7 arrives tonight – the series has become more gripping, more fraught with betrayals, more loaded with sex, murder and danger. Broodingly handsome Cesare (Francois Arnaud) , the oldest son and a cardinal, has murdered the husband of the woman he loves. Their passionate trysts end when she learns that Cesare was behind her husband’s disappearance, but until she fled to a convent and put on that nun’s habit she had the greatest dresses, including a purple and orange number she wore to an outdoor market.
The Pope’s ambitious enemy, Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore), has recruited French troops to invade Italy and usurp the Pope’s power. To fortify his position, Rodrigo engineers an alliance with Naples by marrying off his youngest son, 13-year-old Joffre, to the dotty King of Naples’ illegitimate daughter, Sancia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), who happens to be sleeping with Juan. And in another political arrangement, Rodrigo has married off his daughter Lucrezia to a brute, so she has taken up with an illiterate stable boy, finally discovering the family flair for sneakiness, not to mention ruthlessness.
Jordan, who wrote the series and directed the early episodes, knows how to weave political dynamics into a fabulously absorbing drama – maybe even soap opera, but then the Borgia story was crammed with operatic elements, which the endlessly attractive cast brings to life without a wink at the camera.
Episode 6 was full of sex – including Rodrigo using his mistress’ leg to explain the political landscape. Episode 7 appears to be full of violence, as Della Rovere arrives with the French soldiers. Here are previews of Rodrigo and Cesare and of the French army approaching, and a brief comment by Jordan about those nasty incest rumors that have swirled around Cesare and his beloved sister, Lucrezia.