Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Borgias— A Clever Game of Complicity

If you haven't been watching Showtime's Epic Original Series, The Borgias, then you're avoiding the brilliance that places history into a dark and manipulative game. The Borgias were an actually family. The name Borgia is synonymous with the corruption, nepotism, and greed that were rife in Renaissance Italy. The powerful, voracious Rodrigo Borgia, better known to history as Pope Alexander VI, was the central figure of the dynasty. The Borgias is a complex, unvarnished portrait of one of history's most intriguing and infamous dynastic families. Oscar(r)-winning actor Jeremy Irons returns in his Golden Globe(r)-nominated role as the cunning, manipulative patriarch of the Borgia family who ascends to the highest circles of power within Renaissance-era Italy to become Pope Alexander VI. Seeking to consolidate his power, Alexander enlists his family to take an oath of revenge on the great noble houses that dared to stand against him, causing his Papacy to face political turmoil once again. But Alexander's real problems lie with his children, all of whom are growing up and defying his authority. Lucrezia forges an unlikely alliance between Vanozza and Giulia, and together they plot to battle Vatican corruption. The sibling rivalry between Cesare and Juan will soon turn to hatred as their father's unwavering favoritism toward Juan triggers Cesare to engage his dark side. Elsewhere in Rome, Alexander's old enemy Della Rovere has entered the city incognito and conspires to assassinate him. The story of the Borgia family's unlikely dramatic rise from its Spanish roots to the highest position in Italian society is an absorbing tale.

While rats, disease and poverty festered outside the Vatican walls, the infamous Rodrigo Borgia and his notorious family ruthlessly held all power through the Papal throne during the turbulent Bacchanalian decadence of 15th century Rome. They always ruled via intimidation and violence, crushing their enemies and fomenting fear, division, and revulsion among anyone who would dare challenge their power. They were the original "one percent." But as season two of the SHOWTIME hit drama series The Borgias truly unfolds, the greatest existential threat to Alexander's Papacy may not come from foreign adversaries or ambitious political operatives, but may linger within his own brood. His inevitable fall from power could come from the duplicitous deeds of his most trusted inner circle— his family. "The Pope has insisted that there be no family rivalry," says the Academy Award®-winning series star Jeremy Irons. "He knows rightly that if the family is to be powerful, it has to be powerful because it's united."

Filmed entirely on location in Budapest, Hungary, the series stars Oscar® winner Jeremy Irons, in his Golden Globe®-nominated role as Pope Alexander VI, a Spanish outsider whose political cunning and ruthless ambition elevated him past his rivals. "The first year, I felt the need to lay out the historical tableau with a great amount of clarity," says executive producer, writer and director Neil Jordan. "So when we came to the second season, it was like, suddenly you've got all these characters, and you can let them rip. It was a lot of fun." The Academy Award®-winning Jordan penned five scripts this season, then handed the reins over to executive producer David Leland to write four, and Guy Burt (Kingdom) to write one. Jordan (Byzantium) directed episodes 1 and 2; Jon Amiel (Creation) directed episodes 3 and 4; Kari Skogland (Endgame) directed episodes 5 and 7; John Maybury (Edge of Love) directed episodes 6 and 8; and Leland (Band of Brothers) served as director for the final two episodes.

Fraternal strife boils over. Sexual proclivities of the Pope blossom. Women unite in a new display of power. Borgia enemies multiply. As season one ended, the Pope’s beloved daughter Lucrezia had just given birth, and the family celebrated together. Almost like a happy new beginning. Almost. "All of the characters are going to darken this season," says Jordan. The cunning Cesare, engages his dark side, becoming much more like The Prince Machiavelli wrote about; the profligate Juan is ostracized by his family and turns murderous; and the increasingly independent Lucrezia refuses to be just a pawn in her family's continued quest for power. Meanwhile, the Pope faces unrelenting struggles: The French return with a vengeance, having been tricked into invading a plague-infested Naples in season one. Various Italian clans plot his demise. The devious antagonist Cardinal Della Revere trains an assassin; while in Florence the puritanical Friar Savonarola's grip on power tightens and the Borgia fortunes, deposited with the Medici Bank, are jeopardized.

Cesare begrudgingly continues serving as Cardinal per his father's edict and coveting Juan’s job as head of the Papal Army, which suffers a humiliating defeat this season. Juan's erratic and violent behavior has become a threat to the Borgia throne and the Pope senses the dangerous discord. Though competition rages between brothers, when it comes to the Pope's affection, Juan wins hands down, much to the chagrin of an increasingly cynical Cesare, who is fast becoming the "dark horse" his sibling always knew him to be. "He's not looking for his father's love as much as he did in the first season," says Francois Arnaud. "He's not even looking for his father's approval anymore. He just kind of decides to go rogue, and more often than not, knows that his ideas are just better."

As the season opens, Lucrezia is now mother to a love child, having survived a disastrous marriage to Giovanni Sforza, who betrayed her family politically, and violated her personally as a wife.  Says actress Holliday Grainger, "I think family members expect Lucrezia to sit back and resign herself to marriage, to being bullied by her brother. But she doesn't. She stands up for herself, and says, 'eah, I'm a woman, but I'm a strong woman." Though Lucrezia's innocence of season one has faded, she's not quite the monster as depicted in history books— which were often written by Borgia enemies. "Those who vilified her, without exception, were all men," says Zoltan Rihmer, Papal consultant. "That speaks for itself." In another interesting twist taken from the history books, known as in loco parentis ("in place of a parent"), Pope Alexander places Lucrezia on the throne while he leaves Rome on business, a very taboo act during those times. But it wasn't just the Papal stint that emboldens Lucrezia this season. When Juan crosses her, we learn that she too is capable of dark deeds, a Borgia trait she shares with Cesare.

Amidst the dramas of torture, warfare, and turbulent times surrounding the Borgia Papacy, at the central core is the family. "What I love about The Borgias is that it's a huge, epic tale of wars, and power, and God, and faith, and poverty, and riches," says Joanne Whalley. "But at the center of that, it's a family. It humanizes everything." Says Irons, "An audience will always be engaged by the human condition. Battles are great, political movements are great— they give tension, and they're interesting to watch... But certainly what I care about, as an audience, are people. How they interact. And I think what we're seeing is how this pretty wild family is dealing with one other. How each character is developing, getting stronger or weaker. And it's them we watch, and them, hopefully, we love, in a strange way."

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