THE BORGIAS: “The French King”
Read on for my recap & review of The Borgias 1×06, “The French King,” aired Sunday, May 1st, 2011:
Previously on The Borgias, Cardinal Della Rovere left Rome and conspired with the French and Naples to depose the Borgia pope. Meanwhile, Lucrezia was married to Giovanni Sforza, only to be repeatedly abused and raped by her new husband. In revenge, she and her new friend Paolo, a cute stable boy, arrange for Giovanni to have “an accident” while out riding. Vanozza, Mama Borgia, was reunited with her husband, Mr. Collins (a.k.a. Theo, played by David Bamber). Cesare fell in love with a married woman, Ursula, and in order to free her from her unhappy marriage, he assassinated her husband. In the rain. Because that’s more dramatic. Dun dun dun.
Cue the credits. I would just like to repeat again, that I really love them. The combination of Renaissance paintings with live action moments provides the perfect tone for the show. Also, this episode was directed by John Maybury and written by Neil Jordan.
We then open on Pesaro Castle, home to Lucrezia and her new husband, Giovanni Sforza. Lucrezia tends to her husband’s wounds with an ointment. She is clearly really enjoying his pain, but she acts all sweet and grateful that his leg has been saved. He says she has been kind to him and he even begins to feel bad that he was not so kind. He says: “I see now that nobility springs from the soul, not from the blood. I forgive you the accident of your family name.” Lucrezia is clearly offended by this, but follows along with his lead, pretending to be grateful. Then she offers to ride his horse for him.
As we soon see, Lucrezia does ride her husband’s horse, with Paolo the stable boy at her side. This afternoon ride through the forest leads to the two having sex. I don’t think this was what Giovanni had in mind when he agreed for his wife to look after his horse. However the relationship between Lucrezia and Paolo is very sweet. As the two look into a pool of water, Lucrezia compares Paolo to the mythological Narcissus. Paolo isn’t familiar with the story, because he cannot read nor write. She explains, “Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection. In the waters of the spring.” The two kiss, and we see a really beautiful shot of them from below the water, as if it were their reflection. Lucrezia is happy and notes, “And I thought I would never know sweetness.” From then on she calls him Narcissus. The two even go so far as to take their tryst to Lucrezia’s marriage bed, while her husband sleeps downstairs. For a few moments, it seems like Giovanni might catch them, as he awakens in the middle of the night to the sound of squeaking. Luckily he identifies the source of the noise as coming from the servants in the kitchen. Phew.
Back in Rome, the Pope holds an audience for ambassadors from Naples. He is brought the portrait of Sancia, Duchessa of Squillace and illegitimate daughter to the King of Naples. She is beautiful but since she is illegitimate, Juan (and his annoying haircut) gets all huffy about the presumption that he should marry her. Fortunately, the Pope intercedes diplomatically, in time to save relations between Rome and Naples. Basically, Naples is trying to assert its independence and to see if the Borgias can offer more than Della Rovere and the French. Poor Della Rovere. (More on him later.)
The Pope later scolds Juan for his behavior, in the presence of Cesare. Rodrigo and his two eldest sons discuss their options, and decide that Joffre can marry Sancia instead. At the protest that Joffre is too young to marry, as he still plays with dolls, the Pope reminds his sons: “Lucrezia still plays with dolls. She got married.” Yeah, and look how well that turned out. Yikes. It is then settled that Juan will not marry the Duchessa, but he will ride to Naples to press his younger brother’s suit.
Later, as Juan and the Pope plan his trip to Naples, Rodrigo warns his son: “But we need this union more than we need riches. The walls are bearing down on the Papal States.” The subtext is that getting the support of Naples is key to stopping the Della Rovere-France coalition from deposing the Borgia pope. On a more sentimental note, Rodrigo adds that if there’s a wedding, they can see Lucrezia again.
Juan makes it to Naples, home of the creepy prince with his high-pitched voice, and his very-out-of-it father. Juan meets Joffre’s betrothed, Sancia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), and there is some sexual chemistry between the two. Poor Joffre. Also, was it just me, or does the actress who plays Sancia look a lot like Nina Dobrev? Talk at dinner includes bastards and jokes about the Borgia prowess. It seems that Juan holds himself superior to Sancia because his father signed a papal bull legitimizing all of his children. Well that’s convenient. Must be good to be Pope (and to be the child of a Pope too). After dinner, Sancia gives Juan a tour, taking him into the creepy room full of the dead stuffed men. Soooo creepy. Judging by that room, dealing with Naples may be a bad idea. However, Juan is not as creeped out by the room as I am, and he and Sancia end up having sex on the banquet table, right in front of all the dead bodies. The room is now even creepier to me.
Eventually, Juan returns to Rome to give his report to his family. Joffre asks if she is pretty and kind, but Juan is noncommittal and unenthusiastic. He says that she does not have horns, but she is not pretty. He does not know if she is kind. Finally, Juan puts his little brother out of his misery, and praises Sancia enthusiastically. Vanozza and Cesare look on, concerned. They seem to know that something is up. Do you think that they correctly suspect that Juan and Sancia slept together? Or do they just find Juan concerning in general, like the rest of us?
Later, Juan jokes to Vanozza: “As St. Augustine said, mother, ‘Let me be married lord, but not yet.’” She laughs. A nice reference to Book VIII of The Confessions. But then things get awkward when Mr. Collins arrives. Juan is a jerk to him and strikes him. The reason for Juan’s anger and violence is revealed to be that there are rumors that he himself is the son of “this goat herder.” He is so angry at the idea that Theo could be his father that he hates Theo, as the reminder of this terrible possibility. His mother is horrified and asks, “What has this papacy done to you?” Juan retorts, “It has removed me forever from the likes of him.” Vanozza then demands that her son leave, which he does.
Juan is then reprimanded by his father for this behavior. Rodrigo asks, “Are you out of your mind? To spill the blood of your mother’s husband?” Juan repeats his accusations of Theo’s low stature. Rodrigo retorts, “If that is what he is, then what does that make you?” Cold. Juan: “You’ve heard the rumors …” Rodrigo: “And you wanted to feed those rumors? What is all of Rome talking about now?” Good point. He adds, “Do you have any idea what lengths I’ve gone to keep your mother’s reputation intact?” Rodrigo then brings up rumors that are circulating that Cesare is more suited to Juan’s military position, which only heightens the tension. At the threat of Gonfaloniere. At the threat that this honor and purpose might be taken away, Juan is finally contrite. He asks, “How can I make recompense?” The pope: “You can beg forgiveness from your mother and you can escort her to her brother’s Joffre wedding.” Then the pope gets in one good slap before leaving.
Meanwhile, Cesare is dealing with his own problems. If you remember, he was captivated by Ursula at first sight. Inconveniently, she was a married woman. Conveniently, her husband insulted Cesare’s mother’s honor, giving him an excuse to kill the guy. In this episode, the affair between the two gets more intense. Ursula asks, “Can you love me, Cesare Borgia, or is it just desires of the flesh?” Cesare: “I am very much afraid that it is both. One or the other I could deal with, but both and I am lost.” Later, the two have sex, taking their affair to the next level. Ursula says, “You make me hope, and I’m afraid of hope.” Cesare: “Hope for what?” Ursula: “For days like this—in the future with you.” She says that her husband will be home in two days, but Cesare replies, “Perhaps his business will detain him.” Is Ursula really that naïve? It seemed in the last episode that she was practically begging him to kill her husband, and now she is wholly ignorant of even the possibility? Odd.
Later, Ursula grows increasingly conflicted, but then her husband’s body is found in the Tiber. Oops. It is three weeks past the crime. She accuses Cesare: “You bought those three weeks with murder.” Cesare: “It was no murder. He fought. He lost.” Ursula: “I begged you not to meet him.” Cesare complains that he thought she knew him, and asks, “Is it murder to defend your mother’s honor? To procure the freedom of one you could love more than your mother’s honor?” Ursula brings up God, but Cesare asks, “Do you think I care for the forgiveness of God?” Good thing he’s a Cardinal! He thinks that he gave her a future, but she protests: “You have not given me a future. You have given me a lifelong penance. I am party to your crime.” Then Cesare gets all intense and self-reflective:“I was born with a stain—a mark, like the mark of Cain, which is the mark of my father, my family. The mark of Borgia. I’ve tried to be other than I am, but I have failed. If I have failed you in the process, I am truly sorry.” Way to be dramatic, Cesare! I think it maaaaay be reaching to claim that killing Ursula was the result of the circumstances of your birth. Sigh. Ursula then says: “You have the devil’s insight, Cardinal. You read what my heart wanted, and you gave it to me. You gave me joy through a crime that I could not conceive of. And now I must live my life in penance, praying for forgiveness.” He asks where, but she refuses to say. He asks, “You mean a nunnery?” Ursula: “I mean confinement.” Cesare: “You may find a nunnery cell, but you will never be free of me.” Ursula: “You are right. I will never be free of you.” She walks away, as he cries. Later, we see confirmation of her choice as a nun cuts of Ursula’s hair. The nun explains that it’s “a renunciation of her earthly beauty.”
I don’t know about this Cesare-Ursula storyline. It’s just so over-dramatic and melodramatic. And things became so intense between the couple so quickly. Also, Ursula’s character seemed very inconsistent. Praying for salvation from her husband, and then acting shocked that Cesare might intervene to save her. Also, it’s unclear why her marriage was so bad. Did she just not love her husband? Or did he abuse her? I mean the man was certainly controlling and unpleasant, but it was hard to be invested in Ursula’s troubles without knowing more. And now Cesare will still not let her go? And declares that he will keep searching for her? (As he tells Lucrezia later.) Pass.
Finally, the entire Borgia family comes together for the wedding. Lucrezia reunites with her father in his bed, and they kiss on the lips. Incest alert! Then she happily reunites with Cesare, who asks how her marriage is. She is reticent and merely says, “It was hard at first, but then it grew sweeter.” She suppresses giggles as she tells him that Giovanni fell off his horse, and she philosophizes, “I find that the more confined husbands come, the more tolerable.” She then asks about his heart. He admits: “It’s broken. By a nun.” She immediately asks, “Will you spend a lifetime writing her?” Way to enable him, Lucrezia! Cesare: “I would, if I knew where she was.” He then asserts that he intends to find her, as I referenced above. The episode features no reunion with Juan. Obviously Lucrezia doesn’t care about him, and why would she?
At the actual wedding, Sancia kisses the Pope’s feet and then waits there as Joffre processes in. Weird. The Nina Dobrev look-alike weds the little boy, as Lucrezia and Cesare look on. Lucrezia weirdly comments, “She is too beautiful. I hate her.” Cesare: “If you hate beauty, you must hate yourself.” I guess this is to show how unnaturally close the entire family is. They are all jealous of each other’s marriages. Unhealthy. Elsewhere in the church, we see Juan creepily watch the wedding. Lucrezia then adds: “Poor Joffre. He deserves better than Naples.” She explains that she has heard the rumors about the girl’s father.
Later that night, Joffre looks far too young to be married, as he drinks a glass of milk in bed, sporting a nightgown. From the other room, his new wife tells him that he’s now Duke of Squillace. But then it is revealed that as she is talking to her young husband, she is having sex with Juan at the same time. Gross. Meanwhile, innocent Joffre checks his reflection in a mirror to make sure that he looks okay for his new bride. Awww. Juan and Sancia then kiss goodbye and she joins her new husband. She tells the pages goodnight and begins to undress. So weird. I would have thought that they would give the boy a year or two before expecting him to “perform his marital duties.”
While all this stuff is going on in Italy, Cardinal Della Rovere is plotting in France with King Charles, the French king. I found the exchanges between the two fascinating. The Cardinal’s introduction to the French King is odd and awkward, but I was amused by the monarch’s idiosyncrasies. The king says, “So admit it, Cardinal, I have all the graces of a carnival dwarf.” Hee. He explains to Della Rovere, “I appreciate only plain speech. Tell us then what you want of us, plainly.” This is difficult for Della Rovere, so accustomed to the politics of the papal court. The king surmises, “You want me to march to Rome, depose that Borgia, give you the papal authority, in the hopes that you would place the crown of Naples on my head.” However, he points out that the Borgia pope could just as easily give him the crown too.
The next day, the French King proceeds to make Cardinal Della Rovere prove himself to him. After a successful experiment with chained cannon balls, the two discuss war. Cardinal Della Rovere tries to say that he is proposing “a just war in defense of Christendom.” But Charles disagrees: “No war is just. War is chaos. Brute force must turn against brute force until one side is destroyed utterly.” He then makes fun of the Italian army, which is always amusing. He continues: “But there is no honor in war. The French held that against the English. There is blood, death. Armor against armor. Until one side surrenders in death or domination. Be careful what you pray for, Cardinal, if you pray for war. You will find yourself in a place beyond prayer itself.” Oooh. Pretty intense. And in a good way. Eventually, the King agrees to help Della Rovere. However, he demands that “it will be fought the French way.” I’m thinking that the French way will not be so good for the Italians.
Ultimately, I found this episode interesting and thought-provoking, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy it for its entertainment value. I am still waiting to love this show, but I like it well enough. I’m not sure what the show is missing—perhaps it is a character that the audience can identify with? A compelling love story? Still, there are only three episodes left this season, and I will certainly keep watching. I am curious to see where the story leads.