Welcome to Gone Too Soon, a segment where I wax poetic about shows I loved that were taken from us before their time. All the shows featured in this series are available on Netflix, Hulu, or other streaming sites, and all were cancelled in three seasons or less—the perfect binge-watching opportunity without settling yourself in for 100+ episodes. This time, I’m talking about The Borgias.
The Borgias aired on Showtime for three seasons, just one short of the planned four-season arc the show was supposed to take, making it perfect for this segment. Set in Renaissance-era Italy, it’s about Pope Alexander VI and his scheming, sinning, power-hungry family. It’s about a pope, so Catholicism obviously plays a huge part in the show. If that makes you uncomfortable, I’m afraid that nothing I say will persuade you to watch it, but I’m going to try anyway.
Jeremy Irons is the supposed powerhouse here, starring as Pope Alexander VI (whose birth name is Rodrigo Borgia), but truth be told, he’s not the most captivating person on this show. It took me a while to warm up to his character. There didn’t seem to be anything really redeeming about him, but as the second season got underway, and Rodrigo suffered some heavy losses, he actually became a really sympathetic character. There are a few scenes in particular where he struggles with reconciling his faith and doing what he believes is right—those scenes are definitely his best work on the show.
He has three children: Cesare (François Arnaud), Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), and Juan (David Oakes). Juan is a spoiled, pompous brat, and I can’t say that he ever becomes even remotely likable, but he serves his purpose as someone for the audience to scathingly hate. Cesare and Lucrezia are the stars of the kids. They have the most incredible chemistry (and yeah, it culminates in incest, so watch out for that), and their relationship is honestly beautiful. Lucrezia is sunshine personified; she’s warm, caring, and I want to protect her at all costs. So does Cesare. She starts the series out as pretty naïve, but her character development is so well done, and she’s smart and driven. Cesare is intelligent and resourceful, and chock-full of daddy issues to boot. He’ll do anything for his family, especially Lucrezia, and he’s easily one of my favorite characters on the show.
The show is amazingly feminist as well; Rodrigo’s mistresses Vanozza (the mother of his children) and Giulia Farnese are incredible forces on the show. Rodrigo himself is surprisingly feminist himself; at one point he needs to leave Vatican City and he leaves Vanozza, Giulia, and Lucrezia in charge. Lucrezia even gets to sit on the papal throne, and when everyone’s like, “a woman can’t sit on the throne!” he’s just like, “looks like a woman is.” It’s iconic.
But the real pièce de résistance on this show is Micheletto Corella, played by Sean Harris. If one thing in this article convinces you to give The Borgias a chance, let it be Micheletto. Unfortunately, he’s not a main character. He’s a secondary character at best, but he becomes a key player in the last two seasons. He’s an assassin who ends up working for Cesare, and his loyalty is so absolute that it shakes him (and me, to be honest) to his core. Sean Harris is an astounding actor, and his gravitas and magnetism means that even when Micheletto is just skulking in the shadows (as he is wont to do), he’s the most gripping character onscreen. Nobody, not even Jeremy Irons, is as memorable as Sean Harris is in this show. The second season is where he really gets to shine, as it’s revealed that Micheletto is gay, and his character only becomes more tragic from that point on. The third season is his best, however, and even as the show’s writing floundered and I cared less and less about everyone, Micheletto kept me going. Out of every single character, he is the standout. He has the best character development over the course of the show, the most realistic and heartbreaking flaws, and certainly the best lines. At one point, when his lover from childhood is deriding his lifestyle, he says, “I punish the world for not being as I want it.” It’s one of the most telling scenes as to his character, though even when he doesn’t speak, he still tells volumes. He makes the entire show worth it.
So if an absurdly expensive, gorgeously shot, gluttonous Renaissance-era Catholic family drama doesn’t appeal to you, then maybe there’s no accounting for taste. The Borgias isn’t a perfect show by any means. It tends toward the grandiose, and while that can be part of its charm, it does detract at times. The writing isn’t great either—it definitely falls apart toward the end, which is probably why Showtime couldn’t keep funding it. But it’s a total gem of a show, and it gave us Micheletto Corella and one of the best performances of Sean Harris’ career, so that’s enough for me. The entire show is streaming on Netflix. It’s only 29 episodes. Even if you only watched one episode a day, you’d still be done with the show in less than a month. Give it a chance. And if you’re like me and you become hopelessly addicted, the screenplay for what would have been a two-hour finale to wrap it up was published and is available online.