Recap / The Borgias S 1 E 1 The Poisoned Chalice

Spoilers for the whole episode, just to be clear.

Rome 1492. The centre of the Christian world. The seat of the Papacy. The Pope had the power to crown and un-crown kings, to change the course of empires. The Church was mired in corruption. Pope Innocent VIII was dying. And the Papal throne was the prize desired by all.

Everyone following along? Good, because Innocent is looking sick as a parrot as the College of Cardinals files into his bedchamber. Having helpfully named all the major characters for us (Sforza, Orsini, Borgia and della Rovere), he gives them a speech about how the Papal throne is tainted by vice, lechery, etc., etc. and demands to know "who will wash it clean?" Della Rovere seems about to reassure him, but Rodrigo Borgia gets in first with a smarmy speech about their tears of grief doing the job. No one seems particularly impressed until Rodrigo falls to his knees. Della Rovere swears an oath that the "holy mother Church will be restored in my lifetime". He kisses Innocent's ring and even seems sincere. Rodrigo gives him the stink-eye.

Meanwhile, back at the Borgia house, a teenage girl is watching a young man and woman have sex through a window. They finish, and we find out from their pillow talk that the man, Cesare, is a cleric and not happy about it. He hears Lucrezia knock on the window and chases her round the garden. He catches her and they fall to the ground, laughing, before engaging in some exposition about Innocent's death and the upcoming papal election.

Rodrigo and Cesare stride through the corridors of St Peter's Basilica, plotting Rodrigo's somewhat unorthodox election campaign. Rodrigo will be locked in for the duration of the election, so he'll need his sons to do the dirty work outside. Cesare has a moment of doubt - is this right? "God will forgive us," Rodrigo says, "but I will not forgive failure - from you or your brother."

Speaking of Cesare's brother, Juan is in the middle of picking a fight with some Romans when Cesare interrupts. They've got work to do.

Back at the family house, Lucrezia, her little brother Gioffre and their mother Vannozza are playing cards when Juan and Cesare show up. More exposition! Vannozza says she hopes Rodrigo won't win, because it'll mean a huge lifestyle change. Anyway, it's in the hands of God. No, says Cesare, it's in the hands of the College of Cardinals. "Not quite the same thing."

Walking through the corridors, della Rovere stops Rodrigo and they have a quiet but intense conversation. Della Rovere really does hate how corrupt the Church is, it seems, and blames Rodrigo for it while recognising his genius for what it is. He's going to fight the election. Rodrigo shrugs.

The votes are in!...For the first round. Della Rovere's doing well, Rodrigo not so well, but no one has the required majority.

Rodrigo chats to an elderly cardinal, who complains about the wine. But at least the food can be brought in from outside. Naturally, Rodrigo has some rather better vintage to hand. "How can I ever thank you?" "I wonder."

An annoyed papal clerk is dealing with a worried Rodrigo. "The well-being of the Curia is of the greatest importance!" The clerk sighs and explains which cardinals have special dietary requirements.

A dove flies from St Peter's to the Borgia house, instructing Cesare who to bribe with what and how. Cesare obliges, by stuffing the bribes in the mouths of the dishes.

Second round votes are in! Rodrigo's doing much better, but della Rovere's still ahead. Never mind, there's time. Rodrigo's already writing to Cesare.

By the third round, it's neck and neck between Rodrigo and della Rovere. Sforza, who started well, has slipped in the vote. That's all right for him, though, because Rodrigo has a suggestion. After all, he can't be both Pope and Vicechancellor. Sforza, who knows which side of his bread is buttered, says, "Then you cannot be Vicechancellor." Well done, Sforza! You've got the job.

It's the fourth round of voting...and, by God or something else, Rodrigo's got it. He falls to his knees and presses his hands together in prayer. Rodrigo Borgia has the required majority! Correction, says della Rovere. "Cardinal Borgia has bought the required majority."

Orsini backs him up. How else, he asks, would a Spaniard become Pope except by bribery? "Then my first act as Pope," says Rodrigo, "will be to institute an inquiry into the elective process." Orsini looks less happy about this than you might expect. "My second, of course, will be to appoint a new Vicechancellor. The greatest office with the greatest benefices within my gift. There are two obvious choices." He pats della Rovere and Orsini. "But the Pope could not appoint one who questioned his right to be Pope."

Orsini and della Rovere back off so fast it's hilarious. To add insult to injury, Rodrigo plants a big wet kiss on each of them, though della Rovere takes it better than Orsini does. To get back to business, the papal clerk sighs, "an examination of the testes et pendentes is required".

What does this mean? Well, Rodrigo sits naked in a chair with a hole in the seat and someone who has cold hands eventually tells us that he's got two testicles and he's well-hung. Rodrigo's comments and face and the cardinal's reactions are hilarious.

Outside in the square, the people rejoice at the election of a new Pope. Meanwhile, Rodrigo is shorn of his scarlet robes and dressed in white. He comes out onto the balcony to greet the cheering crowd, which includes Cesare. As Rodrigo begins to bless them, the crowd silences and kneel, as does Cesare a heartbeat later afterwards.

Cut to Juan in a brothel. It turns out he's got a nasty temper and a chip on his shoulder, because he pours wine in the face of the prostitute who dared bring up the fact that he's a bastard.

Elsewhere in a confessional, Cesare unashamedly begs Rodrigo to release him from his vows. He wants to be a soldier. He'd be good at being a soldier. Also, he totally did everything right with the election, didn't he? That means he's a bad person and not fit to be a bishop anyway, right? Nope, says Rodrigo. The election just shows how good Cesare is at fighting political battles, not military ones, so he needs Cesare in the Church. He blesses him, and then stalks out of the confessional.

Cesare wanders the armory, finding Juan showing off in his new armour. He thinks it needs a cape. But what colour? "I prefer black, myself." "Black for the cleric," Juan teases, "but a soldier needs prancing red or yellow." Cesare is not amused.

"So, you have won," says Vannozza in the garden. "Yes, and I have lost," says Rodrigo. Lost what? Her, apparently. Rodrigo claims he can't have a mistress openly and be Pope, and all of Rome knows they're doing it. Vannozza is upset, but swallows it to ask if she and the children will be poor now. "God forbid," says Rodrigo. By the way, Lucrezia has been right there the whole time, listening to her parents break up.

Hooray, Rodrigo is crowned! He looks alien and troubled. "Be aware that you are Father of Kings and Monarchs, Lord of the Globe, earthly resident of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Our Redeemer, who shall have the power and glory for ever and ever! Amen."

Lucrezia: But what do we call him?
Cesare: Holy Father.
Lucrezia: What am I called? Holy Daughter?
Cesare: You are Lucrezia Borgia. You won't change your name until you're married.
Lucrezia: And when will that be?
Cesare: Never, if I can help it.
Lucrezia: Perhaps I shall do as you have done, and take holy orders.
Cesare: That might be the safer option.

Rodrigo, after the ceremony, is stricken by the weight of responsibility. "I am no longer I. I am...We. We felt so alone out there. When the crown touched our head, we felt humbled...even frightened. Quite alone, with just the silence of God as your witness." Cesare remains cynical. "You must be pleased, Holy Father. Because the earth has not yet swallowed us." But Rodrigo isn't listening. "You must help me, Cesare. You must help me interpret the great silence of God." Then he collapses.

Della Rovere is talking to the French ambassador. "You must be aware that we have placed the papal mitre on an ape." Mmmm, says the ambassador. But perhaps he will mellow with responsibility. And if not? "Then we will see what damage a mitred ape can do."

They're about to find out. Rodrigo, sitting in Consistory and looking bored, grants the office of Vicechancellor to...Ascanio Sforza, as promised. Orsini goes apeshit. "Simony! That office was promised to me!" Oh, says Rodrigo, did you pay for it? "I paid for it," says Orsini, "with my acceptance of your foul election!"

"When the Pope promises to banish all suspicion of simony from the Cardinalate, he keeps his word," says Rodrigo, with all the moral outrage of which he is capable. "Which is why we choose someone with no expectation of advancement, Cardinal Sforza."

"I hope I may prove worthy," says Sforza, stone-faced.

"And I hope so, too," says della Rovere unexpectedly. He hisses at Orsini to play along.

"I deeply regret my recent intemperance," says Orsini immediately, and invites them all to a rousing good banquet at his house. Oh, dear.

It's night time and Cesare and Rodrigo have just turned up at Orsini's house. Cesare is toting a monkey, to which he ends up feeding Orsini's best vintage. Orsini is deeply annoyed, but Cesare is blasť. Everyone pretends to find it funny and/or charming, and della Rovere says a good wine is like the Papacy. "Mature, rounded, its roots in the soil, its bouquet in the heavens, consumed by a monkey." "I sense a metaphor lurking," says Rodrigo. Fortunately, the monkey pees on Cesare's napkin before anybody can start a real fight. Cesare excuses himself.

He sneaks into the kitchen, where he finds a man grinding something using a dagger as a pestle. He points his knife at the man's neck, but the assassin turns the tables swiftly and they end up in a Mexican stand-off. Cesare has two questions: one, "Who's paying you?" and two, "Do you want a job?" The assassin puts down his knife and Cesare shoves him against a wall. The assassin, who it turns out is called Micheletto, does some fast talking and the upshot of it all is that Cesare hires him. His previous employer was Orsini, who wants Cesare and Rodrigo poisoned, and picks up the dead monkey as evidence. Cesare points out this isn't very subtle, and Micheletto replies all cardinals want Rodrigo and Cesare dead, so there is no need for subtlety from their end.

Cesare puts the poison in Orsini's wine instead. Micheletto takes the jug and goes off to play waiter. Cesare leans in the doorway and waits until Micheletto returns to rejoin the feast. "You're bleeding!" says della Rovere. "Damn monkey," lies Cesare.

Orsini proposes a toast to "Harmony among us, the servants of God!" All drink, and della Rovere proposes another, to metaphor. No, says Cesare, to monkeys. "They lick your hand one minute, bite your neck the next." The only person who understands is Orsini, who begins to choke. "And everyone knows what you do with a monkey that bites you." What? "You wring its neck." Orsini froths at the mouth. Rodrigo and the other Cardinals look on, horrified.

"Poison! Poison! I accuse - " but Orsini can no longer speak. "The cooks!" shouts Cesare, and hustles his father out of Orsini's house.

"Poison the Pope?" snarls Rodrigo as he gets into their carriage. "God will take his vengeance! With our help."

The carriage rattles away. Micheletto slips out of the house to join Cesare. "It's not over yet," he says. There was an attack ordered on the Borgia house, too - Lucrezia, Vannozza and Gioffre are in danger.

Micheletto runs up to his fellow assassins. "Am I too late?" he gasps. "No, we were waiting for you - " one of them says, but that's the last thing he says. Between them, Micheletto and Cesare make short work of the killers.

Meanwhile, Juan and his men are striding into Orsini's house. "Pray somewhere else, Cardinals," he says. "Arrest this household!"

The episode is a two-parter without an obvious stopping point, so the recap is continued in The Assassin.

Tropes in this episode:

  • Amicably Divorced: Vannozza, while upset at being dumped, goes straight into negotiation over whether Rodrigo's still going to look after the kids (which he is, of course), and their affection for each other seems little changed.
  • Badass Boast: "You'll never meet another assassin like me."
  • Because You Can Cope: One of Rodrigo's reasons for having Cesare in the Church rather than the army - the political infighting is so much more vicious than war.
  • Birds of a Feather: "I do not have a kind...and I suspect neither do you."
  • ...But He Sounds Handsome: "How would you describe the qualities of a good Vicechancellor?"
  • Co-Dragons: Cesare and Juan act as this for Rodrigo, helping him become pope by buying off the votes.
  • Daddy's Girl: Lucrezia.
  • Exact Words: "I hope I shall prove worthy." "I hope so, too."
  • Follow in My Footsteps: This is more or less how Rodrigo feels about Cesare being a cleric.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Orsini may think Rodrigo promised him the job for his silence, but Rodrigo has just, under pressure from Orsini, banned simony...
  • Humiliation Conga: Orsini. First he embarrasses himself in Consistory, then a monkey pees itself at his table, then his assassin abandons him, then he gets's not a very good week.
  • Hypocritical Humor: No expectation of advancement, right.
  • Insistent Terminology: "Whoever wins this contest..." "Election."
  • Knight Templar Big Brother: Cesare to Lucrezia.
  • Mexican Standoff: Micheletto and Cesare.
  • Not So Different: "Someone as pitiless as you needs someone as pitiless as me."
  • Obvious Trap: Orsini's invitation.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: Often.
  • Pet the Dog: Cesare whispering to little Gioffre which cards to play.
  • Professional Killer: Micheletto, ladies and gentlement. You'll never meet another assassin like him, and he means it!
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Cesare. "And what if I did kill you? God will forgive me, the Pope is my confessor."
  • "Take That!" Kiss: Rodrigo with della Rovere and Orsini. Apparently, that wasn't scripted, Jeremy Irons improvised that on the fly. Orsini and della Rovere's faces are sincerely befuddled, and hilarious.
  • We Can Rule Together: Subverted - della Rovere talks somewhat wistfully about how good Rodrigo is at his job, but notes that he despises him so much that he would never work with him.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Cute?: Subverted - the monkey is adorable. And dies.