Da Vinci’s Demons, the sexy historical fantasy that kicks off its second season tonight on Starz, opens with a surreal prologue that finds Da Vinci (Tom Riley) and his nemesis, Count Riario (Blake Ritson), in a setting and situation that may have you wondering whether you’ve wandered into Indiana Da Vinci and the Temple of Doom by mistake.
As weird as that scene is – don’t worry, you’ll find out what it means in a few episodes – it serves notice that the fantastic adventures of the title character are going to take him far away from his hometown of Florence, Italy this season.
After that brief opening scene, however, the action flashes back to pick things up where we left them at the climax to Season 1: the chaotic violence shaking Florence to its foundations following a ghastly betrayal by the treacherous Pazzi family, in cahoots with the forces of Rome. His brother dead, a critically wounded Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan) struggles to stay conscious as Da Vinci frantically tries to get him to safety. Nearby, Medici’s wife, Clarice Orsini (Lara Pulver, Sherlock), desperately tries to keep ahead of angry mobs as she rushes their young daughters to the relative safety of the Medici palace.
Resolving the pandemonium that prevails throughout the city takes up most of the first two episodes, but ultimately Da Vinci returns to the same obsession that drove him last season: locating a fabled tome called the Book of Leaves, which he suspects contains vital clues about his dimly remembered mother, as well as the truth about his own identity. That book, he learns, is located across the ocean, in the New World. Unfortunately, Count Riario, seeking the volume for his own ends, has a head start on Da Vinci.
In the season’s other major story line, we learn the secret of Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock), former lover to both Da Vinci and Medici, and her relationship to the mysterious prisoner in the dungeons of the Vatican, a revelation that sends Lucrezia on her own dangerous journey to Constantinople.
In terms of sheer scale, these new episodes (Starz made the first five available for preview) dwarf what preceded them as fate separates these principal characters and sends them in pursuit of their individual (and eventually interlinked) destinies. Each of these threads has engaging plot developments that fans should enjoy, but I have to admit, I miss seeing these main characters sharing the screen together as often as they did before. Season 2 is bigger and more epic, to be sure, but there’s a trade-off in terms of focus, which simply isn’t as sharp as it was last season.
Among new cast additions, Lee Boardman is delightful as Amerigo Vespucci, the famous explorer portrayed here as the P.T. Barnum of the Renaissance, but Da Vinci’s Demons properly is dominated by Riley’s Da Vinci, a performance that is even more finely detailed than it was previously. Like Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, Riley artfully conveys the impression of a genius whose mental gears never, ever stop spinning, as well as the frequent impatience and arrogance that comes with being the smartest guy in any room. With a prickly hero like this, fans of Da Vinci’s Demons will happily follow him to the New World and beyond.