The Vatican explodes with acts of treachery as The Borgias returns for its third season tonight on Showtime, joining a very crowded Sunday primetime lineup. The action picks up right where the second season finale left off, with Pope Alexander (Jeremy Irons) being poisoned by a young assassin dispatched by the pontiff’s nemesis, Della Rovere (Colm Feore). As Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) desperately tries a little-known antidote to save her father’s life, Vanazzo (Joanne Whalley) confides to her son Cesare (Francois Arnaud) that she fears for the fate of the entire family if Alexander dies.
And her foreboding proves prescient, because as the hour unfolds and the pope’s life hangs in the balance, the three other members of the family find themselves (and Lucrezia’s infant son) assailed by a complex violent coup designed to eradicate the entire Borgia clan in Rome. To avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal who’s behind the mayhem, but for anyone who watched season two, the answer isn’t all that hard to figure out.
In other words, this new season finds the personal stakes seriously raised for all the main characters. When the dust settles, the surviving Borgias must fight for their safety in a new reality where some of the oldest and most important families in Rome regard them with barely veiled contempt. It’s a shrewd plot development for this historical soap opera, and despite the pomp and pageantry in which the series is wrapped, the storytelling is admirably lean and swiftly paced. The focal point of the show, of course, is Irons’ plummy-verging-on-high-camp performance as Pope Alexander, a highly mannered piece of work that sometimes goes totally over the top, yet he’s certainly never boring. Arnaud, a French-Canadian actor, is superb as Cesare, one of the most emotionally complex character threads in this huge tapestry, and Grainger is likewise very fine, especially in scenes that involve her, um, warm feelings for her brother. Even better, the spectacular Gina McKee is back this season as the terrifyingly formidable Catherine Sforza, who has several serious scores to settle with the Borgias.
If you haven’t sampled this series before, I strongly recommend you catch up on at least some of the previous episodes via any available media platform before trying to jump into season three unprepared, because understanding the dizzying intrigues, betrayals and double crosses is crucial to enjoying this show. If you’re a seasoned fan, though, by all means tune in tonight secure in the fact that The Borgias is in better shape than ever before.