I'm not sure if it's a sign of age, maturity or just plain old going soft, but I would trade half an hour of sex and war for five minutes' worth of dialogue between Cesare Borgia and Niccolò Machiavelli.
Those odds might actually be accurate judging by episode seven of The Borgias. Within the first ten minutes we learn that Cesare's meatheaded brother Juan has managed to contract syphilis, and the clever little urethra-scraping device the doctor prescribes necessitated a pause on the DVR and a strong drink to remedy the sight.
Weeping dick or no weeping dick, Juan is sent with the Papal armies to lay siege to Caterina Sforza's castle in the pope's bizarre, Zod-esque plot to have her kneel before him. At first, Juan does a fair, if dickish, job, and manages to capture Sforza's son. He has the lad publicly tortured with the strappado and some amputation for most of the episode, and is even on the verge of executing him.
Sforza remains heartbroken and tear-stained, but refuses to bow to Juan. The final point is made when Gina McKee lifts up her skirts, flaps her labia at Juan and says she'll birth ten more boys to hunt him down. It's the only nudity in this episode, but you have to give Showtime credit for going that explicit.
Distracted by Sforza's vagina, Juan completely misses an opposing army that creeps up behind him. The battle is as brutal as it is one-sided, with some of the most amazing footage of medieval warfare I've ever seen. Spectacular decapitations, cannon balls through chests, arrows through eyes. The only way you'll see more realistic is to go insane during a bracing round of Darkon.
It's exciting, but in the end you don't have a lot invested in the torture, the killing or even in Sforza's public exposure. If it was Cesare leading the army there would've been some tension, but Juan always gets creamed because he doesn't have the brains God gave the period at the end of this sentence.
Back in Milan, Cesare, Machiavelli and Micholetto are doing their level best to re-enact a famous historical painting of them. The three of them are holed up in Florence while outcast friar Girolamo Savonarola preaches the destruction of earthly vanities in protest of the Vatican's dedication to material wealth.
The discussions amongst the three, with all the wordplay and biting observations on the situation, are worth the watch alone, but it's when Machiavelli answers a group of rowdy choir boys vandalizing his front door that you really get to see the twist in the man's mind.
Julian Bleach continues to act the everloving shit out of the role, and I would honestly pay good money to hear the man read the phone book. The children ask him to give up his vanity, and Machiavelli replies that he has only his intellect, which he isn't giving up.
"As you can judge by my looks, I have no vanity"
When the gang begins extolling the difference between Heaven and Hell, Machiavelli hypothesizes that Hell has come to Florence, Heaven having been recently banished by the Savonarola influence. In the end, he kindly offers a possession to appease the mob, a moth-eaten stuffed owl in a glass case.
Later that night the trio watches Savonarola's bonfire of the vanities, and Machiavelli sadly remarks on a Botticelli painting being consumed. "Months to paint, moments to burn."
The Borgias is sold as an X-rated historical gangster show, and I have no problem with that. Increasingly, though, it's the shadow work and intellectual explorations that have me glued to the edge of my seat, not the sins of lust and wrath.