Film and TV

Borgias: The Beauty of Mercy

I don't often comment on Jeremy Irons and his portrayal of Alexander VI in my reviews of the show that's nominally based around him. A great part of that is the fact that François Arnaud, Sean Harris, Julian Bleach and others are turning in performances that are so engaging that they often overshadow all those around them.

But then again, the sad truth is that the Pope seems such an inconsistent character that even in the hands of someone like Irons, the performance comes across as very muddled. In the beginning he was a consummate schemer, master of all he surveyed. However, very early on in the series he became a sort of caricaturish lech, a somewhat bumbling father and petty tyrant, and an easily fooled boss. It makes it very hard to take the character seriously at times.

Slowly over the course of the second season this is beginning to change, and the new nuance that has arisen in the work of Irons is the amazing way the most holy minister in all of Christendom has begun to find God. That sounds weird, and perhaps that is the subtle purpose of Neil Jordan all along: To show the corruption of the church at this point in history by having a man ascend the throne of St. Peter with still so much to learn.

Last episode, Juan (David Oaks) completely assed up the siege at Forli, ran like a coward, had his army routed, tortured a teenage boy and then failed to even have him killed. He returned to Rome wounded, septic, syphilitic and claiming to have fought like a Scotsman to the very end.

Little does he know that a knight with more honor managed to save Benito Sforza, Juan's noble hostage, managed to save the boy from battle, stating that he fights men and not boys. Benito is held prisoner briefly, but Cesare frees him in order to confront Alexander and reveal the truth of the battle.

Sforza finds the Pope picking through the wreckage of the basilica that occurred during a storm a few episodes back. The lightning strike greatly shook the Pope, and the best moments of Irons's casting have been these minor looks at Alexander in doubt and wishing to be more godly.

Whereas he came to the papacy through bribery and trickery, more and more Alexander seeks to learn ways to fulfill the merciful work of God upon the Earth, though he still plots like a Slytherin. The badly injured Benito stumbles into the basilica, and is barely caught by the Pope before he collapses.

The sadness and pain in the face of Irons as Benito explains are unspeakably beautiful. The continuing evolution of Alexander from religious politician to God's vicar is something to behold. He spares the life of Benito and has him escorted home. He realizes that Juan is a liar and incompetent. Most important, one more step is taken along the path to true enlightenment.

The true beauty of mercy is empathy, and that it so often shows us the errors of our ways. At least, it proves that we recognize the injuries we do to others and wish it had been otherwise. Yes, there's still a lot of the eye-rolling in many of Irons's scenes, but when he stands alone in the judgment of his God, he shines.

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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner