Showtime premiered their ambitious new series The Borgias last night, featuring Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, soon to become Pope Alexander VI, and the rest of the murderous Borgia clan and the secrets they try to keep while holding onto their power. If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because the Borgias are also central to Ubisoft’s roof-running, death-dealing Assassin’s Creed franchise, namely Assassin’s Creed II, and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.
The Borgias, as a series, turns the table on Assassin’s Creed, however. Instead of a lone assassin trying to track down the mysterious Pieces of Eden, you have the Borgias, working together as a clan trying to spread the papal power wielded by their patriarch throughout the world. Jeremy Irons stars majestically as Rodrigo / Pope Alexander VI, and he definitely is no stranger to the world of secret assassinations.
In Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, you play through the game as Desmond Miles, a distant relative of Ezio Auditore. Throughout both games, you battle with both Rodrigo Borgia (both before and after he becomes the Pope), his son Cesare Borgia, his sister Lucrezia, and other Borgias along the way. Suffice it to say, there is no love lost between the Auditores and the Borgias.
If you saw the two-hour premiere of The Borgias last night, you saw a gorgeous and lush Rome, recreated with CGI, some camera tricks, and a lot of period costumes. At times, especially in the Borgia’s courtyard, it felt like you were watching an exact recreation of some of the sets from Assassin’s Creed. Which of course are based on actual historical locations, which brings the story nearly full circle in an odd real becomes virtual becomes virtually real sort of way.
Jeremy Irons does his patented and creepy slow burn as Rodrigo Borgia, taking quite a turn with delusions of grandeur as he ascends the Papal throne. But he quickly proves that he isn’t just mad with power. He’s a cold and calculating machine, always seemingly one step ahead of those who would depose him. He doesn’t seem to have many friends, and the first half of the premiere involves him buying his wait into the conclave election.
But, he doesn’t have a hand directly in the dirty work. For that, he relies on his hamfisted son Juan Borgia, and the cunning and ruthless Cesare, who is quickly promoted to Cardinal after his father becomes Pope. Together, Rodrigo and Cesare are a force to be reckoned with. Cesare, no stranger to the dark alleys and back room dealings himself, quickly comes to rely on an assassin who is skilled with blades and garrotes. He’s a dark version of Ezio, trading his white cowl and cloaks for dark brown leather armor and a trimmed red beard.
I was able to watch the first four episodes of the series, and while it might not be for everyone, it certainly has enough murder, sex, and intrigue in it to keep the most jaded watchers interested. Compelling performances from Francois Arnaud (as Cesare), Holliday Grainger (as Lucrezia), and Colm Feore (as intense Borgia rival Cardinal Della Rovere) buttress up Irons’ centerpiece role, and the direction and set pieces really bring this world to life. If you haven’t been playing Assassin’s Creed, you’ll want to, and if you have, this show is going to make you dive right back in.
But where do they differ? For starters, this version of Rodrigo Borgia is much more toned down. He isn’t the vicious and snapping dog as portrayed in AC. In fact, most of the performances in the series are extremely toned down versions of what you’re used to seeing in the game. Lucrezia is downright lovable, even though she’s fairly aware of the corruption and vile deeds happening near and around her. She’s a sweet and lovable girl, despite her occasional lapses into brattiness. Likewise, Cesare Borgia is someone you pull for as well, despite the fact that nearly everything he does for his father is extremely evil. Just about the only person you won’t find yourself rooting for us Rodrigo Borgia himself.
Of course, there’s also no “supernatural” (for lack of a better spoiler-free word) element to The Borgias, as it’s grounded in historical accuracy, where AC deviates from that path quite a bit in the plot. There’s no secret league of assassins dealing with the Borgias here. Instead, the Borgias practically are that league themselves. You’ll find out exactly how far cardinals will go to keep or expose secrets, and you’ll witness the depravity of kings and princes across the world.
But while it’s a strained time for politics, it's also a wondrous time as well. This is a world where Columbus had just set sail for the New World. Where it was common for Popes to have concubines. Where poison was considered a gentlemanly way to remove political obstacles, as indeed the Borgia name would nearly become synonymous with poisoning one’s adversaries. The printing press was still in its infancy, and Da Vinci and Michelangelo are contemporaries. It’s the height of the Italian Renaissance, and the center of the Christian world.
In closing, The Borgias is well worth your time, especially for fans of Assassin’s Creed and the world that Ezio Auditore hails from. While the ultimate fate of Rodrigo Borgia might already be written, Assassin’s Creed takes it in a new direction. Seeing him brought to life by Jeremy Irons also takes that same history in a new direction, lending flesh and blood to events that happened centuries ago. In the second episode, there’s a moment stripped right out of Assassin’s Creed involving Micheletto, a trend that continues into episode three as well with a new tool being used for murder. The only thing you’ll find yourself missing is all of the parkour, and I’m hoping that will come later.
The Borgias airs on Showtime on Sundays.