It’s hard to imagine that anyone would look back on this period of American history as entertainment, but they’re bound to, I expect.
Not Singin’ in the Rain entertainment, but certainly something like Wall Street or The Big Short.
That’s what’s happened to the legacy of Rodrigo Borgia, a.k.a. Pope Alexander VI, and his family of mistresses and illegitimate children. I’m nearly done with the third and final season of Showtime’s The Borgias. Created by Neil Jordan and starring Jeremy Irons as the lascivious, ambitious patriarch, it was advertised as “The Original Crime Family” to draw explicit connections to The Sopranos and The Godfather.
If the stories are true (which, to be fair, some historians are challenging), this Spanish family treated the papacy as a tool for acquiring power and wealth rather than as a profound spiritual responsibility. Rodrigo bought the papacy with a mule-train of gold, sold cardinal’s hats to increase the Vatican coffers, hosted elaborate orgies—even kept mistresses whilst pope. His son Cesare was an amoral cutthroat who wouldn’t flinch at assassination and regularly betrayed people—he became, in fact, one of the “heroes” of Machiavelli’s Prince.
Conflicts of interest and nepotism were almost de rigeur for this family. Foreign entanglements were an explicit strategy.
Surely it was no great entertainment to live through the rise of the Borgias. Yet, Jordan presents each member of the family as having individual passions that do not always fit well with the social, political, and economic expectations placed on them.
Rodrigo is at heart a family man. Cesare is fiercely loyal to his sister. Lucrezia wants to be more than a pawn in a male game of power. Juan—well, Juan is mostly just an ass, so, kind of the exception.
In other words, they’re all sympathetic characters in some way. It’s a defining move of realism: shading a character with multiple conflicting motives and qualities, some noble, some comic, some ghastly or criminal. And it may be an essential move to truly gain emotional and spiritual freedom from what I think of as the tyranny of the present, that is, the overwhelming feeling of the momentousness of now.
Under the tyranny of the present, one experiences such a rush of stimuli that one is inclined to simplify, to mythologize. A spoiled child has become ruler of a country! He’s hired wicked advisors and run out all the noble officials who loved the republic! He makes all his decisions in a snit when he’s tired and hungry!
I happen to believe there is an accurate moral response wrapped up in this simplification, but it must be purified lest it motivate immoral actions.
How might Showtime’s writers, 500 years hence, imagine our current executive as a kind of Borgia of the 21st century?
A man taught from birth to prize strength over vulnerability, victory over compassion, power over intimacy. So perverted, he becomes incapable of recognizing truth, goodness, and beauty. He really believes everyone wants the same empty things, that those who say otherwise are lying through their teeth. Therefore he feels no shame in acquiring, by whatever means available, the things that establish his prestige.
But not everyone can have those things, or they cease to be valuable. He cannot win if there are no losers, so he always looks about to locate the losers.
Still, he likes to be liked. Really. And if solving an entrenched foreign conflict or addressing outrage over health care is what will make people like him, well, then, he’ll do that.
However, he’s accustomed to saying something and having it carried out. He was the emperor of his own little commercial kingdom, after all. Governing a country proves not at all like running a business, and no matter what he does, it’s not just the weaklings and losers that get angry with him, but the strong, the influential, the powerful.
When those surrounding him become liabilities, he fires them, but instead of the problem going away, he faces more scrutiny. He cannot seem to win with this country.
But viewers’ schadenfreude is tempered by a fundamental, poignant naiveté. He really cannot see past the tailored breast of his own suit. He cannot admit to himself that he may have done something wrong—he certainly cannot show the public that he may be in over his head or out of his element. The show of power and confidence must be seamless, absolute.
All intimations of fear, anxiety, or disappointment sublimate into anger, determination, sheer will power and brazenness. He goes on the attack, if only to change the conversation, get people talking as if he is really in control.
Late into the night, when he finally retires to bed—alone in a cavernous apartment save for the guards down the hall—he watches the news and searches the Internet for any sign that the people love him again. They used to love him.
Now his supporters—so many of them, alas, among the weak, losers who settle for dingy homes and crummy car—still support him, stay loyal, but they do not love him. They parrot the spin with their fingers holding their noses, awaiting some great victory that, he almost acknowledges, he will not be able to deliver.
But what do they know? He holds the most powerful office in the world. When he’s done, he’ll return to his penthouse and his golden throne and the women who will throw themselves at him. He has won everything. Everything.
If he accomplishes nothing he promised, well, what are promises? You can’t promise that people will do what you know is best for them, and there were so many people who made so many horrible choices. He’s only one man. And he’s won.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Brad Fruhauff
Brad Fruhauff is a film buff, comics nerd, literature scholar, editor, and writer living in Evanston, Illinois. He is Senior Editor at Relief: A Christian Literary Review and a Writing and Communications Specialist at Trinity International University where he also serves as Contributing Editor for Sapientia. He has published poems, essays, and reviews in Books & Culture, catapult, Christianity and Literature, Englewood Review of Books, Every Day Poems, Not Yet Christmas: An Advent Reader, Rock & Sling, and in the newly released How to Write a Poem.