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While many TV and movie writers look to England for stories about life during the Renaissance and Medieval periods, Italy had just as much drama as their neighbors to the west. Coming right after Showtime’s English royals drama, The Tudors, the Italian-based The Borgias aired on the network from 2011 to 2013.
Never heard of the Borgias? Get ready. I’m not going to dive into everything they’ve done, because it would take entirely too long. Let’s just say that if you were to make a side-by-side comparison of the terrible deeds the members of this family were said to have committed, the Borgias make the Tudors look like the characters on Sesame Street. To add fuel to the proverbial fire, the head of their tribe was none other than the Pope.
Alexander VI (né Rodrigo Borgia, originally Rodrigo de Borja y Doms) ruled as Pope from 1492 to 1503. His life in the Vatican was certainly not one of charity, poverty, nor chastity, but built upon corruption, nepotism, simony, and countless other crimes. One thing no one ever expected, though, was that not only did he father multiple children, he openly acknowledged them. Four of them—sons Cesare, Giovanni (also known as Juan, which is how he is named in this series), Gioffre, and daughter Lucrezia—have been popular topics in Western Civilization classes. Pope Alexander ultimately legitimized them, and made damn sure to grant them titles and everything fitting as children of the Pontiff.
While history and literature constantly talk about the alleged actions of Lucrezia (rumored to have been a femme fatale who supposedly sported a poison ring) and Cesare (long credited as an influence on Niccolo Machiavelli’s 1513 treatise The Prince) that were orchestrated and encouraged by their father, Juan has been the black sheep.
As Pope Alexander was the most powerful figure in late 15th century Europe, naturally Juan received all of the related benefits: titles, control over an army, luxury, and prestige. Yet, the Showtime series tells us that he wasn’t the model Borgia everyone expected him to be, and that his own family could have very well been the ones who cut his life short.
On The Borgias, Juan was played by the fabulous David Oakes. Like his siblings and father (portrayed by the always masterful Jeremy Irons), he’s quite power-hungry; everything he does has an ulterior motive. All four children were products and commodities to their father. Pope Alexander needed to have his hand in both the religious and secular worlds, so he placed Juan as the head of the Papal Army and kept Cesare (François Arnaud) close to his side by giving him a place as a Cardinal. However, both young men were not suited to these positions, and both knew it.
Only Juan turned out to be a major screw-up.
He was the one who botched an attack against family rival Caterina Sforza (Gina McKee) at her castle in Forli, and then ran away when the action got to be too much. He had a torrid affair with the wife of his much-younger brother Gioffre (Aiden Alexander), and would murder one of Lucrezia’s (Holliday Grainger) lovers because he was of low social standing.
Juan ultimately married and was expecting a child, but to add insult to injury after the poorly executed siege at Forli, we later learn that he had caught a nasty disease (potentially syphilis). Towards the end of Season 2, Juan descends deeply into opium addiction, which he turned to in order to ease his physical and emotional pain. Ultimately, him maliciously dangling Lucrezia’s baby over a balcony was the last straw for the family. Fearing Juan’s actions would bring shame and disgrace upon them, Cesare took matters into his own hands. Along with his trusty henchman Micheletto Corella (portrayed by Sean Harris), the two found Juan at the opium den he frequented, ran him through, and tossed his body into the Tiber River.
When I watched The Borgias during its initial run over 10 years ago, I knew Juan’s days were numbered. At the time, I didn’t think it would come so quickly and without much suspense. He got addicted to drugs, acted like a scumbag, his brother didn’t like it, so said brother kills him. But once Juan was out of the equation, I instantly lost interest in the show. Sure, Jeremy Irons was a major selling point, but that still didn’t keep me. I felt that more could have been done with Juan, since he was a wildcard that added a unique dynamic to the family—one that served as a counterpoint to Lucrezia getting married and taking a lover several times, or Cesare complaining that he wanted to leave the order and lead the Papal Army himself.
All these years later though, as I’ve rewatched the last few episodes Juan appeared in, my feelings began to change. I no longer had such a firm stance as to him being killed off so quickly. I was torn then between my wanting to hold onto a character that I had some affinity for and letting go for continuity’s sake. As Gioffre was out of the picture after a handful of episodes, I knew that to proceed with the storyline, another character deemed as weak had to bite the dust. Juan tried to be what his father expected him to. He had the same bravado as the rest, yet lacked the craftiness and sneakiness that served them so well. And he paid for it with his life.
Prior to taking up the role of Juan, my familiarity with Oakes was from his role as William Hamleigh in the phenomenal 2010 miniseries, The Pillars of the Earth. There he portrayed a villain who also possessed a mean streak and a hearty helping of brattiness and entitlement. William is definitely played as more repugnant and sadistic than Juan, but both characters were quite arrogant and selfish, yet cowardly and unsure of themselves deep down.
The Borgias are said to have been the inspiration for the Corleone clan in The Godfather series, and you can see the correlation between Juan and Fredo. Like Fredo, Juan could screw up repeatedly and all would be forgiven simply because he was a Borgia. His name was his only saving grace, his only card to play. Despite the character’s aggressive attitude, Juan knew he couldn’t quite measure up. His cockiness masked a tortured soul who simply wanted his father’s love—as well as power and respect from the rest of the world. Each of the children were flawed and were pawns in their father’s machinations, but it was that allegiance to family that initially kept them from turning on each other. At least, for a time. Juan did push it.
Television Juan Borgia wasn’t a perfect son by any means. He was a right bastard. Which poses one question: did Juan deserve better than to die at his brother’s hands and be discarded like a common criminal? Maybe just a little. To Cesare, everything they collectively did was justified because it benefitted their family, and by extension, the papacy. With such a mercurial personage as Juan loose, without any self-control, Cesare felt he had to rein him in the only way he knew how: by becoming his brother’s judge, jury, and executioner. But then, shouldn’t he have dispatched Juan in such a way to maintain his brother’s dignity and status?
Either way, both the Borgia family and The Borgias lost something integral once Juan was dead. Still, when all is said and done, Juan was a sacrifice, a casualty of war. In the Borgias’ minds, you were either with them or against them, and they answered to no one. There was no gray area, just black or white. However, when you are battling your own kin, it’s just a matter of time before one emerges victorious—loyalty be damned.
A Massachusetts native and ‘80s kid through and through, Katy Kostakis writes about Arts and Entertainment, Lifestyle, Food and Beverage, Consumer and Culture. Her work has appeared in Turner Classic Movies, Film Inquiry, YourTango, Wicked Local, and Patch. Check out her quips and rants on Twitter @KatyKostakis on Instagram @katykostakis, and on her website, katykostakis.com.
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