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'The Borgias' review: Plots thicken in season 3

Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia Borgia in "The Borgias"

Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia Borgia in "The Borgias" (Season 3, Episode 1). Credit: Showtime

THE SHOW "The Borgias"

WHEN | WHERE Third-season premiere Sunday night at 10 on Showtime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The second season ended with a confession -- or two. First: Girolamo Savonarola (Steven Berkoff), the Dominican friar and Church reformer who challenged the towering corruption of Pope Alexander VI, aka Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons), was forced to recant and then burned at the stake. Next, Rodrigo's son Cesare Borgia (François Arnaud), had to admit to his father that he was really behind the murder of his brother, Juan (David Oakes) -- who was captain general of the Church, a job Cesare coveted. Meanwhile, the pope's most persistent enemy, Giuliano Della Rovere (Colm Feore), dispatches Antonello (Jesse Bostick) to poison him. He succeeds.

Sunday's episode begins with a death watch -- and not everyone is hoping for a speedy recovery. The cardinals circle the prostrate pope, while Della Rovere whispers sweet nothings in their ears. But clever Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), daughter of Rodrigo, has a plan, and Della Rovere suddenly finds himself on the losing end of his plot. Of course, there's another plot: Catherine Sforza (Gina McKee) might have something to do with this one.

MY SAY Plots! Where would "The Borgias" and its mastermind, Neil Jordan, be without them? They are everywhere, behind every door, under every sullied sheet. If one is foiled, no problem; there is another one about to be hatched. Or as Cesare explains more colorfully, "the poisoning has rattled the grass [and] all the snakes have slid forth." Keeping track of the snakes is a full-time job with "The Borgias," but that's one of its pleasures.

The snakes are about to multiply with the third season. The Sforzas have a particularly lethal ally in Rufio (Thure Lindhardt), and Della Rovere probably isn't going anywhere either. But it's also probably a good idea to remember (impossible not to) that the biggest snake of them all is Rodrigo. Here's a spoiler alert but it's certainly not a shocking one: The stricken pope, that dissolute old blackguard, awakens from his brush with mortality and is aghast, even angered, that God did not present Himself. Not to worry, Rodrigo -- God has no place in "The Borgias," which is about lust, greed, sex, violence, betrayal and death. That may be ironic -- or perverse -- for a series about the Catholic church, but this is about as secular as TV gets.

BOTTOM LINE The intrigue continues and "The Borgias" remains one of TV's more reliable potboilers.


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