In its seventh episode, titled The Hierophant (as each episode is titled after a Tarot card), Da Vinci’s Demons continues to be a mostly enjoyable if not bafflingly inconsistent programme. The show possesses an almost binary nature; being both a drama rife with political skulduggery (in the spirit of Game of Thrones or The Tudors) and a high fantasy swashbuckling adventure. Sometimes the dual plot lines of the show complement each other well; sometimes they do not.
In this most recent episode, there is something inherently off-putting about watching scenes of Tom Riley’s Leonardo Da Vinci battling the Pope’s agents in the depths of the Vatican intercut with sequences showcasing the political intrigue of Florence’s eminent families. Whilst the two narratives are very much connected in the plot of the episode, they feel so tonally disconnected from each other that it can become difficult to believe that they are taking place in the same television show.
The episode’s main plot continues to follow young Da Vinci on his quest for the mysterious Book of Leaves, a document supposedly written by the children of angels (or so it appears; the mythology of Da Vinci’s Demons is not particularly well explained). Oddly convinced that an ancient key he requires is hidden in the Vatican archives, Da Vinci constructs a prototype diving suit and enters the Vatican via its complex sewer system. Once inside, Da Vinci takes James Faulkner’s Pope Sixtus as a hostage and commands him to hand over the mysterious key. However, whilst this entire adventure narrative is progressing, the episode keeps cutting to the political machinations of the Medici and Pazzi families.
The problems with the episode are the problems of the entire series so far; inconsistency. Beyond the aforementioned tonal shifts between the two plots, there are many other aspects of the episode (and the show in general) that feel shockingly uneven. The performances range from excellent to cringe-inducing. James Faulkner plays the pope in a wonderfully understated manner, imbuing the character with a sense of control and dominance in each of his scenes. Even when he is held prisoner by Da Vinci, he acts as though he is in control.
Similarly strong performances are delivered by Elliot Cowan and Lara Pulver as the conniving Medicis. Tom Riley remains a charismatic and likeable lead; even if it is a stretch to imagine that his character is supposed to be a young Da Vinci. However, other actors are so incompetent that their scenes are almost painful to sit through. Blake Ritson’s villainous Riario is one of the most bombastic and campiest antagonists currently on television.
It is a sign of Ritson’s ridiculous overacting that the scenes in the episode featuring Da Vinci fighting off soldiers with the magic spear of Jesus are less absurd and overblown than the scenes of Riario cackling like a cartoon bad-guy.
On the subject of the magic Jesus spear, another serious problem with this episode is its inability to commit to being either set in a historical reality or within a fantasy reality. Whilst some programmes balance historical fiction with fantastical elements carefully and credibly (Game of Thrones feels like it could have actually taken place in human history despite having dragons and magic present), this episode feels like a pendulum swinging between a fantasy show and a historical drama.
This is the greatest problem with the episode and with all of the episodes so far; Da Vinci’s Demons has no defined identity. Whilst The Hierophant delivers in swashbuckling excitement and political intrigue, its lack of a defined style can be extremely frustrating. Ultimately, the episode is only enjoyable if you don’t think too carefully about it.
Image reproduced from Starz.com
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