Sunday, April 14, 2013

Da Vinci's Demons, Season 1, Episode 1: The Hanged Man

Da Vinci’s friend shares with him some wacky baccy (which, y'know, at the time period shouldn't really contain tobacco at all) to help him see visions and demons – which Da Vinci doesn’t believe in; leading to the rather awesome response “then why do you fight so hard to keep both away?” There follows lots of nifty foreshadowing of how Da Vinci will change the world, history is a lie and seeing the future.

Well that was a pretty nifty opener I have to say, almost enough to make me forgive us now going 4 days earlier. I hate flashforwards.

To a man going through his morning routine and kicking a much younger man (who he calls boy) from his bed. After driving him out and throwing money after him he asks his disapproving manservant what day it is. Palm Sunday. His response is “balls” and to complain about his hangover.

Meanwhile several holy looking blokes are being searched for weapons, but the guards forget to check their holy books – from which they take thin pieces of weapon they build a weapon out of when combined with their crosses. It’s like Krypton Factor assassins!

So when our hungover man arrives at church in a grand entry (and bonus points for “artless fuckwit.”) he gets stabbed in the neck – courtesy of the “secret archive.” On a Palm Sunday in a church with a dagger made of a crucifix no less – maximum blasphemy achieved.

While all this excitement is happening, Leonardo is sketching a naked woman out in the countryside and telling a story of his past – when he was 6 months old he was left in a field in a basket and a falcon considered eating him. Well it perched on his basket and looked at him, which I interpret as deciding whether to eat him or not (makes more sense than it passing on wisdom – it’s a falcon!) His mother drove it away before it managed to eat the sweet baby meat and Leonard laments he can’t remember his mother’s face despite his super-duper memory. She amateur psychoanalyses him and they kiss.

At which point Nico, his apprentice arrives saying Leonardo’s late for something that Leo doesn’t care about – especially since Nico’s late for Leo’s experiment. Nico’s a little transfixed by the half clothed model, Vanessa (newly “liberated” from a convent) though Leo points out “they’re called breasts Nico, all women have them”. He’s testing a flying machine and, using the ribbons in Vanessa’s hair as a windsock, he then flies is apprentice like a kite – straps him to a giant kite tied to a cart, the horses run and the apprentice flies. Leo loves it, Nico is not very happy about the situation. Silly boy, apprenticing to a Mad Scientist then protesting about some minor experimentation – just be thankful genetics hasn’t been discovered.

In the city Leonardo praises Florence for being a relatively liberal city where he can practice his experiments without being burnt as a heretic, he waxes lyrical about the city before being transfixed by a woman in noble clothes walking down the street. She’s Lucrezia Donati, mistress to Lorenzo di Medici and not someone it’s wise to stare at. Even if she does look back. Their musings are interrupted by a messenger riding down the street – and Leonardo deduces it’s bad news and Lorenzo won’t be happy reading it.

The messenger takes the missive to Lorenzo who is very unhappy indeed and has a little tantrum. The Duke of Milan is dead (that would be our hungover friend in the beginning). Guilano Medici doesn’t seem upset, and puts it down to an honour killing for the man “deflowering” someone’s niece since the Duke was a “pig of epic appetites.” Lorenzo’s not having it – the duke was their pig! And he suspects the Vatican’s involvement – as well as Italy’s power structure being overset. The Medici’s need something to inspire the support of the people in response. A carnival!

To the Pope, who has a truly awesome bath in which he is joined by a boy – who he is molesting and holding at knife point. He’s interrupted by his three assassins celebrating the death of the Duke of Milan and how this leaves Florence vulnerable – and they know about the planned carnival thanks to a spy they have in the ranks. Also, apparently relevant, the “Turk” is in Florence looking for the Book of Leaves. Apparently this arboreal focused Turk is a matter of concern.

Unfortunately for the boy in the pool, all of this was top secret so he gets his throat cut. In the pool no less, that’s going to have to be drained now.

Back to Florence with Guilano Medici trying to get some plans he commissioned that have been locked in a box – a box rigged to explode if anyone tampers with it. Who would make such a thing? Leonardo, of course! Leonardo engages in massive info-dumping of what a Columbina is, much to the Medici’s irritation, with lots of insults thrown at previous workshops who made this flying dove. After much preamble he shows them his model – it’s beautiful and it flies on its own with no need for wires. They’re impressed but they’re also Medici bankers who need to dicker over the price. Da Vinci, getting his money, further pushes his luck offering to paint Lucrezia Donati.

Leonardo feverishly sketches and smokes his hallucinogenic baccy to get more visions of him, as a boy, looking for a lost black sheep and blood on his hands. He wakes up screaming. His mentor/boss/business manager/whoever comes in to check on him and Leonardo tells him his maths is off, he’s not sure he can scale up the model of the dove in time for Easter and make it flight worthy. The man chides Leo for his opium consumption and Leo has a tantrum – he needs it to quiet his endlessly raging thoughts.

In the market the next day, Leonardo buys a cage of starlings – he doesn’t want them, he wants them released so he can study them flying (now here’s something with historical accuracy – Leonardo Da Vinci often bought caged birds to release them, but more as a humanitarian gesture). He studies them and sketches them in flight in a nifty little animation sequence. Then they see Lucrezia again, this time with Lorenzo and Leonardo’s father, Lorenzo’s notary. Leo moves in to cause trouble, showing off his sketches which Lorenzo seems patient enough to listen to – but not his followers.

To the tavern to drown his sorrows where we have another historical fact played out – Leo is vegetarian. His friend, Zoroaster and general rogue offers him bodies for medical examination before discussing hustling people with tarot cards. And a male model approaches Leonardo flirtatiously to offer to be painted again – and gets the brush off, though Leonardo notes he’s pleasing to the eye once he’s driven him off. Leo has an epiphany that if he wants his ideas to be developed and respected he needs to create things for Florence’s defence –since Florence has no standing army and war may be coming.

Epiphany interrupted by the guards harassing someone. Nico asks why, but Zoroaster dismisses it “he’s a Turk and a heathen, that’s reason enough” (and this guy is called Zoroaster, so let me raise my eyebrows at that one). Leo decides to get involved. Alas, as he tells them while easily taking the sword from one guard, he has a character flaw where he just has to intervene when stupidity is involved - then cuts another, taking his sword and fighting all three of them ambidextrously before they leave issuing threats. They check on the man they were bullying and he pulls out the exotic middle eastern cryptic mysticism trope to the hilt, announcing that he’s the “Son of Earth and Starry Heaven”. Well, that’s one way to make an introduction. He tells Leo where he’s staying and to come see him before he leaves to return to Constantinople.

Drinking finished, Nico helps the heavily inebriated Zoroaster home, leaving Leo to go alone (dismissing Zoroaster’s talk about omens from his tarot cards). Which means Leo is alone when Dragonetti, the guard he thought in the inn, finds him with a gazillion of his friends. We cut to Leo being chained up and beaten in a dungeon – and daddy dearest arrives, apparently behind the whole thing, who disapproves strongly of Leo’s antics bringing the family’s name into disrepute. He warns Leo to keep away from the Medicis since Leo is an illegitimate son and will embarrass him. Leonardo mocks him, calls him petty – and his dad tells his men to beat him for another hour. They make a point of stamping on his fingers

The next day he, Nico and Zoroaster hang around in the sun, Zoroaster mentioning that a Jew is being executed – he calls it sport and Leonardo objects. Rather than speak more of it, they talk about Lucrezia again, who Leonardo seems to be stalking. Leonardo sketches her while Zoroaster moves from anti-semitism to misogyny, and sends Nico with the sketch to Lucrezia. She takes the sketch looks at it and sends Nico back to Leo, telling him she wants to speak to him. Leo tells Nico to tell her he’s busy, much to Zoroaster’s shock.

As they leave, they pass the gallows where the Jew is being hanged – on the scaffold he looks at Leonardo and says “I am the Son of Earth and Starry Heaven. I am thirsty, please give me something to drink from the fountain of memory” before he is hanged. Leonardo goes to find the Turkish man at the Roman ruins another of town where he finds a hidden passage and stairs leading downwards. He sits opposite the man and they repeat the scene we opened with.

He says that the phrase “I am the Son of Earth and Starry Heaven. I am thirsty, please give me something to drink from the fountain of memory” is a way for members of their fraternity to recognise one another. He says they are the Sons of Mithras and that progress is just remembering what was forgotten – knowledge written in the Book of Leaves. The executed man was one of them and a former member of their group, Lupo Mercuri serves the Vatican’s secret archives, hiding knowledge rather than spreading it. The Turk urges Leonardo to remember his mother – a woman taking from Constantinople against her will, and his memories of looking for the sheep as a boy, finding the cave and coming out covered in someone else’s blood. The Turk – Al Rahim – tells him fate has chosen him to find the Book of Leaves. He breathes dust in Leo’s face and he falls unconscious

To wake up found by Nico and Zoroaster. Lorenzo Medici has asked for him. When there, Lorenzo briefly surmises Leo who takes exception to “arrogant” since it implies he overinflates his own worth. But Lucrezia wants him to paint her. The advisor warns Lorenzo that Leo takes many commissions he often doesn’t finish – Leo admits it, saying he bores easily. Lorenzo agrees and they try to shuffle him out but Leonardo is desperate to show Lorenzo his other designs. The guards try to shuffle him out but Lorenzo wants to see. He rapidly shows Lorenzo an array of weapons he designed – new cannons, armoured cars and the like, intriguing Lorenzo. Leo wants to become a military engineer for Florence – but Lorenzo’s a humanist, he doesn’t want war. Leo counters that his humanism is why war will happen.

On a map of Italy he points to Florence and Rome as cities that have no standing armies so have allied with states that do – Milan and Naples. With the death of the Duke of Milan, Florence is in a precarious position. Lorenzo agrees to a modest stipend for Leo to prove he can do it (50 florins – of course Leo said 100) Lorenzo also throws a warning about being too clever, realising that Leo has used Lucrezia to get to Lorenzo. As he leaves, Leo is transfixed by an odd statue in the room, which will no doubt be relevant later.

Back at the workshop everyone is celebrating Leonardo’s commission – and Leo asks Zoroaster to dig up the executed man’s body.

Carnival time – where we’re introduced to even more people (the Pietzo family, old family in Florence, drown in the characters folks, drown in them!) and it’s time for the Columbine to fly – which it does most impressively, interspaced with lots of eye contact between Leo and Lucrezia (she’s wearing a mask but her identity is easily deduced by the fact that she’s the only woman with more than 5 minutes on screen) and then sudden flashes of them having sex.

In the afterglow Leonardo tells Lucrezia he knows who she is. He asks why she would risk her reputation for a lowly artisan and she just puts it down to Carnivale. But he says there’s more – his sketch captured an essence of her no-one else sees, not even her husband, someone she only sees “when she looks in the mirror and sees a stranger staring back at her.” They look at his sketches and she turns his question back on him – why has he risked death to be with her. She puts it down to love, which he laughs off as absurd.

Meanwhile at the Vatican, assassin Girolamo Riario (the one who killed the Pope’s bathing parner) enters the Secret Archive, giving one of its guards a severed finger. He reports to the Pope and his council about Leonardo’s involvement. The Pope dismisses it but he has brought his agent from Florence to say Leonardo is no ordinary painter – and the agent is Lucrezia. She also tells Lupo Mercuri that Leonardo has met the Turk and is looking for the Book of Leaves. Shock! Horror!

The pope’s orders: Convert Da Vinci or kill him

Am I the only one getting really strong David Tennant Doctor vibes from Tom Riley here? If much much darker and edgier? It’s like what he would be if he were more sarcastic and a little crueller.

It was fun… but not enthralling, interesting but not massively. There’s a huge number of characters here, and a massive amount to digest. I can’t say it’s made it to my favourite list but I’m not dreading he next episode or bored. I think it needs to set a theme – is it dark and grim, or light and fun because I think it keeps trying to be both.

As for marginalised characters – oh. Oh dear.

Ok, the intolerance and hatred of Renaissance Italy is true to the time – including attacking Turks and murdering Jewish people, to gloss over it would be wrong. But turning them into bit notes who provide mystical woo-woo and insight to the white protagonist is overdone, an old old old old old trope and one we can do without . Similarly, Florence was a major cosmopolitan city at the time, some POC wouldn’t be amiss.

We have 2 female characters and we’ve seen both of their breasts. 1 is a model and sex interest, the other is a love interest and conniving spy. Even Game of Thrones would look in askance at this.

Then let’s look at Leonardo. Leonardo Da Vinci, the real one, was tried with sodomy when he was 24. He was linked to several male “companions” including one model who lived with him for decades and to whom he left the, even then, extremely expensive Mona Lisa. He was never ever linked to a female lover. Frankly, and given the common straightwashing of history, we’re rarely given a more overt indication that the man was gay without him leaving rainbow backed notebooks.

And this show? We virtually open with him kissing one woman, we see him stalk another woman for most of it before having sex with her.  The show’s creators insist they’re going to make him bisexual (which, still, is wrong and it’s clear we’re going to have a complete focus on his relationships with women and the actual history of Leonardo) but so far the only shred of indication of that is him brushing off a male model but admitting, afterwards, that he’s “easy on the eyes” which could, just as easily, be the comment of an artist about his model.

This is offensive and insulting straight washing at its very worse.

And as to actual GBLT characters? Well we have the bisexual “pig of epic appetites” (strongly implied hedonist) Duke of Milan – unpleasant and dead.  Pretty much it

(I think the Pope is being cast as a paedophile not a gay man – it’s awkward to infer the age of the boy he was groping at knife point simply because there’s no way they’re going to cast a child actor for the role for very very very obvious reasons. Obviously, if the Pope IS supposed to be gay or bisexual then that just adds to the offensive shit in this episode by making a gay villain while straightwashing the ACTUAL gay hero. Oh and that's 2 man-on-man sex scenes where one of the participants dies. Uh-huh, this is really really homophobic).

In all, this series has to do a lot more to make me happy.