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Da Vinci’s Demons, Ep. 1.03: “The Prisoner” wants to play a game

Da Vinci's Demons - Season 1

Da Vinci’s Demons,  Season 1:  Episode 3 – “The Prisoner”

Directed by Jamie Payne

Written by Scott M. Gimple and David S. Goyer

Airs Friday nights at 9 pm on Starz

The conceit of “The Prisoner” is that the episode is structured to parallel a game of Go played by Riario and the eponymous, mysterious prisoner. This conceit, along with the comparisons of a caged bird to Lucrezia, plays out rather heavy-handed and isn’t really necessary for us to understand what’s going on in Da Vinci’s Demons at this point. It’s a freshman mistake made by a freshman series, but the over-the-top nature of it lends itself well to how these first few episodes have been executed. Da Vinci’s Demons is still finding itself as a show in these first three scripts, much like how it took Spartacus: Blood and Sand a little while to get going on the same channel, and it’s up to us to trust the writers to pick up on where their ideas are strongest. There is a lot that’s been introduced in Da Vinci’s Demons so far, and that’s not just relating to narrative or character concerns. Thematically, some ideas have been hinted at in a way that suggests the show could move in any one of several directions. These ideas – the implications of opposing faith with science, the inventor being responsible for the results of his creations, obsession on a Darren Aronofsky level, political and familial corruption – each have the capacity to become the source of general inquiry for this show, the thing that will define it. And even though all those things have been thrown together in a relative mess so far, there’s room to hope that Da Vinci’s Demons will find its raison d’etre.

For now, it’s best to watch it as a kind of stumbling spiritual cousin to The Mummy series and/or Sherlock: it can be very fun to engage with if you let it. The most immediate reasons for that come from some of the performances. Tom Riley’s da Vinci is, of course, at the heart of this, but both Blake Ritson’s Count Riario and Elliot Cowan’s Lorenzo de’ Medici play off da Vinci perfectly. We got the more entertaining material from Riario last week when da Vinci almost blew him up, but even seeing him sit with the prisoner, lose a game of Go and throw the board down like a whiny child was attention-grabbing. It’s the fact that he’s one of those types of characters that could kill anyone at any minute that makes him compelling, even if that’s an essentially vacuous characteristic (one shared by The Governor in The Walking Dead, which Mo Ryan actually compared this series to, because “The Prisoner” has “zombie” nuns). Cowan gets scenes that are a bit meatier in terms of what he’s allowed to do with them, such as an unexpected rendezvous with his mistress in a stable. He’s plagued by the fact that there’s a mole in his company, which gives the sex scene that follows an interesting visual slant to elevate it above the “porn” that Starz original series sometimes get accused of.

Da Vinci 1.03.2

It’s difficult to know what to make of the mystery elements of Da Vinci’s Demons at this point, though. These characters have to act within the context of the plot, and if those plots fall short, the performances suffer a little by proxy. Here, da Vinci has to figure out what is ailing all of these women at the convent. The endpoint isn’t exactly telegraphed to the point of irrelevance, but the most interesting parts of those scenes had to do with what was affecting da Vinci’s mental state (such as guilt when he is accused of using people for his own purposes). The mystery of the poison on the statue’s feet helps give the episode another structure, but as a case-of-the-week ordeal, it doesn’t add the kind of gravity that something like Hannibal is doing well right now in its cases-of-the-week.

At the risk of over-contextualizing, it’s worth noting one other point of comparison Da Vinci’s Demons and “The Prisoner” in particular have with Spartacus. At a certain point, the man Spartacus fought his way out of the ludus, opening up the series to a much wider world that it could work with. Now, we see da Vinci making sense of the map he encountered at the end of “The Serpent.” South America is right in front of him. There’s little reason to believe that this is going to play a big part in the remaining four episodes, but of all the lines of narrative potential the show has introduced so far, that is the one that gives it the most to work with in the future. We already know exactly what life is like in Florence for these characters, and a Florence versus Rome plot is something that only works as part of the continuing story – not as the whole thing. So, for all of its hamminess, overloading and didactic narration, Da Vinci’s Demons is still proving that it could work wonders in the long run even if it’s only content to be popcorn viewing at the moment.

“The Prisoner” by the Words:

– “To my knowledge, demons have yet to be prove the cause of anything except some rather tedious sermons.”

– “When life’s path is steep, keep your mind even.”

– “You lied, Leonardo. You promised me wonders. You said we’d fly, you said we’d burn like the sun, but there’s no sun in your world. It’s only coldness and shadows.”

“The Prisoner” by the Numbers:

20: The amount of wafers that poor Nico has to eat while testing for poison.

9: The amount of minutes into the episode before da Vinci’s first line of dialogue (“What?”).

1: The amount of stubborn-as-hell birds that don’t fly from an open cage to help da Vinci with his sketches.

Sean Colletti

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