Da Vinci’s Demons, Season 2: Episode 6 – “The Rope of the Dead”
Written by David S. Goyer & Matt Fraction
Directed by Jon Jones
Airs Saturday nights at 9 on Starz
Ever since Spartacus, the series which will most likely remain the network’s standard forever, Starz has been trying to build a brand that works for them as a premium cable network. That branding, unfortunately, doesn’t allow for a series like Magic City, which was better than it needed to be in its short run. However, the intent to create an identity in contrast to what HBO and Showtime do is one that I find admirable. And, finally, I think Starz knows exactly what it needs. “The Rope of the Dead” is that thing. It is the perfect blend of high octane action, visual spectacle (enhanced by a little bit of sexiness, of course) and powerfully emotional character beats. The first season of Da Vinci’s Demons seemed to have some of the flash of the Dark Knight trilogy, which Goyer worked on, but it didn’t engage the viewer in the ways that it needed to. This season has sweated endlessly to rectify that, and this episode is the clearest showcase of what DVD and Goyer can do when working close to full potential.
Strangely enough, “The Rope of the Dead” reminds me quite a bit of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which, despite not being the smartest entry in that series of adaptations, was my favorite of the films because of how fun the wizard competition was. Similarly, “The Rope of the Dead” puts its characters into trials that they need to pass. They’re not necessarily competing with one another, but a similar feeling is evoked, easily making this the most entertaining hour of DVD to date.
Riario goes into full rage mode, the pleasures of which cannot be re-created in words. Suffice it to say, Blake Ritson throws himself completely into the zany material and is 100% convincing. From the moment Riario wakes up in the corn fields, we’re in for a hell of a ride. He relinquishes himself to his animalistic nature and shreds through half a dozen New World warriors as he tries to retrieve the antidote for the venom coursing through Leonardo. It would have been enough to just let Ritson go to town, but Goyer and Fraction’s script goes the extra mile by constructing this part of the trial to include the sacrifice of Zita. The transition from Riario as antagonist to Riario as sympathetic hasn’t been as smooth as something like Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones, but if any one piece of his story could land in the way it needs to, it is the gravitation he experiences that draws him to Zita. She humanizes him more than anything else in the series has, including his attempts to protect Lucrezia when the new Sixtus took over, so to have that removed from him forever is one of those necessary narrative decisions to push a character in a certain direction. I like that we get to see her in the underworld so that she can tell da Vinci she forgives Riario and that Riario strikes Leo after he delivers the message. The point Riario makes to say that he is not da Vinci’s friend also works in showing how complicated their relationship is now, the future of which depends entirely on how successful the quest for the Book of Leaves is. There is some dramatic tension removed by the fact that we know both Riario and Leonardo have to survive this episode, but the suspense in all of Riario’s fights doesn’t feel cheap or lessened by that fact.
Riario isn’t the only character in “The Rope of the Dead” who succumbs to rage in order to pass his test. Lorenzo is teased by the ghost of his brother, Giuliano, and if there is one thing that pushes the episode from “good” territory into “great,” it is being able to see Tom Bateman reprise his role in scenes where he Giuliano gets to interact with Lorenzo and Leonardo. Lorenzo’s trial is two-fold. His test is to kill a horse with a single arrow before it snaps his neck with the rope that connects them. However, his internal battle is there so that he can achieve some form of catharsis through his rage. He eventually realizes that the person he hates the most–the one who can elicit such an emotional response from him so as to make him concentrate those emotions to make that shot–is his dead brother, who fell heroically, leaving Lorenzo to pick up all the pieces. It is, without a doubt, the best bit of story Lorenzo has had in DVD, and that’s coming off a spectacular season premiere, where he got be a true leader of the people. It’s also interesting that the episode decides to make it clear that hatred is the thing that brings out the best in Lorenzo. It’s a strange way to define the character, but it’s one that rings true with what we’ve seen of him so far, and it delineates his character from some of the other characters who get their definitions from more traditional characteristics.
Da Vinci is one of those people, and even though I would hesitate to let one quality explain him, his curiosity is what guides most of his actions in “The Rope of the Damned.” During his trip to the underworld, he even says that his path is one that is necessarily risky because he cannot let that curiosity go. He must seek the answers to the questions he has at any cost, and, to me, that is one of the best ways to show how your hero is flawed but worth rooting for in spite of those flaws. I honestly didn’t think DVD could create this type of believable hero with such a self-important character who doesn’t take life as seriously as he ought to sometimes, but I’m happy to be eating crow on that. “The Rope of the Dead,” which even has the good sense to use its weakest plotline, which follows Lucrezia, to give something viewers to look forward to in Istanbul, has less in common with DVD as a series than it does with films like The Mummy or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Individually, this is a spectacular action-adventure story, and if DVD can continue doing these kinds of things, Starz will finally have its poster child series to build its line-up around.
– Sean Colletti