June 1, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Da Vinci’s Demons”


The farther it gets from the historical person named Leonardo Da Vinci, the better Starz’s DA VINCI’S DEMONS tends to be as a series.  In its 2d season, it went very far–all the way to South America, in a completely fictional Indiana Jones-ish quest for the mystical and all-powerful “Book of Leaves,” not to mention Da Vinci’s not-so-dead-after-all mother.  Sure, once every episode or so, all would appear to be lost, and as the other characters gave up hope, Da Vinci would stare at a wall, or off into the distance, only to more or less snap his fingers and exclaim “Eureka!”  Then he’d come up with a spur-of-the-moment work-of-genius invention, some of which were actually developed by the real Da Vinci (parachutes), some not (blood transfusions).  That was, for the most part, as much as the series had to do with the real man–and the show was the better for it.  (Let’s all try to forget the hallucination sequence where Da Vinci visited a fantasy museum of his own work centuries after his death and admired the Mona Lisa, which in the present-tense of the series he hadn’t even thought of painting yet.)

The Season 2 finale, written by Supervising Producer Corey Reed and Producer Marco Ramirez (from a story by Reed and Executive Producer Brian Nelson), and directed by Peter Hoar, was mostly a talky set-up for Season 3 (already ordered).  Leonardo (Tom Riley) had arrived back in Italy from his colorful but fruitless efforts in South America, along with frenemy Girolamo Riario (Blake Riario), both having barely escaped human sacrifice at the hands of the Aztec-like natives.  Things were busy but less interesting back home.  Most of the action took place in Naples, where Leonardo’s patron Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan) had survived his own near-certain death, joined by the evil fake Pope Sixtus (James Faulkner), not to be confused with his identical twin the real Pope (also Faulkner), whom fake Pope keeps imprisoned in a cell below the Vatican.  De Medici, fake-Sixtus and the Neapolitan royals are all sworn enemies, and most of them have at one time or another wanted to kill Leonardo, but they were forced to unite with him and each other when the Ottoman Empire launched an attack on Naples, designed by Lucretia Donati (Laura Haddock), who is–fasten your seatbelts–the daughter of the actual imprisoned Pope Sixtus, former spy and assassin for the phony Sixtus, and mistress to both de Medici and Da Vinci.  Her plot to start a war was all in an attempt to restore her father to the Throne of Rome.

But that wasn’t all:  in a dungeon somewhere in Italy, Riario, who’d spent all of Season 2 being redeemed for his many murders (including that of Lucretia’s young sister), was being tortured back into villainy by some other mysterious group that was after the Book of Leaves, and included someone who may or may not have been Lorenzo’s bastard brother.  Meanwhile, back in Florence, in perhaps the single least convincing twist of the season, somehow Vanessa (Hera Milmar), the sweet girl who hung around Da Vinci’s studio and became pregnant with the child of de Medici’s dead brother, somehow found herself as the head of the House of de Medici, Lorenzo and his wife Clarice (Lara Pulver) both being out of town.  And in case that wasn’t enough, Leonardo discovered, just seconds before his barrage of artillery was about to attack the Ottoman fleet, that the woman standing on the deck of the lead ship was none other than good old Mom.

So… no lack of cliffhangers.  It didn’t, however, make for a particularly satisfying finale, since nothing at all was resolved.  Still, for the most part this was a more entertaining season than Da Vinci’s Demons’ first.  The road trip to South America and adventures there were idiotic but fun (at one point, he discovered a prototype robot head that suggested a 15th century version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), and with Leonardo out of town, the other characters had more to do this season than alternately yell and stare with awe at the genius in their midst.  Ritson was given a much bigger and more complex role this season, which was a very smart decision, since Riley continues to be a bit of a stick as Da Vinci (there was, however, sadly less of Haddock, since both of her love interests were on the move throughout most of the season).  The show’s budget remains not quite adequate to its ambitions, and the scripts wisely scaled down the larger action sequences and crowd scenes.

Da Vinci’s Demons hasn’t been a breakout hit for Starz, and it’s certainly not a prestige play for the network, but airing on low-rated Saturdays, it’s done close enough to OK to justify its Season 3 renewal.  It succeeds as a neo-B-movie piece of programming, and is best-advised to stick to what it’s been doing best, and underplay any attempt at connecting with historical reality.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."