Roman finds himself at odds with the world today — or at least with the world for those whose tastes he represents. YouTube beauty influencer Milan Kamenev reveals in one episode a misogynistic Internet. Roman begins a personal crusade against Kamenev, as well as “Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un, after he is confused by an interview Kaminenov gives in which he claims to enjoy watching and selling women’s undergarments to enhance their looks. Kamenev has read into Roman’s campaign that he is a Nazi, which is entirely made up, and in a flamboyant twist, Kaminenov uses his own Internet troll army (yes, there is one in this show) to scuttle a return to Rome by Roman’s brother Cardinal Tullius Morell.
Several controversial scenes in the season’s first episode — like the fangirl in the palm of Karolis’s hand — remain, as do a few familiar tidbits, like a curious look at the physicality of personality conflicts among Catholic religious figures and upstart liberals, a new twist in romances on the Internet, and maybe a last-minute escape for Florence’s popes. And, of course, there’s the lingering reminder that this is the fictional Rome where Rome never existed.
Roman’s resentments start tumbling to the surface after he reads his half-brother Tullius’s Guardian on His Excellency’s 13th birthday. It details the struggle Tullius had with the predatory Lucius Marcellus, son of the Rome’s fourth Pope (then Cardinal) Carlo Borromeo, and the early indication that the young man was not going to pass muster as a son to his pontiff. Tullius would be remembered, besides his fortuitous exit from Rome, as a wonderfully relaxed poperino and moderate rival to Pope Julius II. Roman will later find that Tullius’s despaired father, Scipio, is now available on the Web.
And there’s also so much more going on in the Vatican. The show begins with the ceremonial coronation of Francis XI, depicting him — at least in the beginning — as a rather silly idealist.
When it becomes clear that the sensual sensuality of Tullius’s spiritual father, Julius II, is not on the Pope’s mind, the focus of the show flips over to the younger man’s acts of cruelty to his flock. It’s a welcome trip to the depths of the Pope’s soul, thanks to strong performances by Alessandro Costantini and Ioan Gruffudd, whose characters at the very least acknowledge that the shape of the world is not always pleasant. (There is much analysis of why Tullius’s horrid habit is so meaningful, including how it may have inspired and promoted Cardinal Caius. Seriously, there are a lot of shades here.)
Because Roman is fiction, some red herrings are introduced here. For example, a flying windmill (gasp!) and an unimpressive piece of armor. But there are also some fascinating developments — whether a clichékinnng ban on “fake news” was actually meant to protect access to online titillation, or whether the signs of intimacy among Pope Julius II and his sex partners are more reflective of actual behavior rather than a convenient way to sidestep more difficult topics — and intriguing insights into the life of the papacy. You don’t get to see the papacy without a long timeline.
Roman appears to be beginning to contain just as much depth as Da Vinci’s Demons. The furore over the show’s resemblance to the actual life of the painter Da Vinci comes and goes, but here is a show in which the visuals — Roman’s drawing rooms — seem to haunt the small screen with their own sense of history and poetry.