Da Vinci’s Demons: 101 “The Hanged Man” Review
Reviewed by Tyler Davies
When I tuned in to watch this episode I was wary that writer and director David Goyer would be depicting Leonardo da Vinci in an unconventional way. And true enough this version of Da Vinci is not only a talented visionary, but also a sword-wielding hero who is able to charm ladies with ease. His characterisation may serve as a stark contrast to the image which is usually conceived around Da Vinci, but the show clearly does not intend to tell a completely true story and therefore allows itself to take certain liberties. That is why I prefer to think of this Leonardo as a reimagining of the multifaceted man.
What strikes me about this introductory episode, though, is that it lauds itself on being adulterated, despite the fact that the premise and also several characters are more appealing to the youth. It lacks the sophistication and complexity of a show like ‘Game of Thrones’, but yet they adulterate it with an excessive amount of nudity and depictions of gory violence. Whilst the violence felt justified and helped create a gritty atmosphere – the nudity could easily have been toned down for viewing sensibilities. A particularly explicit scene within the Vatican is bound to leave a section of the audience dismayed. Not only does that scene show Pope Sixtus in his ‘birthday suit’, but also him holding a blade to the throat of a young man. It doesn’t end there neither because moments later we see the young boy brutally murdered at the hands of Pope Sixtus’ nephew – Girolamo Riario. I do find these extreme measures to paint the Church as the ‘big-bad’ questionable, but their representation of the harsh nature of that period is quite apt. It strongly indicates that this series does not intend to shed away from portraying that period in a dark and realistic manner.
Despite its current of grim subjects, this introductory episode manages to retain a very fun spirit. Leonardo is a very flamboyant and arrogant character and that allows for some amusing dialogue when he is pitted opposite people who doubt his skills. One such scene particularly stands out. I’m referring to the part in the workshop where Leonardo is to show his latest invention to the powerful Giuliano Medici. The form of arrogant banter which occurs is indeed very enjoyable and slightly reminiscent of another great show – BBC’s Sherlock. The engineered dove which he presents in the workshop is not the only invention we see being put into practice. We also see him, rather successfully, trying out the flying machine at an early point in the episode. These parts are, arguably, the most engaging and actually have an importance on Da Vinci’s history. I feel that the impact of these inventions being tested out are slightly underwhelming due to the heavy use of CGI, but I certainly look forward to more of these enchanting moments.
This transfusion of both lighter and darker themes makes for good entertainment, but Goyer (creator, writer and director) never quite manages to strike a healthy balance between the two. It makes this opener extremely hectic and whilst I do commend the ambitiousness, I am left feeling that they try too hard at being diverse. What worsens the situation is the fact that there are a handful of subgenres being tried out. There are glimpses of Sherlock, The Borgias, Merlin and even Batman(!)
There were a handful of characters introduced in this opener; some of them showing potential, but none of them truly awaking interest. Leonardo’s two loyal friends, Nico and Zoroaster, are amiable, but it’s the dynamic they share with the protagonist which is more interesting. They are both shown to be useful to Leonardo in his line of work – Zoroaster is a connection to Florentine’s underworld and Nico aids him with testing out inventions. I’m intrigued to see whether their friendship will be explored thoroughly. Leonardo is, after all, a man who is clear of his goals and it may well be that his friends are merely his means to achieve them. Whatever their friendship develops into – I certainly know that it would be pitiful if they had no proper importance to the story.
There is definitely not a shortage of adversaries for Leonardo in this show. The majority of the characters have a more than a little shade of grey, as clearly evidenced in this pilot episode. Even the Medici’s, who Leonardo acquaints himself with, are shown to be quite a powerful and lethal family. Hence I expect there to be quite a lot of deception and betrayal in the upcoming episodes. Even more so because of Leonardo engaging in a sexual affair with Lucrezia Donati, the mistress of the family head – Lorenzo Medici. There is bound to be some tension around this and further events which will add some further drama to their situation.
“The Hanged Man” has a strong mystery quotient and it posed quite a few questions – for example; what exactly did happen that bleak day in the cave or what became of Leonardo’s ominous mother. Although the most notable mystery is the one surrounding the ‘Book of Leaves’ which, the equally puzzling, Al-Rahim tells Leonardo he must seek or else it will fall into corrupt hands. This clearly sets up a goal for the rest of the episodes and judging by the ending; the ‘Book of Leaves’ will be an important junction due to both Leonardo and insiders of the Vatican wanting it.
The ending has even more importance though because Lucrezia Donati is revealed to be a spy for the mighty and malignant Count Riario – Pope Sixtus IV’s nephew. This was an interesting development, but I am baffled as to why this was revealed so promptly. If done correctly, this reveal could have been truly impactful, but because it comes at such an early point in the series then there’s no major shock. They could have allowed her character to develop first and perhaps even become an essential part of Leonardo’s life. That way – her betrayal would have really been felt for the audience. The only good outcome of this premature revelation is that Leonardo and Lucrezia’s relationship will not follow a typical pattern. Their affair could have been really clichéd, but luckily this indicates that it will not be taking that route, but I digress. With Lucrezia giving Pope Sixtus intelligence on Leonardo’s beneficence to the Medici’s, and him vowing to corrupt or destroy him, it will certainly be interesting to see the developments of this intricate situation in the remainders of this eight-part series.
Best Scene of the episode
I felt that there weren’t many strong scenes which stood out, but there is one which remains etched in my memory. The scene in question sees Da Vinci purchasing some birds, but not because he wants to keep them. He merely does it to free them from their cage so that he can study their movement and sketch it. This scene is powerfully enhanced by a sequence which projects us into the genius’ mind. It most certainly is not an unfamiliar trick (Sherlock comes to mind again), but it is cleverly used and the fabulous animation makes it into a captivating moment.
If you were expecting a fun and engaging drama which gives a fresh perspective on Da Vinci’s life; then chances are you’ll be pleased. Sadly it does very little to exceed those expectations and it delves into several subgenres simultaneously without achieving to create an identity of its own. It’s also very busy as it sets up for the upcoming episodes with far too many elements – leaving it no time to breath. All in all though; it’s a promising start, but there’s definitely room for improvement.Follow @cultfix