First, let us acknowledge how much more enjoyable Da Vinci's Demons is when Count Riario plays a prominent part – especially when the character gets to accessorize with things like a fun little hat and some designer sunglasses. But it’s a testament to Blake Riton's performance that he's able to be entertaining in addition to rather than in spite of, his wardrobe. In fact, if Tom Riley's Leonardo da Vinci could exude brilliance with half the skill in which Riston's Riario radiates slimy villainy, several of this series' issues would be immediately resolved.
Secondly, it's worth pointing out that despite a rather inauspicious series premiere (and in spite of last week's Detective Da Vinci installment), the series has managed to improve with each episode. Most impressive is the grasp that Da Vinci's Demons has on mixing the more serialized elements with the purely episodic bits that have been shown so far. While it was little slow going these first three episodes (this show has the ability to make an hour feel like so much more), 'The Magician' takes a stab at speeding things up a bit and making an effort to better integrate the mysteries surrounding the Book of Leaves, the Vault of Heaven and the Fountain of Memory with whatever pursuit has da Vinci's interest this time around.
For the most part, that involves devising a weapon that can successfully combat Riario's threat to invade Florence. Supremely confident, Riario first seizes the alum mine at the center of the Medici's wealth, then he demands forgiveness all of The Vatican's debts (who does he think he is, Bono?) and finally he demands Florence hand over several artists (da Vinci included) to work on the feat of architectural brilliance the Pope wishes to have built.
And what, precisely, gives Riario the confidence to demand such things? Math. Riario uses his smarts to calculate how many men it would take to simply overrun the firing rate of Florence's much-ballyhooed new cannons and, clearly having done his homework, brings with him an army large enough to act as both fodder and overwhelming force.
For all the good da Vinci's guns have done in making Florence a threat to be reckoned with, Leonardo's stumped as to the manner in which he'll be able to surmount the sheer number of men Riario has at his disposal. Naturally, Lorenzo believes more guns are the answer, but, inexplicably, da Vinci finds himself obsessing over what kind of engineering marvel he can derive from sketching and observing pomegranates in either a solid, sliced or recently-exploded state and deliberately blowing up the Medici's metalworks.
It's a stressful time for Florence, but thankfully, when Lorenzo has backhanded da Vinci enough, the renaissance man comes up with the idea of a "cluster bombard" – an explosive device similar to the "grenado" he used to get out of a tight jam in 'The Serpent.'
Much like the grenado, da Vinci's cluster bombard doesn't actually function; it's a bluff – which is too bad because the ridiculously oversized crossbow intended to fire the explosive devices would have been an amazing turning point for the series, in terms of the campiness being deliberate. Instead, Riario proves that he may have an eye for numbers, but he's not so great at spotting props that would have been laughed off the stage of a high school play, let alone the potential field of battle. Another bluff by da Vinci wins the day, but perhaps the true victory is still Riario's, as he states no matter what da Vinci does, history may remember it differently.
That revelation, coupled with da Vinci's arrest at the episode's end certainly suggests an intriguing and dark turn of events during what is the halfway mark of the season. In addition to stopping just short of letting its unconventional elements truly shine, 'The Magician' is also the series' best attempt at progressing the plot. While neither is wholly embraced – the plot progression begins with da Vinci's request for an expedition and ends with him being placed under arrest – at least there are some hints that both have garnered some consideration.
Da Vinci's Demons continues next Friday with 'The Tower' @9pm on Starz. Check out preview of the episode below: