For a series that highlights a prolonged prison sequence with a hilarious animated bit illustrating the clever transformation of bat guano into hand-rolled bombs (the only working explosive device da Vinci has crafted so far, mind you), it's a tad bewildering that Da Vinci's Demons would choose to mix the reality of the bat-bombs with a heaping helping of superficial social commentary.
Clearly, one of these things is something more befitting of the series and one is not. If you've tuned in from the beginning and feasted your eyes upon the wonder of 15th century mechanical doves (in two sizes!) and giant papier-mâché crossbows, you'll have a good idea which one is not the strong suit of Da Vinci's Demons.
Additionally (putting the discussion of strong suits aside for a moment), there's the more troublesome question of whether or not it's ever a good idea to feature both in the same episode. There may have been good intentions in discussing da Vinci's sexual orientation, and it's commendable that they tried, but one can easily imagine how introducing explosives made of bat excrement into the narrative might somehow lessen the intended effect of that particular discussion.
Again, this points to a bothersome aspect of this series: There is a great, campy ride hidden beneath an overt desire to be taken seriously that's just not going to come anytime soon. Mostly, it's a problem of tone, a commitment to deliver this story straight-faced that's keeping the show from going completely, deliriously and entertainingly guano. So, moving forward, it can either cut back on the mechanical doves and bat-bombs, or it can crank them up a notch (mechanical bats dropping cluster bombards, perhaps?) and chuckle along with the rest of us.
This discussion of incompatible tonal elements can also highlight the fact that Da Vinci's Demons still seems to be trying on different genres, just to see which one might fit. Along with some pseudo-sci-fi and fantasy elements the series has also taken a stab at being a procedural crime drama with 'The Prisoner' and now, with 'The Tower,' it's just seeing what it might feel like to be a courtroom drama, as da Vinci's sexuality is put on trial.
It's not a bad fit, necessarily; the episode does afford David Schofield (who plays da Vinci's father, Piero da Vinci) the opportunity to be something other than a yes-man to the Medici's or one-note vocal detractor of his son. There's a revealing back-and-forth between the two that details more of their troubled history, but that quickly falls by the wayside, as it becomes clear Leonardo is being railroaded by Franceso Pazzi (Elliot Levy), who has the magistrate in his pocket – a fact that leads to the magistrate uttering this delightfully unsubtle nugget of dialogue: "I'm an elected official; I'll do as someone pays me to do."
If it wasn't already obvious, this is an unsubtle hour of television that, about half way through, will likely leave most viewers wondering why this detour is necessary. It's one thing to take an episode and attempt to try on a new genre – that's the sort of thing Mad Men does all the time – but it registers as unwise when the conceit of a show like Da Vinci's Demons already fits into a specific genre and the show has not yet demonstrated it can deliver a truly compelling within that framework.
Moreover, it's never really determined what's at stake. Sure, da Vinci's freedom and life are on the line, but he's the series' main character, nothing's really going to happen to him. It may have been interesting to see him wind up being incarcerated at the end of the episode, and then have the season's narrative work from there to get him out, but 'The Tower' winds up being another episode that tells a single story within the confines of the hour. And, as seems to be the case with this series, the only element to actually progress the series' story arc happens in the episode's final moment – which, in this case, gives us the sudden reappearance of the Al-Rahim and da Vinci's realization that the man he saw in the cave as a child was actually himself (whatever that means).
This trend of telling stories for 55 minutes that are only tangentially related to the series' narrative (the Book of Leaves and the Vault of Heaven, remember those things?) and then offering a small chunk pertaining to da Vinci's overall quest in the final moments of the episode feels too much like deliberate stalling.
Divergent stories are great when they tell the audience something new about the character or their quest. On the surface, 'The Tower' appears to have new information, but the end revelation feels more like a distraction from the triviality of the episode than a truly important eye-opener.
Da Vinci's Demons continues next Friday with 'The Devil' @9pm on Starz. Check out a preview below: