Toward the end of the 'The Lovers' – the season 1 finale of Da Vinci's Demons – Leonardo's pal Zoroaster mentions the tarot card that inspired da Vinci to save the Medicis and Florence could also be interpreted as meaning "journey thwarted." It is a line intended to sound ominous and to help telegraph the commotion in which the protagonist will soon find himself, but it also (perhaps unwittingly) does a great job of summing up the series to this point.
Aside from the disconcerting issue that Zoroaster feeds this information more to the audience than to anyone else, the two words point to a fundamental issue that has weighed down the first season of this quasi-fantasy series. Despite the introduction of a fairly strong and intriguing premise in the premiere, the storyline almost immediately headed in the opposite direction, finding one reason or another not to progress the central plot at the heart of the series and instead go on a series of hit and miss side quests.
While those side quests certainly had their fair share of entertaining moments (guano bombs, anyone?), it gradually became difficult to see a connection between the individual stories and progression of the overall narrative. All season long, we saw the series try on a multitude of different hats. Sometimes the story would highlight da Vinci's abilities by having him solve a crime CSI-style, or build a devastating new weapon for the Medicis, but by and large, they mostly just served to set hurdles for an already overstuffed storyline. It began to feel like the writers were throwing ideas at the wall to see what would stick, delaying the narrative's evolution and handing out twists and riddles at the end of each episode as a way to create the impression of development.
And that's ultimately the biggest detractor for the series. While each episode managed to tell a self-contained story, they were often times so different from one another and generally unrelated to the issue of the Book of Leaves and the Vault of Heaven that Da Vinci's Demons struggled to remain consistent while actually experiencing forward momentum. Steadily, the promise of what's to come attempted to excuse the lack of forward momentum, and given the sheer amount of kitchen sink storytelling going on, the vast majority of narrative relied on the promise of some resolution that was perpetually on the horizon.
Take into consideration the various plot threads 'The Lovers' had to deal with, and how it skirted resolution and progression by introducing several more twists to the story (like Pope Sixtus' imprisoned brother, which delivered the news that Lucretia Donati was niece to the pope and cousin to Riario), and, unsurprisingly, ending the season on a cliffhanger.
But the episode is by no means a disaster. There are plenty of things to enjoy, like the ham-fisted way the script tells the audience why things are significant, rather than illustrating their importance, such as when da Vinci is troubled by a falcon and Zoroaster tells him, "I'll wager that bird is an omen meant for you alone." Or later, when Giuliano is struck down in the Medicis' clash with the Pazzis, his lover Vanessa holds him as he dies (and in case there was any confusion, Giuliano tells her, "I'm dying, Vanessa.") and declares, "Your line will live on in me. I'm bearing your child, your son, Giuliano."
And yet, there is still a potentially thrilling show in Da Vinci's Demons – if only the writers would eliminate or greatly reduce the unnecessary narrative elements and free the series from the shackles of "the real world." The basic foundation of the series is that history is a lie, so why not enjoy the freedom to go nuts and fully utilize the premise that whatever crazy stuff happens will eventually be erased from the annals of history? We saw this a few times in episodes like 'The Devil' and 'The Hierophant.' And while those chapters still had issues in terms of storytelling, there was a greater sense of freedom and a willingness to play in what could be a very unique and entertaining world that made them stand out from the rest.
Since it's only been eight episodes, Da Vinci's Demons can still deliver on its promise of becoming an actual adventure series. But in order to truly improve in season 2, the series needs to start going somewhere.
Da Vinci's Demons will return to Starz sometime in 2014.