With Episode 3 (also co-written by Scott Gimple) we wanted to start changing the formula a bit. We introduce our final series regular, the titular Prisoner and provide a few more wrinkles to Riario’s character.
Like most of the episode titles, the ‘Prisoner’ refers to a variety of people/circumstances.
The episode cuts back and forth between a game of Go and the various other storylines. Viewers might think that introducing the Asian game is a dramatic leap, but in fact, a variety of Chinese delegations were known to have visited the Papacy in and around that time – some staying for quite a few months. We also meet Zita, an Abyssinian slave girl. Abyssinia was the name used for Ethiopia at the time. We had a hell of a time getting that dialogue appropriately translated, so I would like to specifically thank Shimelis Bonsa Gulema, a graduate student in the UCLA History department, who provided us with the majority of the translations in Amharic (the language of Abyssinia).
We also had a Go advisor on the set to help ensure that the placement of the Go stones was correct. Hoping we didn’t screw up!
Thematically, this episode was all about turning the screws tighter on all of our characters. We begin to understand more of the pressures that Lucrezia has been placed under.
And while Leonardo is theorizing about continental drift and a possible path to the Book of Leaves, he is also pulled in another direction – the supposed outbreak of demonic possession at a nearby convent. Perhaps less obvious is Leonardo’s growing apprehension about building more weapons for Lorenzo and a desire to momentarily escape his new responsibilities as war engineer.
The idea for the possession story came from historical accounts of ergot poisoning (also called St. Anthony’s fire). Ergotism is caused by a fungus that infects rye and other cereal crops and there are some historians that believe one such outbreak was responsible for the insanity of the Salem witch trials, in addition to a variety of mysterious outbreaks of sickness and madness during the medieval era prior to Da Vinci’s lifetime.
We also wanted to pay a tiny homage to the Hammer House of Horror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s.
In any event, we thought it would be fun to pit Leonardo against Lupo Mercuri. The idea being that the Church might intentionally poison the Sisters of the convent in order to wage a kind of psychological warfare against the Medicis.
For this particular story, we decided to pair up Giuliano and Leonardo. Giuliano is jealous of Leonardo’s intellect and desperate to win his older brother’s approval.
Later on in the story, Leonardo finds himself infected and undergoes a kind of hallucinatory trip, which was a great deal of fun to shoot.
At the same time that this is taking place, we also turn the screws on Lucrezia. Gentile Becchi suggests that there may be a spy in the Medici Palace and inadvertently puts the pressure on Lucrezia. With no other recourse, she decides to frame Becchi himself.
In-between, Lucrezia and Clarice come face to face. One of the trickiest endeavors was convincing Lara Pulver that her character, Clarice, would turn out to be a meaningful role. We intentionally held her back for the first few episodes – but in this scene, Clarice starts to come to the forefront.
Then, near the end of the episode, we also reveal that Lucrezia was the one who dusted the feet of the Saint Anthony statue with ergot powder (the small bottle that Riario gave her in Episode 2).
For the record, there was a short little scene involving Giuliano and Leonardo riding home after the convent experience – where Giuliano grudgingly admits Leonardo’s effectiveness. I really, really liked the scene – and it helped develop their relationship – but we had to cut it for time. Hopefully, we can include it on the DVD set.
Finally, with Leonardo victorious and all our players back home, we return to our framing device – the game between Riario and the Prisoner.
The idea we’re trying to put forth is that it might actually be the people who are outside of the bars that are in prison, as opposed to the other way around.
Who is the Prisoner and why does he have a strange kind of hold over Riario? Stay tuned.