A relatively brief but undeniably strange trip comes to an end with the third season of “Da Vinci’s Demons,” which will play out in 10 weekly installments but also be available to binge online. For yours truly, having pursued the latter course, this consistently intriguing but slightly muddled show finally adds up to less than the sum of its parts: made entertaining and watchable by its terrific cast and mix of science and mysticism, without breaking into the ranks of top-tier dramas. Certainly, the producers had fun filling in this blank space in its hero’s life. And the rest is history.
To be fair, the series — created by genre maestro David S. Goyer, and run this season by “X-Files” alum John Shiban — didn’t encumber itself by being mired in reality, taking off on a flight of fantasy and fancy from the inspiration of Da Vinci’s sketches, weapons designs and otherwise “dark science.” Lusty, atmospheric and frequently weird, the narrative was anchored throughout by Tom Riley as the wild-eyed Da Vinci and Blake Ritson as the enigmatic Girolamo Riario, whose allegiance and motivations seemed to change a half-dozen times, but whose hoarse whisper remained mesmerizing.
In a sense, the final season all comes down to family matters, albeit in the most twisted and labyrinthine manner possible. That includes, but isn’t limited to, long-lost mothers, surrogate fathers, and Pope Sixtus IV (a wonderfully hissable James Faulkner) and his twin brother. Among other things, the final episodes add ’80s soap operas and Lifetime movies to Da Vinci’s list of prescient visions.
Without giving too much away, the season begins with the Turkish invasion of Otranto in southern Italy, creating a backdrop for multiple battles and set pieces along the way. Yet the efforts to liberate the city are punctuated by a number of extended detours involving secret societies and cabals, the exploitation of Da Vinci’s weapons of war and the use of elaborate torture devices.
After opening with a bang, the story meanders a bit in the middle hours, before racing toward the finish, somewhat blunting the impact of the inevitable casualties suffered along the way. While there’s some satisfaction in where the series ends, anything approaching harmonious closure proves elusive, inasmuch as the program’s central conceit was to dramatize a relatively small portion of this true Renaissance man’s 67 years, using key historical characters and events as the loosest of jumping-off points.
In a sense, this is one of those shows where the less one thinks about it, the better, given the dizzying maelstrom in which “Da Vinci’s Demons” operates. Indeed, for those who can actually remember the significance of every twist and turn surrounding fictional concoctions like Book of Leaves and Sons of Mithras, well, more power to them. One might also quibble with the extent to which Da Vinci is transformed into an action hero this season, wielding a blade along with his prodigious intellect.
For all that, “Da Vinci’s Demons” did represent a consequential step as Starz has gone about the trial-and-error process of finding its original-programming identity — a series with plenty of style, and not incidentally, one of composer Bear McCreary’s best scores. And if it never achieved real genius, including this closing flurry of hours, there’s a bit of poetry in that as well.