Deadline reported yesterday morning that Showtime is considering a show from Ron Howard that would tell the story of Hernan Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who scuttled his own ships so he’d have no option to retreat and eventually took the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán by siege. It’s not a story without risks—without making this a contest of equals and a genuine clash of sophisticated civilizations, such a show could devolve into a dull celebration of imperialism. But done right, it’s the kind of project that could provide great roles for people of color, and for women, including La Malinche, a woman born on the border between the Mayan and Aztec Empires, sold as a slave, given to Cortés as a gift, and who became his interpreter in Mayan and Nahuatl, and eventually the mother of his child.
Showtime president David Nevins, asked about the project, offered an explanation that was more non-commital than Deadline’s report—but in certain significant ways, intriguing:
I think there’s a very interesting show to be done about that has genre elements, has elements of supernatural and horror, really frightening, gruesome stuff, which is about the sort of encounter between these two very different cultures but were in a premodern time where magic and mysticism, I think, is in the core in the core of the belief system of the Spanish Catholics and the Aztecs. And it’s a very advanced civilization in a lot of ways, the Aztec civilization, advanced mathematics and science, but also really brutal and violent. So I think it’s got a mix. And it’s a kind of a period show that no one has done. So I’m always looking for something that feels like fresh territory. One of the reasons I hate talking about it is because other people can get the idea. But I think it’s it’s loaded with potential.
If Nevins wants to do a period drama with genre elements, he might consider eliminating the conquistadors from the equation. Showtime could adapt Clare Bell’s The Jaguar Princess, a fantasy about Aztec client states that involves a woman who can shape shift into a great cat, which the network could pitch as a mashup of Game of Thrones‘ feudal politics and True Blood‘s sex and magic. I don’t think Gary Jennings Aztec novels, in which Catholic invaders misread the civilization they were determined to destroy by sword and cross, have ever been adapted, and they could be rich territory as well. Ultimately, I doubt Showtime would ever ditch the conquistadors—a show this expensive would probably think it needs a Sean Bean-like famous-but-not-too-expensive white guy as a hook for an audience. But it would be nice to see a show about native peoples in the Americas that has the guts to treat its invading European as a villain rather than a hero, and to turn Aztec characters into rich and complex anti-heroes.