Sunday, April 1, 2007

Rome Returns and Concludes on HBO


My reviews of the 10 episodes of Rome, Season 2, on HBO follow - just as they were written and published on this blog, usually 30 minutes or less after the conclusion of each episode. The only changes I made were correcting a word or a phrase in a handful of places.

The titles after each episode are the names of my reviews, not the names of the episodes - which I started at 1, since Season Two seems distinct enough to me from Season One to warrant its own numbers.

Episode 1: Powerful Complement to Shakespeare 14 January 2007

I'll be reviewing each episode of the second season of Rome on HBO. I'll try to resist giving away anything about the fictitious elements, and the rest, as they say, is history...

Rome returned to HBO tonight. The first hour was as vivid and powerful as the best shows last season, perfect in its portrayal of political conniving and jockeying in the aftermath of Caesar's murder, and appropriately grim in the fictional account of Vorenus and the destruction of his family.

First let me mention what I missed. No "friends, Romans, and countrymen" oration by Mark Antony, just as there was no "et tu, Brutus" from Caesar last year. The reason, no doubt, is that that's all Shakespeare, not history, and HBO's Rome is sticking to whatever more or less accepted history we know, plus its own - excellent - embellishments. Still, Shakespeare has become close enough to a real history, an expected history, that I missed the oration - and especially so given the fine performance that James Purefoy gives as Antony. You can practically feel him itching to give the great speech. (This is also due to the fine writing - what we do hear this Antony say in Rome.)

I also missed seeing more of Atia, played ever temptingly by Polly Walker.

But Max Pirkis as young Octavian commanded every scene he was in, and David Bamber was infuriatingly deceitful as Cicero (though, as an admirer of the real Cicero's writing, I'm hoping that the sliminess of this Cicero is artistic license.)

And the story of Lucius Vorenus, played just right by Kevin McKidd, was heart-rending. If the creators of HBO's Rome left behind the inventions of Shakespeare, they're offering a gripping story of the underside of Rome that we haven't quite seen before.

All wrapped up in a package of marvelous opening credits, with a libretto delivered by news reader Ian McNeice that makes me wish we had a little more of that - and less news anchor and newspaper - in our own world...

Episode 2: Every Scene Is Memorable 21 January 2007

I realized tonight one of the many things that distinguishes HBO's Rome from anything else on television: there's not a scene wasted, not a minute, not a conversation, that you're not delighted you saw and heard.

Tonight's episode - the second in Rome's return - was especially rich in such wonderful moments. Antony and Cleopatra (played by Lindsey Marshal) were superb. Just the right chemistry. Antony and Atia were great together, too. Vorenus and Pullo have now completed their role reversals - Pullo invokes the gods, Vorenus exults in their denial. And again Antony (the night belonged to James Purefoy) and Vorenus (with Pullo) had a priceless scene, in which Antony shows his understanding of at least a part of the human condition, and pulls Vorenus out of his downward spiral.

But the scene of scenes tonight was the confrontation between Antony and Octavian. Max Pirkis as Octavian more than held his own against a scalding performance by Purefoy. For the first time, we can truly believe that Octavian will triumph over Antony - not just because history tells us so, but because we can see it with our own eyes, in this unforgettable performance.

But that's getting a little ahead of ourselves. Tonight we must content ourselves with Octavian leaving the city - a bit battered, but the furthest thing from bowed.

And, oh yes, Vorenus' children are alive. I knew they would be. In fictional television land - which this part of the story of HBO's Rome is - people are never dead unless you see them dead beyond any possible revival. I'm glad - for Vorenus, and for us.

Episode 3: The Exquisite Wheels of History 28 January 2007

The wheels are inexorably turning in this third episode of Rome's return on HBO. Atia's on the brink of death by poison. (Atia of the Julii in HBO's Rome is only loosely based on the historical Atia Balba, so anything is possible - but our Atia's prospects do not look good.) Brutus, Cicero, and Antony are in downward spirals of one sort or another. Only Octavian, off stage and out of town, is looming more powerful with each episode.

You couldn't ask for anything more in the exquisite performances of Polly Walker (Atia), Tobias Menzies (Brutus), David Bamber (Cicero), and James Purefoy (Antony) in their roles. But tonight, for the first time in this second season of Rome, I found myself missing Ciaran Hinds' Caesar. He gave an irreplaceable center to the story - but what can you do, you can fool around with history only so much.

Meanwhile, in the fictional downstairs of the epic story, Vorenus and Pullo had one of their best nights of the entire series - meaning, for us, the viewers, the two split apart in a superbly rendered series of scenes. Kevin McKidd, especially, was extraordinary, given the transformation of his Vorenus from last year.

And he'll be due for a transformation again, when Pullo - played perfectly by Ray Stevenson - eventually reaches him with word that his children are alive...

I think we can assume that he will... But will that be in the last scene of the last episode of this series, or sooner? That is, soon enough to change whatever self-destructive course Vorenus is now undoubtedly on...

Episode 4: The New Octavian 4 February 2007

Simon Woods scored a victory tonight as the new Octavian. He had a difficult task - portray not just Octavian, but Caesar's heir as Max Pirkis had played him. And Simon Woods did it perfectly. He had the voice, the bearings, the mannerisms. And he bested Marc Antony.

Who was bloodied but clearly far from beaten. James Purefoy as Antony in a single scene practically stole the show tonight - as he has in the three previous episodes of Rome's second season on HBO.

And there was plenty of competition. The closing scene, in which Vorenus with Pullo's help finds his children brought tears to my eyes. It also was one of the best in the series - something I can keep saying just about every week.

And Atia, who escaped her poisoning by Servilia, had a powerful scene directing Timon to torture Servilia. There was lots of torture in this episode - those noble Romans had a taste for it.

And before I could let my breath out, the hour was over. The writing and acting and everything about Rome is so good, so powerful, that the months two millennia ago seem to fly by like seconds on the screen...

Episode 5: Octavian+Antony, Necessity v. Love 11 February 2007

What a perfect ending of a perfect episode of HBO's Rome tonight: Antony and Octavian hugging, Vorenus' older daughter (Vorena the elder) smiling over the dinner table at her father, and all not of love but necessity.

Behind the political scenes, the slippery Cicero is bested by the wily, fearless Octavian, and Cicero writes to Brutus to bring him back to Rome. As I've mentioned before, I like to think that the genius who wrote De Natura Deorum was a better man, morally, than the Cicero of HBO's Rome, but who now can really know much of what the real Cicero really was? We can at least be content with David Bamber's superb performance, and with the fact that, even in HBO's Rome, the deceitful Cicero was fighting for a democracy of sorts.

For Octavian and his celestial ambitions are clearly in the ascendant. He - or more likely, his mother Atia, played by the beautiful Polly Walker - may have realized that an alliance with Antony and his army was the only chance they had against Brutus and his superior, foreign numbers, but we and history both know that this alliance cannot last.

We can't be as certain about anything in the fictional downstairs of Rome, where anything is possible. We can only hope, if we like the occasional, partial happy ending, that Vorenus and his children fare better than Antony and Octavian.

But we will win, in any case, as viewers of the splendid acting of everyone on the show, but most especially again, of James Purefoy as the now bearded Antony, and Simon Woods as the just slightly older Octavian.

Next week's battle, with the two allied versus Brutus and Cassius, promises to be a battle royale.

Episode 6: The Ascension of Cicero 18 February 2007

Ah, Cicero. The real man is one of my favorite thinkers and writers. A quote from his De Natura Deorem serves as the frontispiece of my 1979 doctoral dissertation on the evolution of media. The real man was a shrewd genius, silver-tongued orator, writer of such precision that words for him came as easily and effectively as scribbles on a page for most other people. Based on the considerable amount of his work that survived, I would rate him right up there with Plato, Milton, Shakespeare, and Jefferson. The real Cicero had that mixture of poetry, philosophy, political acumen.

The Cicero on HBO's Rome, up until the present evening, offered only a thin veneer of the above. Brilliantly played by David Bamber, the Cicero of HBO was often slippery, deceitful, and conniving. He was politically shrewd all right, but often lacked a redeeming depth. For all we know, this is true to history. It's always dangerous to make assumptions about the lives of real historical figures, even when we have so much of their own writing at hand.

But whatever the real Cicero was like - or what I envision him to be - he and the Cicero on Rome finally came together tonight, as Cicero died at the hands of Pullo, as per Antony and Octavian's orders. It was the noblest scene in the series. I was almost as outraged as Cicero's death as I was about Caesar's - maybe, in some ways, more so. Should a human being ever be put to death solely because of his ideas and political positions? (It happened to Socrates - I wrote a novel about that.) Have we really made all that much progress since then?

Bravo to David Bamber for a performance that outdid itself in its final appearance tonight. Ray Stevenson deserves credit for playing Pullo just right - offing Cicero for Pullo is no different than pulling peaches off a tree - but I'm still too angry at the character to say anything good about what he did in that scene...

In contrast to that noble scene, we saw the deaths of Cassius and Brutus tonight, too. Nothing too noble about that - they got what they deserved, in history and in this series. Kudos, again, to Tobias Menzies as Brutus. Also to Guy Henry as Cassius.

Antony, Octavian, Atia, Octavia, and Agrippa were in fine form tonight, too. Next week beckons. The players diminish but increase in stature. Except for Cicero, RIP.

Episode 7: Cutting Up the Map and Relationships 4 March 2007

Episode 7 begins with a fine scene of Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus cutting up the map of Rome and its many possessions - Antony gets the affluent East, Octavian the politically important city of Rome and the West, and hapless Lepidus what's left in Africa.

But territory was by no means the most significant treasure cut up in tonight's story.

Antony, as blind to basic human psychology as he is gifted in relating to his soldiers and the people, antagonizes Posca over a bribe received from Herod (Antony refuses to share even a token part of it with Caesar's former slave, now free). And worse, Antony in not reporting this bribe to Octavian violates what little confidence survives between the two. Octavian of course finds out anyway from Posca.

But that's not all. Atia thinks she has finally arranged for Antony to marry her. But Octavian and the force of history decree otherwise. Antony marries Octavia, in one of the most spectacular scenes in the two-year series - much to the dismay and heartbreak of not only Atia, but Agrippa.

As for Octavia, who loves Agrippa, she is beyond this - consigned, as she was from almost the very beginning with Pompey, to giving her posterior to a man not for passion but politics.

And what will become of Atia? She realizes she is indeed cursed now, by Servilia's dying breath, played to suicidal perfection by Lindsay Duncan.... Although I couldn't feel too sorry for the character - hey, next time, don't engineer the murder of Julius Caesar - Duncan's performance tonight was easily worthy of an Emmy.

And all's not well on the other side of town, either, as Pullo sleeps with Gaia rather rather than beat her as his wife requested, and Gaia plans a suitable revenge.

And look for even greater trouble ahead, as Antony moves ever closer to Cleopatra...

Episode 8: "Attendance is Compulsory" 11 March 2007

"Attendance is compulsory," Atia's slave advises her master, regarding an invitation to dinner with the family over at Octavian's.

And it's indeed a dinner you wouldn't want to miss, culminating in a confrontation between Octavian and Antony - that Antony loses. A nobler Roman than Octavian, Antony is nonetheless no match for Octavian in political maneuvering. He retreats to Alexandria, rather than risk being made a fool of, over his wife Octavia's affair with Agrippa.

"Attendance is compulsory" - and you wouldn't want to miss what happened in the Aventine tonight, either. Pullo's wife is poisoned by Gaia, and laid to rest. Vorenus is robbed of the shipment of gold entrusted to his protection - betrayed by his oldest daughter. He will repair to Aegypt with Antony, as Pullo gives Memmio what he has coming. These scenes were among the very best in the entire two year series.

Octavian takes a wife, and Antony reaches Alexandria and Cleopatra, at last looking as utterly captivating as we expected and hoped.

Command performances all around tonight ... especially Kevin McKidd as Vorenus, James Purefoy as Antony, Simon Woods as Octavian, and Lyndsey Marshal even briefly as Cleopatra.

There will be more of this to come next week ... attendance is compulsory.

Episode 9: Gods and Reptiles 18 March 2007

"He worships gods and reptiles," our friend the news reader, splendidly rendered by Ian McNeice, tells the Romans of Marc Antony. And Antony has indeed walked into the trap set for him by Octavian, but not without first putting up the emotional fight of his life with the reptilian goddess Cleopatra, in an episode so thoroughly splendid that the news reader was the least of it.

Antony may not be as preternaturally clever at plotting as Octavian, but Antony can see exactly what the soon-to-be Emperor of Rome has in mind. Send Octavia and Atia down to Alexandria, put Antony between the rock of Rome (his wife and his erstwhile lover) and the soft-hard place of Cleopatra's passions, and see where that leaves him. It leaves us with some of the best sex scenes in the series - see below for further - and Antony no more able to resist Cleopatra's ambitions than he is her charms.

Cleopatra, incidentally, is looking more sexual than beautiful, just as the most recent thinking in history would have it. Lyndsey Marshal plays her perfectly, as James Purefoy does Antony.

The acting and action back in Rome are every bit up to this. Octavian and Livia have a powerfully erotic scene in bed, and Octavian performs exactly how we would expect. Anyone who second-guessed the wisdom of replacing Max Pirkis with Simon Woods can no longer doubt it, if for this scene alone. (By the way, if the FCC and Congress have their way, scenes like tonight's in Rome will soon be ancient history - see my Good Sex on HBO's Rome, Bad FCC.)

And if all of this passion and political maneuvering of gods and reptiles isn't enough, Vorenus and Pullo put in one of their best nights as well. Vorenus, loyal to Antony in Alexandria, seeing where his general is going, unable to stop him, recognizing the same "disease" in himself. Which is: hurting himself, trapping himself in impossible-to-win situations, out of guilt. For the loss of Caesar perhaps - for not being there, each for their own reasons, when someone they were bound to protect was murdered?

And Pullo has a hell now, too. He foolishly keeps Memmio alive - this did seem a little like a forced plot device - so Memmio could escape, almost kill Pullo, but be killed by Gaia. Who is mortally wounded, and confesses to Pullo.... He kills her, though it's barely necessary.

Wonderfully acted, all around, with special mention - as always - of Kevin McKidd as Vorenus and Ray Stevenson as Pullo.

And so the stage is set for the finale of next week - which every lover of Rome will be sad beyond words to see.

As has been the case with this entire, extraordinary series, part of the ending we know, and part we do not .... Pullo will be on his way to Actium and Alexandria. To face Vorenus? Probably. To kill Caesarian - Cleopatra's son with Caesar - as Octavian ordered? Maybe not, if Pullo believes the boy is really his...

Episode 10: Better than Shakespeare 25 March 2007

I said in what seems like both a long and a short time ago, in my review of the first episode of this second season of HBO's Rome, that I thought the show was a powerful complement to Shakespeare.

As I watched the multiple final curtains tonight, I felt this television show of television shows was perhaps better than Shakespeare. Perhaps that makes me a Philistine ... but that never stopped me before.

Antony's words to Vorenus after losing the battle of Actium were extraordinary. He had always feared defeat, Antony said, but maybe he had overestimated its effects. Does not the water still taste good and the sun still shine?

And that was just for openers.

I have praised James Purefoy's magnificent performance throughout this season, and tonight's was his best. Shakespeare never had a better death scene than when Purefoy's Marc Antony takes his life. Vorenus praises him. Antony humanly wonders if Vorenus really means it.

This is why I think Antony was the most human, the most noble, Roman of them all.

Vorenus will apparently die, too, though not of his own hand. How satisfying it was to see Vorenus and Pullo reunited. How hopeful we were that they both might live. How wrenching it was that Vorenus did not, even though we understood that this ending was poetic justice (though, since we did not actually see Vorenus die, and he did survive 30 days, travelling under rough conditions, conceivably we have not seen the last of him....)

Vorenus' temper had been responsible for Niobe's death. Did he therefore deserve to die, more than Pullo, who had killed plenty of good people, too, including Cicero (who, granted, may not have been so good in this telling, but I admire the real historical writer).

Both men had suffered the death of the women they most loved. But Vorenus had been responsible for the death of Niobe and Pullo had not for Eirene....

These two all-but-fictional characters were every bit as good as Shakespeare's best, and played as powerfully as the best Shakespearean actors, as well, by Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson. I'll never forget them.

As I will not this series, whose death tonight, if it is indeed the end of HBO's Rome, is the unkindest cut of all.

Atia's soft tears said it all.

For I have to say that, from tonight's vantage, at the end of the series, there is nothing I could mention that displeased me, other than that the series is not continuing. I won't even grumble about the pace of the second season, which moved twice as fast or faster than the first, which had major history-shaping events and deaths in just about every episode - sometimes as many as two or three or more, as we saw tonight.

No, I won't grumble about that, because it, too, was part of this extraordinary experiment in television, which succeeded beyond anything I ever seen on tv before - both seasons, one and two.

And if we see no more of HBO's Rome, if the old BBC I, Claudius is my next tv stop in history?

I'm not complaining, because I know I just saw history in the making - or the making of a history that will go down in history, and be watched for hundreds of years or more to come in whatever we have for screens in the future.
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Useful links:

Good Sex on HBO's Rome, Bad FCC

Rome - The Complete First Season

Rome - Music from the HBO Series

I, Claudius 1977 BBC-PBS series

Augustus 2003 movie

my latest novel: The Plot to Save Socrates








The Plot to Save Socrates




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