Thursday, 7 January 2010

I, Claudius: Fool's Luck

Previously on I, Claudius - Caligula and his wife and child were murdered, and the Praetorian guard, anxious not to lose their jobs if a republic were to be restored, declare Claudius to be their emperor.

We open with a meeting of the Senate, who are all remarkably pleased with themselves over the death of Caligula, though most of them had nothing to do with it. Their plan to restore the Republic is interrupted by news of the Praetorian's actions, though so far they all find the idea of Claudius as emperor hilarious.

Claudius himself is sitting with a guard, sulking, calling himself a 'prisoner' and insisting that he doesn't want to be emperor. A metallic laurel wreath crown is sitting in front of him and, throughout this scene, everyone who wants him to be emperor keeps plonking it on his head and he keeps removing it again. One of the guards trying to talk him into it is King Theoden.

Eventually, Herod arrives, tells Claudius of the death of Caesonia and the baby and points out that Messalina will be in danger if Claudius refuses, since the republicans will ensure that no member of the Imperial family survives. Finally persuaded, Claudius reluctantly agrees, not only to allow himself to be made emperor, but to stay emperor, and Herod sticks the crown back on his head.

Claudius and Messalina enter the imperial palace and Claudius is forced to persuade the senators to accept him as emperor, which he does partly by pointing out that his stutter and limp do not make him incompetant and he's certainly more sane than Caligula, and also by pointing out that the entire Praetorian guard will be after them if they don't accept him. The speech is rather good - he explains that he is hard of hearing, but not for want of listening, that what he says is more important than how long he takes to say it and that he has survived to middle age with half his wits while many others have died with all of theirs, suggesting that quality of wits is more important than quantity.

The assassins are brought before him, except one, who has already committed suicide. Claudius tells Cassius that he can understand the murder of Caligula, but must condemn him for murdering Caesonia and the baby and intending to murder Claudius himself. The others, who have convinced him that they did not want any others harmed, are let off.

The next scene is set a year later, and Claudius is doing his best Micheal Jackson impression, waving his new baby around by the window to cheers from the crowd. Messalina takes the opportunity to persuade Claudius to let her share in his rule and allow her to give the baby to a nurse to feed. There's a great moment where she asks him if she hasn't helped him, as Livia helps Augustus - you can see Claudius thinking 'er......'. He really should have realised he was going down a bad road when she said she wanted to be Livia to his Augustus. Claudius leaves and Messalina starts trying to talk her widowed mother into marrying a senator, Appius Silanus, for reasons as yet undisclosed but not related to her mother's happiness...

We cut to a scene of Claudius and Herod in the dining room, where the series began, discussing the fact that Claudius has finally had Livia made a goddess, true to his promise. Messalina, who never knew Livia or Augustus, draws a rather romantic picture of Livia's arrival in heaven. Herod is leaving, which is concerning Claudius greatly, while Messalina is already pregnant again, which we learned in the previous scene was something she didn't want. Messalina persuades Claudius to bring Appius Silanus over as his advisor, to replace Herod. Messalina's method involves cajolling, making big puppy dog eyes at Claudius, allowing him to patronise and coo at her and giggling - it's a very different dynamic to Livia and Augustus, though so far she has been equally successful.

Herod, however, not being entirely blinded by love, isn't quite buying it, though he isn't overly suspicious either. Claudius and Herod sit next to each other and talk about the past, using childhood nicknames, and Claudius tells Herod that he plans to write down 'the truth' about his family. This suggests that the Old!Claudius we saw at the beginning of the series was early in his reign and happily married to Messalina, which is rather interesting (not to mention inaccurate - an early episode strongly inferred that he was already married to Agrippina the Younger). Claudius explains that he wants to explain what happened to all his dead friends and relatives.

Claudius tells Herod that he's only had three real friends in his life - Postumus, Germanicus and Herod himself. He should know that this is a bad idea, since the last time someone said something like that - Tiberius to Drusus back in episode one - death and disaster followed quickly on the heels of that conversation. Herod, once again, is keeping up with the litany of misery attached to Claudius' friends and family rather better, and insists that Claudius must trust no one - not Messalina, not even Herod himself. He is absolutely right - within two episodes both will be dead as a result of betraying Claudius.

This makes this the last conversation between Claudius and a character from the Augustan period - indeed, it is almost the last appearance of any other character from the first half of the series. From now on, everyone Claudius interacts with will be new characters, who are too young to have known him before, or who have been promoted from a lower status (mostly freedmen) or who have been exiled for a while and not seen earlier by the audience. It is rather nice that this last conversation with one of the old guard takes place in the dining room, though said room has now become noticeably darker in both a literal and metaphorical sense. There are no singers, dancers or parties any more, and hardly any people to enjoy them if there were - only three diners, one of whom has already left. The room is quiet, almost eerie, and shadowy, reflecting the ever darkening, ever more gloomy nature of the series. This is particularly noticable given that Caligula never appeared to use it as a dining room (he was too busy having orgies) and Tiberius thoroughly neglected it for most of his reign as well, so the stark contrast between the atmosphere of Claudius' reign and that of Augustus is especially clear.

Another timeslip - Messalina gives birth to her second child while Claudius plans his new harbour, and we see his chief freedmen, Narcissus and Pallas, for the first time. Pallas is thoroughly corrupted while Narcissus is a little naive (it's almost as if Pallas is Sir Humphrey and Narcissus is Bernard, except that they're of equal rank). This will become important in later episodes. Messalina's next demand, accompanied by the usual big eyes and wheedling voice, is to be able to sleep in her own room, supposedly so that she won't get pregnant again so quickly - which is probably partly true, but not entirely, especially since she doesn't just want to move to another room, but an entirely different building.

There's a fairly random, though amusing, scene of Claudius seeing a Greek doctor who tells him to fart and burp for the sake of his health, though we do learn that Appius Silanus and Messalina's mother have just got married. The next scene finally explains what Messalina has been up to throughout the episode - she has let a childhood crush on Appius Silanus grow into an obsession and has arranged everything so that she can have an affair with him. She is, it is fair to say, a little put out when he turns her down. In the course of trying to persuade him to sleep with her, she tells him that the whole plan was Claudius', that it was Claudius who wanted to sleep apart, and that Claudius enjoys dodgey sexual practices that she wants no part of anyway. She threatens Silanus, claiming that she'll have him killed for refusing her. Silanus still refuses to touch her, but he also comes to the conclusion that Claudius is no better than Tiberius or Caligula and has to go.

Claudius, blissfully unaware, is showing his freedmen a plan for a new harbour at Ostia drawn up during the reign of Julius Caesar, which demonstrates that the harbour can be built more cheaply and efficiently than he has been told. He has worked out exactly how the corn people have been diddling him and how to solve the problem. His victory moment is interrupted when Silanus tries, unsuccessfully, to stab him to death (Claudius is apparently remarkably strong).

During the ensuing chaos, Silanus explains what he thought was going on, but Messalina tells a fresh new bunch of lies - that Silanus is madly in love with her and keeps pestering her for sex, and that he is so mad he has convinced himself of the whole story about the marriage being arranged for them, and said he would kill Claudius if she refused him. She can't deceive her mother any more though, and is forced to tell her the truth - and then forces the poor woman to choose between daughter and husband, threatening to have her killed too if she doesn't support Messalina. Claudius asks Messalina's mother if this is true, and proves himself not to be that bright when neither the mother's reluctance to meet anyone's eyes, nor Messalina's tortured screams when he sentences Silanus to death suggest to him that maybe, just maybe, there's something fishy going on here...

When I first saw I, Claudius, as I think I've mentioned, I didn't know anyting about Roman history, so the slow build to the eventual reveal of just how bonkers Messalina is worked really nicely - for quite a while, I was taken in. Watching the series knowing the history gives a different perspective, of course, but the slow build is still rather nice - knowing both the historical character and the series' focus on doom and gloom, the inevitable catastrophe is put off and the latest batch of murder and nymphomania delievered, for the moment in little drip drip drips - until the next episode, when all h**l breaks loose.

3 comments:

  1. The weird time problems with which Old Claudius is doing the narration probably stem from sloppy adaptation. This episode essentially covers the end of Graves' first book I, Claudius and the beginning of the second book Claudius the God. His premise has the brand-new-emperor Claudius writing the first (as he implies to Herod) and the about-to-die Claudius writing the second. Just a little inconsistency that wasn't caught when they merged the two.

    So now we get to add Theoden King to Gimli, Picard, Chestburster Guy, and of course Yrcanos... erm, YRCANOS! It's just amazing how many actors with strong F&SF connections are in this thing.

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  2. hell. I'm sometimes weirdly prudish about swearing!

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