Thursday, 26 April 2012

Rome: Death Mask

What with Spartacus and catching up on several major ancient world films, it's been quite a while since I've posted on Rome. When we left off, Brutus and Cassius had just met their ends at the Battle of Philippi, leaving Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus in control of Rome. We're approaching the point where things suddenly start to speed up due to the untimely cancellation of the series, but that will really start to take effect in episodes eight and especially nine - for the time being, we're still more or less on course. What this episode is especially memorable for is death of Servilia, which is dramatic to say the least.

We open with Servilia mourning the death of her son (Brutus) and refusing sleep, while her body slave tries to comfort her. The unfortunately-named Jocasta is weeping as well, because she's about to married off to Caesar's freedman, Posca. Atia has arranged the marriage for her, presumanbly as her final act of revenge against the poor girl for the whole orgy business. During the wedding, Antony eyes up the various attendant slave girls while Atia pesters him about marrying her (he puts her off by suggesting their wedding would have to be spectacular).

Events are interrupted by Servilia shouting at everyone from outside in the street. She's kneeling in the road while her body slave pours ashes over her head, chanting over and over again 'Atia of the Julii, I call for justice'. I'm sure the writers have dug up this little ritual from some ancient source somewhere, but I have to say it seems a bit implausible to me, and the longer it goes on, the more implausible it gets...

Eirene is refusing to have sex with Dodgy because she thinks it will be bad for their baby. The Godfather has much duller things on hie mind (if he's not careful I'll start calling him Boring again) and is making deals with various unsavoury-looking characters - one of whom is still working on seducing his eldest daughter using creepy-looking dolls.

That night, Servilia is still going in the dark and the rain outside Atia's house. By the following morning, Antony stumbles into a meeting with Octavian and Lepidus, horribly hungover from the wedding. Lepidus mentions that some people think the three of them are setting themselves up as tyrants, to which Antony says they should go look at Cicero's body parts nailed to the rostra - presumably to scare, rather than reassure, them. Octavian organises the splitting up of the Empire between the three of them. Antony gives Octavian Rome and the West and takes Egypt and the East. Octavian is not fooled by this apparently genourous offer, which gives him Gaul and the mob while Antony gets the money and grain supply, so the money is put in a single treasury and Lepidus gets given Africa to keep him happy (not including Egypt).

Servilia is, implausibly, still going and driving Atia mad (Atia also points out, quite correctly, that she wasn't the one who killed Brutus anyway).

Gaia refuses to obey Eirene's orders and when Eirene tries to hit her she physcially stops her so Eirene tells Dodgy to 'beat her dead', and he suggests that Eirene is somehow to blame, which doesn't go down well. Dodgy doesn't want to beat Gaia because she has some kind of relationship with one of their minions (it's very unclear whether he means the minion owns Gaia, or is just sleeping with her), but goes off to do it anyway. Gaia goes on about how Eirene is a mouse who doesn't deserve Dodgy while waving her breasts in his face. Long story short, it all ends in a violent sex scene including hitting, biting, scratching, gagging and whacking each other with pots. Gaia throws in some mad laughter for good measure. Dodgy feels guilty and insists it won't happen again, which disappoints Gaia, who threatens to misbehave again so he'll have to punish her some more. (At least she does correctly point out that he can have sex with his slaves as much as he wants, and Dodgy equally correctly replies that he can kill them too).

Over at Atia's (where for some reason everyone's eating at a tall table again), Servilia is still going, so Atia gives up and goes outside to confront her. Servilia, grey with ash by this time, curses Atia and then stabs herself, followed by her body slave, in front of the gathered crowd of people. Octavia buries her face, in case anyone remembers that they had a thing last season. 'Now that is an exit' remarks Antony.

Apparently mockery of Jews and their one god should be kept to an appropriate minimum because Herod is visiting. This is the young man who will eventually become Herod the Great, a character who could give even the nastiest, maddest, most bloodthirsty Roman emperors a run for their money. Rene Zagger does very well at projecting menace with very few lines, looking suitably ruthless and confident throughout. He asks Antony for help getting the throne of Judea in return for lots of gold and guarantees that he will keep the Jews in line. Posca demands a share of the gold but Antony refuses, as he wants to keep it all to himself - very bad idea. He needs Posca, who does much more actual work than most of the rest of them and whose loyalty to Caesar will not necessarily keep him tied to Antony.

Timon and his annoying brother are loitering, the brother yelling at Herod, whose monarchical ambitions he dislikes. Meanwhile, Maecenas is writing, while being fanned by a slave with a big feather fan. You can always tell how decadent or otherwise debauched a Roman or related character is by how much time he or she spends being fanned with big feather fans. Posca tells Maecenas about Antony and Herod's gold, in return for some money and anonymity.

Octvian is not impressed with this information. You can tell by the way he gets even more still and statuesque, and just chews his lip a bit. Maecenas claims he bought one of Herod's people, successfully protecting Posca, and Octavian demands his share. Octavian accuses Antony of trying to aggrandize himself, at which Antony pooints out that Octavian made his adoptive father a god, and therefore doesn't have much of a leg to stand on in that respect. General mud-slinging ensures, which Antony inevitably wins by yelling that he 'still f****ing your mother!'

Eirene is pleased with Gaia's behaviour since she was beaten and suggests Dodgy should beat her the same way every month, because TV writers love irony. The Godfather's eldest daughter sneaks out to meet her slimy boyfriend, whose friend (the rival making dodgy deals) has arranged to walk in on them. The daughter promises to do anything he wants as long as he doesn't tell the Godfather, so he gets her to spy on the Godfather for him.

Atia and Maecenas have got Octavian and Antony to sit down and hammer out some kind of agreement between them and Atia suggests that, to show everyone that they've made up and calm down the people, they should arrange a marriage between their two houses (meaning herself and Antony, of course). Antony agrees and Atia runs off in a state of exctiement, assuming this means all will go ahead as planned (and we get a quick shot of Octavia and Agrippa having sex, to remind us that that's happening).

Octavian stands and watches Antony and his mother having sex, which is pretty creepy. Atia natters on about their wedding and marriage while Antony tries to find a way to tell her the rather important information that he's not actually marrying her - he's marrying Octavia. The audience discovers this in the following scene, in which we hear the bride and groom making their wedding vows, before the camera pulls round to show us who they are. As Maecenas explains, since they're making a political alliance, Octavian wants to cement it by Antony and his wife having children together, and that's much more likely to happen with Octavia than with Atia. So they have a big plush wedding in which no one looks the slightest bit cheerful (except Maecenas), especially not Antony, Octavia, Atia or Agrippa. Maecenas observes that Atia seems to be genuinely in love with Antony, though he'd always thought she just wanted him for 'practical' reasons, and much of the audience is probably thinking the same thing.

Octavian tries to explain his thinking to Atia, adding that letting her marry her lover wouldn't be much of a statement of political unity, and Antony tries to placate her by saying Octavian wouldn't have anything else. Atia accuses Antony of loving power more than he loves her and does not respond very well to his insistence that he'll happily cheat on her daughter with her.

(Historically, Mark Antony married Octavia a couple of years later, but this has less to do with the series' cancellation and more to do with it's writing out his third wife, Fulvia, who went to war with Octavian while Antony was in Egypt, was defeated, and died a little later).

The wedding celebration moves out into the street, where there is a dancing man painted blue for some reason. Timon's brother wants to assassinate Herod, who is walking in the procession, but Timon refuses because he's fed up of killing, and then ends up killing his annoying brother in the ensuing struggle. How ironic.

Antony and Octavia finally make it to their marital bed, where Octavia lies - well, forward, actually - and thinks of Rome while Antony decides he might as well make the best of things. Atia wanders out into the street hearing Servilia's voice in her head and presumably wondering if the curse is taking effect. Meanwhile, Gaia buys an abortificant drug from a woman who helpfully tells her she won't taste it if she takes it in willow tea. End of episode. There's a character called 'pontifex maximus' in the cast list, which is inaccurate by the way - Lepidus was the pontifex maximus at this point.

This episode is largely about moving piece into position, and structured around two key scenes, the death of Servilia and the marriage of Antony and Octavia. Servilia's death is indeed quite an exit, suitably dramatic and memorable for a major character. The way she does it is so utterly over the top you certainly don't forget it in a hurry, but it's saved from becoming totally laughable by Lindsay Duncan's performance. Duncan absolutely sells the whole thing, completely committed, so that we believe that Servilia is absolutely committed to this curse - or, at the very least, final public humiliation for Atia. It's a fitting end to such a melodramatic character.

The use of Jocasta and Posca's wedding at the beginning to familiarise us with the wedding rites, so that the suspense over Antony's wedding can be dragged out as long as possible, is quite clever. The whole scene revolves around emphasising as much as possible the extent to which Octavian has hurt and betrayed his mother, demonstrating both his absolute ruthlessness and bringing out her softer side - as Maecenas observes, she obviously really does love Mark Antony, something that was far from clear in season 1 but has become increasingly obvious over season 2. Octavia and Agrippa get some screentime as well, but for the moment this is much more about poor Atia, who becomes giddy as a schoolgirl when she thinks she's finally for her way, and whose relationships with both Antony and Octavian are clearly permanently damaged by the end. Rather than the evil matriarch she started out as, she's becoming positively tragic. She's right when she tells Antony he loves power more than her, but the real tragedy is that he loves quite a lot of things more than her, and has never been quite as invested in their relationship as she was, though he obviously cares for her.

All in all then, this episode does what it needs to do to set things up for the end of the series, held together by two major scenes. It also more or less wraps up Timon's story, which is a relief because it was very boring, and sets up forthcoming disasters for Dodgy and the Godfather. A dramatic and interesting end to Servilia, but otherwise more exposition than anything else.

All Rome reviews

3 comments:

  1. "Eirene is pleased with Gaia's behaviour since she was beaten and suggests Dodgy should beat her the same way every month, because TV writers love irony." Hahaha. So true. I've missed these!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've heard of the series, but I've never watched it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete

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