"Fortune pisses on me once again!"
"Rome" may just have been HBO's most underrated show, for a variety of reasons. Its massive budget brought massive expectation, as if it would play like a more beautiful, more epic, equally well written and acted period "Sopranos" every episode. Early reviews compared it more closely to "Deadwood", and there were superficial similarities in the foul-mouthed, ultra-violent, sexually frank make-up of the shows. It deliberately courted the "I, Claudius" audience, and that show is one of the the most acclaimed and beloved in the history of the medium. Any pretender to it's throne was bound for criticism. But "Rome" was its own beast, and what an entertaining, fullblooded beast it was.
I remember its early promotional slant was as a ground-level portrayal of Roman history, and so the first episode introduced us to Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), two Legionaires fighting under Mark Antony and Julis Caesar in Gaul. And "Rome" was always, at its heart, the story of their lives and their friendship, as they became involved and embroiled in the military and political upheavals of the era. Those upheavals were the meat of the plotting - Caesar's rise and fall, the struggles between Antony, Octavian, Brutus and Cassius after his death, the role played by Cleopatra in all of this, the effects of the many political changes upon Roman society, particularly among the elite, who were generally engaged in their own struggles for rank, privilege and sexual gratification. "Rome" skipped across decades, its characters - Octavian, who grew from boy to man within 3 episodes, aside - never visibly ageing. It could be almost comically Epic in its throwaway depictions of massive armies on the move, of Great Men in the quiet moments between the historically significant moments. It tended to skip the big battles - its budget, though immense by television standards, did not allow for the kind of spectacular carnage modern audiences have been taught to expect by the Lord of the RIngs films and Gladiator - and come in with a shot of a field of the dead, the survivors retreating, bruised and bloodied.
It was, I suppose, schlock. The plotting crammed in so much history and accomodated so many betrayals and reversals that it often became silly. In one episode, Pullo and Vorenus wound up shipwrecked upon a desert island. In another, they found themselves in the arena, fighting as Gladiators. But it was never silly when it counted. The writing was always good, communicating enough depth in the characterisation and nuance in the drama to lift it beyond the sometime awkward plotting. The acting, mainly by a crew of British stage luvvies, was generally superb. It may also be HBO's funniest show - full of brilliant one-liners and hilariously excessive acts, it more often relied upon the strength of that characterisation for its humour. Pullo - whose combination of levelheaded decency with an ability to tap into homicidal fury made him perhaps the most compelling figure in the story - was given to a deadpan response to the most bizarre and horrific circumstances which made him consistently funny. His recurrent comment whenever things seemed to be at their worst: "Good bread, this." made me laugh on every occasion. The gladiator episode is a good example of the show's strength. Pullo, depressed at the emptiness of his life without the army, having been turned down by Erene, a slave he loves (she turns him down because he has killed her husband) and having fallen out with Vorenus, is reduced to working as an assassin for a local gangster. When he is arrested for murder, he is sentenced to death in the arena. With Vorenus watching, hidden in the crowd, Pullo refuses to fight, sitting on the ground and telling the gladiators to kill him quickly and get it over with. They want a show, as does the mob, and soon realise that offending his beloved 13th Legion is the best way to provoke a response in him. Suitably provoked, he kills a series of them, steadily becoming more badly injured himself as the fight goes on and the gladiators keep coming. All the while he shouts "13th! 13th!" while Vorenus can barely watch from the crowd. Finally a giant carrying a skull-headed club emerges, disdainfully preparing to end Pullo when Vorenus enters the arena, shouts "13th!" and fights the giant. He seems to be losing until he cuts off the mans leg just below the knee, then buries the club in his chest cavity through his shoulder. He and Pullo limp out of the arena together. The scene includes beheadings, limbs lopped off and a couple of excrutiating impalements, is bloody, nicely shot, and after so many episodes have established the odd friendship between the two characters, strangely moving. It is also woven into the fabric of the wider political storyline, with Pullo and Vorenus' status as folk-heroes increasing Vorenus' political value to Caesar.
The politics - which made for most of the meat of "I, Claudius" - are also crucial to "Rome". Characters plot against one another constantly. Someone is always using somebody else, power changes hands every episode. There are dozens of conversations where people smilingly threaten one another, where insults are exchanged disguised as pleasantries.
Eventually, every political squabble ends in violence, and it is here that "Rome" most resembles its stablemates "Deadwood" and "The Sopranos". Political necessity leads to murder, to shankings in backstreets, to torture in cellars, to men given a final moment to compose themselves and pray to their gods. The violence is generally unblinking and often shockingly gleeful.
One of the shows chief qualities was the coldness of its characterisation. Aside from Pullo and Vorenus, most of the major figures were unsympathetic or unlikeable. Many of them were monstrous. Yet the writing and acting were so consistently good that it barely mattered, because they were always compelling. Attia of the Julii, played wonderfully by Polly Walker, is a fine example. She is, for the most part, a scheming, machiavellian villain. She lies, orders innocents murdered on her whims, orchestrates incest between her son and daughter, constantly plots to maintain the position of her family, tortures, and treats her family and servants with contempt and disdain. Yet she is also an energetic, hilarious, charismatic figure, always worth watching, and at times she seems to even have moments of morality and pureheartedness. By the end of Season 2, when she has aged and endured heartbreak, Attia has become an almost heroic character. Her suffering, inconceivably, invites and even demands that an audience feels for her. Her final verbal dismissal of her daughter-in-law , Livia, is a great moment, and one in which we feel ourselves firmly siding with her. Her "evil" is even contextualised somewhat by the portrayal of Roman society. We are shown a culture of great sophistication, with beautiful architecture, a unique military science based upon ahead-of-their-time principles, a complicated interlocking of various religions, an extremely well-developed political system, where the people keep (and abuse) slaves and are frequently barbarously murderous. Attia is chiefly a survivor, and she is motivated by the need to protect her family. The best way to do this is to advance it, and so she aggressively pursues social and political influence. Her religion seems amoral, and so morality is irrelevant to her.
James Purefoy's portrayal of her sometime lover, Mark Antony, is just as complex. First seen merely as Caesar's military sidekick, he gains in narrative and psychological complexity and importance as the two seasons progress. He is a great soldier and charismatic leader who has to become a politician, and, without the right mentality, finds he hates it. But in the aftermath of Caesar's murder, Antony is as close as the show has to a clearcut hero. He faces Brutus, Cicero and Cassius and their plotters and with some help from a young but cunning Octavian, he outmanouvres them. Purefoy plays him as a brute, always ready to explode, brazen and full of animal cunning, always close to his needs and desires. He is the kind of man who kills a slave for laughing at him, who jumps off his horse in the middle of a march to take a peasant girl by the side of the road, who slits an enemy's throat in broad daylight, outside another enemy's house. But the final arc Antony undergoes is moving and sensitively handled - his Kurtzian decline in Egypt, his love for Cleopatra, shame at his betrayal of Attia and eventual fate are all played by Purefoy with a sure sense of his character's past and personality. He gets some of the shows best and most ribald dialogue, from his recurrent "On Juno's cunt!" to "I'm not rising from this bed until I have fucked someone" to his lines to Vorenus after Octavian's navy has defeated him: "All my life I have feared defeat, but now that it has come, its not as near as terrible as I had expected. Sun still shines, water still tastes good. Glory is all well and good, but life is enough, aye?" He's a great character in a show full of them.
That is the strength of "Rome". Like "Deadwood", it gives even its smallest characters moments to shine, and the writing is good enough so that those brief moments can often speak volumes. Slaves who have hovered in the background for five episodes are suddenly given gravitas and personality in one conversation or a few facial expressions. A character is redefined by the way they respond to another. This is supported by the depth of detail, the little touches which make the world portrayed fascinating and authentic-seeming. From the Roman grafitti showcased in the main titles to the many religious rites and practices observed over the course of two seasons, to the food served at banquets, the orgies, brothels, markets, temples, laundries, taverns, the contrasting worlds of Egypt and Turkey, the battlefields and encampments, everything is detailed and seems lived in. "Rome" feels alive with research and expertise, and it is a rare production where we feel we can see all of the money up onscreen.
One of HBO's most famous advertising slogans is "Not just TV. HBO." "Rome" is one of the shows which can be used for justification of this. Like "Deadwood" and "Carnivale", it always looks fabulous. When HBO does period, it pulls out all of the stops. The sets and locations used on "Rome" are beautiful, the costumes and design always arresting and visually stimulating, the music sweeping and epic. Its generally quite stylishly, cinematically directed, too, by directors like Michael Apted, Mikael Saloman and John Maybury. It is also the kind of production only HBO could really pull off. So Epic, so funny, so adult and complex, it, like much of HBO's output, demanded that an audience had some patience with it, give it 3 or 4 episodes to sink its hooks slowly in. In an era where drama on the big US Networks can last only a handful of episodes before being unceremoniously cancelled, this is a great luxury for a television series. And "Rome" made good use of that luxury, telling a massive story over its two seasons, full of beauty, great characters and terrific writing and acting. Television will probably never see its like again, due to the prohibitive cost and niche audience for the subject matter, which is a great shame. But if there must be a last Roman tv drama, then I can't imagine anything doing a better job than "Rome" did.
"Its only hubris if I fail." - Julius Caesar