This happens every year: During football season I fall woefully behind on my DVD-watching. Sometime around the end of November I question why I even bother paying for a Netflix account. My DVR groans under the strain of all the episodes of Friday Night Lights and Heroes that I haven’t yet gotten around to watching. But I persevere. Sometimes the stars align just right, and fate makes room for me to do some catching up. Like last week, when I had the freakin’ plague and couldn’t move from the couch for fear of coughing up something that might run off and torment the cats. I took advantage of this down-time to watch all ten episodes of the second season of the HBO series Rome.
Have you seen this show? Has there ever been a show like it? So epic in scope, so cinematic, with production values that put most full-length films to shame? Knowing that such things are possible, my hands nearly shake with anticipation for the day when George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire makes it to the screen. (Incidentally, I am waiting for the official announcement of a premiere date before I drop the extra cash and upgrade my cable service to include HBO. You hear that, HBO? Get cracking on this thing! You tell me when I can see it, and you will get my money. But not a moment sooner!)
Rome focuses on the friendship of two soldiers, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), who served under Julius Caesar (played by Ciaran Hinds) during his invasion of Gaul. Interestingly, Vorenus and Pullo are historical figures, being the only two common soldiers mentioned by name in Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico. In that book Caesar makes a passing reference to an event wherein Titus Pullo became separated from his unit during a battle, and Lucius Vorenus pulled him back into the line. This moment is depicted in the first episode of Rome, although turned on its ear. In the show, Pullo separates himself from his unit due to bloodlust and lack of discipline, and Vorenus, as Pullo’s superior officer, has to subdue the man and bring him back in line. This is the beginning of a relationship that will take the two men from one end of the Republic to the other as they witness, and play pivotal roles in, the events that culminate in the formation of the Roman Empire.
There are several aspects of the show that fascinate me every time I watch an episode. First and foremost is the way the show addresses the idea of pre-Christian morality. Slaves abound on Rome, but it is not exactly what you’d expect. The show depicts a society where both the slaves and the slave-owners accept the situation as normal. There are slaves whose function from birth has been to be the best friend and confidant of their owner. These characters display extraordinary devotion to their masters, even sacrificing their lives in a couple of fascinating scenes. Julius Caesar owns a slave named Posca, a Greek scholar whose main job is to point out to Caesar every little thing the dictator does wrong.
The women of Rome are particularly intriguing. Much of the action on the show center’s around the feud between Atia (Polly Walker), mother of Octavian, and Servilia (Lindsay Duncan), Caesar’s lover and mother of Brutus. In many ways the plotting, treachery and violence these two characters enact upon each other eclipses the worst acts perpetrated by any of the male characters. What makes it all the more intimidating is the veneer of politeness and social grace with which these women operate.
Rome gets the history right only in its broadest strokes. It takes enormous liberties with most of the historical figures’ motivations, but at the same time it forces the audience to pause and consider the possibility that there most likely were earth-shaking, life-changing, history-altering events that all started because one anonymous individual said the wrong thing at the right time.
The show also plays very fast and loose with the time-line. Vast chunks of time are glossed over, or just ignored because, for the purposes of the show, nothing important happened. A pair of characters who meet for the first time at the beginning of an episode might have children together by the end of it. However, while the actual events referenced took place over a span of over twenty years, Rome covers the same ground in about half the time. Characters who were infants in the first episodes are barely ten years old by the end of the series. Most of the adult characters — the ones who survive — hardly seem to age at all. Only one character who did not begin the series as an infant, Octavian, was recast with an older actor halfway through. For the first season and first couple of episodes of the second, the role was ably played by young actor Max Pirkis. Then Octavian rides off to war, and the next time we see him he is played by Simon Woods. It gave other characters many opportunities to expound about how grown up he looked and all that, and it certainly reinforced the idea that the boy of the earlier episodes was now a young adult, but I suspect that the main reason for the recasting was a certain scene in one of the last episodes, which required a more, ahem, adult approach.
Oh, yeah — this show’s got sex. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting T&A on this show. It skirts the edge of gratuitous, but only rarely does it teeter over. Mostly it serves to reinforce the notion that these people operate under a different set of rules than that with which we in Modern Western Civilization are familiar.
Rome is over now. You can tell just by looking that it was extraordinarily expensive to produce, and the cost was the main reason cited by HBO when they pulled the plug. We are fortunate, however, that HBO was able to make the decision early enough that the writers had ample time to complete the story. It could serve as a model for future television productions. And it proves that HBO is the right place to tackle a story with the scope of A Song of Ice and Fire.
Seriously. I’m ready to call the cable company right now. Just tell me when it’s gonna be on.