Friday, 2 October 2009

I, Claudius: Queen of Heaven


Warning: this post contains (written only!) material not suitable for children. As will most I, Claudius posts from now on...

'Queen of Heaven' opens (after an obligatory bit with a dancing girl) with a long sequence in which a friend of Claudius' and the others called Lollia (whom we've never seen before) tells them all at length how Tiberius summoned her and her daughter and raped her when she offered herself in her daughter's place (doing all sorts of unspeakable things apparently) and then kills herself in front of them all. This, presumably, is intended to show us all what a monster Tiberius has become.

We cut to Livia and Tiberius' litters passing each other in the street, and they argue, shouting at each other across the crowd (and you get a reasonable impression of a crowd even on the BBC budget). Livia complains at the number of trials Tiberius has been running and at his refusal to allow a temple to be erected to her. She has changed her tune since the old days and complains that Drusus was worth ten of Tiberius. It's the last time they ever see each other.


Tiberius orders the long-suffering Thrasyllus to do Livia's horoscope so he can find out how much longer she'll live (and Thrasyllus lets slip that he predicted she would outlive her husband becuase it was obvious she had every intention of doing so!). Menawhile, Evil!Captain Picard (otherwise known as Sejanus) is talking Tiberius into prosecuting and executing everyone in sight for treason if they make the slightest comment that seems to put Tiberius down. Tiberius has also developed an exciting obsession with Agrippina, who he thinks wants to be queen.

At that point, an important development occurs - we get to meet the grownup Caligula, played by John Hurt. Hurt is brilliant in this role - totally unhinged and with a wonderful air of not quite being entirely present - literally not all there. I've mentioned before that, historically, there's no real evidence that there was anything wrong with Caligula before the severe illness that nearly killed him early in his reign, but I, Claudius has decided to go with a different interpretation - that he was stark raving bonkers all along - and that's fair enough, so we'll judge it on those lines. Caligula has brought Tiberius a present of some porn from Elephantis, and he's obviously a favourite of the dirty old man, even though he wants to borrow it.

John Hurt as Caligula

Evil!Picard is not impressed and stomps off, then gets into an argument with Tiberius' son 'Castor' (his name was also Drusus). Bad move, Castor. Castor and his wife, the nefarious Livilla, seem to be getting on better, until we realise that Livilla has given him a sleeping drug so that she can go and boff Evil!Picard. Then follows what, for a girl who grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation, has to be one of the most disturbing scenes in the show - Evil!Picard and Livilla get (semi-)naked and into bed - all very well so far - then they start talking dirty, and apparently what really turns them on if him describing how if she crosses him, he'll have his guards sexually attack her while she watches. Oh Captain Picard, what are you doing... The point of all this is that the two of them decide to give Castor a bit more than a sleeping draught.

Finally, we see Claudius again, who has been invited to dinner by Livia - and is, naturally, terridied, especially since she hasn't spoken to him in years. He also observes that Castor doesn't look well, but Castor obviously hasn't read his own family history and is blithely unconcerned.

Tiberius has actually taken to praying to Augustus now, and Agrippina rightly calls him a hypocrite and complains at the disappearances of all her friends, but all he does is rave about her wanting to be queen.

The next is the heart, the core of the episode, and quite possibly of the series. It's a brilliant scene, rather ridiculous historically speaking - in fact, totally ridiculous - but great dramatically and very satisfying for everyone who's watched all of the series so far. Claudius arrives at dinner with Livia, where he finds Caligula also dining, and Thrasyllus hovering in the background. Claudius immediately gets thoroughly drunk, demonstrating to Livia that he trusts her not to have poisoned the wine. Livia explains that Thrasyllus has predicted that she will die soon, and dismisses him. She addresses Caligula as a 'monster' and reveals his part in Germanicus' death to Claudius. When Caligula asks if she's going to kill him too, she tells him that Claudius will never harm him, because he has vowed to protect his brother's children, and that he must never harm Claudius, because Thrasyllus has prophesied that Claudius will avenge his death (though Caligula isn't buying that bit). She dismisses him, and as he leaves, he gives her a full on snog. What with Sian Phillips' old age make up and John Hurt playing a character considerably younger than himself, this would look bad enough even if they weren't great-grandmother and great-grandson - a seriously icky moment.

Claudius is (naturally) horrified and asks how she can allow it (after all, Livia may be many things, but we've never seen her engage in sexual perversions before - or much sex, for that matter. The BBC/HBO Rome is another matter entirely, but in I, Claudius, she's very proper in that department). Livia says that he will be the next Emperor, and that's why she's asked him (and Claudius) to dinner - she's buttering up future emperors because she wants to be made a goddess when she's dead and she knows Tiberius won't do it (Tiberius' reason for choosing Caligula, according to Livia, is that he wants to be loved, and he think that if the Emperor that follows him is even worse than himself, everyone will think better of him when he's dead. This seems pretty unlikely to me, but there you go).

Livia undergoes a strange character transformation here - her desperation to be a goddess appears to be absolutely genuine and is based on a fear of being punished in the afterlife for all the terrible things she's done. It's not out of character for Livia to be religiously inclined - she appears to have based all her decisions on various prophecies and omens - but her sudden vulnerability and the strength of her conviction that without deification she will suffer eternal torment and a bit of a surprise after seeing her cool manipulation of everyone around her for her whole life.

At his point, Livia abruptly reveals all the murders she's comitted over the course of the series, as the drunk and therefore bold Claudius gently prompts her. Caligula has promised to make her a goddess when he becomes Emperor in return for her keeping his murder of Germanicus secret, but she doesn't trust him and wants Claudius to make sure he does it. Claudius says he will, if she tells him the truth about everything. And so she does. She admits to the murders of Marcellus, Agrippa, Gaius, Lucius and Postumous, but says she didn't kill Drusus - though she was planning to, he just managed to die first - or Germanicus - because Plancina (with help) got there first. Finally, she admits to poisoning Augustus by smearing poison on the figs, and describes it, in a whisper, as the hardest thing she ever had to do.

As Claudius goes to leave, she gives him a collection of Sibylline verses apparently removed or rejected from the official records (I've discussed the Sibylline verses before). They prophesy that Claudius will follow Caligula as Emperor. At this point Claudius bursts out laughing and leaves in a state of great merriment, but not before Livia has extracted a promise that when he is made Emperor, he will deify her.

This scene is pivotal in the series - it confirms everything we have already seen (and shows us how Claudius is supposed to know all this). It also offers Livia a sort of greatest hits album, summing up her catalogue of evil-doing, and at the same time shows us what we're going to get next, after she's gone - Caligula in all his mad, perverted glory. Finally, it shows us Claudius at his most cunning, and demonstrates the brains that he keeps safely hidden away most of the time.

Having escaped Livia, Claudius is ambushed by Sejanus and talked into marrying his sister, after a rather amusing conversation in which Sejanus asks if he knows his wife is pregnant, and Claudius defensively notes that it's nothing to do with him. The we see poor old Castor on his deathbed - just as his eyes close and his vision blurs, he sees Livilla and Sejanus standing together, Sejanus fondling her breast possessively. Herod comes to dinner with Claudius, Agrippina and Antonia and explains that, since Tiberius doesn't like him and his friend is dead, he will go to Edom. Agrippina has found out that Claudius agreed to marry Sejanus' sister and he is soundly yelled at, but Herod defends him by observing that, weak and cowardly though he may be, Claudius is the one who manages to stay alive, and Old!Claudius, appearing for the first time, reflects on the fact that he is still here, while they have all gone. Then his thoughts turn to Livia's dying moments.

Livia sends for Claudius as she is dying. Caligula gets there first, and taunts her, telling her he won't make her a goddess, as he doesn't need her any more (he says his secret will die with her, apparently forgetting about Claudius - luckily for Claudius). He also tells her that Thrasyllus has prophesied that someone who will die soon will become the greatest god the world has ever known, and all temples will be dedicated to him (we're in the early 30s AD here, by the way). He thinks it will be him (not seeming to pay attention to the dying part) and he tells Livia how he will laugh at her as she suffers eternal torment before giving her a last kiss.

Claudius arrives after Caligula and comforts Livia, who is quietly sobbing at the prospect of eternal torture. The most bizarre thing about all this is that, knowing all the terrible things she's done, both Claudius and the audience end up feeling sorry for her in her last moments, as she despairs and weeps that she wants to be a goodess. Claudius promises her that he will make sure it happens, and she gives him the old piece of advice again - to go on playing the fool. Claudius weeps too, perhaps realising, as the audience do, that if we thought Augustus' death was monumental, Livia's is probably even more so. With Livia's death Antonia is left as the last surviving character from the first episode, and we feel we are going to enter a new world next time.

This episode features some of the most heavy use of prophecy, which Graves filled his novels with and which is the driving force behind everything Livia does. Tony Keen has talked a bit about the phenomenon that is prophecy in modern historical novels, in which it becomes totally reliable, and can be used to drive plots in much the same way it was in ancient novels. It can be rather fun seeing the things we know will happen prophesied, but Graves does take it rather far sometimes - I suspect that if the real Livia had made her decisions based on omens and prophecies, she would never have survived the civil wars. It is a fun thing to read though, and the audience can enjoy feeling smugly superior as we know how right Livia will eventually be. We also know the identity of the person who will become the only god in the Empire, though I'm not sure a Roman should be prophesying it (I don't know this area at all - I believe that there were Jewish prophecies concerning the imminent coming of the Messiah around this time, but not Gentile ones).

This episode is another turning-point for the series, continuning the metamorphosis from reasonably sane environment to total madness that started with Augustus' death and will reach a peak under Caligula. Before we descend into total chaos, however, there's the little matter of Evil!Picard to deal with, and he is the subject of the next episode.

Sian Phillips as Livia

10 comments:

  1. Re Messianic prophecies, could Graves have been thinking of Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, which was often later interpreted as referring to Jesus?

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  2. While I agree that Caligula probably wasn't a nutbar before his illness, there is at least a suggestion that he sucked up to Tiberius in a big way, possibly aiding and abetting the latter's perversions in Capri and maybe even letting himself be used sexually.

    I understand your problems with Evil! Picard. I actually have a similar reaction when viewing Excalibur. I keep wondering who slipped something into his Earl Grey. Perhaps it will help if you just keep telling yourself, "There are FOUR lights!" ;)

    I also tend to a similar problem with John Hurt. I keep waiting for the alien larva to burst out of his chest. (Whether or not it will then sing Hello, My Baby depends on my mood.)

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  3. Great stuff, I love the Evil!Picard stuff, and DemetriosX - the episode where he is a Cardassian prisoner is one of my favourites!

    He's wonderful in I, Claudius.

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  4. Re Virgil's Fourth Eclogue - good point, I had forgotten that. Luckily I saw Clavdivs before I saw Alien, so I tend to expect whatshisname in Alien to start dancing around in a gold bikini rather than vice versa! I can't see Stewart as anyone other than Picard though - except maybe Prof Xavier...

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  5. Stewart is an absolutely brilliant actor, but Picard is so iconic it is very hard to see him as anyone else. He does a wonderful turn as Karla in the John Le Carré adaptations with Alec Guinness. I think it's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that has a flashback where Smiley is interrogating Karla and all he does is sit there, but it's just stunning. Of course, if you haven't seen it before seeing Chain of Command, then that will overshadow the performance, but wow.

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  6. I can't remember now whether it was just before or just after I first saw "I, Claudius" but certainly before "Alien" my other memory of John Hurt was as "The Naked Civil Servant", which fitted very well with Caligula. I was very disappointed about his uncamp appearance in "Alien".

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  7. Picard bought wine from the shop my friend worked in. He wasn't a regular, but once a fortnight maybe. I will find out what his usual order was.

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  8. I hope it was something French. His brother laboured away on the family vineyard while he explored the stars, so surely he has a love for the French stuff!

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  9. Yes please keep this up I'm enjoying reading your take on it! I am loving this series once again, Roman palaces are strangely quiet though aren't they... :) I thought that was Cherry out of Pan's People doing the dance at the beginning of this episode? I could have been mistaken.

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