Friday, 5 February 2010

I, Claudius: Old King Log

Well, here we are, 12 episodes and nearly 13 hours of television later, at the very last episode of I, Claudius. We open, appropriately enough, with Claudius dead, and Nero and Agrippinilla (Agrippina the Younger, given the diminuative version of her name to distinguish her from Germanicus' widow and her mother, Agrippina the Elder) gloating over his body.

Agrippinilla is pure evil - I know you thought we'd seen pure evil in female form before, in Livia and certainly in Messalina, but not so - Livia was strangely grand, a true Magnificent Bastard, and even sympathetic towards the end, while Messalina was really just a small child, over-indulged and too used to getting her own way. Agrippinilla, on the other hand, is evil in human form. She is scheming, conniving, sneering, superior, totally self-centred and without any moral compass whatsoever. It's worth noting at this point that all Graves' female characters are either utterly evil bitches or helpless victims, with the possible exception of Antonia and, to a lesser extent, Agrippina the Elder. How much this says about Graves and how much it says about his Roman source material is hard to say, but I think it's worth bearing in mind that, in an historical novel, Graves entirely at liberty to alter the characterisation of these women, as he did with Claudius himself, so he must bear at least some of the blame for the parade of witches/victims we are presented with here.

Nero and Agripinilla, looking for Claudius' will so that they can destroy it, find the history he has been writing all this time - starting with the scroll that picks up from the last episode, the death of Messalina. Claudius compares himself to the King Log sent by Jupiter to the frogs, and we as we melt into flashbakc we see one last dancing girl (breasts covered this time) while Claudius reflects that he has been too benevolent, and as allowed Rome to get used to the idea of having an Emperor as a Good Thing. This is the beginning of Graves' rather contrived explanation of how his Claudius, who unlike the Claudius in the sources is wise, moral and aware, came to marry his own niece and make Nero his heir over his son, Britannicus. He repeats the phrase 'let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out' - his solution will be to leave Rome a worse emperor than himself - even than Caligula - so that it will become impossible to take and the Republic will be reinstated.

We're down to just Claudius, Pallas and Narcissus in the dining room now - a truly dark, depressing and empty place - and Claudius seems almost catatonic while Pallas and Narcissus discuss the relative merits of the dancing girl. Both are determined to get Claudius to marry again, supposedly because his children need a mother, but they both have a specific candidate in mind - Narcissus suggests Lollia Paulina, a childless, older noblewoman - he genuinely seems interested in providing a good stepmother for Britannicus and Octavia (Claudius' children by his first wife are long dead). Pallas, however, insists that Claudius should marry his own niece (Germanicus' daughter, Caligula's sister) Agrippinilla. Narcissues informs us that even Caligula thought she was the most corrupt woman in Rome, at which Pallas declares grandly that their friendship is at an end. Narcissus pleades with Claudius, but he quietly agrees to Pallas' proposal, drunkenly repeating 'let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out' when Narcissus points out that Agrippinilla will want Nero to be his heir, rather than Britiannicus.

In the next scene, we see why Pallas was so keen to get Claudius married to Agrippinilla - because he's banging her. Agrippinilla will do anyone to get herself to the top - though, bearing in mind she apparently committed incest with her brother Caligula, this is perhaps not surprising (whether she had any choice with Caligula is not explored). She claims that 'passion and ambition are beautifully combined', which does seem to imply she enjoys it. There's also some biting - you know, just to show how vicious she is.

Claudius, sitting waiting for her, really is becoming a doddery old man, but his wits are still intact. Agrippinilla tried to play a Messalina-like game, pretending to be in love with him and wanting to be a mother to his children, and even have more children, but Claudius is having none of it. He points out that they're comitting incest, which she may have done before, but he hasn't, and he thinks she did it willingly. He says he's more interested in her mind than her body, and that he wants her to help him rule, in a way that others can't. She tells him that if he gives her power, she'll use it, and he is perfectly happy with that too.

Agripinilla, having worked out he doesn't even like her, leaves in a somewhat perturbed state, but the plans all go ahead, and she points out to Pallas that they need to keep Claudius alive long enough for Nero to come of age.

We switch next to Claudius in the Senate, announcing the end of the war in Britain. King Caractacus in brought into the Senate in chains (all the way into the Senate itself? Really?) and - it's Peter Bowles! The dude with the moustache from Only When I Laugh and To The Manor Born! He has some very exciting white slicked back hair (apparently when they were taken into slavery, the Britons were allowed to keep their hair products) and some very warm looking furs. His moustache has long white bits hanging down from it - he looks a bit like he's escaped from an old Smirnoff Ice ad. He gives a stirring speech about how they'll need to sleep with their swords if that's all they use against the Britons (you'd never know it was a British production!) and wins the hearts of the Senate, who grant him a pension.

We see Agipinilla and Nero reading the end of Claudius' history, in which, after five years of marriage, he calls her 'loathsome' and him 'slimy'. Claudius is fully aware of her plans and has his own - and to this end, we see in flashback once again, he has allowed Nero to marry his daughter Octavia and has adopted him as equal heir with Britannicus. We also get to see Nero playing the lute, which is rather fun. Britannicus has grown up into a sulky youth, who insults Nero by calling him 'Lucius Domitius', his old, pre-Claudian, name and is utterly frustrated by his father's taking Nero and Agipinilla's side against him. He is also still miffed about the fact that Claudius had his mother executed. Nero, meanwhile, is doing very well at playing the gentleman and has managed to win Octavia's heart.

Nero is interesting casting, by the way - Christopher Biggins, King of the Jungle, pantomime dame, brilliant narrator of The Rocky Horror Show. He's very good, and even - without meaning to insult Biggins - looks a bit like Nero. His Nero is over-indulgent, self-centred, keen on luxury, which seems to match the popular perception of Nero in the ancient as well as the modern world.

Poor Narcissus is apopleptic at these latest developments and points out that Claudius has signed his own death warrant, but Claudius is unworried, because his astrologer has already told him that he will die soon anyway. He has a very, very convoluted plan for Britannicus, whose days are also numbered. Claudius insists that the Sybil has foretold that Nero will rule after him, and kill Agirppinilla, and produces a prophecy given to him by Livia at that last dinner shortly before she died. It has got everything right so far, so Claudius believes it will be right again, and he insists that nothing any of them do will stop it - and he wants the Republic to be restored after him, destroying the monarchy by being as bad as Caligula or worse. Unfortunately, the prophecy does not seem to have mentioned the Year of the Four Emperors or the Flavians. Claudius intends for Britannicus to save Rome by restoring the Republic, and seem to genuinely believe that this way, he can save him from inevitable death under Nero and Agrippinilla.

Pallas and Agrippinilla have decided that the time has come to put an end to Claudius, but Pallas is concerned about the newly-married Nero, and how pliable he will be. Nero interrupts and Pallas leaves, and Nero shows jealousy of Pallas, 'that Greek'. He is in a bad mood because Octavia has locked herself in her bedroom and won't have sex with him, so Agrippinilla, totally devoid of moral compass as usual, has sex with him herself instead, to cheer him up.

The next scene is a wonderful farewell to the series as a whole. Using a fantasy sequence for the first time, we see Claudius bid farewell to the Senate, knowing he will soon die, and he tells them that through his history, people will see Rome for what she truly was. We see the room blur and the colour fade, and we hear the mixed voices of many people and see a crowd of faint, translucent figures wandering around in front of the assembled senators. It is Claudius' relatives, the characters we grew to love or hate and gradually lost over the course of the series. And then - BRIAN BLESSED walks stridently to the foreground, swims into focus, leans forward until he is right in Claudius' (that is, the camera's since we are now seeing things from Claudius' point of view) face and addresses him. 'Well done Claudius,' he says, 'Emperor after all. Who'd have thought it, eg?' It's absolutely wonderful to see him back - somehow, despite the Messalinas and the Agrippinillas, the latter part of the series hasn't quite managed to produce characters as memorable, striking and as much a joy to watch as those early characters we first became fascinated by, and to see BLESSED's smiling face once more is pure delight. Even better, he's immediately followed by Livia, restored to youthful beauty, who leans in with her superior look and tells Claudius 'you're a fool boy, you always were - people say it's not your fault, but if it's not your fault, whose fault is it, eh?'. She is superior, arrogant, exquisite - the Livia who was so wonderfully wicked in the early episodes. She makes a fabulous tutting noise as she leaves. Then Antonia leans in to tell Claudius that his nose is still running - poor Claudius still can't catch a break from his mother, even in his own imagination. Caligula urges her out of the way, and is in turn bunped by Tiberius - and briefly we see senators trying to rouse the once again catatonic Claudius. We return to his vision, to hear Tiberius sympathise with him that 'it wasn't worth it'. Caligula tells him that he 'wasn't that Messiah after all', something which has throughly shocked him - John Hurt's comic timing here is perfect. The whole thing is a perfect farewell to the series, and a good indication of why this is where it should stop - Claudius, and the series, are worn out now, and it will be the job of new series, and new emperors, to tell the next bit of the story. Claudius limps slowly out of the Senate for the last time.

Narcissus brings Britannicus to Claudius and Claudius tells him his plan, which involves favouring Nero over him yet again. Poor Britannicus takes it all very well, considering. Once Claudius has explained, and he's finished telling him off for killing his mother and favouring his stepbrother all his life. And Claudius does admit that he found it difficult to love Britannicus for some time after he found out about Messalina - partly because Claudius believes that Britannicus is Caligula's son, not his own, but without Caligula's nature. He seems to accept that Claudius, in his own mad way, really did mean the best with the plan, in which Claudius tried to save Britannicus the way he was saved, by keeping him out of the way. Claudius wants to send Britannicus to Britain to stay with Queen Cartimadua, to wait until Nero destroys the Empire, and then Britannicus will return to restore the Republic. But Britnnicus does not want to paint his face blue and hide with barbarians. He insists that he will stay, that he will put on his manly gown (in his early teens) and defeat Nero, and he tells Claudius that he doesn't believe in the Republic and nor does anyone else, except Claudius. Claudius is heartbroken, since he knows from the prophecy, that Britannicus will not get his chance to rule, but has to allow him to try.

We cut back to Nero and Agrippinilla reading Claudius' manuscript, as Claudius writes 'come death, and draw the final curtain - I am tired.' Agrippinillia rips it up, and then they burn it for good measure - Nero watched the papyrus burn and mumers 'what a pretty thing a fire is!'.

Narcissus tells Britannicus that Agrippinilla and Nero poisoned Claudius, and we see Claudius deliebrately take the poisoned mushroom that Agrippinilla offers him from her own plate, knowing and welcoming death on a fork. Narcissus tries to persuade Britannicus to go away, as Claudius wanted him to, but Britannicus inists that he can take of himself - and proves that he did not know his father at all as he says, 'poor father, he never could'.

We are left with Claudius' corpse - or almost. A vision of the Sybil from waaaaay back in the first episode appears above the bed and we see her have a conversation with Claudius' ghost, speaking through his dead body. 'You can't survive them all' he says, and before he goes with the Sybil, he asks some questions. 'What will happen to Britannicus?'. 'Nero will kill him.' The Sybil answers shortly and simple, without emotion. 'And Narcissus?' 'Agrippinilla will kill him. Then Nero will kill her.' 'It sounds depressingly familiar' sighs Claudius, and the Sybil agrees. The Empire, she tells him, will go on, as Livia said it would, but after Nero, last of the Claudians, most of the emperors will not be so bad. 'Quite a story, wasn't it?' she says, and Claudius agrees. He has buried a copy of his book, that Nero and Agrippinilla burned, which will be discovered in nineteen hundred years or so. The lighting on the Sybil's face goes very, very bright and she tells Claudius that the ferryman is waiting. She promises him that after crossing the river, he will 'dream a different story all together.' 'Farewell, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, God of the Britons, One-Time Emperor of the Roman World. Farewell.' The image on the screen burns away to reveal the final credits - THE END.

It's a beautiful ending to the series, with just a touch of the metaphysical in that last prophecy that the dead Claudius will dream another story. The whole episode is about looking forward to the future and looking back to the past. The future elements were lost on me the first time - it's fun now to see Nero enjoy fire or the lute, but it meant nothing then. But the backward-looking elements work beautifully. It's wonderful to see all those familiar faces again, and to bid farewell to the series the same way we said hello to it, with Claudius and the Sybil. And the Sybil is a very appropriate guide from this life to the next, since it is the Sybil who leads Aeneas into the underworld in Book 6 of the Aeneid. As viewers, we are glad to go - without Claudius, Britannicus, Octavia (alos killed by Nero) or Narcissus, it will be a depressing world until Vespasian eventually gains power through a coup d'etat carried out in Alexandria and ushers in a new age all together - a different story entirely.

Farewell, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, God of the Britons, One-Time Emperor of the Roman World. Farewell.


1 comment:

  1. As regards the depiction of women in this series, I suspect it is a combination of things. Certainly, the categories you list are pretty much how they are depicted in the source material and indeed in Roman literature, period (with the addition of the noble, self-sacrificing matron). It's been ages since I've actually read any Graves, including the Claudius duology, so I can't really say if this is really how he depicted all of his female characters here or in general. Some of the blame could also, of course, lie with the screenwriter, director(s), and actors. Another factor is probably also the time of both when this was made and when Graves wrote.


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