Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Rome: Kalends of February


I was wrong in my last review; it turns out that, somewhat counter-intuitively, this actually is the episode in which Julius Caesar gets murderlised. There is a reason for this - it's on the Kalends of February that, in the Rome version of events, Caesar announces he will be creating a hundred new senators, which proves to be the final straw for the conspirators and, indirectly, the downfall of Niobe. In real life, Caesar would have filled the vacant seats in the Senate (caused by all those messy civil wars) much earlier than a month before he died, but we probably shouldn't let that bother us.

As the episode opens, Dodgey Soldier and The Godfather (formerly known as Boring Soldier) have become minor celebrities, thanks to their dramatic exit from the arena last week. Dodgey is still recovering from his wounds, but The Godfather is busy having it away with his wife in front of an audience as part of a truly peculiar ritual on their new land while she expresses surprise that Caesar (who has just given them the land, hence the ritual) might be a bit put out that The Godfather took it upon himself to rescue a condemned criminal.

Pullo makes a bid for freedom from the 'hospital' (I'm pretty sure the Romans didn't have those) and is brought back to The Godfather's house to make even more of a nuisance of himself. Niobe catches Eirene holding a knife to this throat and points out this would not end well for Eirene herself, who would definitely be the prime suspect if Dodgey were to be found murdered. She then orders Eirene to look after Dodgey, possibly as some kind of punishment? It doesn't make much sense. Eirene spits in Dodgey's food. Good for her.

Caesar has decreed that a hundred new senators will be created and tells The Godfather that he will be one of them. Caesar did fill vacant seats with his own supporters, including centurions and men who'd fought for him, but as I said, I suspect he did it a lot earlier than a month before his death. The reason for the placement of The Godfather's promotion here, of course, is to tie his and Niobe's story to Caesar's for the finale. The Godfather is Caesar's most feared bodyguard, thanks to his antics in the arena, so the conspirators have to get him out of the way, so they spill the beans about Niobe's affair to him just as they're murdering Caesar. It's an ingenious way of tying the stories together (even if it is a bit reminiscent of Carry of Cleo in the set-up) and works rather well, and according to Cassius Dio Caesar did have a bodyguard of knights and senators. The only minor problem with this is that it does mean one of the more fascinating aspects of Caesar's personality and behaviour towards the end, his supposedly casual attitude towards the possibility of his own assassination, has to be left out, which is a shame.

We are reminded of Caesar's close relationship with both Antony and his slave/freedman (never have quite worked out which he is) Posca which will make the scenes of Posca trying to save Caesar and Antony finding his body that much more poignant. I particularly like Caesar and Antony's exchange, in which Antony wants to know why Caesar trusts him. Caesar tells him 'If you were going to betray me, you'd have done it long ago' and Antony replies 'Don't think I wasn't tempted,' which is a nice reminder of how ruthless they all are while also, strangely, reinforcing Antony and Caesar's mutual loyalty.

I'm delighted to see Calpurnia's ominous dream get reasonably full treatment - we don't see the dream itself, but her concern and Caesar's dismissal of it as just a dream feel both sweet and true. Brutus and Servilia, meanwhile, are attempting to gain the favour of some god or other for their assassination attempt, in a slightly odd scene that seems intended to be generally portentous.

Dodgey goes out to get a prostitute/floozy/one-night-stand but sends her away when Eirene spots them heading into the house together. Miraculously, from this point on, Eirene softens towards him. Yes, girls, when a man has brutally murdered your lover, all he has to do is refrain from sleeping with a prostitute in front of you and you will find yourself suddenly drawn to him, so eventually all will be forgiven. (Please note all readers of any gender: This Is Sarcasm).

The conspirators and Cicero stand symbolically high up and sneer at the new senators, while Caesar waves at them, looking like he knows something's up. Later on, they discuss the knotty problem of getting The Godfather out of the way for the main event without killing him and therefore making themselves unpopular. Brutus insists on the importance of killing Caesar on the Senate floor because this somehow makes it honourable and not murder, which is especially ironic given that Caesar wasn't killed on the Senate floor, the Senate were meeting in the Theatre of Pompey that day and he was killed there (underneath the statue of Pompey, as depicted in Shakespeare's version).

Niobe and The Godfather have a sweet bedroom scene together because Niobe is Doomed and this is Poignant and Tender. Servilia sleeps alone because all her lovers realised what a psycho she is and left her. She suddenly remembers that she knows all the gossip about The Godfather because Octavia told her, having heard it from Octavian during their secret-swapping, and that this may prove useful in getting him out of the way. She then invites Atia and the kids over for Murder Day, while Dodgey tells Eirene he's going out to a shrine to ask for forgiveness and asks her to come with him. Eirene does, because she's clearly insane.

The town crier (who, by the way, uses the most fantastic gestures which I assume come from Quintilian's description of the gestures used in legal speeches) informs us that the Senate is in session and the plinky-plonky Music of Doom informs us that Sh*t is About to Go Down. Some old woman claiming to be working for Atia comes up to The Godfather and tells him the truth about Niobe's baby and he runs off in a fury, leaving Caesar to the knives. Mark Antony is also dragged off and Posca can't go into the Senate anyway.

Caesar's murder finally gets under way, starting with a remarkably undignified scuffle but carrying on in suitably bloody fashion while Brutus watches with his mouth gaping open like a fish. Finally, Cassius shoves a knife into Brutus' hand and forces him to put the last cut into a dying Caesar. Caesar, having received multiple wounds to the lungs, says nothing, though he does give Brutus a rather heartbreakingly sad look. He then pulls his toga over his head, which is both historically accurate and genuinely sad.

I can see why the writers decided to leave That Line out. Saying it in Latin would sound daft because very little Latin is used in this series. Saying it in English means having to choose between Shakespeare's 'Brutus' or Suetonius' teknon, which could be translated as 'child', 'boy' or 'son', words which all have different connotations in English. Not all ancient sources attribute any last words to Caesar at all so it's perfectly acceptable to assume he said nothing (especially given all the stab wounds in the chest area). The scene is also rather effectively played so that you can almost hear Caesar saying The Words as he stares at Brutus, even though he doesn't actually say them. I have to confess, though, that if it were me, I would have had him say 'And you?' (leaving out the vocative 'Brute?'). Those words are just so expected, thanks to Shakespeare, that it's almost disappointing not to hear them, or some of version of them.

We interrupt this assassination fallout to return to Niobe and The Godfather. He rants and rages and waves a knife at her. She tells him she thought he was dead and promptly throws herself off the balcony. Since Niobe was one of my favourite characters, this is rather upsetting, but story-wise it works. We suspect The Godfather would never actually have stabbed her, but he had the legal right to do so and presumably she was also motivated by guilt and worry about their future. The first time I saw it, I was torn between feeling that this was a suitably tragic and dramatic end to this particular plot, and worrying that I wasn't remotely interested in The Godfather (formerly known as Boring) without Niobe.

Cassius gloats over Caesar's body and Brutus continues to look like someone just ran over his puppy, as if he can't quite believe what he's done. Mark Antony makes it in to the historically inaccurate scene of the crime, sees the body, and backs away, looking angry, sad and probably a little bit nervous as well, though none of them go after him.

Servilia explains all this to Atia as if it were her personal triumph over Atia and nothing to do with dictators or politics at all (perhaps she's right). She also informs Atia that she's going to make her suffer, presumably blissfully unaware that Caesar adopted Octavian in his will and she will, therefore, come to regret this bit of crowing quite a lot. Octavian is certainly not impressed with this turn of events.

We see The Godfather cradling Niobe's body and looking at the unfortunate toddler like he doesn't know what to do with him, which he probably doesn't (the child actor here looks impressively like Niobe).

And after all that fantastic drama, what do we finish on? Dodgey and Eirene walking away from a roadside shrine, hand in hand. I suppose it's nice to end on a more peaceful image, one that's about forgiveness and love rather than death and destruction, but it's a bit frustrating after such a fantastic climax to end on the one note that, for me, really doesn't ring true.

This is a great season finale, which ties up Niobe and The Godfather's story nicely while leaving the historical story on a note that certainly represents an ending, but also creates something of a cliffhanger, as Mark Antony walks away into Shakespearian fame. The double climax of Niobe and Caesar's deaths is very effective and the decision to deal with Caesar first and Niobe second works as well - the audience know what happens to Caesar, so his death is dramatically satisfying but without the thrill of the unexpected, ensuring that Niobe's quieter death has maximum impact, as the audience have no idea what it going to happen to her, so her story keeps their attention even after the big events at the (inaccurate) Senate have taken place. The acting all round is great and of course it's a necessary shame to see Ciaran Hinds' Caesar go, he was brilliant in the role. James Purefoy as Mark Antony is probably the most impressive, in his combination of calm, anger and distress conveyed entirely through a facial expression, but Hinds' dying moments are also tragically beautiful. For me, the only shame is that Dodgey and Eirene's story, which I find peculiar and totally implausible, has to intrude on an otherwise excellent finale, but on the upside it does give us a prettier image to go out on, ready for more blood and guts in season two.

8 comments:

  1. They probably didn't mean it to be, but the business with distracting Boring with information about his wife is an interesting contrast to Brutus. Supposedly Brutus received word that Porcia was dying before Caesar arrived, but he chose not to rush home to see her, because what he was about to do was too important. It's one of those things that make Brutus so hard to understand or even like. They appear to have really been in love and normal people don't decide that personal isn't the same as important. He's like the anti-Carrot.

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  2. "the importance of killing Caesar on the Senate floor [...] especially ironic given that Caesar wasn't killed on the Senate floor, the Senate were meeting in the Theatre of Pompey "

    I suppose this depends on what you think is meant by "the Senate floor", and whether you consider the Senate to be a space defined by its physical location or political body. It needn't be the floor of the building we now call the Curia Iulia, just the floor at which the Senate (as body of people) was convened. Suetonius refers to him going to the Senate, and says he entered the Curia (apud Senatum; introiit curiam). The name curia, to refer to the part of Pompey's portico/theatre complex, is attested elsewhere.

    So, I would argue that Caesar was killed on the Senate floor...just not the floor of the building we tend to associate the Senate with. Do they mention the Curia in the Forum Romanum specifically?

    Dave

    P.S. Good luck with the ongoing preparations of the monograph.

    P.P.S. on the gestures of the town crier, see Tony Corbeill's book.

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  3. Fair point, and I suppose the area they're in could be a theatre, it looks vaguely theatre-shaped. I missed the statue of Pompey though, and it seemed an odd thing to emphasise, given that technically speaking they weren't in a building set aside for meetings of the Senate.

    Hope you're well, I saw some citations in our papers for Cultural Memory of your co-edited book, which was exciting!

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  4. I loved the bit with him covering his face at the end, and was pleased to find out later that he supposedly did that according to Suetonius.

    As for Dodgy and Eirene, oh hell. Where do I even begin. I could have bought her going off with him...if it was clear that she was doing so because she felt she didn't really have any choice. That could have been a plausible way to play the whole thing off, if you think about it. She's his freedwoman, and freedmen and women still have some obligations to their former masters. Would she have had a lot of other options in terms of where to go or what to do? If she killed him, she'd be a prime suspect, and she was already shown to be incapable of following through on that.

    So I could have bought her going off with him out of desperation, but NOT as being truly in love with him or really forgiving him, which is definitely how they played it off here.

    I thought Ciaran Hinds was great as Caesar, even if it did bug me that he didn't look like the Caesar I had in my head. (Too much hair.)

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  5. This is true, Hinds does have too much hair - but somehow he looks very much like Caesar to me, it must be the expression!

    Yes, if Eirene had gone off with Dodgey after Niobe's death because she felt she had no choice, that could have made sense, though it would have been pretty depressing. But since she didn't know Niobe was dead and appeared to have a nice position with Niobe and the Godfather, it doesn't seem necessary for her to go off with Dodgey, and the way she's shown as actually falling in love with him is really bizarre. It's one of those things where I just can't figure out what the writers were thinking!

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  6. Agh! Just typed a big response and then lost it. Oops.

    In short, the curia in Pompey’s ‘theatre’ was part of the portico complex, probably an exedra and possibly visible on the Forma Urbis Romae. So, if you get the feeling it looks theatre-shaped, it is probably supposed to be one of these exedra halls. Augustus is said to have moved the statue from where Caesar was murdered into the theatre itself, so it clearly wasn’t in the theatre, rather the broader theatre/portico complex.
    D

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  7. Great review as usual! :o)

    I saw this 6 months ago so don't remember the details much (although your review helps!), but I do remember being annoyed at Eirene for looking like all's well with Dodgey, shocked and sad at Niobe's fate, and awe-struck with Caesar's end (great acting all around!).

    This also reminds me for the umpteenth time that I wish this series had gone more than 2 season! snif!!! ;o(

    PS: have you figured out a way to do Classics and Pop Culture for World Oceans Day? ;o) Spread the word!

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  8. I'm thinking about World Oceans Day - haven't had much time but I'll try to do something if I can! When is it again?

    I wish this show had gone on as well - there was talk of a film a while back, it would be awesome if that went ahead, and it doesn't matter that it was a few years ago now, they could pick up right where I, Claudius starts

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