Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Rome: Passover

Previously on Rome, Season 1: Death. Sadness. A total lack of Shakespearian dialogue.

As this episode opens, Mark Antony emerges from the Senate, fresh from Caesar's murder, looking shell-shocked. We know what a substantial proportion of the audience is expecting; a Shakespearian speech. No sign of that yet, though, as he's too busy fighting off assassins sent by Cassius. This is actually much more historically accurate than Shakespeare - in fact, the whole episode is much closer to some kind of amalgamation of the various accounts than most depictions of this particular event. This, I suspect, is because the long, drawn-out process that was Caesar's funeral and Antony's popular victory over Brutus is much better suited to a slowly building television episode than to a film or even a novel. (There is one major inaccuracy, which is Octavian's presence - he wasn't even in Italy at the time. But they make it work, story-wise, so I quite like it).

Brutus is having a Lady Macbeth moment, madly washing his face and shaking like a leaf. Everyone's feeling Shakespearian today. Servilia tells him he must be strong but the poor guy looks in need of a valium.

Posca weeps over Caesar's body and this moment is truly tragic - and is blended straight into a shot of the Godfather, still holding Niobe's body and weeping too. Then the pesky child who caused all the trouble by being born makes the mistake of showing his face and the Godfather attacks first him, then his daughter who actually hadn't done anything wrong at all (except lying). Unusually for a Roman father, he is actually angry because his daughter didn't have sex outside marriage. Luckily Niobe's sister reappears from nowhere to comfort the daughter as the Godfather storms off, cursing them all. As he wanders off he hears all the cries of 'Caesar is dead!' in the streets, at which point he realises he's really f*cked up this afternoon.

Atia is actually crying and being comforted by her old slave woman, though whether she's upset or panicked is hard to say. Octavian sensibly points out to Octavia that the fact it's partly their fault should not be mentioned. Atia has called Timon to get them out of the city. Octavian suggests waiting to see what Antony does but Atia is convinced he must be dead because he hasn't come to get her. Atia orders the slaves to fetch the money and household gods (yay for random bits of historical accuracy and a sort of allusion to the Aeneid!) at which point, much to Timon's irritation, Antony actually does turn up and immediately strips (he does have blood on him, to be fair).

Antony thinks the Godfather was paid off, but Atia somehow knows what really happened. She then proceeds to rip into Antony for not taking on half the Senate with his bare hands. Antony's plan is to raise an army in the north, which Atia objects to because it's 'ghastly'.

The Godfather has a strange encounter with a weird old soothsayer who nuts him on the head, presumably to rob him. Dodgey, meanwhile, blissfully unaware of what's going on, is busy proposing to Eirene, who accepts, apparently on the strength of his promise to buy her lots of shoes.

Antony and his gang go to get Calpurnia, because it'll look bad if they run off promising to avenge Caesar and leave his wife behind. She is watching a wet nurse squeeze milk into Caesar's dead mouth, and I'm sure some researcher got this from some obscure ancient source but seriously, did anyone really do that? What if there weren't any handy lactating women around? Hmm. Calpurnia is puzzled as to why no one has come to pay their respects to Caesar, which suggests either she's lost it through grief or she was bizarrely clueless in the first place. She refuses to budge and insists that they must read Caesar's will (Hayden Gwynne is excellent here by the way).

Posca reads the will and it reveals that Caesar has adopted Octavian and left him everything, except Posca himself, who has been freed. Mark Antony is Not Impressed (to such an extent that this requires Capital Letters). He takes up a defeatist attitude and declares that none of it will count because Brutus, Cassius and the rest will take it all, but Octavian points out that the name 'Caesar' is still his, no matter what happens. This prompts him finally to take charge as head of the family and put his foot down, insisiting they stay where they are and giving Antony, who wants to eat Brutus et al's livers (with fava beans and a nice Chianti?), detailed instructions on how to keep them all alive. In the end, as Posca and Antony argue, it's Atia who has the final say, swayed by the idea of lots of money and this greatest of victories over Servilia. They stay.

Ian McNeice, the town crier, unsug hero of the series, I think. Fabulous use of traditional rhetorical gestures.

News of Caesar's death finally reaches Dodgey and Eirene and they ride for Rome. The Godfather wakes up in a puddle with a head wound while Niobe's sister (Esther Hall, best known these days for those annoying BT ads, putting in a great performance of silent weeping while she tries to comfort the daughter and dresses Niobe's body) and the kids get a visit from the local mob.

Cicero enthusiastically congratulates the conspirators and tells them how disappointed he is that they didn't include him (as he really did in his letters). He assumes they've killed Mark Antony and points out what a bad idea it is to leave him alive, to which Brutus sulkily tells him to kill him himself. Cicero, a man who knows which side his bread is buttered, immediately tries to run away - unfortuantely, right into Antony, who's just walked in.

Dodgey finds the Godfather, who has made it back to his house and gone catatonic. He tells Dodgey he was going to kill Niobe before she did it herself (I still don't think he would have). Now, while he was in a funk and after he cursed them, all the children and the sister have disappeared. Kevin McKidd's performance is wonderfully jittery, and for once Dodgey is the sanest person on the scene, which is worrying in itself.

Cicero straight away gets Brutus to confirm to Antony that he wasn't involved in the assassination (goodness that man is a weasel!). Antony points out that killing Caesar does not appear to have been a popular move (he says many people 'will worship Caesar until they die' which is a rather nice line considering Caesar's later deification). He further points out that if all Caesar's actions are nullified, none of them hold their positions any more (as Octavian had pointed out to him earlier). He tells them he wants peace and stability and James Purefoy finds a wonderful way to enable the audience to hear the fact that Antony's lying, knowing Octavian has put him up to this, but sounding convincing enough to swing Brutus and Cassius. He pretends he wants to retire and persuades them to organise Caesar's funeral jointly with him, so they don't have to fight and kill each other.

Cassius, Servilia and Cicero (in his roundabout way), try to persuade Brutus to kill Antony, but Brutus, unaware that Octavian is pulling the strings, doesn't see brutish Antony as a threat. They hug and Antony gives him a kiss that's Judas Iscariot and Micheal Corleone all rolled into one. It's a wonderfully tense scene and for a moment you wonder if, against all historical record, Brutus really is going to kill Antony. Purefoy's expression as he walks away speaks volumes and you really feel the idiocy of Brutus, thinking this man is not a threat. Antony does stop to murder Pompey's illegitimate son on the way out, to make himself feel better.

Dodgey cleans the Godfather up and it finally occurs to him maybe he shouldn't have cursed his own children. Dodgey tries to reassure him that they'll come back, blissfully unaware they've been taken and sold into slavery by the mob.

Caesar's funeral, complete with eulogies by Brutus and Mark Antony, is announced for the next day. Servilia comes to pay her respects to Caesar and Calpurnia spits on her (yay!). Then she spits on her again (yay again!). Then she lets her past (boo!).

Octavian fills Dodgey in on the whole sorry saga, which unfortunately involves admitting to the fact the whole business with Niobe and the Godfather was his fault. Since he's quite powerful, Dodgey forgives him and offers to help him avenge Caesar. The Godfather, meanwhile, is rocking.

Next morning, Antony is feeling confident and his threat to have sex with Atia's old nurse is really quite amusing (especially Atia's response, that she'd eat him alive). This is a really heavy episode, and the moment of lightness, in anticipation of what much of the audience knows is indeed going to be a pretty successful day for him, is very welcome. Also, Atia's funeral dress really suits her, but that's neither here nor there.

The Godfather is still rocking and wants to wait for the children before having Niobe's funeral, which is not a good idea in a relatively hot country. Luckily he has Dodgey, and it's really nice to see Dodgey looking after him for a change, rather than vice versa.

 Solemn Funeral Face

Funerals happen and everyone looks appropriately solemn (except Dodgey, who's... drinking). Then doors are opened to the crowd, and it's finally time for some speeches - this is where, historically, the famous 'Friends, Romans, Countrymen!' speech comes in and much of the audience knows it and is waiting for it.

Except we don't get to hear it.

In a sense, I can see why the writers didn't want to include the actual speech - who wants to take on Shakespeare?! But to be honest, I can't help feeling they've chickened out a bit. Antony goads Brutus with what a successful speech he's made and insists Brutus must leave the city, but it's hard to enjoy his success when we haven't heard a word of the speech. (Servilia refuses to leave and Antony is fine with that because he wants to crow over her in person). The speech must have been quite something because Cassius is hugging himself as he's been kicked in the stomach and he's taken over rocking from the Godfather, but still - without hearing it, we're not feeling it.

Dodgey and the Godfather come home to find a neighbour looting the place ('only for things I lent!') who tells them that the mob have taken the children. The Other Godfather is in the pub, where one of his friends is describing Brutus and Antony's speeches, including the display of Caesar's bloody toga and everything. This would have been so much more impressive if we'd actually seen Antony do it, rather than hearing the badly-accented mob minion's drunken version. The Other Godfather did not enjoy the speeches and insists on 'observing the decencies' and we're all waiting for him to explain the importance of 'respect', but he doesn't.

His irritation doesn't last long, as Dodgey and the Godfather show up and murder them all. The Godfather looks like a demon from Hades, all covered in blood with mad eyes, and he responds as one might expect to The Other Godfather's calm assertion that he raped and murdered the children. The episode ends as he carries The Other Godfather's head towards the river to dispose of it.

Well, that was a cheerful hour! Thank goodness for Antony's voracious sexual appetite, it was the only smile in it - as was to be expected, but that doesn't make it light viewing, nonetheless. This is a very good episode, really tight, effective, well paced, maintaining an extraordinary level of tension, with stunning performances all round. Just don't watch it in a bad mood, it'll only make it worse.

The title of the episode is very interesting - 'Passover' means freedom from slavery to Jews (suggesting a certain sympathy with Caesar's killers?), the sacrifice of one to save many to Christians (the sacrifice of Caesar which will eventually be to the benefit of Octavian and, through the Pax Augusta, all of Rome?) but I think the most relevant connotation of the word is the notion of sparing the first-born son. By passing over Antony and Octavian, now Caesar's son, the conspirators have signed their own death warrents.  

Mmm, James Purefoy.

I still think some part of Antony's speech should have been shown (personally, I would have shown visuals of the crowd lapping up the speech and Antony displaying Caesar's bloody toga while playing the score loudly over the top so we couldn't hear the words). Without any kind of visual, it's hard to really appreciate its impact, and if you looked away from the screen for a few moments, you'd wonder what on earth put Antony ahead of Brutus. On the other hand, the seeds of Antony and Octavian's eventual split are very effectively shown with a few words and a few more facial expressions, and among the excellent performances, Max Pirkis' ever calm, calculating Octavian stands out, a man who knows exactly what he's been given the minute he hears Posca read Caesar's will...


  1. I totally agree with you about them not showing the speech. Boo, teevee show. Boo.

    I'm glad to see someone out there who also loved the newsreader! And his hand gestures were historically accurate? Cool.

    I thought James Purefoy did a really good job as Antony, overall. And he's so very easy on the eyes. Yum.

  2. I have had quite a thing for James Purefoy ever since he was The Black Prince in A Knight's Tale - yum! He was the sexiest in that movie, against some strong competition!

  3. I'd have shown the speech too. It would have been easy enough to pluck out the juicy bits from the contemporary reports of the speech, toss in the bloody toga and maybe even the wax effigy with the wounds painted on, turning on a little wheel. And wasn't there a riot at the conclusion of the funeral?

    I've often wondered about Antony's actual role in all this. Some accounts say that the conspirators sounded him out, but he was noncommittal. OTOH, he didn't warn Caesar either. Typical of the weasel. And then he swooped in and grabbed up the will and played it all very close to the vest. Antony was always in it for Antony.

  4. I saw Carry on Cleo first and spent my teens thinking Antony was out to kill Caesar! There's definitely room for interpretation there I think.

  5. I listened to the commentary after writing this and apparently the speeches were left out for budgetary reasons. I still think that's no excuse - I'd rather see I, Claudius' old trick of showing the speaker and a few waving hands with 'crowd' sound effects in the background than miss it out all together, it's too important to skim over. I'd happily sacrifice some non-historical storylines for the history if that would help the budget too.


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