Thursday, 8 September 2011

Rome: Testudo et Lepus (The Tortoise and the Hare)



For this episode, and for some others in season 2, for some reason the writers decided we needed a Latin title. This is a little odd, as 'The Tortoise and the Hare' is one of Aesop's fables, and Aesop wrote in Greek. Ah well, whatever makes them happy.

This is the episode that introduces us to Simon Woods as Octavian. As I mentioned a couple of episodes ago, this was a source of great frustration to me as I loved Max Pirkis' performance, but was unfortunately necessary. And Woods does an excellent job, somehow managing to both model his performance on Pirkis to a certain extent, so that his Octavian is believably the same person, while at the same time making the role of the older Octavian his own.

We open with one of Rome's nastier sequences (which is saying something) as Atia's slave, who has sampled the poisoned food meant for Atia, dies mid-song while she's supposed to be entertaining her. It's not as gory as many other sequences, not only from the rest of the series but from this episode, but it's terribly sad and affectingly shot (not dissimilar to the scene in Elizabeth where the queen's maid puts on the poisoned dress).

Her idiot boyfriend was watching from behind a pillar and is therefore immediately caught, tied up, flogged and tortured. Jocasta and Octavia turn up halfway through, which strips Jocasta of the delusion that Atia is 'harmless'. Octavia's response to the news that one of the 'servants' (i.e. slaves) tried to poison her is 'what were you doing to the servants to make them want to murder you?' which is both hilarious and appropriate (there was a fair bit of debate among the Roman aristocracy concerning whether you should treat your slaves well, so they love you, or terrify them. The desired result either way was to make sure that they didn't decide to murder you in your sleep).

Atia says she has to torture the boy even though she already knows he was working for Servilia, or his evidence won't stand up in court, which is true if he's a slave (I had thought he was a freelancer of sorts, but perhaps not). She doesn't actually plan to prosecute Servilia though - she wants to kill her and she's ensuring she'll have a good defense if any of Servilia's surviving relatives decide take her to court. Do not piss off Atia. Jocasta thows up while Atia promises to spare the boy and then has Timon kill him anyway (which was pretty predictable, but it was that or get tortured to death, so he's no worse off really).

The boy clears up the issue of 'Timon' not being a Jewish name for the audience (it's for business purposes apparently; in other words, he wasn't Jewish to the writers until season 2) and is summarily dispatched, narrative purpose accomplished. Timon, however, seems to be getting a teensy bit fed up of dumping the bodies of 16-year-olds in the sewers. It's understandable; blood and sewage will stain your clothes no end and they didn't have Daz back then. And your kids will never believe you spilled that much ketchup all over yourself. His wife and brother indulge in some judging when he turns up at home, so he feels nicely guilty as well as dirty.

Dodgy finally catches up to the Godfather at Mutina, where Octavian('s troops, led by Agrippa, plus those of the sadly deceased Hirtius and Pansa) has just defeated Mark Antony. Since the Godfather was fighting for Antony, getting to him is pretty difficult and the chances of him still being alive look slim. While turning over dead bodies, Dodgy is addressed by a man on a horse who turns out to be Octavian himself. It's a very clever introduction for Woods as Octavian, as he appears, helmeted and with the sun behind him, and Dodgy doesn't recognise him, which provides him with a perfectly natural way to introduce himself to the audience. It also gives him the opportunity to remind everyone that he is now going by 'Caesar', clearly marking out his political ambitions and reminding everyone that he's Caesar's heir. Octavian has fond memories of the man who helped him to lose his virginity and supervised his first murder - important events in the life of a young would-be dictator - so he helps Dodgy to get across to the remains of Antony's forces and gives him a copy of his seal (in mud!).

The following scene introduces us to Maecenas and to Octavian's real triumvirate, of himself and his two closest friends, Maecenas and Agrippa (Maecenas eventually fell from favour for somewhat murky reasons; Agrippa remained his closest friend and heir apparent until his death). It's all about threesomes, Late Republican history. I like Alex Wyndham's interpretation of Maecenas. He's a little bit more effeminate than Octavian or Agrippa, as all interpretations of Maecenas are, and he's as smarmy and decadant as the character always inevitably is, but he avoids the awful, over-the-top camp pantomime-acting of some others. He's also properly heartless, even more than Octavian - Octavian just coldly murders people, Maecenas gloats. And he has a purpose, beyond divine decadence and poetry - he writes and chooses Octavian's speeches too. The three of them are a perfect triple act.

The moment where Agrippa blurts out 'Octavia!' when Octavian tells him to give his sister a letter is hilarious, requiring as it does the response, 'I only have one sister.' That's some bad Mentionitis Agrippa's got there. I'm glad to see that Maecenas brings up the question of why Octavian's general is being his messenger, and Octavian's answer, that he wants to intimidate Cicero, does make some kind of sense. Sort of. (Except for the minor problem that, brilliant general though Agrippa may be, this incarnation of him isn't exactly imposing in person).

Octavian gees up his soldiers by appealing to their greed and they head off towards Rome. Meanwhile the Godfather, who is of course alive because he's protected by the gods/his supernatural sense of nobility and justice/his total badassery/Plot Armour, pretends he can't hear Dodgy yelling his name across half the Alps. It can't last forever though and luckily Dodgy, always the most sensible character in the series (and sometimes, it seems, on television) comes straight in with the important news that the children are still alive. The Godfather is, naturally, too noble to just run off and get them so we rejoin Antony and Posca, who knows he's still alive because 'if this is the afterlife it's extremely disappointing.' Posca thinks they should offer Octavian terms but Antony's having none of it. Antony lets the Godfather go 'cause he's a softy at heart really, and because they can tell everyone they see that he remains undefeated.

Over in Asia, Brutus is feeling much better for having been born again, though 'magnificent' might be pushing it (I'm starting to think Cassius just fancies him. Please note this is not my professional opinion!). Back in Rome, his mother is not doing so well. Timon kidnaps her in the middle of a prayer (to make us feel sorry for her?) and takes her down to Atia's torture chamber, where she insists that Atia deserves a slow and painful death and calls her sad and lonely. She tries to get Atia to kill her straight away, but really, after the 'slow and painful death' bit, she can't actually expect that. She insists that Atia will feel degraded and defiled for torturing her but I think that just shows that she doesn't know Atia very well.

Quite a few screams, a lot of torture and a gang rape later, Servilia still won't confess to the poison plot, so Atia orders Timon to cut up her face. Timon, however, has had enough. What with Servilia being a noblewoman and her testimony not requiring torture, and the fact that they already know it was her anyway, and that the rape probably wasn't necessary (and didn't they already do that to her last season?) he's reached breaking point. He sets Servilia free, yells 'I am not an animal!' at Atia and storms out. Atia could have got her other torturers to keep hold of Servilia if she'd wanted to but presumably all the talk of how torturing people isn't very nice really is starting to get to her too, and lets her rival run home.

Dodgy apologises for what he said to the Godfather and the Godfather thanks him for torturing and killing Niobe's lover. Dodgy then points out that the children are not going to be in the best shape after goodness knows how long in a slave camp, and that the Godfather's daughters are likely to be even more pissed off if the Godfather then insists on killing their brother for the sake of his honour. The Godfather sulks.

We see the unfortunate Servilia in a state of distress, being cared for by her slaves. I do feel sorry for Servilia, who has had horrible things done to her - but she was trying to murder Atia, she's not exactly innocent herself. Not that this means she deserves what Atia did to her, but still.

Octavia, meanwhile, is throughly surprised that Octavian actually managed to win the battle. When she asks why he's bringing his army to Rome, Agrippa replies, 'Politics'. Octavia reacts rather badly to her brother's insistence that she and Atia swear allegiance to him, and not much better to Agrippa's terrible, awkward attempts to flirt with her. Well, 'flirt' isn't really the right word, it's more like a medieval attempt to declare undying love for her. Luckily for her Atia interrupts and seems genuinely glad Octavian is still alive (and probably equally glad that Antony is as well).

Agrippa also brings the news to Cicero, who is quite happy until he gets to the bit in Octavian's letter about bringing his army to Rome, along with his insistence on being called 'Caesar'. Bamber is brilliant as usual, as Cicero realises he's inadvertently doomed his beloved Republic. 'Gods, I'm so tired of young men and their ambitions,' he says, and he tells Agrippa it's all vanity, but since he's talking to the only person not-Octavian who will eventually come out of all this better off than he was at the beginning, it rings a bit hollow.

Dodgy and the Godfather arrive at the mine and slave camp, which looks just like the one from Spartacus and at which the foremen seem to consider whipping the slaves as something of a hobby. A combination of Dodgy's smooth talking and Octavian's seal, which he waves around at everyone, gets them what they want. The two younger children have been working in the kitchens and don't seem terribly pleased to see their father - the boy knows he's in trouble even if he doesn't know why - but the Godfather, it turns out, is not an animal either and can't bring himself to kill a small boy, so it's all OK for now. Vorena the Elder has been put to work as a prostitute, which makes the Godfather very cross indeed, so he kills the overseer and the two of them lead the children out of the camp. These are very good scenes; all the performances are brilliant, especially Kevin McKidd's, and the use of one of the jauntier settings of the main theme as our heroes lead the children out of the camp and the episode ends is very effective.

This is a good episode, in which the serious grimness of most of the subject matter is leavened a little bit by the sort-of-happy ending. While the episode gets rather too into all the torture in places, I really like the way it makes it clear that just because torture is legally allowed - even required - in some cases, that doesn't mean everyone is all hunky-dory with it. Torture was an essential part of the Roman legal system, but Jocasta is horrifed and has no desire to witness it, Octavia has limited interest in it and even Timon, a professional torturer, takes no pleasure in it. Indeed, even Atia has had her fill by the end. Roman law could be very harsh, but people are people everywhere - some are nice, some are nasty, some enjoy torturing others, most (I hope) do not. This episode acts as an excellent exploration of different attitudes towards torture, while, of course, setting up the climax of Servilia's story.

All my Rome reviews are listed here

7 comments:

  1. There's plenty of Aesop in Latin, too! :-) Here is a Testudo et Lepus in Latin, and here is another Latin version of the same. :-)

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  2. That's true - though I'm still not sure why they suddenly decided Latin titles were the way to go! Still, any excuse to use Latin is a good one I guess :)

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  3. So, by this point they've just tossed out what little factual history they had left? If Antony and Octavian are already at war with each other, they seem to be skipping right over the second triumvirate.

    Poor Agrippa. Octavian gets to give his name to an era and a style of poetry (once he becomes Augustus anyway) and Maecenas gets to have his name used to mean a patron of the arts for several centuries. But Agrippa gets nothing and he may have been the best of them.

    There do seem to be some good lines in this episode. Octavian's snark about only having one sister is good, although my brain immediately noted that even if he'd had more, they'd be called Octavia too. But I really love Cicero's line, especially when you consider that he was once a young man with ambitions himself.

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  4. No, we haven't got as far as the second triumvirate yet - this is the battle of Hirtius, Pansa and Octavian (for which read Agrippa!) against Mark Antony. The second triumvirate will come later, when Brutus and Cassius start making their way back from Asia (I don't think Antony moved very far in between times!).

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  5. Ah, a bit of a gap in my knowledge. I'd always thought Octavian and Antony were allies all through the war against the assassins. I've never paid much attention to the period between Caesar's death and Augustus being fully in charge.

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  6. another great review which reminds me of how much I enjoyed this series! :o)

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  7. Thanks :) I really like season 2, even more than season 1 for some reason

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