For its first series finale, Plebs gives us Christmas in April, telling a story set during one of my favourite Roman festivals, the Saturnalia.
Most Roman-set stories that cover the Saturnalia portray it as the Roman equivalent of Christmas, for the fairly logical reason that it's where some of our Christmas traditions come from, and part of the reason we celebrate Christmas on 25th December. Plebs, however, takes a different approach and assimilates it to the modern Western celebration of New Year's, complete with their own version of Times Square on New Year's Eve and the idea that people kiss at midnight. Having already covered one of the Saturnalia's best known elements - slaves and masters swapping places - in an earlier episode, there's very little of the actual Saturnalia left other than Cynthia's straw animals and the time of year, plus the general party atmosphere, which is pretty accurate.
Part of the reason for this is that the series plays down any religious elements of the festival. There's a nice tension running throughout the episode between poor, superstitious Cynthia's terror at being cursed by a street-corner soothsayer and Grumio's total lack of concern for the gods on the grounds that they don't exist (and it's always nice to see ancient unbelief depicted in popular culture, as popular stories too often assume that everyone in the ancient world believed in every myth and every tradition). Since the writing leans firmly in Grumio's direction, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is current secular celebrations, rather than religious ones, that form the basis of the episode. More importantly, of course, Marcus is driven throughout the story by his desire to get a chance to kiss Cynthia at midnight, leading to a nice final gag which helps prevent this story from feeling too much like Friends in togas.
Grumio's story in this episode didn't work so well for me. It starts off with him stealing meat from religious sacrifices, which makes no sense at all because apart from a few vital organs, the meat from religious sacrifices in Rome was eaten at a sacrificial banquet. The Greeks and Romans were not stupid and they did not throw away tonnes of perfectly good meat on the gods. The Greeks even had a whole myth to explain why the gods got the bones and not the meat. Then Grumio nearly gets taken off to Cyprus by a cult who want to castrate him (which happened in the secretive mystery cult of Cybele, according to a slightly hysterical poem by Catullus). Which is fine, except that Grumio is a slave, so the cult aren't recruiting him so much as stealing him from Marcus. I know I'm not supposed to complain about historical inaccuracy, but this plotline just left me a bit cold, not to mention it included some rather poor taste jokes as well (though I did like the way the costume department had dressed the cult priests half in Christian monk-like robes and half in Buddhist monk-like robes - inaccurate, but rather fun).
Luckily Marcus and Sylax's plot is more successful and involves them teaming up with Water-Man, which is always nice. Cynthia's plot, though thin, is also fun and allows the episode to open with a lovely homage to Monty Python's Life of Brian as we meet a doom-mongering old crone (and there were a lot of prophecies about the end of the world and, if we believe the poets, a lot of soothsaying old crones around in Rome as well, so that works). Her logic concerning the 'accident' that's going to befall her and her conviction that if Landlord had done his job properly she would have had a worse accident was wonderful. There was some nice snappy dialogue in this episode too - I particularly enjoyed Stylax's optimistic assertion to Marcus that soon, 'You'll get with Cynthia, I'll get with everybody else!' and Landlord's insistence that the reason for the damp in one of the rooms was that it's 'a wet room.'
All in all, a fun end to the series, and fingers crossed ITV will give it a second shot, if only in the hope that poor Marcus can finally catch a break and get at least a hug from Cynthia.
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