Saturday, 26 October 2013

Atlantis: White Lies

The arc plot starts to get moving a bit more in this week’s Atlantis, though it’s still moving at a glacially slow pace – obviously, going too fast would be a disaster and the show would run out of story, but the drip-drip of information here is so slow it risks not holding our attention. Still, I enjoyed this episode a lot – like last week, it’s rooted in character-driven drama, and that tends to be more my thing than pure spectacle, though of course it still looks amazing.

The plot of this week’s episode had almost nothing to do with Greek mythology, which is fine, but it means it has to work that bit harder to get us to care, without a famous name and existing associations to spark the interest. But one aspect of the story that would have resonated with ancient Greeks is Pasiphae’s role as the wicked step-mother, trying to have Minos’ son and heir Therus (not a character from Greek myth as far as I know) killed in favour of her nephew.

Many families would have included a step-mother in ancient Greece, thanks to the high rate of death in childbirth in pre-industrial societies. Since women also married men substantially older than themselves – and there were a lot of wars – some of these second and third wives who’d survived their own labours and whose husbands had died might come to the family with children of their own. The trope of the wicked step-mother comes from the fear that a woman who has a son of her own will be a threat to her husband’s sons from a previous marriage, as she’ll want to get rid of the husband’s heirs in favour of her own children. (In ancient Greece, land was split equally between legitimate sons, so the more sons you had, the less land each one got). We see the wicked or otherwise threatening step-mother in ancient myths and stories and it's also used against the historical Livia by historians wanting to make her look bad – indeed, Pasiphae bears an increasing resemblance to the scheming matriarchs TV series set in ancient Rome are so keen on, modelled on I, Claudius’ Livia.

In Pasiphae’s case, it’s her nephew she wants to marry off to Ariadne, and then presumably rule through him. But by far the most interesting line, frustratingly not expanded upon, in the whole episode was Minos’ reference to ‘what we did to seize power’ and his belief that the gods are punishing him for ‘taking the throne.’ Unlike Pasiphae, Minos is a reasonably sympathetic (albeit strict and ruthless), much more interesting character so this is genuinely intriguing.

There are several possibilities for what he means. In some stories, to prove to his brothers that the gods wanted him to be king, Minos asked Poseidon to send him a bull from the sea, and promised to sacrifice it to the sea-god. However, when the bull turned up, it was so beautiful that he couldn’t do it, and sacrificed a much less valuable animal instead, so Poseidon sent the bull mad as a punishment. But that’s the origin story of the Minotaur (Pasiphae falls in love with the mad bull and insists on having sex with it) and Atlantis has already done its own version of that (plus, we may see a lot of torture here, but bestiality really is a bit beyond what you can show on BBC One at teatime). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Minos later goes to war against Megara (the city, not the woman) and the princess Scylla (not the sea-monster) falls in love with him and chops off her father’s magic hair so Minos wins, but then Minos rejects her and she goes mad and turns into a bird. So they could perhaps do something with that… Anyway, the idea that Minos has a dark past as an evil usurper is by far the most interesting character development Atlantis has done yet.

Ariadne herself gets a little bit more development here, as she finally gets to leave the palace! She still doesn’t have much of a personality beyond being terribly noble and upright but at least she shows that she is willing to take action when necessary. The trouble is, it’s very hard to buy into Jason’s desperate love for her and willingness to die for her when they’ve barely spent five minutes together. (I’m also not sure letting on to the prince that you fancy his sister is a good idea…) Honestly, although Ariadne's nice and all, I desperately want Medea to turn up in some form and for Jason to give up on Ariadne and have a more interesting and convincing romance with someone more three-dimensional. Hercules and Medusa’s relationship is much more convincing because, although their screen-time together may be limited (though it still outranks Jason and Ariadne by a long way), we see them doing ordinary things like watching dung beetle races together, so we can see that they’ve spent considerable time together, albeit off-screen. Hercules and Pythagoras are still the best developed relationship of all though.

Jason’s modernity again comes through in little ways, though he still hasn’t expressed the slightest desire to get back to a land and a time period where he can eat fish and chips with ketchup. This week, he demonstrates his non-ancient-ness by being the person who tells Therus that Ariadne should be allowed to choose whether to leave or stay for herself, at which I almost wanted to cheer. The girls do not get much to do on this show, but at least their right to their own agency is respected (so far – we will not speak of the dubiousness promised by the trailer for next week). All these little touches of modern attitude do at least justify that framing device back in the first episode, but really, having made such a huge character decision, it would be nice to see it explored a little bit.

The Oracle also appeared again for the first time in a week or two. I must admit, I hadn’t missed her – she’s rather one-note. True to her ancient forebears, she speaks in confusing and often mis-leading riddles, in this case insisting that ‘lost at sea’ is not the same as ‘dead’ (I kind of want to see the adventures of Therus, at sea for ten years. They should have just called him Odysseus or Ulysses…) With the story focused on getting Jason and Ariadne to make puppy eyes at each other, Pythagoras and Hercules had little to do beyond look after Hercules’ dung beetle, though it was Hercules, possibly the sharpest character since Pythagoras is all book-knowledge and Jason is the brawn, who observes that Corinna and Therus clearly aren’t lovers. I did also notice that Pythagoras said the mountain paths were too littered with corpses to be able to bury them all. That may be true, but if you want to do well in Greek mythology you could do worse than bury a few corpses properly – their ghosts, who can’t cross the Styx into the underworld until they’re probably buried, will be ever so grateful.

Without losing the fun and the gorgeousness of the early episodes, Atlantis has improved steadily over the last couple of weeks. This episode gave us a lovely scene between Ariadne and Minos and fleshed out Minos’ character considerably – if future episodes can give us more Minos and less Pasiphae (who is just too dully predictable to be interesting, though it’s not actress Sarah Parish’s fault, she’s giving it all the evil glare she can muster) and if we can see the girls’ own agency and value not only respected but shown on screen in the form of them actually doing something, we’ll be well on our way to some classic teatime fantasy drama.


Jason: I was looking for a bowl – which I found. It’s not for now, it’s for another time… It’s not quite ‘I carried a watermelon’ but Donnelly’s delivery is great.


  1. Therus is probably meant to evoke Thera, so maybe things are going to get explosive later on.

    There are actually a couple of Athenian court speeches involving wicked stepmothers inveigling stepsons out of their inheritance. I think one even has her allegedly pulling it off in favor of her son from her previous marriage. Of course, it's all horribly complicated by the fact that marriages among the upper classes tended to be within clan groups, so as to keep the property in the family. Plus the "facts" in these cases are horribly one-sided and spun like mad. I think the only case where we have even part of both sides is the blasphemy case against Andocides.

    If Jason first runs off with Ariadne and then dumps her for Medea, you get a nice parallelism of Ariadne being abandoned by Theseus and Jason dumping Medea for the princess of Corinth.

  2. This one finally got me a bit more interested in the series! Can we have pick up the pace on the character development please???

    1. Yeah, we need a bit more character stuff, fewer bad jokes and dodgy monsters!


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