Saturday, 9 November 2013

Atlantis: The Rules of Engagement



I was really enjoying this episode, which was tripping along nicely - it was emotional, it was tense, the characterization was subtler and less broad than it has been sometimes, the jokes were hitting, as usual it looked amazing - and then right at the end, Ariadne did something that wasn't just stupid, it was so phenomenally, ridiculously stupid that there aren't words to describe it and I have been forced to resort to internet memes.







Please, please let Medea turn up to be Jason's love interest next year.

(To be fair, while the mythological Ariadne's story was quite different, she wasn't the sharpest tool in the box either. Catullus' poem 64 basically interprets her story as, she fell hard for Theseus and believed him when he said he would marry her, only to end up alone and not entirely properly dressed on the beach of Naxos, watching his ship disappear. But that's not really stupid, just a bit naive, and it could happen to anyone. What this Ariadne does is much, much worse).

But to go back to the beginning - in this episode, Ariadne is formerly betrothed to Heptarion and to celebrate, Minos holds a contest called a pankration. Except the contest we see on Atlantis isn't a pankration - it's a gladiatorial combat. Which is Roman.

The pankration, in ancient Greece, was a combination of boxing and wrestling that featured, among other occasions, at the ancient Olympic Games. There are some similarities between the Greek pankration and Atlantis' version, chiefly that it had very few rules (just no biting, gouging, or attacking the genitals). It was a sort of ancient Greek fight club, except definitely not a secret. Also, the Greeks usually did all sporting events naked, so the many shirtless men running around in this episode are being positively modest by Greek standards.

However, the Greek pankration did not involve weapons of any kind, and therefore certainly wasn't to 'first blood'. What did go to first blood sometimes was Roman gladiatorial combat, which didn't always have to be to the death. The combat here is also staged, like the bull-leaping, in an amphitheatre. This is a Roman bit of architecture which did not exist in ancient Greece. Ancient sports were held on flat ground, like the running track though for wrestling obviously it would be a different shape, and plays were viewed in semi-circular theatres which in Greece were rarely free-standing, but built into a hillside (and usually found, like running tracks, at religious sites).


Ancient Greek pankration

Essentially what we have here is a repeat of the bull-leaping story - a second episode out of seven that's actually a gladiator story. The plot even makes use of that great stand-by of gladiator stories, the need to make the crowd love you. Heptarion kills people unnecessarily and becomes unpopular, while Jason shows mercy and becomes a hero to the crowd and I think we're actually in Gladiator now. The only thing missing is the thumbs up/thumbs down routine, since technically these fights are not supposed to be to the death, it's just an unfortunate side effect of some of them.

The combat scenes aren't the only part of this episode that feels a bit more Roman than Greek to me. Pasiphae orders a slow-acting poison and starts using it on Minos. At one point, she actually says, "The king's health is already not what it was - but I shall nurse him to the end, you can be sure of that." At which point I think to myself, 'Why not just call her Livia and have done with it?' This isn't an accuracy issue - the trope of the wicked step-mother was as popular in Greece as it was in Rome and it's not really a culturally specific story - it's more about the history of the ancient world on television. The Evil Roman Matriarch is a recognizable trope, and Pasiphae clearly belongs to this category, despite being Greek.

Obviously, as I've said before, Atlantis is a fictional place that may not even be on this planet for all we know, so nit-picking it for historical accuracy may seem rather pointless. It's just very distracting when so much of a story supposedly set in a never-world inspired by ancient Greece is actually Roman. Your brain does a sort of handstand as it tries to shift from 'Bronze Age Greece mode' to 'Roman mode' - well, mine does anyway.

None of this is to say that the episode was bad, though - Ariadne's actions at the end aside, it was very good. I love a good gladiator story, so once you accept that's what it is and sit back to enjoy the ride, it provides a nice, tense hour or so, which is well executed (boom-tish!). Jason assures his friends that he's not just trying to win Ariadne, he's trying to earn them some money which is a nice bit of depth and highlights the issue of how exactly they earn a living, and Medusa and Hercules bond over nursing him (apparently this is all it takes for Medusa to forgive Hercules for attempting to 'enchant' - i.e., drug - her in order to 'go out with' - i.e., have sex with - her last week. SFF writers, please, when writing this sort of story, think through the implications before you go ahead with it).

I did like the little insights into Hercules and Pythagoras we saw this week, even though once again they took a back-seat in terms of overall plot. I loved Pythagoras' world weary cynicism and doomed attempts to make Jason understand the world he's living in. Jason himself seems remarkably concerned about having made an oath to Poseidon. Did his modern family bring him up to worship ancient Greek gods? Maybe he’s just become open minded since mysteriously being pulled into Somewhere Vaguely Resembling Ancient Greece. I also like the fact that Jason takes a lot of injuries and is obviously really hurting after each fight, rather than powering through the lot like a super-hero (even if said injuries are apparently invisible). I really liked the division between Pythagoras diagnosing and treating illnesses, but Hercules working on injuries, that's very ancient. Hercules' confession to Medusa was nice too, even if not surprising.

The other side of the story, Ariadne's betrothal, was also pretty strong up until those final minutes. Perhaps Jason's modernity is showing through again when he expresses horror at the idea that Ariadne should marry someone she doesn't love. She's a princess in a patriarchal society, of course she will have to enter into an arranged marriage for political reasons and not marry for love. If you wonder why aristocrats have to have politically motivated arranged marriages, just watch Game of Thrones and see what happens if you don't. Even Pasiphae's actions towards the beginning, if you leave out the part about torturing Korinna, are not unreasonable for a (step)mother in such a situation, and the hug between them was almost sweet.

(I did wonder why Ariadne didn't just tell her father she really didn't want to marry Heptarion and ask him if there were any alternatives before the betrothal. He seems genuinely to care for her and has clearly realized how miserable she is, so while he might not let her marry Jason, he's bound to be amenable to finding someone other than Heptarion. But no, that would be the sensible thing to do. We can't have that).

Poor Korinna. I've been waiting for her to die for weeks, she might as well have worn a red dress while she ran around carrying everyone else's messages. She and Ariadne obviously suck at subterfuge, muttering in an echo-y public hall about Ariadne's secret not-quite-boyfriend, but she didn't deserve to go this way - punished for the most monumental act of stupidity seen on TV since... some elaborate example probably involving Baldrick from Blackadder.

See, Ariadne decides to tell her father - in front of Pasiphae and Heptarion - that she thinks the gods have given them a sign that she shouldn't marry Heptarion. OK, fine, that's not a bad idea, though I still think she could have just told him the truth (without the Jason part). If she'd managed to convince Pasiphae she really believed this and pinned it on something neutral like the flight of an eagle - maybe even persuade the Oracle to tell a teeny white lie - all might have been well and Pasiphae would have been annoyed and started scheming afresh. But no - Ariadne decides to name Jason's defeat of Heptarion as her sign that the gods are displeased. It is, therefore, blindingly obvious to Pasiphae that she's still in love with Jason, who is put right back in the line of fire, and Ariadne's excuse is not remotely convincing. Sigh.

All in all, this was a good episode. The music’s nice, all sad violins, and although I still can't quite see why Jason and Ariadne are so in love with each other, at least they acknowledge that they haven't known each other long - and it's not hard to see why Ariadne would prefer Jason to Heptarion, who's slimy as all heck. Wishing you could marry someone you actually fancy, however little you know them, is understandable. Ariadne and Jason’s scene in the changing room is probably their best yet, as it’s understated and underplayed, their growing natural chemistry allowed to show through a little bit beyond corny lines or forced romantic interactions. The episode is just let down by those last few minutes, where Ariadne's total failure at palace politics gets poor Korinna killed and puts Jason right back at the top of Pasiphae's hit-list. I'm all for avoiding a forced marriage, but I don't think this is the way to do it, Ariadne. You probably should have just run away when you had the chance two episodes ago.

Quotes

Pythagoras: People die in the pankration, Jason.
Hercules: They don't just die, they get bits sliced off 'em and then they die!

Hercules (leaving Ariadne and Jason alone): We’ve just gotta go get some bees.
Pythagoras: Why bees?
Hercules: It was all I could think of!

Pasiphae (to Ariadne): You are more stupid than you can possibly imagine. You tell her, Pasiphae. I think I might switch sides...

Hercules: I don't deserve you, Medusa.
Medusa: Life's not fair, is it?

All Atlantis reviews

6 comments:

  1. Every once in awhile a facepalm is entirely called for.

    Good review, Juliette!

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    1. Thanks :) It seemed the situation called for it!

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  2. How is it that anyone can think of contests in Greece and not think Olympics first? Obviously their technical adviser told them the pankration was "anything goes" and they went too far. The real thing was certainly brutal enough. One of the most common moves was breaking an opponent's fingers so he couldn't get a grip. And there was plenty of cheating. Pankratists (and boxers) wrapped leather straps around their hands and sometimes glued bits of sharp stone or pointy metal bits in order to make the other guy bleed.

    Not a lot of poisoning in Greek myth and the only examples I can think of involve clothing soaked in contact poison (oh, wait, Medea and Theseus). But in the back of my mind, there's a niggling feeling that some woman somewhere in Greek mythology kept her husband weak so she could control him, but I can't quite get there.

    As for Jason worrying about an oath to Poseidon, I can see two possibilities. Either he's using it as an excuse to his friends, who would take it seriously or he made the oath not really worrying about it and then, after seeing some of the more supernatural things going on, started to worry that there might be something to it.

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    1. Yeah, he may have just meant it as an excuse - and to be fair he's seen some some weird stuff so he may be becoming quite open-minded!

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  3. My important contribution to this thread is that I am sure Hercules said 'beans' and not 'bees' Pythagoras had a thing about beans

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    1. That would make more sense - I was hoping they'd bring up Pythagoras' hatred of beans but when I interviewed Robert Emms for Den of Geek he didn't seem to have heard of it.

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