The following is a review of Rome Season Two, which has just ended on HBO. This isn’t just the finish of the series, but the climax of Rome itself, with no more planned. The new set of episodes tracks Republican history from the immediate aftermath of Julius Caesar’s death, to the eventual triumph of his adoped son, Gaius Octavian Caesar. It closes in 30 BC, the effective start of Rome’s imperial phase, and as suitable a point as any on which to call a close to this thrilling drama. No doubt, many readers will be waiting for it to appear on British television (nothing has been announced yet), or its release on DVD, which will hopefully be as lavish an affair as the superb Season One boxset. Please note that this review contains spoilers, though I’ll try to limit these as far as possible.
First, the inevitable question - is Season Two as good as its predecessor? For fans of the series, the initial run was a triumph, a richly detailed look at Rome’s political and social history that pulled no punches in its graphic depictions of sex and violence. Millions of dollars had been plunged into it, producing an epic affair that mirrored real life events whilst showing what life was like through all stratas of society. One of the first season’s biggest hurdles was in the amount of exposition it had to get out of the way before moving on to the good stuff. This covered a good deal of the first three episodes, and explains the merciless chopping of content to fit within two one-hour shows aired on the BBC.
Providing UK viewers could ‘hack the hacking,’ Rome turned out to be quite brilliant, full of rounded characters who could be defined as neither good or bad, but merely human. It ended with Caesar’s assassination, a climactic point that marked the supposed rise of conservative Republicanism, and the hegemony of Servilia of the Junii (Lindsay Duncan) over her hated rival, Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker). As we see very early in the new series, this is illusory. It isn’t long before Atia is back in full form, her lover Mark Antony demonstrating that real power sits with him. In the meantime, Titus Pullo marries Eirene (Chiara Mastalli), a remarkable turnaround considering he killed her true lover in the first series. While the likeable Pullo achieves some form of happiness, Lucius Vorenus is struggling to recover from Niobe’s suicide, and a feeling that he was partly responsible for Caesar being killed. Antony blames him, and to make amends he is forced to set himself up as a leader within Roman gangland, ensuring peace is maintained in order to help his master.
The ‘Joker’ in all this is Octavian (Simon Woods, who replaces Max Pirkis at a midway point in the series). Atia’s son learns he is Caesar’s heir, and that he stands to inherit all his adopted father’s wealth and titles. Nominally a position of power, Octavian has enough about him to realise that this means nothing unless he takes responsibility and enters public life. When he does, it’s with spectacular consequences for everyone. Octavian has to get the Senate on his side, seeing off tired old patricians like Cicero (David Bamber), whilst mobilising to square up to his one true rival - Antony. The series focuses on the battle for power between the two. On the one hand, Antony appears to hold all the aces - he’s popular, well-established, an experienced soldier, and he physically outmatches his young opponent, as is graphically demonstrated during one of the early episodes. But he also crucially underestimates Octavian. Rome shows how it’s possible for a rich nobody to rise to the top of the political tree, in the meantime leaving a trail of blood and no rivals to his throne. Antony drinks heavily, bullies others and throws his weight around, but he has little of Octavian’s shrewd intelligence and one-track drive towards the top flight. The series finishes in the fall-out of Actium, the decisive battle that was decided in Octavian’s favour. Defeated and broken, Antony has little to do but end his own life, leaving Cleopatra to deal with the consequences of their union’s downfall.
The political element to the story is never less than fascinating, much as we would expect from the series. To some degree, it’s even better than in Season One. At least then, you only had to look at Caesar in action to see why he was near the top of the food chain. In Octavian’s case, we have a character who lacks charisma, can’t fight, struggles to deal with people and seems ever cold. Somehow, he negotiates the tricky obstacle presented by Antony and wins the post of Imperator, a permanent role that will see in the imperial era. Almost tougher is his ascendancy to the head of the family. Following Atia’s ‘victory’ over Servilia, the most watchable character from Season One just about loses her lust for life. Antony leaves her, first when Octavian offers his sister’s hand in marriage, and later as the old boor’s alliance with Cleopatra blossoms into an affair. Atia still has her moments. A Roman noble this spirited could never be dull. But she isn’t the formidable harpie from Season One, and that hurts.
Yet as Atia’s star fades, others rise. James Purefoy as Antony is a revelation. If Caesar dominated the first series, he overshadows all other players this time around. Played to perfection, I think he completely fills the skin of his infamous character, and ought to remain my definitive Antony. Richard Burton, you have been easily depedestalled. There’s more too of Cleopatra, the slight Egyptian queen who comes to be a major player in the political arena. Though it’s hard to imagine this part belonging to anyone but Elizabeth Taylor, Lyndsey Marshal gives the role a good deal of spirit, always keeping an eye on the fortunes of her kingdom whilst falling for Antony. Max Baldry plays Caesarion, her young son, as a spoilt brat. As we know from Season One, there’s a serious question over his paternity. Was his father Caesar, or Pullo? We never find out for sure, of course, DNA testing being some two thousand years away, but this does lead to a warm scene where the young price asks Vorenus what his dad was like, and the soldier’s affectionate replies make it clear he’s talking about Pullo. Caesarion’s ‘Great Escape’ moment is one of the few garish instances in the entire series. Not a bad one as such, just a bit on the obvious side. Rome deserves better.
As for the two reluctant stars, the series tries - and largely succeeds - to find them new things to do. Vorenus and Pullo quickly establish themselves within the underworld, leading to a fresh set of adventures in which we’re shown just what life on Rome’s mean streets is like (much like modern times, to be fair). We get several new characters, principally the feisty Gaia (Zuleikha Robinson), who falls into bed with the pair of them and does her bit to make Eirene’s life miserable. Their side to the plot plays second fiddle to the historical events during this series. A running story concerning Vorenus’s estrangement from his own children becomes tiresome, and for some time the perpetual moaning Pullo puts up with from Eirene threaten to sap him of all his vigour. Once the pair are no longer intertwined with the fortunes of Rome (they are again by the season’s climax), their antics begin to lose some interest. Though there’s value in showing them deal with the rougher side of life, it’s simply not as much fun as when they’re caught up in the manoueverings of the people who matter. As ever though, Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson deliver fine performances. Vorenus’s fall into moral decay gives McKidd a new dimension to his character, whilst Stevenson excels as the perpetually cheerful Pullo. Considering all the nasty things that happen to him and his friends, it’s a blessing to see him always get up for more.
If Season Two isn’t quite up to the standard set by the first run, it’s because the latter was presented more or less impeccably. This one suffers slightly from the lack of Ciaran Hinds, who breathed so much life into Caesar; Simon Wood simply can’t compete as the robotic Octavian. Quite simply, Caesar is one of history’s most fascinating characters. His death casts a massive shadow over Season Two, one it never really overcomes. There are several occasions when simply more of the same seems to appear on the screen again and again. Octavia (Kerry Condon) has a steamy affair with Octavian’s friend, Agrippa (Allen Leech), but it ends without ever being resolved, as though it’s little more than an excuse to throw in a few extra sex scenes.
These, however, are minor quibbles. Rome has too much going for it to be dull, and even a slightly sub-par series is better than virtually anything else out there. The ending hits all the right notes, and though it finishes at a suitable point, leaves us wanting more. An online petition exists for the public to demand more, even if in all likelihood the massive investment in further episodes will most probably put paid to any actual plans. As Pullo would say, cack! At least the show goes out on a high, before its contents have a chance to get stale. It will remain one of television’s most elaborate and intelligent drama series, whatever BBC editors might do to make it less so. Ave!