Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"Caesar is Dead, Long Live Caesar" (Season Premiere of "Rome" on HBO)

After a hiatus of over a year, Season 2 of “Rome” picks up right where Season 1 left off.

Caesar is dead. The great man is right where we last saw him, lying dead in a pool of his own blood on the floor of the Senate. His slave, Posca, is by his side, weeping as he sees what they’ve done to his “dominus”.

Just outside the Senate, Mark Antony is confronted by Quintus Pompey and several other armed men. They seem intent on making sure that Antony won’t be grieving Caesar for very long. Antony fights them off and makes a run for it.

A very shaken Brutus, one of the assassins and the figurehead of the assassination itself, returns home. His mother, Servilia, who spent the last episodes of Season 1 pushing him towards Caesar’s murder, continues guiding her son towards a role, “Savior of the Republic” to which he seems ill-suited and in which he seems uninterested.

In other news, our two main protagonists, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo seem to have switched identities.

Stable, family man Vorenus has seen his wife commit suicide only minutes after he’s discovered that the child she’s been passing off as Vorenus’ grandson is actually her son by another man. Vorenus’ daughters arrive on the scene to find their mother dead and their father having seemingly lost his mind. A crazed Vorenus curses his sobbing children and wanders off in a daze. He learns of Caesar’s death, but it is not clear if Vorenus has figured out that many will blame him for it. He was supposed to have been Caesar’s personal bodyguard in the Senate, but was lured away from his duties through the machinations of Servilia.

Unstable, hard-partying Pullo, meanwhile, proposes to his former slave, Eirene. She accepts (after he promises her dresses, food, shelter, and no beatings) but the couple’s newlywed bliss is interrupted by news of Caesar’s death. To his credit, Pullo doesn’t shoot the messenger. He does, however, knock him off his horse before stealing it from the poor man. With his wife in tow, Pullo rides hard for Rome.

At the house of Atia, the balance of power is shifting. While the mistress of the house weeps in the arms of one of her slaves, her children, Octavian and Octavia, have put two and two together and figured out they played an unwitting role in Caesar’s assassination. Servilia was only able to lure Vorenus from Caesar’s side because of information that Octavian gave to Octavia, who in turn gave it to Servilia.

Atia wants to flee the city, but Octavian, shrewdly, argues that the better course of action is to sit tight and wait things out. A disheveled Antony shows up, vowing vengeance against Caesar’s killers.

At the house of the late, great Gaius Julius Caesar Dictator, Antony, Atia, Octavian, and Octavia are in attendance as Posca reads the contents of Caesar’s will. Posca gets his freedom, the common people get some money, and Octavian receives the remainder of Caesar’s estate and a posthumous adoption as Caesar’s son, to boot. Antony gets nothing, and is none too pleased about it. Although Antony claims that Caesar’s will is worthless, as his killers will simply declare that he was a tyrant, thus rendering all his acts null and void. Octavian is the only one who realizes that the assassins have painted themselves into a legal corner. If they declare Caesar a tyrant, they lose all rank and protection since Caesar was the one who appointed them to their current offices in the first place. Antony remains unconvinced, but Octavian is able to sway Atia with two simple sentences.

“If the will stands, and it might, you are mother to the richest man in Rome. If the will is broken, Servilia has that honor.”

Antony goes to the house of Brutus and Servilia. He uses Octavian’s line of reasoning in most persuasive fashion. They accept Antony’s offer of a truce, agreeing that Brutus and Antony will deliver the orations at Caesar’s public funeral. (In a later scene we see Antony’s unorthodox and definitely R-rated preparation for the funeral)

Pullo arrives in Rome and helps Vorenus regain a modicum of his former sanity. Vorenus is racked with guilt over having cursed his children. When he discovers that the children were taken by his old enemy Erastes Fulmen, he feels even guiltier.

Servilia, Caesar’s former lover and the true architect of his death, goes to the great man’s house to pay her respects. She is confronted by Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia. Servilia is coldly courteous. Calpurnia responds by spitting in her face. Twice. The exquisite Lindsay Duncan, who portrays Servilia, captures her character’s mixed emotions perfectly as she views the corpse of the great enemy who was also the love of her life.

The events of Caesar’s funeral are related to us through one of Erastes Fulmen’s henchmen. He tells his drinking companions that Brutus’ speech went over like flatulence in a cathedral, while Antony played to the masses and whipped them into a frenzy, particularly after displaying Caesar’s bloody toga and throwing it into the ranks of what had quickly become a bloodthirsty mob. At the end of it all, Brutus leaves the city on a thin pretext and Servilia remains at Antony’s home as his guest (read: hostage).

Episode 1 ends with Vorenus and Pullo confronting Erastes Fulmen. After butchering Fulmen’s henchmen, the two demand to know the whereabouts of Vorenus’ children. Fulmen tells Vorenus that he killed them before tossing their bodies into the Tiber River. Vorenus decapitates him, and the last thing we see is Vorenus carrying the head of Erastes Fulmen through the streets with Pullo trailing behind him.

All in all, this was a great episode. It’s marvelous to see that a show can keep a story interesting, even when its viewing audience knows the eventual outcome. (Did you catch that, “Smallville”?)

The groundwork for this period in Rome’s history was laid out for us. The power vacuum and instability caused by Caesar’s death and the eventual power struggle between Antony and Octavian.

Et tu, Brute?

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