Monday, November 21, 2005

TV: Rome

[EDITED to note that there are big-time SPOILERS for the last couple episodes ahead.]

Last night was the season finale of HBO's Rome, and what a fantastic season it has been. Smart, sexy, violent, epic -- Rome is everything you expect of HBO, everything you expect to find nowhere else on television.

Those of you who watch Lost, and may have become frustrated with its slow pace -- Rome would give you whiplash. In just twelve episodes, it took us from the end of Julius Caesar's Gallic war victories (about 50 BC) to his assassination on the Senate floor (44 BC -- that's right, I did research, suckas!). Despite the enormous cast to keep track of, and its empire-spanning scale, and despite its relatively slow start, as all the characters and their political motivations were revealed to us, by the end the series felt like it was flying by, often in breathtaking fashion.

Last week's episode was quite likely the highlight of a series that's been filled with highlights. The gladiatorial battle was spectacular, with Pullo fighting for his life and the honor of his beloved XIIIth Legion, while his best friend Lucius Vorenus stands idly by, having been instructed by Caesar himself not to interfere. But as Pullo is finally beaten to the ground, and as the last gladiator stands ready to deliver the killing blow -- "Thirteen! Thirteen!!" Vorenus casts aside any thought of his political career -- or even his life -- and bellowing the legion battle cry, leaps into the arena to save his comrade's life, slaying the mightiest of the gladiators. I don't even have the words to describe how stirring and thrilling this scene was. I just keep coming back to: fucking awesome. Which I guess pretty well covers it, actually. It was one of the most exciting moments from the past year in TV.

And so we come to this week's finale, in which Vorenus and Pullo have become heroes of the people. Vorenus goes to Caesar, expecting he will be executed for his disobedience. But instead, Caesar tells him: I can not punish you without angering the people. And if I can not punish you, then I must reward you, or I will appear weak. And so instead of dying, Vorenus finds himself appointed to the Senate.

He serves more as bodyguard to Caesar than as Senator, with his fierce reputation keeping the conspirators against Caesar at bay. Which only leads to the inevitable tragedy that has been hanging over Vorenus since the first episode: Caesar's enemies inform Vorenus that his wife Niobe has been unfaithful, that the boy he thought was his daughter's child was actually his wife's, conceived while he was away at war. In a rage he leaves Caesar's side to confront her, and as he cradles a knife, struggling over whether to kill her or not, she takes matters into her own hands. "The boy is blameless," are her last heartbreaking words to him, as she drops herself backward over the balcony to her death. Even worse, as he watches her fall, you can see in Vorenus' eyes that his love for her was so strong, he would have forgiven her. And at that same moment, Caesar, now without his bodyguard, finds himself at the center of a storm of daggers on the Senate floor, with his beloved friend Brutus delivering the killing blow.

It was a chilling and powerfully moving ending to a riveting season. And this isn't even touching on the confrontation between Caesar's niece, the devilish schemer Atia of the Julii, and Servilia, Caesar's spurned lover and Brutus' mother. All season Atia has had Servilia under her thumb, slowly destroying her life. In the finale, Servilia calmly relates to Atia the steps that have been taken to destroy her family in turn -- Caesar's death leaves her utterly unprotected -- and rather than ending it there, Servilia gives Atia a chance to flee the city, that Servilia may have the pleasure of pursuing her to finish her off at her leisure. Damn, that is cold. Well played!

There's not a weak link in the cast, but Kevin McKidd has been especially great as Lucius Vorenus, so rigid he's in danger of cracking, as has Ray Stevenson as Pullo, the charismatic brute who befriends and humanizes Vorenus. Ciaran Hinds was fantastic as the doomed Caesar, the master strategist who dupes himself into believing in his own godhood, and Max Pirkis -- only 16 years old! -- gave an incredibly sophisticated performance as the young Octavian, soon to be Emperor Caesar Augustus (whose rise to power will probably be the centerpiece of the already confirmed second season). And Polly Walker as Atia has set a new standard for evil women on film.

Rome has joined the likes of Deadwood and The Sopranos as the best HBO has to offer -- which of course means the best television has to offer. At the beginning of this year, I couldn't imagine myself paying extra for a premium channel like HBO. Now, I can't imagine doing without.

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