Rome begins its second season, which HBO has said will be its last, precisely where it left off. It is the Ides of March, Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds) lays a bloody ruin on the Senate floor, and the city is on the cusp of collapse. Young Octavian (Max Pirkis), who now looks noticeably older than when we last saw him, learns that he is the rightful heir to the late Caesar’s estate and, eager to capitalize on the city’s confusion following the assassination, intends to protect his claim to the pontifex maximus title by raising an army of his own. Meanwhile, Marc Antony (James Purefoy), who is next in line to lead the Republic, has other plans. All this, and any 10th-grade history class, should tell us some conflict is surely on the horizon.
History lessons aside, however, the actual focus of the series is on two fictitious soldiers in Caesar’s army named Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). In an effort to tie well-known Roman history with the personal drama of Vorenus and Pullo, the writers concocted some unlikely scenarios for our heroes last season. In only 12 episodes, they were each offered the chance to sleep with Cleopatra (only Pullo accepted), had the chance to capture the exiled Pompey single-handedly, became local heroes for their fighting ability in the Coliseum, survived a shipwreck that killed 5,000 men (if only that were hyperbole), and just for good measure, Vorenus was appointed a senator of Rome by Caesar himself before becoming his personal bodyguard—and, yes sharp reader, that also makes him personally responsible for Caesar’s death. Damn, what are the chances?
This Forrest Gump-like approach to history continues less so at the start of the new season. After Niobe’s suicide, Vorenus’s children are kidnapped and sold into slavery. Believing they are dead, he makes a rather dramatic turn to the dark side; decked out in black garb and leather wristbands, he proclaims himself a “son of Hades.” (Wasn’t that a metal band in the ’80s?) With Antony’s permission, Vorenus is given the task of bringing peace to the warring criminal element in Rome. In this seedy world of crime, run mostly out of a brothel-like atmosphere, we are introduced to a woman named Gaia (Zuleikha Robinson), a character whose flatness is only outdone by Robinson’s overacting. The other members of this underworld atmosphere are a hodgepodge of forgetful faces that do little more than bow and nod to Vorenus’s commands. Pullo, who tries to talk some sense into his friend, is predictably pushed aside and reprimanded for questioning him in front of the others.
What seemed so promising at the end of Rome’s last season seems to have lost its way in these new episodes. Perhaps the lag time between seasons (the first season ended in 2005) has caused the writers to lose their steam, but, whatever the reason, motivations and characters which were once well-developed have become redundant and dull. In one surprising scene, we see Antony claim that he has no interest in ruling Rome at all—that is, until Atia (Polly Walker) convinces him otherwise. This is completely at odds with who the character was last season and even in just the previous episode. Do the writers exchange notes at all? Other out of place scenes include an unrewarding “hemp inhaling” incident with Atia’s daughter Octavia (Kerry Condon), who’s seen giggling like a schoolgirl. Presumably, this was an attempt at levity. Sadly, it fell flatter than Gaia’s personality.
While watching the new season of Rome, one can’t help but wonder where the clever parallel to the modern world lies—a connection which was hinted at in a few scenes last season but never fully explored. Where also is the classically styled speech we once heard? In a poignant moment last season, Vorenus asked, “Who will honor my name when I am gone? Who will pay Proserpina and Pluto for my keep? Who will pour wine upon my grave?” This classically delivered introspection is lost in the series’s new season. It appears the series’s multi-million dollar budget was gorged on set design and less on apt screenwriting. While the look and feel of the series is still as brilliant as before, it feels wasted on these paltry scripts.
At least the sex is always on hand. Though it did little for 1979’s Caligula, lurid sexual escapades always bring in the TV ratings. After last season’s May/December lesbian romance, an incestuous bedroom tussle between a brother and sister, and even a romping affair with Cleopatra herself, Rome is quite happy to harp on how sexually open the good ole days really were. Unfortunately, it often seems more forced than a smile on Vorenus’s face, such as when Antony proclaims: “I am not rising from this bed until I’ve fucked someone!” Oh, you randy devil!
Though this isn’t to say they’ve done it all wrong. The series creators (Apocalypse Now writer John Milius among them) have managed to successfully side step many of the Hollywood clichés we’ve seen about ancient times. In one particularly clever move during Caesar’s funeral pyre, the writers avoided competing with Shakespeare by never actually showing Antony deliver his famous eulogy for Caesar. Instead, we hear of his speech from a drunkard in a brothel, told with all the embellished mannerisms only the inebriated can provide. The show also does well with its unsparing depiction of slavery. In fact, we see at least one slave in almost every scene but, disturbingly, they’re rarely acknowledged and viewers may not always notice them. Treated as cattle, we see them act as stepping stools for horsemen and sit quietly in the room as their masters have sex. Abuse is dolled out like gratuity and viewers become strangely accustomed to the relationship after only a few episodes. So at least Rome deserves kudos for depicting slavery in its most hard-to-believe reality, and it is in this kind of detailing that the series works best. If only the creators sought fit to put as much detail into their character development as their history, the show might have earned itself a third season.