Empire’s birth pangs
When we last saw our heroes, or whatever they are, centurion cum senator Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) had just watched his wife jump to her death; in fact, he had been about to kill her, having discovered that the child she told him was his grandson was in fact her own. His old friend and fellow soldier Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) was lighting out for the territories with the freed slave Eirene (Chiara Mastalli), whose fiance he had recently murdered in a fit of jealousy. And Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds, in an appropriately limp performance) was lying on the floor of the Senate, quite dead.
And so we find him, still dead, when “Rome” returns to HBO this Sunday night for a second and reportedly final season of this period soap opera, although there is, of course, much activity around him, as all the survivors try to find their place in the New Rome Order. Though none of its many historically based if not wholly factual characters know it yet, this is the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic, to which most of them profess fealty -- certainly none of them suspect that the instrument of its transformation into the well-known Roman Empire will be weedy young Octavian (played for a few episodes this season, as last, by Max Pirkis, and thereafter by Simon Woods). Not even he suspects it. But he will make the chariots run on time, later, as Augustus Caesar.
“Rome” is smart, dirty fun. As a co-production of HBO and the BBC, with a largely British cast, it has something of the dry wit of “I, Claudius” but is also soaked in the get-naked-and-cuss explicitness of American premium cable. (It is rather more circumspect in regard to violence, which happens mostly offscreen.)
Whereas the traditional modern attitude toward this material is to at least pretend to make it the occasion for some useful contemporary moral, “Rome” -- like its HBO slate-mate “Deadwood” -- attempts instead to re-create the social order and prejudices of a gone time in a way that resonates with and plays against our own without exactly judging it. Because the old rules are not ours, the markers by which we usually read a narrative -- e.g., murderers will be punished -- don’t quite work. And because nearly all the adult characters have blood on their hands, it becomes possible to root for any of them, and to sympathize, in some crooked way, with almost the worst of them. While still finding them strange.
We like stories of Rome, I think, because in spite of the intervening centuries we can recognize ourselves there: a technologically superior mercantile and military superpower pressing an enormous thumb upon the Western world, its bustling cities full of bars and restaurants and hot-drink shops and theaters. Positively Dickensian in the way it trains an eye on both the powerful and the poor, “Rome” wants us to see the present in the past -- offering cocktail parties, rich girls smoking hemp (“I brought back two sacks from Macedonia sooooo much better than the Italian kind”), a criminals’ den that looks like nothing so much as a 1st century BC Bada Bing.
This combining of the remote and the familiar is at the heart of the series and is reflected also in its mix of styles and attitudes: of the real and the fabulous, the historical and the fanciful, the smart and the sensational, the low and the high, the vulgar and the refined. This is perhaps supposed to mirror the Roman world itself, but it’s also good show business.
One of the particular pleasures of “Rome” is that of watching something that seems made by people who have taken care to know their stuff -- even the stuff they ignore in the name of making their story more like a television show than a docudrama. The historical consciousness extends to the props and costumes and sets; spread across 5 acres at Rome’s Cinecitta studios, the re-created city is recognizably Italian in color and texture, rather than the shiny white neoclassical piles that form the Rome of our Hollywoodized imagination. The fact that the streets and houses all seem actually habitable makes the words actors say in them all the more convincing.
There are all kinds of delicious performances here -- James Purefoy’s loutish, laddish, animal-clever Marcus Antony; Tobias Menzies’ upright, tortured Brutus; McKidd’s dangerously stiff-minded Vorenus (who will briefly become the Tony Soprano of the Aventine Hill before, in a distinct echo of “The Searchers,” heading off to find his kidnapped children); Lee Boardman’s hired-knife Timon, who will likely have more to do this season with the arrival of his brother, a revolutionary from Judea.
But they all seem to me strung between the poles of Stevenson’s faithful and sensible Pullo, on the relatively good side, and Polly Walker’s Atia of the Julii, who carries on a kind of Krystle-Alexis rivalry with Lindsay Duncan’s Servilia, on the relatively bad -- both of them trying to survive in a dangerous world, both utterly human, for better or worse.
When: 9 to 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)