While I'm awaiting comments from my alpha-testers, I'll review the second season of HBO's Rome, which I recently completed. As I wrote in my review of the first season, the series is a mixed bad with some bad and a lot of good. Overall, I would recommend it to any who are interested in this period of history.
The second season begins within minutes of where the first season left off with Julius Caesar's body still warm on the floor of the Roman Senate, and the ten episodes take us through the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra and the final triumph of Octavian, a span of about 17 years.
Rereading my review of the first season, most of my comments still fit. The series is still magnificently shot with lavish sets and a grand scale, though not too grand. The DVD commentary makes it clear that they didn't show Caesar's funeral or any battles because keeping true to their vision was simply out of the budget. Therefore, they chose to cover the events by having the characters simply talk about them in a number of ways, often by montaging several conversations together in a quick succession of scenes. This isn't a criticism; if the money truly wasn't there, then it's an approach I agree with. I was especially impressed by some of the directorial decisions by John Maybury, who directed episodes five and ten. His use of overhead shots and the first person depiction of Antony's drug-induced haze in episode ten made his episodes stand out in a good way.
As an aside, the Egyptian court is shown as one of complete decadence with near continual orgies and copious drug use. In fact, the commentary for episode 10 even admitted that they hired actual porn stars to play the extras in most of the Egyptian scenes. I'm not remotely qualified to comment on the accuracy of the portrayal, and the commentary leaves little doubt that the writers did much research, but in my case the series did what it was supposed to. It intrigued me enough that I have already picked out several books on the subject and will be receiving my shipment from Amazon shortly. Whether it's accurate or not, it was compelling and made interesting viewing.
Several performances are noteworthy. I wasn't fond of James Purefoy's Mark Antony in season one, although I appreciated the character's depiction. Indeed, Antony is shown as little more than a "strong man," essentially a thug enamored only with sex and violence and, though he engages in the political process, he is mostly unable to appreciate the nuances and instead opts to kill those who oppose him. For the most part, the depiction holds true this season as well, although I came to admire Purefoy's acting a bit more. His final scenes in episode ten run the gamut of anger to overwhelming grief to false bravado to drugged-out lethargy. The entire performance runs dangerously close to ham territory without ever going over the top. Instead, it all works as an extension of a man who is utterly incapable of keeping his emotions and base desires under control, a trait that ultimately proves his downfall when pitted against the seemingly emotionless and ruthless Octavian. As an aside, listening to Purefoy's commentary of episode nine was a real treat, and it showed that the actor had a keen grip on the history and how he was trying to portray it in his performance.
The two "average joes," Pullo and Vorenus, played by Ray Stevenson and Kevin McKidd, respectively, gave solid performances and didn't seem to be quite in the center of the political whirlwind as much as they were in the first season, probably because they were given their own independent storyline of trying to gain and maintain control over the gangs of the Aventine that only tangentially involved the major political figures... although Vorenus did predictably get to share Antony's last night on Earth with him and ended up being the one to hold the sword on which he committed suicide. Anyway, these two really are strong actors and end up giving a nice double act for the bulk of the series. Given their storylines, which are often more reminiscent of a soap opera than a period drama, both get to run the gamut of emotions, and both do so very well. McKidd does an exceptionally good job of portraying a father who knows his relationship with his children isn't right but doesn't know how to fix it. The awkwardness, missed moments, and frustration and final devastation when he realizes he's been betrayed by them can all be seen poignantly written onto his face. Stevenson's instant turn from grieving lover to cold-blooded killer at the end of episode nine is his moment that stands out for me. The ease with which his tears turn to a look of seething rage as his hands clasp around Gaia's neck is chilling indeed.
I can't go far in my discussion of performances without mentioning my favorite from season one, Max Pirkis as Octavian. Unfortunately, Pirkis gets little air time, for by episode four, the narrative is fast-forwarded several years and the part is recast with Simon Woods portraying the older, wiser, and colder version. As I noted before, Pirkis always portrayed Octavian as a bit emotionless with ruthless streak that bubbled just under the surface, but Woods takes it to a whole new level. In his portrayal, those trait have completely overwhelmed the character to the exclusion of virtually anything else. There is barely a scene in which the new Octavian does anything short of stare intently at his target and speak in a monotone. Even his one explicit sex scene, he simply stared at his wife with the same look and went through the motions with the same intense emotionless demeanor. Frankly, though I enjoy the depiction of Octavian as supremely competent, it was a bit too one-note for my tastes.
The recasting of Octavian really highlites the second season's primary weakness: namely the wildly uneven pacing. There is a good reason for this. The second season was originally meant to bring the narrative up through the defeat of the republicans led by Brutus and Cassius. The third season was to center on Egypt and end with the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra. However, halfway through the second season, the crew learned the series was being canceled, and so they quickly wrapped the story up.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the "progression" of Antony and Cleopatra's love. In episode 2 when Cleopatra comes to Rome, the two clearly don't like each other. At the end of episode 8, Antony still professes his love for Atia before being banished to Alexandria. By the opening of episode 9, however, Antony and Cleopatra have already been lovers for some time. By the middle of episode 10, they are committing suicide together. After slowly building up Antony and Atia's affair for a season and a half, we're suddenly told to just accept that Cleopatra is the love of Antony's life, and we're never told how two people who originally loathed each other came to fall in love. It's understandable given the behind-the-scenes circumstances, but it nevertheless weakens the series.
I'm also left wondering why the second season only had 10 episodes while the first one had 12. Perhaps it was cost again; as they were planning a third season, it certainly wasn't because of a lack of something to write. I have to believe that another two episodes would have greatly helped the pacing of the final part of the season, although it still wouldn't have been perfect.
One characterization that does progress nicely is the afore-mentioned Atia's. In my season 1 review, I mentioned that Polly Walker succeeded in playing the somewhat-likable bitch fairly well. In series two, she still displays that side, but many more facets come out. In the wake of Caesar's assassination, she is clearly worried over what will become of her now that her great protector is gone. Desperately she clings to Mark Antony, her "sex buddy" who becomes the de facto lead of the Caesarian party. Even when her son, Octavian, is formally named Caesar's heir, she dismisses him as incapable and does what she can to bolster Antony instead.
By the time Antony and Octavian come to blows, she is clearly falling for Antony beyond what political prudence dictates. She eagerly agrees to be Octavian's envoy to Antony in a bid to seal their alliance against Brutus and Cassius. Later, when Octavian suggests a marriage between their two houses, she happily chatters away about wedding plans, assuming she will be the one Octavian chooses. She is devastated in Alexandria when Antony refuses to see her, and her grief at the news of Antony's death is palpable, even as she puts on a brave face. The tears just beginning to well up in her eyes in the final scenes as she attends Octavian's triumph during which a likeness of Antony is paraded around to jeers from the crowd is perhaps the most emotional scene of the entire two seasons.
In the commentary for episode 10, the creator of Rome, Bruno Heller, stated that he considered the series to be in many ways Atia's journey, and after thinking about it for a while, I agree that hers is one of the most important. The one-time scheming bitch has gotten her fondest desires: her rival, Servilia, and Servilia's son, Brutus, are both dead, her son has attained the preeminent position in Rome, and she stands as one of the city's richest and influential citizens... and yet, she can't enjoy her triumph because of the steep price she has paid for it. The old proverb "be careful what you wish for" has come true. Overall, Polly Walker does such an outstanding job of bringing a sense of pathos to the role that she simply must get the standout performance of this season.
It's really a shame that the HBO brass ended up canceling the series before a third series could be made. I can only regret what might have been had they allowed the show to progress naturally. As it stands, season 2 - and Rome in general - is a fun, if flawed, adventure that should please anyone interested in the period and even many who are not.