I like the idea of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s 2012 film Cesare Deve Morire (Caesar Must Die) a lot: a group of inmates at a high-security prison in Rome, all former drug criminals, mafiosos and murderers, portray themselves rehearsing for a production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The boundaries between reality and fiction are dissolved, as everything is a performance of some sort to one audience or another.
The second season of HBO’s Rome was… well, let’s say that it was less than it could have been. Its main problem was this, it would seem: the series creators realised that Rome wouldn’t be back for a third season. Seeing how they had planned for a five-season arc, they were faced with a dilemma: should they speed up the plot so they could bring it to some semblance of an end, or should they let things play out at the pace they had planned and risk leaving us with yet another Carnivale or Deadwood, ending way before it was finished?
They decided to go for the first option, telescoping their plot for the hoped-for seasons 2, 3 and 4 into the second season. And that’s pretty much what the season felt like: four or five episodes into the story, someone suddenly pressed the Fast Forward button, and off we go like a rocket sled. Pacing? That’s for wimps and people whose series are allowed to run their course.
I remember how frustrated I was especially with Deadwood, where we got three quarters of a complete story. It was as if someone had ripped the last 100 pages from a novel, from every copy ever printed. And then they’d deleted the last 100 pages on every backup of the manuscript. Okay, I realise how thinly stretched the simile is – but the point remains: an unfinished story is a frustrating story.
What is similarly frustrating, though, is a story that doesn’t have time to pace itself. At times the second season of Rome felt like its own “Previously on”: okay, now Brutus is dead! Now Anthony’s in Egypt! Now Servilia’s offed herself! Most of the main characters are dead and have been replaced by twenty-somethings! The kids get half a dozen years older over night! This rushed feel wasn’t necessarily helped by the series’ replacing the young man who had played Octavian with another, slightly older young man playing the same character – while practically all other characters around the same age were still played by the same people!
The letstelleverythingasquicklyaspossiblesowecansqueezeasmuchplotintothisaswecan approach meant that we found some sort of closure, but it also meant that the characters lacked breathing space – and as was the case with so many HBO series, the characters is where it’s at. Brutus’ death, for instance, was still moving, but it could have been infinitely more so with a more generous build-up.
The last episode, though? We were rudely jarred out of Fast Forward, but that meant that at least we had an hour where Rome was returned to its former glory. I admit, I was never too keen on the character of Marc Anthony (as portrayed by James Purefoy): he had all the arrogance and cockiness but little of the charm, which made it all the more difficult for me to understand why certain characters would fall for him. Cleopatra, too, annoyed me more than anything else, striking me as an antique oversexed bimbo with the personality of a urinal.
Give these characters good, meaty deaths, though, and suddenly they become grandiose, they become tragic. They gain the ability to move us. And boy, did they take that opportunity and play it to the fullest. A couple of series have done this: make me care about a character just to kill him or her off – but here it wasn’t a cheap ploy to make us care, it was earned. Anthony and Cleopatra’s deaths, while not the near-perfect scene that Julius Caesar’s murder was, count among the series’ strongest moments, together with the death of Cicero and Lucius Vorenus saving Titus Pullo’s life in the arena.
In spite of the whiplash-inducing pacing problems of the second season, I miss the series. I miss the characters, I miss the plotting and intrigues, I miss the visceral quality of the language and imagery. My hope lies in the Rome movie that is still much more likely to happen than the fabled Deadwood film that’s supposed to wrap up the story. Hey, if HBO can greenlight Sex and the City 2, can’t they spare a few sesterces for Pullo and Vorenus, the most beautiful love story to grace the small screen in years?
HBO has been known to do some killer season finales – no pun intended, although it would be a perfectly accurate one in the case of the last episode of Rome‘s first season. The lead-up to the murder of Caesar is masterfully composed and reminiscent of another plot to have a leader and father figure killed in another HBO series: Livia Soprano’s planned killing of that disappointment of a son. (Is it a coincidence that Livia was named for another larger-than-life mother from ancient Rome?)
Throughout the season I’ve been impressed with Ciaran Hinds’ layered portrayal of Caesar, a man whose fierce intelligence, pride and ambition inspire awe even when he’s at his most arrogant and dismissive. His death, even though it’s clear that it’s coming, is startling in its force and brutality – not just in terms of blood and gore, but in terms of the story and the characters. Another favourite of mine (other than Titus Pullo, of course, who’s just a big sweetie when he isn’t murdering people in a jealous rage) is Brutus, who is portrayed by Tobias Menzies with a fascinating mix of hurt pride, bitterness, self-loathing and, strangest of all, genuine love for Caesar.
Another HBO series finale that pushed all the right buttons with me was Generation Kill‘s final episode, “Bomb in the Garden”. It’s rare for a series that is so documentary in its approach to manage its story and character arcs so deftly, but David Simon and Ed Burns have done a brilliant job. The final scene recalls another work by Simon and Burns, namely the ending of The Wire’s season 2, both scenes using a Johnny Cash song (in both cases making me think that perhaps, just perhaps, I ought to check out that Cash guy’s music). And yes, I am quite okay with admitting my considerable man-crush on Alexander Skarsgard.
With all these endings, it’s only fitting that I finally finished Grand Theft Auto IV. So much has been written about the game already that I won’t add anything other than this: I enjoyed the latest installment of Liberty City. If there’s a more convincing, living and breathing city in any game, I haven’t played it yet. Take it away, Philip.