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Our reviews of Rome: The Complete First Season (published August 15th, 2006), Rome: The Complete Second Season (published August 22nd, 2007), and Rome: The Complete Series (Blu-Ray) (published December 16th, 2009) are also available.
Rome: More delicious than a Caesar salad, more disturbing than a Caesarian Section.
"Gentlemen this is not some cheap murder! It is an honorable thing we do here. It must be done by ourselves, in the senate, on the senate floor, with our own hands…with my hand."—Brutus
Facts of the Case
Over the course of 22 episodes, Rome: The Complete Series follows the events surrounding the reign of Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds, Munich), the transformation of Rome from a Republic into an Empire, and the struggle for power among the major players in Rome after Caesar's death. The primary characters include:
• Two soldiers named Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd, Journeyman) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson, Punisher: War Zone). These two men strikes up an unlikely friendship as the years pass. It's through their eyes that we witness much of what happens.
• Atia (Polly Walker, Emma) a wealthy woman of influence who constantly maneuvers to put herself and her children Octavia (Kerry Condon, Unleashed) and Octavian (Max Pirkis, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) in power.
• Mark Antony (James Purefoy, Mansfield Park), Caesar's right-hand man who becomes romantically involved with both Atia and Cleopatra of Egypt (Lyndsey Marshal, The Hours).
• Cicero (David Bamber, Miss Potter), a politician who fearfully pretends to be a close friend and supporter of Caesar while actually plotting against him.
These are just some of the many players involved in this epic game of love, politics, and war. Not all of them will remain standing when the dust settles. Welcome to Rome.
All 22 episodes are spread across 11 discs.
I like to think of Rome as part of an unofficial trilogy of HBO period dramas. Along with Carnivale and Deadwood, Rome looks at the past (in this case, the very distant past) in a manner that is both heavily stylized yet also immensely authentic in many ways. All three of these programs received high marks from critics, though each also struggled to maintain good ratings. Though all of these programs were cancelled far sooner than the creators hoped, the conclusion of Rome was a bit easier to swallow. In this case, the crew was given enough advance notice to bring the show to a definitive conclusion, albeit in a somewhat rushed and slightly awkward manner. Though it isn't perfect, these 22 episodes work remarkably well when digested in one big chunk, offering a sweeping and cohesive piece of historical fiction that actually feels like a complete whole.
Based on your knowledge of Rome's history, you may or may not be able to predict what happens in the program, but the program will be as rewarding for history buffs as for those who have no idea who Julius Caesar was (perhaps even moreso). For all of its brutal violence, intensely unpleasant characters and unsavory atmosphere, Rome is a richly absorbing soap opera that depicts the bloody evolution of an empire in thrilling fashion. There are quite a lot of elements being juggled, and it's remarkable just how-well the assorted plot strands weave in and out of each, periodically colliding in a striking and even startling fashion. To be sure, there's a little bit of narrative cheating that takes place, but the rewards are so satisfactory that it's difficult to complain.
One of the elements that impressed me the most was the manner in which Rome refuses to look at the past from a smug modern perspective. The horrors of the era are presented in a frank, matter-of-fact manner, and the viewing audience is not provided with a noble surrogate who speaks what those watching are almost certainly thinking. We see women being treated as inferior human beings and slaves being treated as animals on a regular basis, and there is not a single member of the cast who protests this. I feel this actually works towards making these difficult-to-swallow cultural elements all the more horrifying. You may feel otherwise, but I think that a visual medium like television benefits much more from showing than from telling. Many historical dramas like to provide progressive protagonists who are well ahead of their time in terms of open-mindedness, because it makes viewers more comfortable with rooting for that character. Fortunately, Rome avoids this pitfall and grants us what is undoubtedly a much more accurate portrait of these characters than we would generally be given.
HBO series have traditionally been blessed with very strong casts. That's the case once again in Rome, though the faces are perhaps less recognizable than usual for the pay network. The biggest name is probably Ciaran Hinds, though even he is hardly a household name. Even so, he does have a way of looming large over his fellow cast members, entirely appropriate given the role that he is playing. During the first season of the program, Hinds gives us a memorable Julius Caesar who seems to feel that displaying constant magnanimity is the best way to achieve great power. Though Caesar is technically a supporting character (and he's only around for the first 12 episodes), in many ways he's the most important character in the program. A large percentage of what happens (both before and after his death) revolves around him, and Hinds ensures that we will not forget the character's spirit and controversial sense of leadership after Caesar is gone.
However, the soul of Rome is found in the relationship between Vorenus and Pullo. Though both of these characters make some genuinely terrible mistakes at times, we tend to gravitate towards them because (a) they seem fundamentally decent people at heart, particularly in contrast to those around them and (b) all of their actions, good or bad, seem to be inspired by honest emotion rather than as part of some cruel, manipulative game (which so many other characters in this program play). Stevenson is particularly good, offering a raw strength and vulnerability that is both touching and terrifying. He contrasts strikingly with a character like Octavian, whose upper-class snobbery and lack of feeling sends icy chills up one's spine.
The series is also loaded with strong, memorable female characters, though they can be as savage and frightening as any of the men. Atia and Servilia in particular are absolutely ruthless competitors, grabbing men of power by the balls and using them as puppets for their (often rather wicked) schemes. Well, during the first season, anyway. During the second season, the two women tend to go at each other in a much more direct manner (culminating in a handful of cringe-inducing scenes that are spread throughout the season). Cleopatra doesn't get nearly as much screen time, but she makes a big impact during the handful of episodes she appears in (and Lyndsey Marshal hits some unique notes that make her take on the character stand out from some of the more famous portrayals). One of the most heartbreaking threads of the show is that of young Octavia, who begins as such a good-hearted girl and is manipulated into a seemingly never-ending series of devastating situations.
Truthfully, all of the actors deserve a good deal of praise, but the aforementioned characters stand out as the best of the best. None of the performances would work half as well as they do without the great writing, which is intelligent and literate throughout. The creating/writing/producing team of Bruno Heller, William J. McDonald, and John Milius proves to be a creative dream team, offering an excellent blend of action, romance, politics, comedy, horror, and so much more. There's something for everyone, assuming that everyone can handle loads of hard R-level sex and violence (it should be noted that Rome contains even more sex and nudity than most HBO shows). The direction is solid and consistent throughout, with Michael Apted helming the first three episodes and HBO vets like Alan Poul, Timothy Van Patten, Allen Coulter, and Alan Taylor handling the bulk of the episodes.
Though new discs have been pressed for this collection, the transfers appear to be the same. Not that they really needed improvement; HBO has a history of providing great-looking standard-def transfers and they've done so once again with this set. I don't think it's possible for a 480p transfer to look much better than this one does, as the image is sharp and clear throughout. Blacks are also quite deep, flesh tones are accurate, and the intoxicating colors of upper-class Rome look exceptionally vibrant. Audio is also superb, as the bustling sound design and somewhat predictable score (by Jeff Beal, who did stronger work on Carnivale) is distributed quite well.
There are no new extras included on this set, which is a small disappointment, but all of the extras from the individual season releases have been ported over. You get a total of 13 audio commentaries featuring various historical experts and members of the cast and crew, 9 featurettes that cover both the history of Rome and the creation of the show, and "All Roads Lead to Rome" pop-up fact tracks that are available for every single episode. Since these have already been covered in detail in the reviews of those releases written for this site, I'll let you check those out if you want further analysis.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are certain elements of the program that tend to be a bit frustrating. First, some may grow annoyed at the fact that the same characters find themselves wrapped up in just about every history-altering situation. True, that's not the way things went down, but it's unreasonable to expect the show to constantly haul in new cast members for the sake of historical accuracy. Rome is a dramatic soap opera first and foremost, a historical document second.
More problematic is the second season of the show, which suffers a somewhat jarring shift in terms of pacing about halfway through the season. After the creators learned that the program would be cancelled, they rushed to wrap up the show in a satisfactory manner. As a result, the final five or so episodes rush through events in a somewhat hurried manner that feels odd when contrasted with the carefully-measured pace of the previous episodes. In addition, there are stretches of the second season that get a little bit…well, dull. In particular, the struggle between Octavian and Mark Antony just never really becomes as interesting as it ought to be.
Though not quite reaching perfection, Rome is another superb achievement from the artistically ambitious folks at HBO. It isn't for the faint of heart, but those with strong stomachs will be rewarded with an addictive and nuanced 22 hours of television. There's no reason for those who already own the DVDs to upgrade to this set, but if you haven't yet seen the show, go for it.
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