There's gonna be a party when the wolf comes home
HBO's Rome (2005-2007) is about history happening twice, first as tragedy and then as farce, although it's important to note that this is not on purpose. Its first season is an ingenious soap with highbrow aspirations and real stylistic crunch. This is a contrast to its second, whose style is more like the kind of peanut butter that separates hopelessly and needs to be stirred for fifteen minutes, and whose aspirations are mostly internal, brooding, even as everything gets faster and more naked. It is a testament to its cast, who are all monsters of British drama, that they can match the energy of these two very different styles of writing and create a cohesive whole. Thanks to them, Rome's season 2 is emotionally haunting – bringing that good Antony and Cleopatra energy of people getting older, confronting death, slipping on the raw consequences of their youthful mistakes. For all that this is true, season 2 remains as objectively bad as season 1 is objectively good. This is partly due to the writers' decision to pack the remaining four seasons of their plan for the show into the one season they were told they could have, and partly – well, actually, no, it's all because of that, pretty much.
Rome sits at an interesting crossroads of 1990s TV and 2010s TV. Sexier and more depraved than what came before it – I remember there being almost a moral panic about it at the time – it nonetheless looks thoughtful and deliberate next to Game of Thrones, which would occupy its exact cultural role just a few years later, that role of course being the fulfillment of our nation's incest quota. And Mad Men feels like a direct response to it, though Rome is much smarter about the two series' very similar basic bit, in which we are asked to balance our sympathy for historical characters with a recognition (in the case of Mad Men, often humorous, occasionally funny) that their idea of normalcy is not our own.
Rome also draws on sitcom and soap opera tropes that feel more of the nineties than the present day. One key character, Kevin McKidd's soldier Vorenus, is recognizably a hapless sitcom paterfamilias in the Tim Allen mold, albeit played for tragedy as a sort of kitchen-sink Odysseus. And Polly Walker's Atia is a consummate soap villain, a torn trash bag full of silk and lace, and one we are encouraged to uncomplicatedly enjoy. McKidd and Walker are at the emotional and creative center of the cast, imbuing their characters – both absolutely horrible people – with rich layers of cruelty, affection, and lonely humanity. Other actors on the show are equally good, and Tobias Menzies and Ciarán Hinds in particular are no-ceiling brilliant as Brutus and Caesar, but Rome's heart is with its losers. Brutus and Caesar play winning hands poorly, while Vorenus and Atia play losing hands well. This is why the latter two are always given a little more to do.
I've talked about Vorenus and loserdom, but I haven't brought up his companion in fuckuppery, Pullo. Vorenus and Pullo are veterans who return at the beginning of the series from Caesar's conquest of Gaul, and who spend the rest of it knocking around and getting into trouble. Vorenus is uptight, constipated, and relatively book-smart, while Pullo is an irrepressible good-time boy who's relatively emotionally smart, though it's absolutely crucial that neither of them is "smart" per se. Hence the role I mentioned earlier, of accidentally doing pivotal things for/to the Republic in almost every episode. Pullo starts a fight with a guy who cheated him at dice, which ends up giving Caesar an important pretext for the next phase of his war with Pompey; Vorenus runs off to confront his unfaithful wife, and this somehow gets Caesar stabbed. The comic duo could be unbearable if they were played as comic, which they're not. Instead, they're played with dignity and even gravity, which allows their constant bad luck to be extremely funny.
Vorenus and Pullo are the closest thing to Rome's central characters, although to present it as "the story of Roman history seen through the eyes of two ordinary men" is to give it slightly too much credit. For one thing, the series refuses to let them stay ordinary. After a certain point, the historical figures begin to actively use them as pawns, mostly by elevating Vorenus to a series of increasingly unlikely positions of power. I get that a string of meaningless coincidences can only be drawn out so thin, but also: it's funnier the longer it goes on, and it paradoxically feels like less of a stretch than Mark Antony ordering Vorenus to become capo di tutti capi of the Roman Mob. History is full of meaningless coincidences, but it's not so much full of second chances for fuckups without connections or money – and Vorenus gets six or seven chances. The whole thing starts to feel like the part of a Telltale video game where someone from the source material shows up and starts telling you you're pretty.
It is in this play of second chances that Rome feels most of its time, i.e. both 1995 and 2015. Vorenus' rise and fall (and rise and fall) feels like something from the era before TV was fully committed to continuity. People remember major historical events, but they don't consistently remember what they've done to each other.
But as with Vorenus and Pullo, Rome's unforced errors somehow end up serving it well. There is a scene from late in the second season when Atia's archenemy, Brutus' mother Servilia, chooses to die in a very public way that's intended to implicate Atia for her crimes against her. Those crimes are terrible, but the real source of Servilia's current suffering is the death of her son, and her awareness that her own actions led directly to it. This is something Servilia cannot look at, and so she spends her last hours focused on her hatred of Atia, not her hatred of herself. Her death scene is powerful and disturbing, especially of course to Atia, who is forced to confront herself in a way that will never leave her for the rest of the series.
Rome is about the selective amnesia of cruel people, their capacity to forget what they've done and to wonder why everyone is so angry at them. Atia genuinely has no idea why her family hates her, even though she has spent the entire series abusing them. Caesar and Antony, who here are largely villains, are also marked by this tendency, and few characters are entirely free of it. Servilia can forget her complicity in Brutus' death. Pullo, who by Rome's standards is a good egg, is able to wipe whole brutal murders from his conscious brain. Atia's daughter Octavia, who is 99% a victim of circumstance, still memory-holes a shameful act or two. Oddly, it's Vorenus, whose past everyone else keeps forgetting, who is the most capable of remembering what he's done to everyone. But any road – as Pullo would say – the themes and the more dubious creative decisions all come together into one central argument. These are destructive people, the kind who make history. Speed and forgetfulness are the point.