‘Rome’: Frost on the hearth

After eight years apart, a husband and wife share a dangerous reunion while a risky power play threatens to bring down the Roman republic.

Welcome back to our “Rome” retro-watch. The HBO series premiered 15 years ago this week with an exciting debut that teased the conflicts that would change the course of the Western world.

In the second episode, “How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic” (original airdate Sept. 4, 2005), written by series co-creator and executive Bruno Heller and directed by Michael Apted, “Rome” hones in on the private lives of our two main warriors and introduces a player who will haunt the show’s days.

Indira Varma is best known today as the treacherous Ellaria Sand on “Game of Thrones,” but she was virtually unknown to U.S. audiences when she first appeared here as Niobe, the lonely wife of Lucious Vorenus (Kevin McKidd). The luminous beauty brings intelligence, spirit, and even a dash of humor to the role of a long-neglected wife hiding a dark secret.

You can understand why Vorenus would be drawn to her. What you can’t understand why he is so immediately vile to her.

Within two seconds of being reunited with her outside their apartment, he’s calling her a whore – simply because she’s holding a newborn baby, and he assumes the worst.

Niobe introduces the child as his grandson, named after him.

Vorenus needs to be reminded that in the eight years since he’s been gone, his oldest daughter is now 13, practically 14. In Rome, that makes her marriage material, and she’s become involved with the son of a drover.

After being gone for so long, Vorenus lacks the ability to show any kindness to his girls or his wife, who thought him dead for at least a year. A stone would be more affectionate.

Elsewhere, the conflict between Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) and Pompey (Kenneth Cranham) reaches the point of no return. Here, Heller fills in the gaps of history with some delicious story that spins the spotlight of time onto our two warriors.

As the newly appointed tribune of the people, Mark Antony (James Purefoy) is the only one who can veto the Senate’s proclamation declaring Caesar a traitor – and thus inciting a civil war.

To do so, all he must do is cross the Roman Forum into the Senate.

Sounds simple, right?

A mob blocks the way. And yet Mark Antony, and his men, including Vorenus and Pullo, push forward.

One man steps forward, thirsty to settle a score – but his target is our favorite gambler and general reprobate Pullo.

Violence in the Roman Forum, "Rome" (Photo: HBO)
Violence in the Roman Forum, “Rome” (Photo: HBO)

In the ensuing melee, Mark Antony has no choice but to retreat, to flee to Caesar’s side – and the battle lines are drawn.

But oh, that episode kicker: Niobe picks up her “grandson” and takes the squalling babe to her breast.

This is her child. How long can she possibly keep that from Vorenus?

I’m probably going to be raving about Jeff Beal’s soundtrack every week, so get used to that. The music over the closing credits is a tapestry of melancholy, beautiful and stinging.

Random notes:

In the audio commentary for this episode, Heller refers to the scene in which Octavia (Kerry Condon) acts out her mother’s loud orgasm his tribute to Meg Ryan and “When Harry Met Sally.”┬áHe also says that scene was filmed before the actual sex scene between Atia (Polly Walker) and Mark Antony so Walker could match the, um, enthusiasm.

Series historical consultant Jonathan Stamp affirms that Pullo’s invasive and gory head surgery – right on Vorenus’ kitchen table – was historically accurate. Brr!

Next week: “An Owl in a Thornbush”

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