‘Rome’: Junior’s first murder

Kids. They grow up so fast.

On HBO’s “Rome,” they’re practically born holding a sword at their wet nurse’s teat.

On “The Ram has Touched the Wall,” original airdate Sept. 25, 2005, written by series co-creator Bruno Heller and directed by Allen Coulter, the fifth and most pivotal episode to date finds alliances and rivalries taking shape that will have dire ramifications for the course of the series.

The seeds planted here will bear bitter – albeit, utterly addictive fruit.

And in an episode that gives insights into Caesar’s (Ciaran Hinds) character like no other and tosses juicy meat in everyone’s direction, who should steal the show but Max Pirkis as young Octavian.

His facial expressions alone make a re-watch of this episode so utterly enjoyable.

When we first see the future emperor of Rome, he’s polishing his sister Octavia’s (Kerry Condon) toenails just for the fun of it. By hour’s end, he’s cajoled a legionnaire – Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) – into torturing and then killing Niobe’s ex-lover Evander (Enzo Cilenti) to protect Vorenus (Kevin McKidd).

That’s an extraordinary arc for one episode, but Pirkis is more than up to the challenge. Heller’s script lays the groundwork for Octavian’s character as one formed in the crucible of his mother Atia’s own warped mothering.

Pirkis’ face-acting is certainly on point, as illustrated in the post header above when Atia says to him, “You take after your father, simple as milk.”

And here we must ask an important question: Why do we love “Rome” so much?

There’s nary a person worth rooting for here.

Every single major character – with the exception of Octavia – proves how depraved they are in this episode alone.

Ray Stevenson, "Rome" (Photo: HBO)
Ray Stevenson, “Rome” (Photo: HBO)

Vorenus loses his slave stock to plague and can only think about the money he lost. Niobe (Indira Varma) pressures him to find work as she tries to cover her affair and illegitimate child. Caesar uses a trivial pretext to war on Pompey (Kenneth Cranham) and is ruthless to Servilia (Lindsay Duncan) after he is publicly humiliated. Pullo takes the advice of a teenager to torture and kill a man. Atia (Polly Walker) publicly humiliates her uncle with lewd graffiti to destroy his relationship with Servilia. Servilia casts an elaborate curse on both their houses.

Two fateful connections are made: Hired as Octavian’s tutor in the manly arts, Pullo falls under the sway of the future ruler of Rome. Meanwhile, Vorenus swears an oath of loyalty to Marc Antony (James Purefoy). Next season, these two legionnaires will be on opposite sides of Cleopatra’s conflict with Rome.

The power of “Rome” lies in its ability to strip away the centuries and present men and women who appear to be contemporaries – acting on all the bad behaviors we can only think about.

“Life was on the edge of a sword,” Ray Stevenson says in the audio commentary to this episode.

Pompey's parting gift for Caesar (Photo: HBO)
Pompey’s parting gift for Caesar (Photo: HBO)

Random Notes:

In his audio commentary, Stevenson reveals had the idea to go to the prop department and get some chopped up fish to sub for Evander’s thumbs. The camera is so far away, when Pullo seems to cut the man and casually toss his thumbs into the sewer water, the illusion is compelling and horrifying.

Stevenson has high praise for Hinds’ and Duncan’s skills at crafting such a believable, emotional journey for their characters in this episode, as they go from loving and playful to bitter enemies.

He loved working on the show, but there was one aspect he detested – the sandals he had to wear. They had no insoles, and they let in every stone and every bit of water. He would have preferred to have gone barefoot.

Next: “Egeria”

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