There are a lot of adjectives used to describe HBO’s “Rome,” but one that rarely comes up is: funny.
And yet the latest episode in our “Rome” rewatch can best be thought of as a bedroom farce B.C.
In “Caesarion” (original airdate Oct. 16, 2005), written by William J. MacDonald and directed by Steve Shill, the cunning Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Lyndsey Marshal in her series debut) realizes her chances for surviving the turmoil in her country are dramatically improved if she can conceive a child with Caesar (Ciaran Hinds).
Problem: He’s hundreds of miles away, they haven’t even met yet, and she’s fertile – or “between the flood,” as she describes it – right now.
So her loyal slave Charmian (Kathryn Hunter) leaves the queen’s litter and checks out the local candidates – Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Pullo (Ray Stevenson).
She’s not thrilled with the selection, but, hey, a slave’s gotta do what a slave’s gotta do, so she brings a mystified Vorenus back to the tent.
Cleopatra sniffs him over.
“Leather. Olives. Not so bad,” Charmian says.
To Vorenus, she says, “Majesty commands you will enter her.”
Vorenus protests that Roman men are not used this way – even as Charmian and another slave start pulling off his clothes.
“Don’t be scared,” Charmian says.
Cleopatra thrusts her open legs at him – and Vorenus takes a leap on top of her.
But no doubt thinking of Niobe, he freezes.
“This insect – refuses me!” Cleopatra shrieks.
Vorenus hustles himself out of the tent, and orders Pullo to go in and do as Cleopatra orders.
And Pullo has no qualms about riding her like a pony, much to Vorenus’ chagrin, who curses himself outside.
As the saying goes, virtue is its own punishment.
It’s a howling good sequence, brilliantly performed, and it has a history-changing postscript.
At the end of the episode, about a year later, Caesar presents “his” newborn son to his cheering Roman soldiers – and Vorenus shoots Pullo a look that shuts him up good.
Shill in his DVD commentary to the episode notes that the marching orders for this episode were to create an Egypt unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.
“Romans should find them weird and strange and otherworldly,” he says.
Mission accomplished: A depiction of Cleopatra as an androgynous opium addict is about as far as you can get from Elizabeth Taylor in the bloated 1963 spectacle “Cleopatra” that almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox.
Marshal’s transformation when she confronts her younger brother Ptolemy (Scott Chisholm) finds her coming into her regal powers. The depiction of the young king as a twerp is another treat of this episode, and I must admit I was sorry to see the brat drowned in the Nile.
In another example of the series’ dark humor, the Egyptians trick Pompey’s assassin into delivering a scroll to Caesar – one that names him as Pompey’s killer. Awkward! His head is soon mounted on a pike outside the palace.
That macabre trophy is soon joined by the heads of two of Ptolemy’s advisers.
OK, so this episode isn’t entirely a laugh riot.
There’s an especially haunting scene that opens the hour: Brutus (Tobias Menzies) returns home after years away, and his mother Servilia (Lindsay Duncan) can barely stand to look at him.
Servilia, you remember, stayed in Rome because of her love for Caesar, but now despises him because of his rejection. That her son has returned after failing to kill him, after actually surrendering to him, is a shame she cannot acknowledge.
There’s absolutely not a word spoken, and the actors communicate so much pain and dismay. Part of the joy of this rewatch has been finding these moments, and I hope you are enjoying them, too.
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