‘Rome’: Welcome to hell

In this week’s episode of “Rome,” Niobe shows off her new dress, Vorenus bribes and blackmails an old friend, and Caesar and Brutus meet for a round of checkers.

What I’m trying to say is that this episode is one of the finest hours of television ever made, one that sealed my devotion to the HBO series and its makers for all time.

You want to know why I’m still writing about this series 15 years after it debuted? This episode is the best example I can cite. It’s astonishing.

In “The Spoils” (original airdate Nov. 13, 2005), written by series co-creator Bruno Heller and directed by Mikael Salomon, Pullo (Ray Stevenson), bereft from Eirene’s rejection and Vorenus’ banishment, works as a paid assassin for local mob boss Erastes (Lorcan Cranitch).

The money keeps him in just enough wine to drink himself blotto until he gets another job to kill someone.

But Pullo gets sloppy in his work and allows himself to be arrested, and ultimately, sentenced to death by combat in the arena.

There, Pullo tosses the sword he’s been handed and sits down, awaiting his death at the hands of three gladiators.

As the crowd boos, the warriors demand he fight.

“I don’t want to,” Pullo says.

“That’s not how it works. You’re supposed to resist,” one of the mercenaries says, eyeing the booing crowd.

They’ve come for bloodshed, not to watch a bunch of men stand around yakking.

Then one of the men makes the mistake of taunting Pullo about the 13th Legion and calls them cowards.

You can almost see the fire erupt in Pullo’s eyes.

Nobody badmouths the 13th Legion around Pullo. His service there is one of the few things he’s proud of in his life, and the dearest thing to him.

Pullo springs to life, strikes one man, steals his spear, and uses it to harpoon another.

He beheads one man with his own shield.

The violence is gory, shocking, and the crowd loves it.

More gladiators step out to battle Pullo. His energy is fading, but his will remains strong, and he kills them, too.

Out of the gladiator cage comes a giant wielding a spiked mace. The crowd goes silent. They know him.

They know Pullo is all but dead.

Spent, Pullo is easy prey. The giant bats the sword out of his hand.

He raises his mace to strike the killing blow.

Watching every second is Vorenus (Kevin McKidd), who finds his soul stirring and his conscience pricking at him with every blow in the arena. Pullo’s onslaught against fate reminds him of the man he used to be.

The man he will be again.

Vorenus charges into the arena, picks up a sword from the ground, and yells, “Thirteenth!”

The two parry, but the giant has a clear advantage – until Vorenus cuts him off at the knee.

Literally.

Vorenus rams the giant’s mace into his shoulder down to his belly button.

Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) kills the giant with his own weapon. (Photo: HBO)
Ouch. That’s gotta hurt. (Photo: HBO)

As the crowd cheers, he grabs Pullo, and the two warriors walk out of the arena.

If your heart isn’t racing during this action sequence, call the coroner. You’re already dead.

Fifteen years later, this sequence stands as a bloody delight. All hail the glory of “Rome.”

Notes:

The scene between Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) and Brutus (Tobias Menzies) should be required viewing for anyone interested in pursuing a career in the dramatic arts. Over a game of checkers, the two actors play about nine different levels each.

Caesar tries to maneuver Brutus into taking an appointment outside of Rome to protect his rule. Brutus is offended that the man he considers a father would consider him a threat.

“Only tyrants need worry about tyrant-killers. And you are no tyrant. Haven’t you told me so many times?” Brutus says, anguished.

Hinds and Menzies slay every beat.

Of course, the moment leads Brutus to realizing he must kill Caesar to protect the republic.

Brutus (Tobias Menzies) faces harsh truths. (Photo: HBO)
Brutus (Tobias Menzies) faces harsh truths. (Photo: HBO)

Bruno Heller wrote this episode, and he typically gives his bitchiest dialogue to Atia (Polly Walker). Not this week. Caesar gets the best lines, and Hinds deadpans them to delightful effect.

Hearing how Vorenus successfully bribed a military veteran on his behalf, he remarks, “I must send you to negotiate all my corruptions.”

About the murder of one of his critics, he says, “I didn’t know he existed until he didn’t.”

Next: “The Kalends of February”

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