In “Rome’s” epic season one finale, one character makes an anticipated exit, while another quite unexpectedly suffers a brutal fall from fortune.
The glory of “The Kalends of February” (original airdate Nov. 20, 2005) is how it lulls you like no other episode of “Rome.”
Under director Alan Taylor, much of the first half of the episode revolves around Vorenus’ (Kevin McKidd) home life. Writer Bruno Heller ties together several strands of story that have lingered since the premiere and sends them flying over a cliff.
Vorenus and Niobe (Indira Varma) are closer than they have ever been in their marriage. The two carry on like newlyweds.
There’s a sweet moment when the two promise to arrange a marriage for their oldest daughter, to a rich, old man.
But Vorena the Elder (Coral Amiga) wants to marry for love.
Her parents scoff.
“Love doesn’t come unbidden. You have to work for her. Strange marriage it would be if you loved them from the start,” Niobe says.
Vorenus suggests the girl consider her parents as examples: He and Niobe had their share of troubles, but look at them now. They’ve never been closer, he says, taking Niobe’s hand.
“Happy as you like,” Niobe smiles.
It’s utterly charming, and that’s when we should have known it was all going to go to shit.
Vorenus and Pullo (Ray Stevenson) are celebrities around Rome after their battle in the arena. There are street plays about them, and murals painted on buildings. Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) realizes he can’t punish Vorenus for disobeying him by helping Pullo escape a state execution, so he must reward him – to prove to the people that he is on their side.
He appoints Vorenus a senator, one of a hundred new men, mostly Gauls and Celts.
Brutus (Tobias Menzies) and his band of conspirators are outraged that a pleb like Vorenus is being elevated. It’s one more offense that Caesar must pay for.
Caesar, ever the canny politician, requires Vorenus to walk with him whenever he goes to the Senate. That’s a problem for Brutus and his stabby crew. They need the people on their side, and killing Vorenus would alienate too many.
Servilia (Lindsay Duncan) realizes where she heard of Vorenus before. A few episodes earlier, Octavia (Kerry Condon) had revealed Niobe’s indiscretion. Servilia, hoping for dirt on Caesar, brushed off the insignificant tidbit – which now becomes vital to their plan.
As Caesar and his associates walk to the Senate, one of Servilia’s servants calls out to Vorenus with news about his grandson – and whispers the truth to him.
Caesar’s end plays ruthlessly true to life, with his assassins waylaying him in the Senate and attacking him like jackals.
Once the mob gets started, the assault seems to go on forever. Brutus delivers the killing blow.
And Caesar’s death is just one beat of this tragic episode.
Nobody plays like rage like Kevin McKidd. I swear, I was frightened for myself and thought he might come after me for knowing the secret for so long. He’s terrifying as he tears apart the family home, demanding the boy, demanding answers.
Niobe tells him she thought he was dead.
As Vorenus sits and seethes, he picks up a knife.
As Heller and historical consultant Jonathan Stamp note in the DVD commentary to this episode, Vorenus would well be expected within Roman society to kill both his wife and the boy. The killings would be considered legal and just, considering Niobe’s transgression. And Niobe knows this.
Niobe backs up to the outside railing of their apartment complex and sits on it.
“The boy is blameless,” she says.
Then she hurls herself backward to her death.
Vorenus is left with a grief that will never heal.
What a season.
In lesser hands, Indira Varma’s character would have been at best a cipher and at worst an unlikeable partner for Vorenus.
You can understand Niobe falling in love with another man if she thought her husband was dead. But her sister’s husband? And then convincing her daughter Vorena the Elder to pretend to be the boy’s mother? And getting her sister and Niobe’s younger daughter to keep this secret as well?
Vorenus is away for long gaps of time, but given that the boy is about five when we close this season, you have to acknowledge Niobe pulled off one complicated deception. But like any Roman woman, she knew what was at stake: Her very life.
Varma imbues Niobe with so much warmth, you’d forgive Niobe anything. Niobe’s death is a cruel blow, but one that shows “Rome” will find tragedy outside the history books.
Varma today is best known worldwide for her role as the treacherous Ellaria Sand on “Game of Thrones.” “Rome” is just where she broke all our hearts.
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