Sometimes art comes from adversity, and Season 2 of Rome is pretty good proof of that.
The history of the second season is more or less this: there were going to be three or four more seasons after the first one, but someone somewhere decided that Rome was too expensive, and HBO cancelled it. If there’s one thing HBO is good at besides making good shows, it’s pissing off everyone who likes those good shows by either canceling them or releasing the DVD a decade after the show aired.
Anyways, rather than just give all the fans the middle finger and end the show without any kind of closure, the writers decided to combine the three seasons into one season that would (more or less) wrap up all the dangling plot threads of the first season. Although 99% of the time cramming lots of plot threads and story arcs into a smaller time frame than planned results in incoherent, disappointing messes (Spiderman 3, cough) in this case it worked very well.
The first season, excellent as it was, never felt driven enough. It wasn’t the sort of thing you had to keep watching because it was so exciting. Sometimes the story-lines got a bit old. Lucius Vorenus has marital problems–every episode. Atia hates Brutus’ mom and Brutus’ mom hates her back–every episode. You know that eventually all these story-lines are going to blow up somehow, but damned if you know if it’s going to be next episode, or the one after, or maybe even next season. It took until the season finale for all the plot threads to finally come together into some sort of climax and resolution.
The first season is sort of like a comfy locomotive, and this season is sort of like a bullet train. It manages to cover more history and contain more plot twists than Season 1, and it manages to do this while having two less episodes to work with. It is lean, taut, and efficient. When the emotional punches come in such quick succession they are felt are the more keenly. Better still, Season 2 tells a story that leaves the viewer with a sense of completion, much unlike Season 1’s climactic ending, which, for all its excitement, left things emotionally very much up in the air.
The great success of Rome has always been the human face it puts on history. It’s a soap opera on a huge scale, a world where tangled relationships and ego-driven rivalries can culminate in epic battles–which, despite Rome’s ostensibly vast budget, we frustratingly never get to see a glimpse of.
At times, what makes Rome great can also hurt it. It’s full of so much moral ambiguity that it can, on occasion, leave the viewer feeling detached from everyone. Though it’s still fun to watch, it’s sort of like watching an Olympic sporting event between two countries with which you have no affiliation. You can admire the skill of the players, but you don’t particularly care who wins. Them ost frustrating moemnt in the entire hsow for me was when one of the main characters, in a fit of jealous rage, murdered his love interest’s boyfriends–and then two episodes later she married him. I thought, no, surely it’s not that simple, surely he’s not going to get off so easy–but I was wrong. The show just sort of ignores said character’s heinous act as thoroughly as his new wife does.
The characters all do bad things–all of them. Things that, by modern standards, would be very hard to forgive. While it’s realistic, it can be alienating.
The acting is what saves the show. The actors are all good enough to make you care about their characters. It’s possible to find yourself rooting for two opposing sides in a battle, at the same time. Such is Rome, a story with no true protagonist and lots of interesting, realistic people.
The best of the bunch this season might just be James Purefoy’s Mark Antony, who is just…priceless. No better word to describe him. He’s at turns odious and lovable, but he’s always fun to watch.
Not so fun, but just as great, is Kevin mcKidd’s Lucius Vorenus, an honorable (though not necessarily good) man driven to the edge by the losses he has suffered.