‘Rome’: ‘This is where we die.’

One of our champions loses his head on this week’s “Rome,” and we must say goodbye – for the first, but not for the last time – to a series regular.

Oh, and the fate of the Roman Republic is decided, thousands die, blah, blah, just the usual from the most unusual HBO drama.

Pompey (Kenneth Cranham) goes from an all-but-assured victor to a befuddled old man, and finally, to a headless corpse, in this wrenching hour, “Pharsalus” (original airdate Oct. 9, 2005), written by David Frankel and directed by Tim Van Patten.

In an arc that hues remarkably close to the historical record, Pompey is on the verge of victory over Caesar’s forces in Greece. He decides the best course is to simply wait and starve him and his men. But Pompey’s advisers persuade him there is no honor in that sort of victory, that he must attack.

But at the Battle of Pharsalus, Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) anticipates his moves and forces Pompey’s men to break formation, costing him his victory.

And how does “Rome” depict the crucial battle between Rome’s two top leaders, one that involved thousands of combatants? It is the one crucial aspect of the show that has not aged well. There is the build-up, the generals dressing for war. Caesar rides out of his camp.

Then Van Patten cuts to a few seconds of blurry, slo-mo swordplay between perhaps a dozen costumed extras.

Yes, we are spoiled by “Game of Thrones,” which, a decade later, gave us the Battle of the Bastards with Jon Snow atop a hill of corpses slaying anything that moved. Once or twice a season, that HBO show would drop a set piece such as the Battle of Winterfell or the Battle of the Blackwater or the Wildlings and the Night’s Watch vs. the White Walkers. “Game” made it seem almost like schoolyard play to draft thousands of extras in the most scary-ass battles ever. You watch them and think: How did someone not die for real during all this?

HBO execs have said that in so many ways, “Rome” was a trial run for “Game,” in learning how to fund as well as supervise an international production. It’s not exactly fair to judge a show by another series that came years later, but there’s no getting around the fact that “Rome’s” depiction of this critical battle wouldn’t fly even in a History Channel production.

Kenneth Cranham as Pompey in "Rome" (Photo: HBO)
Kenneth Cranham as Pompey in “Rome” (Photo: HBO)

Pompey is left a broken man. He flees with his family, is betrayed by his men, and finally assassinated on the shores of Egypt at the behest of the host whom he thought would offer sanctuary.

In the audio commentary for this episode, series co-creator, executive producer and writer Bruno Heller calls Cranham’s performance something out of “The Lion in Winter.” He’s not wrong.

Also, in the commentary, Heller notes that the single greatest difficulty “Rome” writers faced was giving their upper class women something to do. That might explain the impetus for the affair between Servilia (Lindsay Duncan) and Octavia (Kerry Condon).

Octavia (Kerry Condon) comforts Servilia (Lindsay Duncan) in "Rome" (Photo: HBO)
Octavia (Kerry Condon) comforts Servilia (Lindsay Duncan) in “Rome” (Photo: HBO)

Heller comments that while there were plenty of prohibitions surrounding male homosexuality, there isn’t much in the record about Roman attitudes toward lesbian love.

“Like the Victorian era, women’s emotions were kind of invisible, and to that degree, it gave them a certain latitude and freedom,” he says.

Oh, and Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Pullo (Ray Stevenson)? They lash several corpses together to make an escape raft that takes them back out to sea, and ultimately, to Greece. Just another day for our hard-luck heroes.

I watched this episode twice, first on HBO Max, and then from the DVD boxed set (listed below), and the picture quality was so much better on the DVD. The streaming picture is several shades darker in almost every scene. The first time around, I actually thought the producers must have made a conscious decision to film darker. That is so not the case. Do digital copies degrade after a time? In any case, it’s another reason to be grateful to own the boxed set.

Next: “Caesarion”

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