"Sorry about your uncle."The new season of Rome is finally here, which makes me a little giddy, since it's one of the few shows that bothers to dramatize history, and since it does it so well. I'd been thinking about how it manages to create an ancient Rome that feels so convincing, without bogging the viewer down in detail. Tonight, at least, two things pop out: violence and ritual.
"I'm made his son, by will."
"Oh, congratulations. You'll be wanting vengeance, then."
Titus Pullo and Octavian.
The violence in Rome is brutal and casual. (As opposed to the violence in Deadwood, which, while brutal and common, was usually accompanied by somber lighting and that plucked-string score that heralded major events.) As a result, it leaves the feeling that violence, while serious, was something that ancient Romans lived with every day. What makes pieces of violence noteworthy on the show are their meanings to the characters. Caesar's death is worth paying attention to because it has an immediate impact on a number of lives. The manner of his death is noteworthy primarily because it occurred in the Senate chamber. Alex Epstein of the screenwriting blog Complications Ensue has already made this point well about the first season, particularly about how the writing frequently makes violence the second most important thing in the scene to the characters.
But the other thing that Rome does well is its use of ritual. Dropping in rituals that advance the story but still seem foreign to modern viewers help to create a different world very effectively without slowing down the story. Sometimes, these rituals are set pieces, like the twin funerals in this episode. Other times, they're just snatches of dialogue or actorly business. Titus Pullo marries his former slave by asking, and then marking her forehead. Attia, when planning to flee the city, barks a quick "Pack the money and the household gods." The script doesn't dwell on the exotic moments, and neither do the actors, and it's that ruthless efficiency that sells the difference so well.