It’s the rare TV production that genuinely transports the audience to a wholly different world, and so it is with HBO’s “Rome” — a lavish, lusty and ultimately too-expensive series that will breathe its last after this second flight of episodes. Yet if the show is going to run two years only, this splendidly acted melodrama delivers a bloody good time barreling toward oblivion, delivering enough political intrigue, violence and sex to slake even the most debauched viewing appetites. Unlike the similarly engrossing “Deadwood,” concluding the story here — following the battle to succeed the fallen Caesar — seems a proper finale.
Picking up where year one left off, writer Bruno Heller deftly mixes his fictional characters, soldiers Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), with historical ones, from the brutal, bloodthirsty Mark Antony (James Purefoy) to Caesar’s cerebral designated heir, Gaius Octavian (first Max Pirkis, then Simon Woods when he makes the transition to adulthood).
Caesar lies dead on the floor of the Roman senate, but killing the so-called tyrant has only triggered a battle to replace him, with Antony, the weak-kneed Brutus (Tobias Menzies) and young Octavian all jockeying for power.
Vorenus, meanwhile, was lured away from Caesar’s side to facilitate the assassination, leading to the death of his unfaithful but beloved wife. In the four episodes viewed, he also must deal with the disappearance of his children, essentially causing the sober warrior to trade places with his boisterous and unlikely comrade Pullo, who actually becomes the level-headed one.
Where “Rome” frequently soars, however, is in the seething catfight between Octavian’s conflicted mother, Atia (Polly Walker), who is also Antony’s mistress; and Brutus’ mother, Servilia (Lindsay Duncan), who had a longtime affair with Caesar and eventually, out of spite, joined in the plan to kill him. Magnificent and every bit as ruthless as the men, the two women despise each other and engage in an almost unimaginable game of one-upsmanship in seeking to embarrass, harm and, finally, murder each other.
In that respect, “Rome” has a little something for everyone, and its byzantine twists and turns are seldom predictable unless, perhaps, you have a doctorate in Roman history. Even when the narrative occasionally bogs down, the stellar and mostly European cast simply powers through it.
Walker, Purefoy and Stevenson are again superb, but McKidd in particular stands out in these early episodes, such as when the rogue who abducted Vorenus’ children yells to an aide for help. “Flavio’s not coming,” Vorenus says impassively, providing a pretty good notion of where that blood splattered across his face came from.
HBO decided to wrap up the show, something of a nightmare logistically, because its British and Italian partners didn’t want to invest in another year. Too bad, because there’s nothing quite like “Rome” on television, earning it a seat alongside the highly regarded dramas that still make the pay net worthy of that “It’s not TV” slogan.