I was just putting a couple of thoughts on facebook regarding HBO’s Rome, noting that I like the first season for the most part, albeit with reservations, such as its allowance for heterosexual desire to blossom into something redemptive, while same-sex desire figures exclusively in predatory relationships, the sexism informing the series’ opportunistic representations of sex, women, etc. I imagine that the idea of a Roman-themed drama appealed especially to the series creators as an opportunity to unshackle themselves from many of the ethical constraints with which they would otherwise have to work. For example, a story thread I ‘liked’: Pullo desires a slave of Vorenus and (if I remember correctly) wants to buy her freedom. The slave, unaware of Pullo’s motives, informs a fellow slave with whom she already has a relationship — something Pullo does not know. A gentle-seeming sort, her lover goes to thank Pullo in humble fashion for his kindness. Enraged that the object of his desire already loves and is loved by another, Pullo promptly beats him to death. Vorenus is extremely upset — not that this gentle member of his house was brutally murdered, but at the disrespect Pullo showed to his house by ransacking its property in such fashion. Eventually, of course, the two main characters made up, Pullo wins over the slave whom he desires, and the story continues. As reprehensible as the conduct was, I thought the episode confronted audiences with an important perspective on how power relations shape perceptions of morality and humanity — a perspective other Roman dramas tend to avoid (Gladiator, etc.). I imagine the Roman scenario offered the series creators not so much the opportunity to educate as a way to explore and exploit the charismatically immoral regions of the modern male adventuring protagonist in ways otherwise unavailable. For example, one episode of the Sopranos features the murder of a 20 year old stripper by Joe Pantaliano’s character. Soprano henchman Paulie classifies it (if I recall) as ‘totally out of line’ — primarily because the act was disrespectful to the syndicate owned strip club, in the parking lot of which the murder occurred. The Roman scenario enables the writers to depict such responses as culturally normative, rather than criminally deviant, and thereby to retain story elements they might otherwise need to forfeit, such as the characters’ capacity to enjoy positively depicted emotional relationships, etc. And now there is Spartacus: Blood and Sand. At times I have the uncomfortable feeling that, in the cause of finding what’s worthwhile about a film/show/etc., I have very nearly extirpated any capacity my senses of aesthetic and moral dislike might have otherwise retained to direct my viewing. Accordingly, I have thus far watched every episode of this show, but I have to say that finding anything redeeming about it has not been easy for me. It seems to have clearly taken Rome (or Capua in this case) in its traditional role as a site for sex and violence spectacle to a new level in which story functions as a gossamer-thin tissue wafting almost invisibly around the horror-porn core of the show. A meaningful advancement of the plot or a new dimension to a character — in this show these seem like the true instances of spectacle flashing up suddenly and unexpectedly against a background drone of sex and slaughter. Then again, maybe I’m missing something?

Advertisements