Last Thursday, Game of Thrones was nominated for 19 Emmy Awards, more than any other series, and it’s not hard to see why. The show, perhaps more than any other on the air, benefits from comparison.
Other series, even the most popular ones, go a long way in illustrating just how unique and satisfying HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire really is. Game of Thrones is as stately and well-appointed as Downton Abbey, but infinitely kinkier and bolder. Its performances and directing are on par with Mad Men, but that show often seems deeply in love with itself. It’s as dark and gut-level compelling as Breaking Bad, but … dragons!
There is one show, however, that — while not strictly “superior” to GoT — could at least join it in a rousing duet of “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).” And it, too, was on HBO. And it was a flop.
In sweeping locales and sumptuous clothing, commoners walk with (and fuck with) royals. Power struggles last generations, and a bloodbath betrayal is always a breath away. Curses carry weight. Honor is for the dead. A place called “Great Britain” does not even exist, but most people have a British accent.
Sound like Westeros? Indeed it should, but I speak of Rome.
For a brief two seasons, starting in 2005, HBO ran a swords-and-sandals drama concerning the historic period leading up to and following the assassination of Julius Caesar. Suffice to say, they packed a lot of nudity and red corn syrup into the Roman politics of the day. Also featured: multiple visits to ye olde brothel, shocking character deaths via poisoning and beheading, and noble-born brother-on-sister incest.
Now, I’m not saying that any of those elements in Rome make their use in GoT seem played-out or less fresh; this is pretty archetypal stuff after all. Certainly neither faction stole from the other — timelines don’t work out. Nor, again, do I wish to imply that the older show is “better;” it’s not. But if you thought there was only one artful, sprawling HBO costume piece featuring well-written, well-acted characters who curse like sailors, screw like freshmen, and scheme like Iago … you were incorrect.
Ray Stevenson (Dexter, Thor) and Kevin McKidd (Trainspotting, Grey’s Anatomy) star as a pair of everyman soldiers in Caesar’s army who keep getting themselves mixed up in Machiavellian plays for control over the most powerful empire on Earth. And who plays their commander? Why, it’s the king beyond the Wall.
GoT actors Indira Varma (Ellaria Sand) and Tobias Menzies (Edmure Tully) both had far more to do on Rome, and they use the time well, but Ciarán Hinds, who went on to steal Spielberg’s Munich before taking up residence as Mance Rayder, was simply outstanding as “Gaius of the Julii — called Caesar.” Charming and sly, shrewd to everything but his own ambition, Hinds was completely believable as the proto-emperor, and his face is right off a Roman coin.
Among Rome‘s fairer sex, much should be said about Polly Walker’s Golden Globe-nominated turn as the endlessly quotable Atia, mother of eventual Octavius Caesar (“Next time, if you want a boy, pick one up at the market! Everyone knows boys you pick up on the street aren’t to be trusted.”). She’s as vicious and conniving as Cersei Lannister, but her insecurities are more personal, and they don’t include anything as pedestrian as death.
When the barbarians are at the gate and suicide is looking like the wisest path, does Atia prepare poison for her children while whispering a goodnight story about stags and wolves? No. She hands out the swords and calmly preps family and slaves with their final instructions.
Atia: “Octavian, my honey, who would you rather killed you?”
Octavian: “I’m old enough to take care of myself, mother.”
Atia: “Oh, that’s my brave boy.”
Best of all was James Purefoy’s ripping-good take on Mark Anthony. The actor who’s found a cult following via his cult on the The Following brought humanity to the lust, greed, and hunger of one of history’s most famous warrior lovers. When the (perennially) second most powerful man in the world is slitting throats in the street and demanding sex before he gets out of bed, there’s a good chance he won’t live to see 60. His comment before falling on the sword: “Anything to get rid of this hangover.”
And there, indeed, is the one advantage Rome definitely had over GoT: it always knew exactly where it was going. Facts and legends demand the ascension of Octavius and the dual deaths of Anthony and Cleopatra, so the course of Rome was set. It did, however, find itself in a rush to get there.
The post-Memorial Day episode of Game of Thrones set an HBO original programming ratings record of 6.6 million live viewers, the previous record having stood since Tony Soprano tried to work through his issues with Dr. Melfi. Rome, on the other hand, struggled to find an audience (its second season premiered to only 1.5 million), which, combined with it’s prohibitive cost (season one’s budget ran into nine figures), spelled doom.
But if GoT has flourished in the sun, Rome found drive in its imminent demise. The latter season hits a breakneck pace with deaths and major events piling up like firewood. It’s terrific watching, now available on Amazon Prime, and it might just be enough to make the wait for more time with the Starks bearable.
Game of Thrones rules its day, but then, so too did Caesar.