After an extended length episode that introduced us to the Imperial Family, we are treated to Claudius appearing the main storyline as a character. But this time he is portrayed by Ashley Knight, who does a spectacular job capturing the stammer and infirmities of Claudius. Knight is able to deftly show why Tiberius Claudius was shunned and hated by his family. Claudius has a high pitched nasal voice, he twitches and limps and for the most part appears a harmless if embarrassing child to the Imperial family. Knight’s great talent in this performance is in his non-verbal acting, he is able to physically perform all of Claudius impairments in such a natural manner. Akin to Michael Connor Humphrey’s performance as young Forrest Gump, everything Knight does as young Claudius is an easy transition to Derek Jacobi’s eventual performance. The shining moment for Knight comes during the fantastic scene in which a prophecy is made about Claudius being Rome’s savior at a time when it is in dire straits. The bold predictions come as Knight nervously twitches, his head moves and he is as baffled as everyone else is. It’s an excellent performance and also a wonderful moment of foreshadowing.
Claudius is not the main focus in this episode, and is not very key to the main plot. The main focus of the episode is on Julia and her promiscuity. The portrayal of Julia owes much more to Jack Pulman than to Graves, who admittedly is sparse at times for dialogue that Claudius was not a party to. Julia as portrayed by Frances White is witty and as astute as Claudius is about the actual character machinations of Livia. The great problem for Julia is that she is very open about her suspicions and is not very good at concealing her promiscuity as her friend Antonia has to subtly remark that her behavior is not appropriate for children. The series does not genuinely condemn Julia’s promiscuity; it is mostly presented as simply a little bit unwise as she is the daughter of Augustus who is constantly preaching about marital fidelity. While most of the Julio-Claudians have bizarre sexual fetishes depicted onscreen in this series (and many others as well) Julia simply has a deep lust. Even the orgy she partakes in has an artistic element to it with the utilization of shadows and Julia doing a striptease in silhouette worthy of Salome.
Several critics have argued that Graves’ portrayal of women is misogynistic given that his women are either pure evil or victims. But these arguments are somewhat too narrow-minded given that almost no one in the books or the TV adaptation is wholly good, with most characters of both genders being corrupt and self-serving. While most women have blood on their hands in the series, many of the female “victims” are far more complex than simply being the victim of brute forces. The portrayal of Julia is an affectionate mother who is sexually liberated and surprisingly optimistic given all that has happened to her. The portrayal of Antonia is equally fascinating as she is neither “victim” nor “evil” though she does have elements of these arbitrary categorizations. Antonia is the moral center of the series, which makes her sometimes blind to reality and sometimes monstrous as later episodes demonstrate. Antonia as shown in the previous episode was critical of nakedness and horrified at the thoughts of some sexual practices that Tiberius and Julia favored. Antonia has a rigid morality, this does not ultimately obstruct her from being friends with Julia, but she above all has her limits. She also, does not care for Claudius, and as she admits, that she does not care for him even with all his impediments as an incentive for affectionate behavior. Given the comment made by Livia that children like Claudius used to be exposed at birth, Antonia’s contempt is far softer than it could be.
Contrasting, the decadence and bliss as a method of escape for Julia, Augustus is beginning to be broken by his years as Emperor. Augustus is shown to be much less cheerful, as things are not going his way. His grandson Gaius has died off-screen from “mysterious circumstances” and he is slowly beginning to drift into a morose unawareness. Augustus is shown to be so benign that none really are aware of how the Republic has been transformed to an Empire. A scene that is very funny has Augustus using Claudius as a model in a speech angrily reprimanding the Knights for not getting married and having children. The scene shows that the major concerns of the empire simply are expansion of the population and that Augustus is unusually kind. People can laugh at Augustus and dare to defy him with no real fear in spite of him holding absolute power. Augustus only once shows the true nature of his power and of monarchy in a jaw-dropping scene with Augustus confronting the many lovers of Julia. The scene is constantly cited by Brian Blessed as his favorite scene in the series. It’s a mix of frightening drama and black comedy with Augustus reaction being a mix between astonished to alarmingly cheeky. Augustus explodes and sentences them all to death and orders that his daughter be banished for life as well demanding never to know anything about her again. It’s an incredibly hard blow on Augustus as shown by his last scene with a perfunctory reconciliation with Tiberius. Augustus is so traumatized by this that he is uncomfortably soft spoken and barely has an awareness of reality.
What is clear is that the central theme of the episode is the unexpected consequences of Livia’s machinations. The obvious effect of Livia bumping off members of the Julian family is that Tiberius has risen to being the adopted son of Augustus. From afar Livia’s patience and slow strikes on her enemies is very funny. Tiberius and his beleaguered astrologer Thrasyllus laugh at the tragedies before them as Livia is able to remove some of the most powerful people in Rome with ease. To anyone not emotionally connected to the people involved it’s a comically tragic story as Tiberius remarks. Livia has succeeded in killing Gaius and Luicus in the span of 18 months and has arranged for the banishment of Julia in-between. The manner in which Lucius dies is also admittedly very funny, which is confusing to both the guard delivering the message and to viewers.
But the comedy in how easy and simple it seems for Livia to remove anyone she wants to has a great price. Augustus by the end of the episode is a broken man, he no longer has the joy and smiles he always had in the previous episode. His boisterous energy is now withdrawn as he morosely deals with crises in the Empire with barely any attention. But the scene that crystalizes the cruelty of Livia comes from young Postumus Agrippa the sole male Julian and co-heir of Augustus. He is not very happy about the elevation and simply cries begging to know where his brothers and mother are. Livia has robbed Augustus and Postumus of happiness. Postumus would much rather have been a nobleman with a family than being Augustus sole grandson. The future does not look good for Claudius’ best friend as Old Claudius solemnly remembers this story. The episode’s final image of the old Claudius alone in the garden speaks volumes. Claudius is the survivor of the family, but just like Postumus, having all this power is worthless if all his loved ones are gone.