After 5 hours into the story of I, Claudius we have a critical death in the series. Few people in history have as vast an influence as Gaius Octavianus/Caesar Augustus. Augustus transformed the unstable Roman Republic into the brutal and efficient Roman Empire. His legacy and true nature to history is fairly ambiguous. Shakespeare and HBO’s Rome portray Octavian as essentially a living monster; so cold and lacking any moral scruples that virtually anyone in Octavian’s way is quick to die. In contrast Suetonius and I, Claudius focus on Augustus the ruler, who was mostly benign and a man of simple tastes. The strange thing is that both portrayals may be indeed accurate, as Octavian in his rise was likely cold, but once in power he was able to appear amiable to all. This is all vital because the “saintly” image of Augustus may be misleading to those who are unfamiliar to history.
Then again, the image of Augustus in this series may not be considerably flattering given his blindness to the treachery that is being committed. He simply chooses to focus on running the good spirited business, and is quick to turn to rage whenever the ugly reality comes to him. Despite Claudius being repeatedly called a fool Augustus himself recognizes that he is probably the biggest fool in his own family. But one cannot continue believing in a lie when the truth has been exposed. Augustus now knowing Livia’s character begins his quiet rebellion against her. So naturally, Livia must begin poisoning Augustus.
Livia poisoning the man she has been married to for 50 years takes a toll on her as she turns to alcohol to drown her guilt. Watching Livia have to take a deep gulp of wine as she hears Augustus shriek in agony demonstrates her coping mechanism. While Livia comfortably killed or banished everyone who was a blood heir to Augustus actually killing Augustus himself is too much for Livia to take with her calm composure. There is even something strangely funny about Livia becoming a drunk throughout this episode. It’s a testament to both Sian Phillips range and capability as an actress to convincingly portray Livia as having a degree of misery while still scheming and planning the death of those around her. She is much more comfortable being stern with Claudius and encouraging Tiberius. These matters are relatively trivial, but the gravity of killing Livia is clearly affective enough to where she needs something to cope with. Her sorrow and shame at doing such a (supposedly) necessary black deed causes her infallibility to be briefly broken. It was wise for Herbert Wise to avoid focusing on the emotional expressions of Livia as she confesses her sins before her dying husband. She cannot let herself be seen vulnerable and weak, only an after-effect of tears shows that Livia is indeed human and that this will be the greatest strain on her. The actions of Livia are confounding to viewers, for the first time viewing, one cannot help but despise Livia for her wickedness. But her feelings of remorse and her need to justify herself to Augustus do provide a sense of empathy for Livia that will only continue to grow as the series moves on. Livia is at her most sinister here, and yet she is also beginning to become a character to empathize with.
But, the empathy for Livia does not relieve viewers of the revulsion one has for her. The episode still has an angry revulsion to her as Claudius hopelessly decries the actions that have taken place decades ago. Claudius obsession with the truth unfortunately leads to pain as he is unintentionally the catalyst for the death of his grand-Uncle. Claudius knowing the truth must inform the viewers of the true nature of Augustus death, but in the past Claudius was able to inform his older brother Germanicus.
Germanicus is special as he is the only one in the Imperial Family other than Postumus who does not think Claudius is a fool and treats him as an equal. The two unfortunately do not have many scenes together, but it’s clear that the pleasant fraternal relationship that was shared between Tiberius and Drusus is mirrored in Germanicus and Claudius. Claudius tells Germanicus the truth, and given his nature of honesty he is not quick to assume guilt in Livia. It is a fantastic story so Germanicus is justified in his incredulity. But Germanicus trusts Claudius and Postumus enough to go to Augustus with the truth. Sadly that is the last time Claudius will ever see Germanicus in the series.
The episode unlike most of the other previous lacks the dark comedy that helped soften the horror of intrigue in the previous episodes. This is probably wise given that the impact of Augustus is meant to be felt as something far greater than any other death that has come before and will happen afterwards. The only moment of joyful comedy comes in Tiberius tantrum with his mother. Tiberius gives the same complaints he shared in the first episode but now speaks with such angry gusto that one cannot help but laugh at his petulance. It’s both curious and surprising that Livia really puts all her faith in Tiberius becoming Emperor as he comes across as an overgrown teenager despite being in his 50s. Tiberius character arc is the most dynamic and fascinating of the series. He has a darkness that encroaches upon him as the years progress until he is downright evil by his final episode. But his corruption is gradual and unlike other episodes he seems to have a disgusted but tacit acceptance that Livia’s will shall prevail in the end. But Tiberius makes no attempt to conceal that he never wanted to be Emperor, but strangely as Tiberius actor George Baker points out, he cannot accept not becoming Emperor either.
But naturally the most fascinating aspect of the episode is Augustus attempts to restore Postumus as the rightful-heir to the throne. Brian Blessed is a brilliant character actor, and his tempestuous portrayal of Augustus makes us feel the great emotions that drive Augustus. He cries with such genuine sadness and he smiles with such joy that one cannot help but feel devastated at the loss of Augustus. Augustus is a man filled with such confusion and regrets. Augustus cannot help but cry as Postumus angrily decries his grandfather only for Postumus to break down in shame himself. Augustus speaks with such candid sincerity and emotion that one forgets that he is master of the world. His final conversation with Claudius in particular helps to humanize the grand figure as a man who worked hard and whose major mistake was not being able to retire. Augustus also has a mostly harmless vanity of enjoying being loved, and is happy to hear Claudius bears him no ill will. Augustus gives Claudius the compliments of being far more than what he appears to be (something the real Augustus always said). But Claudius gets the even better compliment of being regarded as Augustus friend. It’s nice to see Augustus treat Claudius with respect after two episodes of benign ignorance.
But the episode is called “Poison is Queen” for a reason, and tragedy must eventually befall Augustus and Rome. The final scene with Augustus prior to his death demonstrates the good nature of the man. He is playing dice with friends, and though he is winning constantly he gives back money he’s won and lets them keep it if they win. The scene will have an unfavorable sequel later on. But Augustus luck runs out and he finds himself dying despite taking great precautions. What follows is the single most amazing sequence shot by an actor in the latter-half of the 20th Century. In a single shot Wise focuses in on Augustus dying while Livia gives an spine-tingling monologue confessing all of her sins. The camera focuses as the life of Augustus slips out of him while an empty shell is left. Blessed plays dead for almost five minutes with no eye movements or twitches and one feels the earthshattering depth of Augustus dying. It’s a hard blow to see from both the characters vantage and from the audiences perspective. What the episode mainly focuses on is that one simply cannot change fate. Despite Augustus trying everything, he cannot save Postumus or even himself from Livia’s wrath. Claudius knowing and exposing the truth to his family and to the audience cannot change what has transpired. History cannot be changed and all one can do is scream like Claudius does at the eternal wicked laugh by Livia’s over her triumph. Evil won, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.