“Family Affairs” begins with disembodied Clavdivs summarising the last nine years of plot: Julia and Marcus Agrippa did get married, but then Livia poisoned Marcus Agrippa and forced Tiberius to divorce his wife Vipsania…somehow? This allowed Tiberius and Julia to get married, thus bringing Livia’s decades-long plot to fruition. While I do understand that this show covers a lot of time and many events, it does seem pretty weak that a third of the dramatis personae introduced in the first episode are now dead, and Octavia doesn’t appear again, so why bother introducing her in the first place?

Clavdivs turns the story to someone beloved by all, his very own pa, Drusus! Even Tiberius loves Drusus! Unfortunately, since Drusus loves the republic, Livia does not. The brothers are having a jolly game of indoor medicine ball catch so we can see Drusus glowing with health and athleticism and Tiberius coated in a Tricky-Dick-debating-Jack-Kennedy-sheen of sweat. It soon turns into chatter about politics, which then descends into cagey sibling rivalry and then all-out wrasslin’. The lack of any incidental music really amplifies all the associated grunting, which in turn isn’t helped by the lads tumbling into some deeply unfortunate positions. The weird, lingering shot on their legs is also somewhat upsetting. After Drusus pins Tiberius (exactly as wrong as it sounds), they reminisce about the good old army days, mainly so Tiberius can whinge about his current sinecure and Drusus can big up the republic.

Cut to Julia and Antonia, Clavdivs’s mum, getting massages and Julia whinging about everything from the slaves’ work ethic to her cold fish husband. She also appears to be snacking throughout her massage? Julia can’t work out why Tiberius doesn’t like her, let alone seek sexy funtimes, which is our first indication that Julia is a slut. Antonia bigs up her man Drusus by saying that he can always make Tiberius laugh, so he can’t be all bad, but Julia insists that he also he hates his stepchildren, Gaius and Lucius, and *everyone* loves them!

Pause here: okay, so she had children with Marcus Agrippa, whose oldness apparently didn’t prevent him from siring children (or did it?). This info was not given in the 9-year plot summary which, come on, dudes, it would have added like half a sentence! Note also the heavy emphasis on these two boys and them alone; pin for later ranting.

Julia then dishes all kinds of stuff to Antonia, starting with Tiberius’s predilection for anal sex, but that she’s fine with that (another indication of sluttiness). This shocks Antonia to her core! This scene is a lovely bit of misdirection for Antonia’s Actual Bad Bitch character and yet another reason why I’d never see this in *my* Catholic high school, where once, as part of an RE lesson we watched Terms of Endearment, for reasons that were unclear even at the time. 

But there’s more! She suspects her stepma may have been responsible for Marcellus’ death because he seemed totally fine before she got involved, although she says it with such a total lack of emotion, maybe it’s this which truly shocks Antonia, even more so than nudity, which by the way she hates.

Cut to now-nude Drusus and Tiberius having a brotherly olive oil back-scraping session and chatting about their ma, which quickly segues into Tiberius’s suicidal ideation. Tiberius claims he’s only ever loved three people and lists them as first their pa, and then gets distracted by his uxorious love of Vipsania for a few beats. Drusus finally asks what we all were thinking: if you loved her so much, why did you get divorced? The answer is Livia made him! Tiberius pours half a litre of weaksauce over this argument by claiming if he didn’t marry her, Augustus would be powerless to stop Rome falling back into a republic, so all their work would be for nothing, nothing! Sweet summer child Drusus points out that well actually, succession-wise, he’s got to step over Gaius and Lucius first (again: just the two of these children!) Tiberius finally gets back to his third real love, Drusus. It could have been a rather moving depiction of fraternal love if they hadn’t also been starkers and chatting about their evil ma

Thankfully, we cut to gramps Augustus playing “Empires” (i.e Risk) and even when saddled with some pretty crap child actors, Brian Blessed’s UNHOLY ACTING TALENT shines through. My Abiding Teenage Memories were so Sejanus (and eventually, Caligula) focussed that I barely took notice of him at the time. But even my partner, who was only quarter-watching, said that he was totally gripped by his scenes. There’s a compliment disguised in a joke about Britannia not being worth conquering because the inhabitants are too savage and not even good slave material, when Drusus drops past to bid adieu before he’s off to “Germany”, taking pregnant Antonia and their kids Germanicus (DO YOU SEE?) and Livilla (SAME). 

Augustus and Drusus stroll about the garden to reverse-Bechdel and natter on about how great Livia is and how Augustus couldn’t have faced these past twenty years of emperor-ing without her. Drusus takes this cue to suggest a wacky thought that’s just occurred now: maybe Augustus steps back to let the Senate take over! This elicits the kind of rumbling laughter which appears genuine but ultimately serves as an instant knock-back; oh Drusus, you’re just like your dear old dead dad, with all this republic gubbins! With Livia-like precision, Augustus pivots to a reminder that said dad was once his enemy you know, not that you ever will be, my son! We’re all a happy blended family here, and no one is afraid to eat the figs! I love my two (as far as you know) grandchildren! The way Augustus vacillates between cold, dead eyes and chummy stepdad friendship gives us a rare glimpse into the kind of skulduggery he must have engaged in order to seize power. 

Then yet another pivot to return to the important topic: Livia, and Augustus admitting he did Drusus’s pa dirty when he stole Livia from him. (It’s rather sweet that he genuinely thinks he made this choice for himself.)

Drusus’s pa does not get name-checked, but since it was Tiberius Claudius Nero, zero of those names could be used without causing even more confusion. But no matter, it’s all for the GOOD OF ROME, which everyone wants, even Tiberius. Druses tries to help his bro out by implying his weirdness may be ameliorated if he leaves Rome (and by extension, Julia), but Augustus disagrees, preferring the ‘sack up and quit moping’ option. 

Livia enters, ostensibly to say goodbye to Drusus even though it’s clear she DGAF but mainly to advise Augustus the Parthians are desperate to worship a Roman god: him. He’s not keen but bats the discussion away to go play with his grandchildren, and the look of unbridled disgust on Livia’s face at the mere mention of these (two) children positively lifts my soul.

Livia hisses that Drusus really needs to lay off the republic BS and quit encouraging Augustus already, in a scene that falls squarely into the ‘masterpiece’ column. It’s evident that this is an argument that’s been played out since childhood and that no love is lost between them.

This is shortly followed by the much-lauded blocking that frames Drusus out of focus as he lobs a truth bomb.

OH GOD, HER FAAAACE! I keep saying it, but the way Siân Phillips deploys a variation on this expression that can be interpreted in multiple ways is nothing short of genius. Here, it’s a tacit agreement, yes, but whether this is a ‘well, that’s astute and true’ or ‘well, that cuts’ or even a ‘yes, I certainly can’t, and that’s given me carte blanche to take the very life I gave you!’ is totally down to individual interpretation.

Next up is not only the worst scene in the episode but in the whole show, and not because of any shonky sets or scenery-chewing but because Tiberius: The Grossening is about to turn the dial up to 11 and keep going. He has been de facto stalking Vipsania despite her begging him to stop because he’s putting her in danger. Also, she’s getting remarried so it’s time to move on. This is hard to watch, friends, this depiction of obsessive love rooted in entitlement and ownership, and I’ve no doubt it was meant to be, but I am so tired of this trope and could happily live out the rest of my days never seeing it again. He goes from desperately sad to violently shaking her while screaming, “I’ll kill you, you’re mine!”, and then back to morose when she cries that she would have never divorced him, no matter what. From there it’s a jump to a proposed ‘solution’ of double suicide. 

Then Vipsania (of course) comforts this sobbing monster which fine, the tedious normalcy of women be managing men’s feels, but then we get some FORESHADOWING that without her sweetness and because of that bitch Julia, he won’t be able to keep his darkness in check. So yeah – not fun. Thankfully there are no disembodied voiceovers, which I’m grateful for, but it’s worth noting that there is a good deal of withheld info here; namely that Vipsania was Marcus Agrippa’s actual daughter, which seems at least relevant if not super-important?

Whatevs – back to schemin’ queen Livia, chirpily arranging Augustus’s deification behind his back and against his will, just so we can bask in all her awful glory, before zipping along to hear Augustus chew out Tiberius for seeing Vipsania, and every golden bellowed word is mesmerising. It’s also remarkable in that it aptly  demonstrates how absolute power comes with near-total detachment from reality: pretty much everyone in Rome has to know a thing before it trickles down to Augustus. And even then it’s not guaranteed.

And this is the crux of the show: it’s a soap, not a history, and the depiction is not of a powerful emperor but of a dude facing the consequences of what seemed like a good career decades ago, but who now just wants to play with his grandkids, eat figs and get drunk. Livia covers for her son by pretending she knew about the visits, and besides, didn’t he, Augustus, also visit his ex after they got together? Augustus orders Tiberius not to sulk with the exact same language and tone he used earlier towards Gaius and Lucius.

The awkwardness is interrupted by a letter from Drusus, which although is noted as being specifically for Tiberius, he feels compelled to read aloud as per narrative convention. Drusus is injured but more importantly, can Tiberius please convince Augustus to retire already? He knows he wants to but can’t because Ma just won’t quit riding his ass! Genius Tiberius stops reading three sentences too late, and there’s some ‘lively debate’, where Augustus confronts self-awareness for a full second before dismissing the letter as injury-induced ravings and nothing more. Livia makes it all about her (to be fair, it kind of is) and they soon dive headlong into the kind of jolly pretending all dysfunctional families engage in when avoiding facts. Livia arranges to send her very own doctor to tend to Drusus.

HER OWN SON. It reminds me of when Livia Soprano was in cahoots with Uncle Junior to get Tony whacked (and then used possibly made-up dementia as an excuse when it went south). 

There’s some whizzing of scenes between “Germany” and Rome. Drusus reads a letter aloud (obviously) while the camera pans back to his festering leg wound, made possible by Urban Decay’s goth palette and what appears to be some string (I’m sure it was great FX on a 1976 CRT television). The letter is calling him back to Rome, which we can see ain’t gonna happen. Then we’re back to Rome, where Augustus can’t fathom how a simple fall could have caused such a great injury? This elicits a blink-and-you-miss-it reaction from Tiberius that is so fucking good I had to rewind it no less than four times. Augustus offers his thoughts (which will take the form of sacrifices) and prayers, which segues into a rant about his recent deification in Palmyra, using his inability to cure gout as a foil for his impotence in curing his ailing stepson.

Who is super-dying now. Antonia decides to fetch the children for some character-building trauma, while Tiberius threatens Livia’s ‘doctor’. He totally would have been able to cure that gangrene, but he got there too late! As Drusus takes his final breaths, Tiberius admits he read the letter to their ma, causing Drusus to predict that Gaius and Lucius are fucked, then subsequently croaks thereupon. Antonia arrives with baby Claudius just after, and the baby’s wailing leads us back to old Clavdivs glowering over his voiceover.

I’m not sure of the point of this scene, other than to show him as a condescending old man who really should be a lot nicer to his food taster. There’s also a weird clunky moment when the wine jug clangs into the chalice as it’s being served, which doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of the things, but just looks careless, and surely wouldn’t have been a huge deal to reshoot? It’s sincerely baffling, this juxtaposition of painstaking attention to detail with an Ed Wood-esque ‘cut it and print!” ethos. The food taster asks about Clavdivs’s current project and delivers an award-winning burn on his writing skills, which is the only halfway decent thing in the entire scene, the whole purpose of which would appear to be so that Clavdivs can say he’s just reached his father’s death in his family history.

Stop telling us things we’ve literally just seen! Every single thing in this steaming pile of horseshit has already been well-established. Yes, we know he’s worried about his food being poisoned. Yes, we know he’s writing a history of his family, that Livia be scheming, that Pa was homicided.  And also I thought the family history was going to be secreted away for 1900 years’ time as per the Sibyl’s prophecy but now he’s broadcasting it freely? 

It does serve as a kind of segue to the next scene: INT: Caesar’s palace, night – one year later. Except that setup isn’t needed since Augustus bellows at Antonia to quit moping over Drusus because – you guessed it – it’s been a year since he died. Everyone is lying down, stuffed to the gills with food and drink, Julia single-handedly slaying the feminine mystique with some very porcine snoring. People stagger their way out, leaving Tiberius to whine about how much he hates Julia, so Livia can issue some threats before taking her leave. God, I love her.

Julia finally snores herself awake, then drunkenly sidles up to Tiberius, and he nearly drops a barf.  His repulsion triggers a “Marriage Story”-esque row where Julia gleefully admits her infidelity and dunks hard on Vipsania, which is the final straw for Tiberius – the argument ends when he smacks her across the face. 

Augustus foghorns the episode out with some grade-A patriarchy-steeped logic: I hate your violent husband and am banishing him from Rome, but also you can’t divorce him! How would it look for ME! You’ve already been through two husbands! Let’s ignore the fact that most of Rome either suspects or just plain knows that his actual wife murdered both those men. Then he goes on about how she’s to got focus on Gaius and Lucius – again those *two* grandchildren of his.

And then the camera pans back so you can see the children watching their ma while their gramps is berating her. As they file this for later nightmares, Livia stops to note what a lovely scene this is, how precious her step-grandchildren are, she could just eat them up. Presumably alive, like gagh.

Because the BBC aired the first two as a double bill, we get the very first END OF PART ONE BUGLE BLAST! Julio-Claudians out!

Next time: Will we get to watch Gaius and Lucius grow into strong, untraumatised young men and help their gramps rule Rome? Who will Livia poison next? All will be revealed next time on ‘Waiting in the Wings’!