So anyway, Gaius died. 

Old Clavdivs mumbles this to himself while ransacking his study for family history research material, so for the very first time, the opening flash forward actually serves a narrative purpose. He finds the letter he needs up his own damn fool sleeve, and there’s a clever wipe that moves from his reading it aloud to himself, to Livia dictating the letter, to Tiberius reading it from his exile in Rhodes.

With him is Thrasyllus, who appears to be his full-time, albeit not entirely voluntary, astrologer and, as such, is eager to spin Livia’s bad news into good. Unfortunately, Augustus won’t fold, and Tiberius must remain in exile, but she’s working ever so hard to change his mind. Other casual news despatched from Rome includes:

  • Gaius died in ‘mysterious’ (lol) circumstances
  • Lucius is taking over command of the armies in “Spain” (as with Germania, the BBC did not trust its audience to work out where Hispania was)
  • Julia’s a whore, and everyone knows it except Augustus

Meanwhile, Julia relax-snacks and Antonia hate-embroiders. She’s been stopping at Julia’s before a planned trip to Austria (fine, they can have that one; I would not have known where Noricum was). Julia’s all ‘no stay, I love lots of people by me, being alone sucks balls, ah go on’, then complains that you just can’t buy any decent free labour anymore, excepting the hot ones, of course, mainly to expose herself as being just as much of a sex offender as her exiled husband. 

Enter some squabbling children: Germanicus, last seen staring at his dad’s lifeless body, and introducing Pina (aka Agrippina), one of Julia’s daughters. Antonia delivers a time-honoured lecture about rough-housing, and the women take a moment to reflect that soon their hell-raising little monsters will be getting married themselves.  Apart from Clavdivs, whom Antonia just can’t bring herself to love, and she wonders what Drusus would have made of the kid; she presumes he’d also be disappoint, despite the entire previous episode indicating he was the only even vaguely compassionate person in the whole toxic clan. 

Hearing Drusus’s name compels Julia to pick at old wounds; isn’t it strange he only died of his injuries after Livia sent her personal physician? She dives from tactless to delusional when proclaiming that the real reason Tiberius didn’t kick up more of a fuss about being exiled was that he was grateful to get away from Livia and not because he found her entirely repellent. 

Lucius pops in with his chum Plautius, since in this family, no one can ever leave Rome without first having a snippy conversation with their ma. Julia has a present for Plautius (her hot bod), leaving Lucius to chat with Antonia. ‘Here comes your brother, Postumus’, she expositions.

I’m sorry, who? I mean, isn’t it a little late to introduce a third son? To be fair, I suppose it was always going to be too late for Postumus. Fine, fine, he was born after Marcus Agrippa died and is considerably younger than his bros, so I get that he’d not really be considered in the line of succession. But a little heads-up would have been nice. 

Julia returns from what had to have been a disappointingly brief quickie, with Demetrius, the family augur, in tow. He’s conveniently just in the neighbourhood and while he’s there, takes the opportunity to puzzle over his recent inaccuracy vis-a-vis Gaius. That ewe’s liver was practically transparent (as any fule kno, the most favourable of auspices), and yet Gaius still died in Syria. At this point, even more shrieking children come barrelling into shot, and Julia’s utter lack of maternal instinct for any of her children, living or dead, is truly something to behold.

The kids are having a to-do over some eagles fighting in the sky – sick sound effects, lads. Enter child actor Clavdivs in all his limping, stammering, facial-tic-plagued glory. One of the eagles drop a ‘wolf cub’ that falls directly into Clavdivs’s lap. Not only is the ‘wolf cub’ the cutest puppy you’ve ever seen, at one point it yawns so adorably I refuse to believe they didn’t have to edit audible ‘awww’ sounds from the crew in post. Lol j/k what I really refuse to believe is that this production had any post edits. 

How fortuitous that Demetrius is there to interpret what it means, as long as they all swear to the house gods they won’t tell anyone – it’s JUST THAT SHOCKING. So listen carefully: ‘wolf cub’ = ROME because ROMULUS (gee, thanks, mister), and look, it’s all covered in ketchup, I mean blood, and needs saving! Which means Clavdivs will be the saviour of Rome! This does not impress his big sister Livilla one tiny bit, and with the cruelty endemic in elder siblings, she makes her displeasure evident. 

Marvel as we witness the emergence of Bad Bitch Antonia as her toxic chrysalis begins to crack so she can take flight as a malignant butterfly. Having just confessed she finds Clavidvs gross, she projects hard onto Livilla for saying what she herself was thinking, and the resulting punishment is to spend the rest of the day in her room with no food. Geez, I mean, being sent to bed without dinner is bad enough, but a whole day seems a bit much.

Meanwhile, our Queen Bitch is busy drilling Plautius. For info, that is, by teasing it from him the way cats play with half-dead mice; alternating between assuring him he was right not to refuse Caesar’s daughter while reminding him what a stupid little boy move that was. He would also be wise to not refuse Caesar’s wife. Sexual tension oozes across the screen while she admires his tactical fucking and simultaneously blackmails him into spying on Julia’s sexual exploits. Top scene 10/10, no notes. 

Co-coo ca-choo, Mrs Robinson

Augustus is in the angry stage of the grieving process and orders the Noble Order of Knights outside, so he can lecture them by the Fountain of Exposition. Clavdivs has been skulking about and because of his game foot, can’t escape in time for Augustus to try to make an example of him. Rome’s bachelors SICKEN him – they should get married and procreate post-haste, so they can produce fine young Romans like this here lad…wait, never mind.

Livia glides into the scene to continue oiling the gears for Tiberius’s de-exiling. Augustus is not having it, NOPE NOPE NOPE, not listening to salacious gossip and there’s no proof and shut up. Instead they talk turkey about child betrothals: Agrippina and Germanicus are a given, and sure, we could pair Livilla with Postumus, but Livia suggests Castor instead.

Are you shitting me. Who the dick is Castor? Only Tiberius and Vipsania’s son. I understand the nature of a decades-sprawling Bildungsroman necessitates a continual swelling and reduction of the cast, but quit shoehorning random offspring into the piece and then acting like we should know who they are! Given that primogeniture is a load-bearing wall for the entire plot, you’d think it would be important to know that Tiberius has a son, especially when considering that said son is effectively more competition. 

In fact, it would have been incredibly easy to seed this info in Vipsania’s one and only scene. When pleading with Tiberius to stop following her, she might have said something like “If not for me, then for our son – you’re putting Castor in danger too!” How on earth did people follow this plot without access to Wikipedia? How did I follow it back in the day?

I checked, and Castor’s government name was Drusus Julius Caesar, so at least they mitigated some of that confusion. In all honesty, I should be used to legal names being entirely divorced from practical names; my maternal grandfather was named Richard, but my grandma called him Tom. Okay, some folks go by their middle name. Except his middle name was actually Timothy, and as a child he went by Timmy. But then as an adult, his work chums called him Pat, because lol, all Irish dudes are Pat.

And seconably, my own dear ma would genuinely become enraged if bank tellers (or whoever) called her Margaret (‘because my name is Peggy’), and no amount of logic or reason could persuade her that people cannot just leap to that conclusion. How is Peggy even a nickname for Margaret anyway? This is made EVEN RICHER by the fact that if anyone called me Becky, she’d make a big show of saying Rebecca. She also dropped a random auntie in the extended family clan when I was 9, and the first I knew of it, suddenly Aunt Karen is also coming with us to the Fudge House. As much as that day totally slapped, the sweet treats were liberally dusted with confusion. Don’t drop random family members on me, is what I’m saying.

Anyway, Augustus thought Postumus would be better for Livilla, but this idea is knocked back since he’s a monster and Livilla can’t stand him, as far as Augustus knows. 

Meanwhile Julia’s enjoying a chillaxed orgy with a roomful of her closest lovers in a sex scene that was far more confusing than it was arousing. I realise the saxophone wasn’t invented just yet, but the situation called for a far peppier tune. Plautius massages some lady’s boob while mentally adding names to the growing list, and then Julia exits, pursued by a panflautist. Thankfully the scene is both rather brief and actually relevant to the story, which modern films could learn from, unlike the dispassionate and almost fully clothed nookie betwixt a supremely bored Josephine and Napoleon, who both looked and sounded as though he’d gladly trade 30% of his burgeoning empire for a single Wind-eze tablet (aside: in TV’s America, the equivalent medication is called Gas-X. So now you know). 

Even worse is when a sex scene is both unnecessary and drawn-out as per the godawful scene between Dr Robert Oppenheimer and Jean Tatlock, whereby she de-straddles him mid-thrust to wander over to his bookshelf, tracing her finger idly over several sumptuous leather-bound spines before selecting a copy of Bhagavad Gita, and then all but begs Oppers to mansplain it to her, because nothing says erotic like a white man gassing on about complex theological traditions outside his own lived experience, which goes on for what feels like a good third of the film. Like Napoleon, what he really needed was Winde-Eze / Gas-X (delete as per your own gastro-cultural background).

Back to Julia busy again with her other hobby, snacking (Julia is a Taurus y/y?) and anyone who says she eats too much is a killjoy. Clavdivs staggers in to introduce them to young Herod, his new school chum and sycophant-in-training. He’s there partly to set precedent for his lifelong, greasy little kiss-ass nature, but also for a helpful character history lesson:

Yeah Julia, I agree

The kids skedaddle so Julia can continue having a love affair with those figs (they’re GOOD FOR YOU). Let’s savour Peak Julia: sadly her amazing lifestyle can’t last, but while it did, well done that woman. She admits she won’t miss Lucius as much as she will the tastiest snack of all, Plautius.

Who is currently presenting Livia with a list of Julia’s confirmed extramarital sexings. Livia admires his work so much, she’ll have more assignments for him, although they won’t be as pleasant as this one. But he’s safe, his name won’t be on the list. BYE PLAUTIUS.

Livia then rips Lucius a new one for knowing about Julia’s slaggy nature and doing nothing about it. I’ve been subject to some Olympic gold medal award-winning guilt trips, but this is just genius levels of manipulation.

And not only because she manages to narc on Plautius while convincing Lucius he should be the one to tell Augustus, but also because she’s geed herself up so much, you know that even she kind of believes her own bullshit. We watch her hand the list to Lucius, which wipes into one of the most beloved scenes in the show, happily available in full on YouTube:

I’m disappointed in my younger self, because this did not even register in my Abiding Teenage Memories. I hate the real-life trope linking men’s honour with the sexual purity of their daughters / sisters / whoever, and as much as I don’t want to encourage this in fiction, even if it is realistic and relevant, this shit is funny, even while Brian Blessed’s enraged smile slices ribbons through your soul. Unfortunately, it’s kind of ruined when his ensuing pity-me sobfest earns the full complement of 11 out of 10 Calculons. 

Remotes at the ready for the next scene, because Julia’s screaming is formidable. Seriously, I needed a sympathetic Fisherman’s Friend just listening to her. Her earlier conversation with Antonia when she said she couldn’t bear to be alone is now her bitterly ironic future in exile. While she pounds at the door begging her pa to let her come in so she can explain, he covers his ears in anguish.

The shadow of Livia passes over Julia, whose vain attempts to throw down are based on her two sons (finally accurate) who will come before Tiberius, but the evil queen of my heart is wholly unfazed. When Augustus eventually emerges from his grief chamber, Livia launches into the destructive narcissist’s version of empathy. It is so hard to have a banished child, especially when it transpires they are indeed the wronged party and can’t he just imagine her pain? No mention of how this affects Tiberius, but it’s hard to get worked up about that. Still, Augustus is having none of it, and he is NOT changing his mind. After they leave, Clavdivs pops into view from where he’s been skulking / spying. 

Back in Rhodes, Thrasyllus is certain that the ship from Rome has the positive vibes he’s been forecasting. But Tiberius is actually casting *his* horoscope, and it’s weird how accurate these things are, because it’s predicting death by being shoved down a cliff. Luckily a dispatch arrives with news.

So anyway, Lucius died. Tiberius’s flat delivery of this news reminds me of the voicemail Frank Costanza left when George’s plan to keep his car permanently parked at work went tits-up. There’s a beat of awkward, soundbed-less silence before Tiberius and Thrasyllus fall into hysterics (to the horror of the messenger), cackling their way through the details. There was a boating accident, and Lucius died. Plautius tried to save him, but he also died bravely in the attempt: no questions will be fielded, because none of this is sus. It’s a good thing Tiberius never lost faith in good old Thrasyllus whose horoscopes are super valuable and whose life doesn’t hang by a thread.

Tiberius’s triumphant return is met by vacant and morose Augustus, who will let bygones be bygones; they’ve all passed a lot of water since then, as Nanny Ogg would say. Augustus talks about his precious dead grandchildren, his dead-to-him daughter, and then becomes confused while mixing up a batch of political waffle batter. At this point, you know he’d give it all up to run a fig orchard. Livia and Tiberius kvetch at one another Oedipally and leave to arrange dinner.

The final scene takes place with Herod, Clavdivs and Postumus hanging out at the Fountain of Exposition. Herod thinks Postumus should cheer up, because he’s been adopted by Augustus and gets to succeed him – yay, power! Postumus says brills, but Gramps has also adopted Tiberius, and they can’t both succeed him. He misses his ma and his bros, and he’s astutely quite frightened. 

This scene wipes to old Clavdivs at the same fountain, ruminating, and his obvious hatred proves far more effective than the voiceovers have. In the end, he’s just an old man, with more power than any one person can or should hold, and yet unable to saved his loved ones.

BUGLE BLAST. NEXT TIME – Will Postumus live for an additional five or for a full ten minutes? Will there be any more casual references to previously undisclosed progeny? All will be revealed next time on ‘What Shall We Do About Claudius?’