The last time we saw old Clavdivs, he was seething with hatred. Now, he’s self-medicating his impotent rage with wine. We don’t linger for very long on his blank expression en route to numbness and sweet oblivion, but flash-forward to another family get-together.

Once again, Horace has been invited to recite poetry and once again, no one is paying attention. As per the first episode, we aren’t subject to it either, instead provided with disembodied Clavdivs’s slightly updated dramatis personae since the children from the previous episode have grown up:

  • Postumus: next in line to succeed Augustus since his brothers Gaius and Lucius popped off, and his bestie
  • Germanicus:  Clavdivs’s much-admired golden-haired big bro
  • Livilla: his much less admired big sis 

The camera pans over the known cast without further comment: Sourfaced Tiberius, Bad Bitchening Ascent Antonia, passed out Augustus, and Schemin’ Livia (also there’s adult Agrippina but apparently she doesn’t merit further comment). With the paterfamilias totally disengaged, the usual family dynamic plays out unnoticed by him. Not present is Castor – who indeed married Livilla – so Livilla is free to have full eye-sex with Postumus. Cor.

A few years after my initial Clavdivs obsession, during the first semester at college I became entirely obsessed with The Rocky Horror Picture Show and attended a midnight shadow cast performance at least twice a month. Patricia Quinn as Magenta was the catalyst for finally admitting to myself that I also fancied girls. You’d think all the underwear ads I’d cut out of Vogue to adorn my bedroom walls with might have been a bigger clue, but at the time I told myself Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss were just really, really cool.  

What is very uncool is that despite snoozing throughout the performance, Augustus heaps praise on Horace via a burn on Ovid’s smutty verse. In fact, Horace is such a treasure he will make him a present of a gold statue, and since my other current TV obsession is Taskmaster, I immediately pictured him handing over a replica of Greg Davies’s bonce. 

Clavdivs breaks the relative peace with a moment of clumsiness, triggering the immediate scorn of Antonia and Livia. Their barked words and his quiet acceptance of his place on the lowest rung of the family demonstrate decades of cruelty and emotional neglect in a few seconds of screen time. It brings the evening to an official close, and while everyone shuffles out, Livia takes note of Livilla’s knowing smirk. She and Augustus discuss the upcoming games honouring Drusus. Should Clavdivs join the family in the imperial loggia? On the one hand, excluding the son of the very man the games are being held for would look weird, but on the other, he’ll be weird.

But it’s not bedtime yet, because there’s grim news from “Germany”. The savage tribes have massacred three legions, and now nothing stands between them and the Roman provinces in Gaul, and I’m going to assume we’re all okay with Gaul instead of France thanks to Asterix. Augustus leaps into command mode, sending for Germanicus, who arrives post-haste, but weirdly no one can find Postumus. Germanicus is full of vim and vigour and determined to live up to nominative determination. Augustus is less keen on this plan, insisting he can’t spare him. Who he can spare is Tiberius, so ‘can spare’ is Augustus-speak for ‘can’t stand’. 

The next day, Clavdivs is researching in the library, while snacking. Also present are two of his heroes, Livy and Pollio. Unfortunately, they’re both pompous dicks, and upon realising he’s a fan, they demand he choose a favourite in a scene which made nearly all the bones in my toes snap. Poor Clavdivs can’t win for losing and, trying to be both honest and diplomatic, winds up insulting both men-children. It does garner more sympathy for this awkward weirdo, but almost he immediately monologues a lengthy “well actually” that shows Livy up in front of everyone, making it really hard to like the guy. 

Luckily, this brings Pollio back to his side long enough to ask why he’s reading their work in the first place. It’s a history of his family, with a focus on his republic-supporting pa and gramps. Pollio somewhat glibly notes their political views are the reason they were poisoned, and naturally Clavdivs loses his shit, with a reaction awarded a commendable 7/10 Calculons, more than worthy of the resultant librarian shush (who is fine with this info?). Clavdivs admits his family is ashamed of him, and Pollio says this is actually good and indeed, this perception will keep him safe if he plays the fool and exaggerates his disabilities. 

Meanwhile, Augustus chats about the importance of figs with Postumus as a segue to complaints he’s getting about the lad’s aggressive behaviour. He admits clashing with the Praetorian guard, but only in defence of Clavdivs. Sadly that argument won’t cut the mustard, and he better figure it out because he’s next in line. Tiberius who? Entirely oblivious of his wife lurking in the background (one of my personal favourite soap opera tropes), Augustus confesses that he never much liked Tiberius and that he only adopted him because Livia is such a warm and wonderful woman, and he lives to make her happy. Livia sashays away with her flowing garments trailing behind, making me want a badly photoshopped gif of her head on Blanche Devereaux’s body as per the opening credits of Golden Girls.

from the gifset –

From her chamber, she receives Livilla in order to confront her granddaughter’s infidelity. While Livilla kneels like a supplicant, she’s draped across a chaise longue wearing an outfit that totally slays, a subversive play on bridal whites, including a discreet veil, with tasteful blue accents.

Livilla initially denies the accusation but gives up when it’s evident that nothing gets past Livia, who’s been watching these children grow up for decades. Slutty Aunt Julia’s cautionary tale is dangled in front of Livilla: does she want to be like her, exiled for these past seven years on a tiny island, friendless and alone? It’s clear Julia doesn’t get regular despatches from Rome or have an astrologer flunky to chat with. Remotes at the ready to prepare for some loud, and not entirely performative sobbing. Livia cuts in; it was really Postumus’s fault, he must have pestered her until she was forced to give in, and besides, females don’t have agency, which is so plausible, we can almost believe it. It’s another brilliant bit of psychological engineering where, as with Plautius, Livia reads Livilla like a book while we witness contempt battle admiration. Surely Livilla wants Castor to be the big cheese, and by extension, to become Empress Caseus, but if so, his pa’s gotta get there first. Which means bye-bye Postumus. 

And finally the motive I’ve been waiting for to explain all Livia’s skulduggery. She’s lived through civil war and believes that a return to a Senate-ruled Rome would cause a return to the bloodshed. Her solution is a strongman who can rule for decades, though her belief that this strongman should be Tiberius is where it comes a bit unstuck, since she hasn’t demonstrated much faith in his intelligence or capacity. Then again, strongmen are often most useful as puppets. I wish this was explored more, but there is a lot of plot to get through, and this isn’t a show that lingers for very long on its female characters. I mentioned that I wanted to see “I, Livia Drusilla” and, while looking up books about her, found the Sky series Domina that I’ll have to try to stream somehow.

Next up, another classic Brian Blessed performance, which by all rights should give this episode the title “Quinctilius Varus, where are my eagles?!” (a much better quote, methinks).

This scene is a rich text, with Augustus dunking hard on Tiberius for pissing about in the Rhine for six months. Livia glides in (she’s everywhere you want to be!) and tries to defend her son, but Augustus is having none of it; Tiberius sucks and only Postumus can sort out this situation. Since Livia can’t frame Postumus’s ass if he’s not there, she spins yet another deeply plausible yarn – Tiberius will just think Postumus has been sent to spy on him, making him even surlier and more defensive.

Every scene with these two is captivating, but what I find so engaging is the authenticity of their interactions. So often they are having totally separate arguments beneath the surface-level beef that neither will ever resolve, even when Livia, as usual, gets her way. Augustus will keep folding to her, because he’s possibly the most susceptible to her manipulation.

With that agreed, he notices a heap of scrolls on the desk, which came via Antonia. It’s Clavdivs’s research project (apparently she hates her son but still takes the time to rummage through his shit to, idk, look for porn?). Since it’s a hagiography of Drusus and his pro-republic sentiments, it must be destroyed. Augustus and Livia bicker again about whether they can stand to be seen with Clavdivs at the games and finally agree to allow him to sit in the back. Augustus is getting battier and totally loses the thread of the conversation when he starts ranting about the cost but settles down when Livia says she and Antonia will foot the bill, which made me belly laugh. And Clavdivs *will* marry Plautia Urgulanilla – they won’t let her family back out of the betrothal, so at least that’s settled. 

At the games, Clavdivs is a walking faux pas, from plopping into the imperial seats to an immediate pratfall while Antonia’s hate-face is giving big Joey Tribbiani ‘smelling a fart’ vibes. As this is Clavdivs’s first gladiator show, he’s all excited. With him is his good friend Herod, who has progressed from greasy little kiss-ass to oleaginous social climber. Even though his comments about the gruesome nature of the games are entirely correct, he’s such a sanctimonious prick that the cognitive dissonance is killing me. 

Backstage, Livia addresses the gladiators in a series of threats and insults disguised as a pep talk. She wants a proper show to honour her son, whom she loved as far as they know, and none of these BS pig’s-bladder-filled-with-blood fakeouts, because the professional practice of staying alive is really bad sportsmanship. God, I love her. 

She joins Augustus to the delight of the sound effects, and as the fighting begins, Livia and Antonia comment that Drusus would *love* this. I feel like they haven’t actually met the guy, but then maybe that’s because Drusus is a cipher for the family to project what they want to remember and feel, rather than anything based in fact, ditto the viewers. The family start placing wagers on favourites, and Herod gets some more (entirely correct, entirely dickish) moralising in, which kickstarts an Alan Partridge-esque conversation about religion. 

Everyone is super into it, but the gore proves too much for Clavdivs, and he faints in a way that is so over-the-top and terrible that I considered making a gif of it, but it was far more effort than the moment merits. I get that it’s meant to be funny, but it just smacks of bad direction, and I’m almost offended on Derek Jacobi’s behalf, who is so much better than this and yet also so much worse. One idea posited was that it’s deliberately exaggerated theatre acting for the back rows, but even when viewed on a small TV screen, it’s unnecessary. Another theory is that he is performing weakness in front of the family as part of staying safe and alive, but if that’s the case he really went large here, considering that he had to be carried out of the venue by Postumus and Herod.

Herod is saddled with carting him home all by himself after Postumus bails to make sex-plan-eyes with Livilla. They cut to her room – let the smooching and bosom-heaving commence! Sadly, there’s nary a boob in sight, because before they can disrobe, she bites his hand, which is your cue to turn the volume way down before she screams blue murder, and may I say, Patricia Quinn’s pipes are impressive. She rips her own garments before executing a rather impressive tackle so that both are on the floor when the Praetorian guard arrives. The camera pans to reveal a dagger on the bed. 

There’s no time wasted here – we cut straight to Augustus confronting Postumus, appearing possibly more baffled than he is enraged. Dude, Castor was like two rooms away, wtf were you thinking? You can’t deny it was you, look we found your dagger! Livilla shrieks, Castor rushes him, Postumus is all “that bitch set me up.” It’s all kicking off nicely, and Augustus just can’t fathom who could want to frame Postumus. 

So many heart eyes for the double payoff from the earlier scene; of the blackmail, obviously, but also of that ‘fit transitioning from the bride of bribery to Our Lady of Perpetual Extortion. Postumus recites the litany of missing and murdered, but Augustus is in way too deep, believing this can only be a faked insanity ploy to avoid punishment. Livilla’s one-liner rounds off the scene with a moment of ingenious ambiguity, which makes the terrible fainting scene clang even harder by comparison. How is this show so fucking good and also so goddamn terrible?

Clavdivs has evidently taken up Julia’s snacking mantle while he writes (fair: it’s literally impossible to write without also snacking), so he falls victim to a jump-scare from Postumus, who has slipped the guard. While Postumus catches Clavdivs up on his situ, Castor tells Augustus they can’t find him. Augustus snaps that Castor should take his wife to bed, subverting the usual victim-blaming trope with a weirder one: namely if he’d been at home banging her and not carousing, this never would have happened.

Postumus apologises for missing Clavdivs’s wedding, but that’s fine because it’s just a small affair, considering how much he embarasses the family. Postumus echoes Pollio’s earlier advice that Clavdivs play up his disabilities and act the fool, since he’s living in a viper’s den and Granny is a certifiable monster. Clavdivs bids one of his only true friends goodbye and promises to report everything to Germanicus as soon as possible. 

Finally, the wedding. Clavdivs limps in to offer a bow to the bridal side, which is small but considerably larger than the handful of attendees on the groom’s. When they are bid to stand, Plautia is filmed from below so she appears to be a giant! Lol she’s very tall and not standing on a box! The titters swell to all-out pointing and belly laughing. It’s awful, especially since even so-called chum Herod joins in with the group cruelty. I feel bad for them both, but probably more so Plautia.

The last flash-forward returns to now blackout drunk Clavdivs, a lonely old man trapped in ruminations, reliving past humiliations and mourning lost friends. He tumbles off the chaise longue and soundlessly, wordlessly, is escorted to bed, and it’s clear this must be a regular and possibly nightly occurrence.

BUGLE BLAST. Next time – Will Clavdivs find his way with Plautia and a new family who don’t treat him like shit? Will Postumus clear his name? All will be revealed next time on “Poison Is Queen”!