Oof, settle in, folks: this one is a doozy, representing some of the very worst alongside the very best.

The usual flash-forward does not help matters at all, from the onset. Old Clavdivs stumbles towards the communal can, clutching an oil lamp and chastising himself for eating too much at night. He empties his piss-pot and settles down for a midnight dump, and I didn’t want to write that any more than you wanted to read it, but here we are. He starts mumbling about mushrooms and getting it all finished – presumably meaning his family history.

Then we get a brief recap on how far he’s gotten in the family history, which is spoken aloud rather than voiceovered. Maybe the earlier voiceovers were because people were around, and now that he’s alone, he feels free to talk to himself? Whatever, Augustus is dead, and Tiberius is finally in power but doesn’t really want it anymore. He’d been kind of okay with Germanicus keeping him in check, but when he sent his nephew to Syria to command the Roman armies…

Remotes ready for an off-camera shriek from Pina. Germanicus lies dead, wept over by his widow and one of her children. We know it’s Caligula by his Village of the Damned moptop and dead blue eyes. She orders that Germanicus’s corpse is displayed in Antioch, so the public can bear witness to the marks of poison and witchery, and so this info can be despatched to Rome (i.e., Livia / Tiberius).

The funeral procession parades Germanicus’s ashes while his grieving family and friends follow. It’s time to say goodbye to Model Roman Wife Pina and hello to Firebrand Pina! No longer content to follow where others lead, she’s willing to storm Rome for justice. She gives the urn to Castor, telling him to defend Germanicus’s children and avenge his death. Next in turn is Clavdivs, and it’s all very loud and on the upper end of the Calculon scale but genuinely moving.

She demands to know why Tiberius and Livia are absent and is wholly unconvinced by Clavdivs’s explanation that they were too grief-stricken to attend, and this goes for Antonia as well. Pina isn’t buying this for a second, and she whips the crowd into a frenzy. Unlike some of Augustus’s favoured sons [*cough* Marcellus *cough*], people actually do like Germanicus. She’s a confident and natural orator who oozes charisma, and the crowd is spitting feathers: ROME OR BUST.

Back in Rome, Livia is more than capable of shredding her son’s self-worth all by herself but now has the added bonus of *~Sejanus~* and his fine ass to help her triangulate the situation. They confab in the palace while a 100K strong funeral party rages outside. Tiberius can’t understand why people are so upset and why he isn’t as beloved since he’s the actual emperor and Germanicus was merely a highly decorated war hero whom people could actually talk to without feeling like they needed a 4-hour bleach shower afterwards.

Livia, who did nothing but nitpick and criticise Augustus when he was alive, butts in to crow that he reigned for forty years and was universally loved by all. Quite apart from being untrue, there’s no need to bring it up now, especially in front of *~Sejanus~* and once again, I’m hearing another Livia praise her dead husband to her son.  She really digs in, insisting that after Augustus passed, the troops in the Rhine would have made Germanicus their leader because he was so loved. Tiberius thinks he’s loved too, so why all the mob activity? There follows a very Willy Loman-esque conversation defining the difference between loved well and loved well enough.

And if that’s not enough, she points out that even Castor can’t stand him; good intel as well as being standard Livia-cruel (echoing New Jersey’s awful materfamilias again). *~Sejanus~* cracks that even if Germanicus was profoundly loved, he’s also profoundly dead.

However, he was also a well-known republican, and Livia says he’d have done much better if he hadn’t been. You can never say she hides her face, what with constantly telling on herself to people who either don’t fully listen or just can’t believe the truth. I’ve just finished Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, and there’s an excellent description of a popular bully that is very apt here: “Fast Forward had a beautiful poison inside him that infected people and got them hooked”. Of course, in Livia’s case, she also had several beautiful poisons inside other people.

The reason for the palaver is that Firebrand Pina and Castor have requested that Tiberius charge Pino and Plancina for murder and treason, which he’s not keen on until Livia points out it would be better to have a trial since the mob isn’t getting any happier, and this way, everything appears above board. Mother and son exchange yet more cruelties, and always with the final word, Livia sashays away, and even as an elderly, cane-dependent woman, she glides out rather majestically.

Another post-dinner meeting with the fam, giving very different vibes without Augustus making jolly and Livia to scowl and scheme. Tonight, Firebrand Pina needs to get Bad Bitchening Ascent Antonia, and Herod, who’s practically family by now, on her side. She says that although Tiberius appointed Pino as governor of Syria, it was Germanicus who sacked him. Antonia can’t believe that an emperor of Rome would stoop to such things, and I can’t believe a woman of her stature could be so naive. She’s lived with this family and met Tiberius, so it smacks of inconsistency in her character development, but heigh-ho. Firebrand Pina voices the obvious truth accepted by most present: those are his methods, and even Castor can’t defend his own father. There’s no direct proof per se, but lots of evidence for not only murder and treason but also witchery via Pino’s wife, Plancina, and hooray, some expository dialogue because I actually shouted WHO ARE THEY during the previous scene.

The scene gets incredibly dicey here: Herod scoffs at the idea with ever-salient comments delivered via some ‘ironic’ dialogue, and I understand that he’s mocking the Romans, but it’s all just grody. I understand that Herod is seeded as being a rotter, but all his dialogue is slicked with such an icky sheen which is worsening. Point is, Herod is not superstitious, but Germanicus totally was. After he became ill soon after dismissing Pino, Pina first suspected Plancina of bribing her way into the kitchen to dose his food. Pina then cooked all his meals for him, but Germanicus still felt ill and said the place stank of death.

And thus began a series of creepy things, presented via a series of still images. They don’t work any more than that random still image of the Sibyl in A Touch of Murder did. Despite being a showing medium, I honestly think a stark narration would have been far more effective than the images depicted, which include an actual plastic baby doll, what looks like a cuddly toy that has been run through several tumble dry cycles, and a straight-up racist caricature. The supernatural objects culminate in the appearance of the number 17 – which only Pina knew particularly upset Germanicus – and his name written on the wall of random rooms, each day with another letter removed as time elapsed. And then the jade talisman he believed kept him safe disappeared.

Herod insists there must have been an inside accomplice and a logical explanation, but Pina argues that only the family had access to the rooms. Further, all the windows were too small for a man to climb through, and so she believes Plancina caused the supernatural events by her witchcraft. As the camera pans over the family, listening rapt to the story (and probably concocting images far scarier than those we’ve been subjected to), who is that in the background?

Caligula coughs, basically telling on himself on two levels, although only one is picked up on (the obvious child-crime of crashing out of bed to eavesdrop on the adults). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to capture the exact moment he smirks with glee in response to the conclusion to Pina’s story, but well done that child. This project is a heee-yewge time suck, but never more than when I’m wrangling screengrabs from the iPlayer, so some posts will have a lot more than others. Taking good screengrabs is a tricky combo of syncing the subtitles with the event in question and capturing the exact character expression I want, without any iPlayer blurring when I pause, which is vexing to say the least. Do check this kid out – he’s top.

He says he had a bad dream and gets no sympathy from Grandma Bad Bitchening Ascent, who blames him for eating too much at night (I remain on Team Midnight Snack, myself). Clavdivs suggests Caligula might want to sleep with his cousin Drusillus, the son he previously described as horrid, but his nephew wants to sleep with his sister, Drusilla. Antonia’s anger and repulsion incite an awkward parenting stand-off with Pina, less of a firebrand around her opinionated mother-in-law, but she allows Antonia to escort the pervy child to his cousin’s room.

The talk returns to the trial; their star witness is Martina, the known poisoner, who had been seen with Plancina. They need to keep her in a safe house, far from *~Sejanus~* and his crew. Castor argues for a court trial, but Clavdivs reps for one in the Senate, because that way, Tiberius is also effectively on trial for his shitty leadership and poor decision-making. Herod agrees but unfortunately uses Livia’s vicious nickname (‘Clau-Clau’) in doing so. Friends like these….

Pino and Plancina are initially thrilled at the thought of a trial in the Senate, since they’re positive their good friend Tiberius will find them innocent. Pino seems actually happy about it, gassing on some blowhard talk and grandstanding innocence until Tiberius also lets drop the treason charge, in addition to good ol’-fashioned murder. This takes the wind out of their sails, and in panic, they bluster excuses that give strong Betsy and Craig Kettleman energy: Germanicus and Agrippina were snobs who froze them out, but were also gauche, with no understanding of proper social protocols. Tiberius is called out for an urgent report from  *~Sejanus~*, leaving the room so Plancina can fret / scheme.

Pino is sanguine, with an ace up his toga sleeve by way of correspondence between himself and Tiberius, which serve as tacit approval of his handling of the situation. He also argues that jurisprudence will prevent reading any letters bearing the imperial seal, but just being seen by the Senate will sound a dog-whistle to vote accordingly, as finding in their favour aligns with that of their emperor.

Tiberius returns, asking the couple what they know of Martina. Pino and Plancina Kettleman first deny knowing her, then pretend they only know her in passing as the widow of a Roman soldier and nothing of her reputation. Which even if they did, it’s not like she was prosecuted. Tiberius says *~Sejanus~* has just told him she’s a secret witness for the prosecution; does that scare them? More bluster and scoffing ensues, and as they maintain that as long as Martina is truthful – or not persuaded by other parties – they will be fine. Tiberius says he hopes *~Sejanus~*’s agents don’t get there first, while his tone indicates he totally hopes that is indeed the case.

And then, ugh, this scene, which is mostly unnecessary since it barely drives the plot, and all salient info could have been provided via dialogue.  In a major win for Firebrand Pina and Team Avenge Germanicus, Martina (aka Nursie!) has arrived in Rome and is willing to testify, and so needs to stay somewhere safe until the trial begins. Herod has found them lodgings courtesy of his slumlord friend Gershon, and Clavdivs pretends that she is his ma, who needs to hide for undisclosed reasons.

However, when soldiers escort Martina into the room, Gershon tries to back down and then hesitates when Clavdivs hands over a good deal of cash. Herod plays the ‘good immigrant’ card, insisting that things are done differently in Rome, and though the slumlord’s principles are out of joint, he accepts the cash and leaves. I have a terrible feeling this was meant to be the punchline and the whole scene was supposed to be comic relief. As with Herod, what starts as crass caricature blows right through dangerous stereotypes, resulting in outright antisemitism. Is the blame with Robert Graves, 1970s comedy mores or both, I can’t say, but everything about this scene stinks.

Meanwhile, Tiberius puts the case to the Senate, with Castor giving the opening statement. He has evidence to support the accusations against Pino: murder by poisoning, and treason, by way of raising a rebellion against the new governor of Syria (i.e., the dude who took his job after Germanicus sacked his ass). Pino appears nonplussed.

Unlike Caligula, who is currently throwing a shit-fit and screaming that he hates the horrible German woman. For a change, he crashes into Clavdivs instead of the other way around and repeats his weird insult. Bad Bitchening Ascent Don’t Give Me No Lip, Child Antonia shortly follows, raging with disgust after finding Caligula naked in bed with Drusilla. As per her usual parenting convention, she’s locked Drusilla in her room and means to secure Caligula in the cellar. She also translates “German” as Caligula argot for “asshole”; not subtle, kiddo.

Clavdivs tries to intervene in order to spare him, and I’m impressed at how well the lad does at playing a scared little innocent who was just having  fun – even I found myself feeling sorry for him. His granny ain’t falling for it though, and shouts at Clavdivs for falling for the revolting child’s lies. She  leaves him to try to chat some reason into the boy, though not before spitting that it should have been Clavdivs who died, not Germanicus. She does appear somewhat contrite, clamping her hand over her mouth before storming out, but his lack of response suggests that even if she’s only saying it aloud for the first time, he’s already known she’s thought it for a long time.

Clavdivs tries to be the stern but understanding uncle; you can’t mess around with your sister in those kinds of games, it’s just not done. What do you mean why, it just isn’t! The conversation doesn’t go far, because Herod and Pina arrive to announce that Martina’s been kidnapped by *~Sejanus~*’s men. Pina does appear a scooch more upset at the perceived persecution of her son, because hasn’t he been through enough?

Back at the trial, Pino is giving testimony to an unimpressed Senate. His story was that he was in Kos when Germanicus died, en route to Rome to complain about his UNFAIR and ILLEGAL dismissal. Also, reports he made multiple sacrifices in an orgy of joy at Germanicus’s death couldn’t be more wrong, because the orgy in question was actually to celebrate the birth of his grandson, smart guys. When further questioned by Castor as to why he then returned to Syria, ignoring clear written instructions not to, he places the letters from Tiberius on the table. The Senate wants to see the contents, so Pino calls the emperor’s bluff with a staredown. Tiberius won’t set a precedent and denies Castor’s motion to open the letters. And hoo mama he does not look impressed.

Later, dipshit supreme Pino is crowing to his toadies, though he sends them away when he realises how peaked Plancina looks. She has a bad feeling their shit-hot legal gamble has not been wise and that Tiberius won’t overlook this transgression, because she can read the room like a normal-ass person. Pino poo-poos her concerns; it’s all gravy, baby – he knows it’s just a show for the Senate. When Plancina expresses remorse that Germanicus had to die, the tone shifts into full-on soap opera villainy: he claims it was her idea. Watch out Betsy, Craig is pissed!

Then who should arrive but *~Sejanus~*, by order of Tiberius, with his men surrounding the house. It’s totally to protect them from Firebrand Pina’s followers and not at all to keep them prisoner in their own home or prevent them from fleeing Rome. Pino enquires after Martina; is it true the star witness has vanished? Yes? Then maybe it was all just a clever ploy?  *~Sejanus~* clarifies: nah, bro, she’s super real, we just don’t know where she is. Also:

The sheer joy he gets from shit-stirring is a wonder to behold. Just look at him basking in bad-natured glee! – the Kettlemans are fucked, and he finds it just as hilarious as he found watching Tiberius tangle with Livia. The two jpegs are functionally the same image, but dudes, listen. Our time with *~Sejanus~* is all too brief, and if you weren’t effectively pre-warned, these next couple of recaps will be a protracted exercise in picspam. You’re welcome.

The letters should be archived as a matter of state, as they well know. Pino acts as though he was just about to do that but hands them over with a veiled threat to Tiberius. And then he tries to backpedal with snivelling take-backsie compliments a second later. *~Sejanus~* confirms that tomorrow Pino will be escorted directly to the Senate by his men, again for his safety, and the scene ends with a lingering shot of Plancina, betrayal oozing from every pore. YAY.

*~Sejanus~* is more than happy to give the letters over to Tiberius and to offer some advice: if you acquit Pino and Plancina, Firebrand Pina’s supporters will believe you ordered them to murder Germanicus, and they will run amok. And Firebrand Pina is well-loved, with lots of popular support, maybe even more than her beloved husband; unlike you is so heavily implied, you can almost see it surrounding the scene like old-timey theatre curtains. He also counsels that although they expect him to, he should not reward the Kettlemans for voluntarily handing over the letters.

And then Firebrand Pina herself appears to confront the men. Despite their missing star witness, she is confident justice will prevail and storms past brimming with righteous anger. I’m a little hazy on where she’s going – presumably, she has apartments in Caesar’s palace? It would cut down on the need for more than five sets. But hooray! We finally have a likeable, well-developed female face in this show, in addition to the handful of campy heels. After she’s out of frame, Tiberius asks if they found Martina yet and when told no, throws his usual tantrum. But wait – if Martina’s not in Gershon’s apartment or with *~Sejanus~*’s men, where is she?

With Livia, of course, in a scene that could well be my favourite in the whole show. We’re rarely shown Livia enjoying the fruits of her machinations, and this is one of the few times she’s shown to be having  fun. Unlike her Tiberius-baiting scenes (which, make no mistake, are also her idea of fun), she’s also finally given the chance to showcase her intelligence and gain direct admiration. She interrogates Martina about which poison she used on Germanicus and, as ever, uses Martina’s pride to play her and get all the info we have inferred directly confirmed: Plancina instructed Martina to poison Germanicus, but it was her own ‘games’ with weird little Caligula that sent him over the edge. Apparently, the boy already has delusions of godhood, which she encouraged by daring him to ‘scare a man to death’. I love everything about this scene, from Martina’s enthusiastic gobbling of snacks to Livia’s evident pride in her expertise, and it all ends with a punchline that’s so funny, I may have actually slapped my knee with delight. I love this scene so much I’m going to overlook the glaring anachronism that they are sitting at a table to eat (though this could be a comment on Martina’s social status, since only the very wealthy would have eaten while lying down, and Livia does not partake).

Back at the trial, Pino requests a dismissal due to the prosecution’s failure to produce their star witness. Motion denied by Tiberius, but the real record-scratch is that Plancina has now lawyered up and will be tried separately from Pino. Later, he confronts her for Marriage Story (Pino’s Version), ordering an explanation as to why she sold him out. Quite simply, he fucked up, and there’s no going back for him, but if he behaves like a real man, he can save his family’s honour by ending his life instead of a bringing shame on the family with the inevitable execution sentence that will follow a guilty verdict. A nifty side effect is that Plancina won’t have to fork over their wealth to the imperial purse. Strictly for the children, and certainly not any Merrie Widow shenanigans.

Pino is less keen and instead tries to game his way out by instructing Plancina to tell Livia he’s got a letter *without* the imperial seal, bearing the names of both her and her son, and unless he’s acquitted, he’ll read that letter in the Senate. And it won’t be pretty. Yeah, try to blackmail Livia – this will be fun!

Upon hearing this little twist, Tiberius is aghast, and Livia’s dry-as-bones response utterly shit me up:

Another classic argument ensues, where Tiberius can’t believe Livia could be so sloppy, and she sulks that he’s removed her use of the imperial seal. He tells her to quit meddling in his affairs, but she reminds him that if it wasn’t for disappointment, he wouldn’t have any appointments, all arranged by her. The letter is bad for both of them, so he’d better acquit them. Also, if he wants to be such a little bitch about it, she’s got a veritable burn-scroll of letters Augustus wrote to her with 0 nice things about him.

Tiberius snaps that he doesn’t care anymore if they read the letter because he’ll just excuse the contents on mental incompetence brought on by extreme old age, and finally, it seems he landed a blow on his ma. He won’t bow to Plancina. This argument, much like those Livia had with Augustus, never ends the way the seeming victor believes them to.

Because Livia delivers the bad news to Plancina but claims some success for her. If Plancina returns the incriminating letter, they will allow Pino to die via an honourable suicide, and Livia will ensure the family don’t suffer persecution or financial loss. She confides that she knows of Martina’s whereabouts, but that Tiberius does not, and that she will ensure that Martina remains hidden, unless the incriminating letter is read to the Senate, in which case she will miraculously materialise. I feel like Pino genuinely deserves this for trying to outfox Livia, the rank amateur he is.

Plancina delivers the bad news, though Pino is such an asshat he still wants to read the letter anyway. She begs him to think of their estate, their children, the cash, their grandchildren and also, the money. Then a thought occurs: they could die together. How can she live without him? He dithers, then spouts some toxic romance shit about opening their veins and being found in one another’s arms (just like Tiberius wanted with Vipsania) and produces a dagger from a nifty inner toga sheath. And then promptly bottles it.

Plancina calls him a coward and grabs the dagger to show him how a real Roman should die, but as he rushes to stop her, insisting that Liva must be running a long-game bluff, she turns on him and plunges the dagger into his belly. He does a couple of soft-shoe shuffle steps and pegs it, and she grabs the letter and bolts.

Fire licks over a pile of scrolls. Is it Livia burning evidence? Nope, it’s Caligula committing his very first arson! Meanwhile, the family ponder their current situation: Pino’s dead, but Plancina walks free, and Clavdivs says some justice is better than none. Bad Bitchening Ascent Antonia thinks they need to leave it at that, and I’m again annoyed at this weaksauce characterisation, because surely Antonia would be more amped up than that? Firebrand Pina knows that if Tiberius hated Germanicus, he sure as hell won’t be any kinder to his children. Castor thinks they should be more worried about *~Sejanus~* now, since Tiberius is wholly in his thrall. Herod is more worried about what smells like burning, at which point, a slave bursts in the door to scream that Caligula has set the house ablaze.

Flash-forward to Clavdivs, who’s been asleep on the shitter and is awakened by his toga going on fire from the oil lamp. He catches it just in time and stumbles away in the dark.

BUGLE BLAST: Next time – Will Firebrand Pina ever get real justice? Will Tiberius remove the giant pole out of his ass? All will be revealed next time on ‘Queen of Heaven’!