SPOILER: Caesar dies

This weekend I finished watching the last episodes of the HBO series “Rome.” It’s been a hard road to the end of the series: it was recommended by a friend on here, but it took me a long time to get into it. And they nearly lost me a few times in season 2, because at times it seems relentlessly bleak and the characters are all doomed to misery. But the series does an amazing job of pulling everything together by the end, and it’s just an outstanding example of what episodic television is capable of.

Warning about “spoilers” on this show is as goofy as warning about spoilers for Titanic, but the series does invent stories for some characters and takes liberties with the stories of others, so be forewarned if you want to watch the series with every single surprise intact. One of the best aspects of the series is how it manages to put a personal spin on all the historical events — even though you know what’s going to happen, it makes you want to find out how it happens, and specifically how it affects the characters.

But the greatest thing about the series, and the thing that makes me want to write about it at length instead of just saying “Rome is pretty cool, you should check it out,” is the way it manipulates the audience’s sympathies. I was extremely pleased with the ending of the final episode — it’s not exactly a happy ending, but an extremely satisfying one — but it’s not the ending I would’ve expected. The events are basically historically accurate, but I never would’ve expected to be rooting for some characters and plotting the downfall of others.

As is appropriate for a series with so much political maneuvering, your loyalties and sympathies are constantly changing. But it’s handled so much more deftly than the twists of a soap opera or the inertia-driven characters of any other long-running series. Over time, your mindset shifts from a contemporary one to an ancient Roman one: you start to expect betrayals, to see the value of “honor,” and to despise weakness.

There are few if any “good” characters in the series — Marcus Agrippa probably comes the closest, and it’s not long before he manages to piss you off. Cicero goes from being an annoying but shrewd politician to being the most venal and despicable character in the series, even though he’s doing pretty much the same things throughout; it’s your perception of good and evil that shifts. The transformation is most dramatic with Servilia, who begins as a basically noble and sympathetic figure, but by the second season couldn’t die soon enough to satisfy me. In a series where all the characters are scheming and duplicitous, it takes a lot of skill to keep the audience’s sympathy, or shift a character subtly enough that they transform from subtly evil to completely evil.

And the best example of that is the best character of the series, Polly Walker as Atia. I’m still amazed that they could take a character like this one — so relentlessly, unapologetically cruel and manipulative — and make it so by the end of the series, you’re cheering her on. As the story nears the end, you find yourself feeling sorry for her. Considering that the show is trying to cover years of history in two hours, not to mention its own version of Antony and Cleopatra, it would’ve probably been good enough just to leave her character arc at that: the villain who gets her just rewards at the end. But she has a brilliant final scene in which she’s telling someone off, the exact same behavior that earlier in the series had you booing and hissing, but here is nothing but a moment of victory. It’s such a well-written character and such a great performance.

I’m still not sure I have the constitution for these HBO series, because they can get so relentlessly bleak. I had to give up on The Sopranos not because of the violence, but because the characters kept making such stupid decisions that I’d gotten just as frustrated and alienated with them as I would in real life. Rome has plenty of violence and gore and nudity and sex (as any good HBO series should, much less one about ancient Rome), but what’s genuinely mature about it is how effectively it manipulates your notion of heroes and villains.

(Incidentally, if you decide to check out the series, it helps to do a little basic research first, if your memory of Roman history is as rusty as mine was. A lot of the major battles are just briefly mentioned, because the series usually chooses to focus on how the battles affect the characters instead of showing the fight scenes themselves. In particular, knowing/remembering the outcome of the Battle of Actium is important to getting the full impact of the final episode. The DVDs have some excellent documentaries in the special features, which give more of that historical background, but they also are full of “spoilers” for some of the more personal stores and events specific to this series.)

(Also: watching the documentaries reveals that Timothy Van Patten of “Master Ninja” fame was one of the directors on the series. Which is a huge draw for any MST3k fan who also likes to watch people in togas having sex or stabbing each other or both.)

(And finally: SPOILER: Brutus did it.)