This review contains spoilers.
1.1 Black Blood
It’s always difficult to judge the first episode of a new show. There is so much to establish, and so many questions left unanswered with no knowledge of whether or not the answer will be satisfying. In the case of a series based on mythology, we might have a somewhat better idea of the broad direction in which the show is headed, but we still don’t know exactly how it will get there. All we can really say at the end of a first episode is whether or not it made us want to watch the second one. In this case, the answer is, with some slight reservations – yes, it does.
One of the flaws of this first episode is that it follows the character of Alexander/Paris so closely, and Paris is a total prat. This is not really the show’s fault, as it’s a character trait inherited from Greek mythology. Paris is irresponsible and hot-headed, thinking with entirely the wrong part of his anatomy (political power or military skill are surely more useful attributes than a physically beautiful woman, even considering the fact that, in this version, Paris didn’t know he was a prince at the time). His behaviour only marginally improves over the course of the episode, leaving us with a lead character who can be intensely annoying.
Priam similarly suffers from negative character traits inherited from Greek mythology – namely, he’s an idiot. Everyone tells him that sending Paris to Sparta is a bad idea because he is not ready and does not understand the first thing about diplomacy, but Priam does it anyway. Negative characteristics are not in themselves bad things – they are what make these characters interesting. It only becomes a problem when it makes it difficult to sympathise with characters we need to sympathise with – with the lead characters of the show, the ones with whom we spend most of our time.
Luckily, there are plenty of other interesting characters around to keep us involved in this story. Hector will, presumably, have more to do in future episodes and although he is a little humourless, he is fairly sympathetic. Hermione is rather sweet and doesn’t deserve to be mixed up with this lot (and she deserves a better husband than Paris). One of the most compelling characters in this first episode is Cassandra, played with palpable tension by Aimee-Ffion Edwards (Skins, Inside No. 9, Peaky Blinders), the prophetess driven mad by visions no one will believe. After a fairly standard opening on a woman in childbirth, young Cassandra’s horrifying vision of the city in flames makes an arresting early image and draws us in to feel her pain and her frustration that there is nothing she can do to change her fate. It may be that the focal character of each episode shifts as the series covers different aspects of the Trojan War cycle of myths – if so, the irritation caused by Paris and Priam will be less of a drawback as the series goes on.
This series also depicts the gods in flesh and blood form – or at least, it seems to. In this first episode, they are witnessed only by Paris, which leaves room for the audience to interpret them as possibly being figments of his imagination. Paris’ seduction of Helen, although justified by his insistence that the gods want it, is also driven by human motivations and concerns. As in god-free versions of the story, Helen is unhappy and Paris sees himself as her rescuer, taking her away to live a happier life. This ambiguity is strengthened by the storm that prevents Paris from leaving Helen towards the end of the episode – was it sent by the gods, as he believes, or was it just a storm? Future episodes will tell us whether Paris is the only character who sees gods, but so far their status is far from clear. The conversation between Zeus and Hermes, which largely seems to go over Paris’ head, perhaps implies they are real and acting independently, but at this stage, it’s too early to tell.
Whatever the case, the goddesses’ look, more Macbeth’s witches than the traditional white-gowned, golden-haired gods of older films like the 1981 Clash Of The Titans, works rather well and enhances the sinister and threatening feeling attached to them when they appear. Aphrodite conforms to modern Western beauty standards rather than Greek – no Greek statue is that slim or flat-stomached – but the overall gothic look of these dark and dangerous beings gives them an edge that keeps them and the show grounded.
It’s always difficult to cast ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’, the face that launched a thousand ships. The appropriately-named Bella Dayne is perfectly attractive, though her costume is a bit interesting. She’s covered in feathers and beads, and buried under a layer of thick make-up, her hair scraped back. The actress’s natural beauty is hidden, and Paris’s shepherd girlfriend comes off looking rather prettier. This is deliberate, however – Helen looks a lot more attractive when Paris spies her half-undressed later, demonstrating that the real her is the beautiful one, and the script is careful to establish that Paris is also attracted to her mind, as well as her body.
The final twist, as Helen smuggles herself onto Paris’s ship (strongly implied by the episode’s conclusion, if not confirmed) is a particularly nice touch. Women in Greek mythology do not always get to exercise much agency and, in the Trojan War cycle in particular, they are often bandied about between men like objects. By taking part in her own departure, rather than being kidnapped or ‘seduced’, Helen becomes a considerably more active figure in her own story than the Greeks ever allowed her to be.
There’s a lot squashed in to this first episode, which results in Paris and Helen falling in love being somewhat rushed, considering the magnitude of the consequences. Possibly the series was keen to get the preliminaries out of the way, especially considering many viewers presumably know where this is heading anyway. However, there are some interesting approaches here that suggest this will be a genuinely fresh take on this old story. Although the series so far is following the basic plot of the Trojan War stories surprisingly closely, it is offering its own touches in smaller ways – the way the series uses the name Alexander for Paris’s identity as a prince, for example, with Paris being his shepherd’s name, is an original take on the two names the character is known by in mythology, and offers a clear sense of the conflict within this version of the man.
This is a good-looking show with a clear sense of what it wants to be and how it wants to go about re-telling this story. There are a lot more aspects to this myth cycle beyond Paris’s story and it is likely that the series will branch out to explore other heroes and heroines in future episodes – and on the basis of this introduction, I’m excited to see what they do with them.