This review contains spoilers.
The strengths of this second episode of the BBC’s new series about the fall of Troy are largely the strengths we saw in episode 1, and the same can be said for some of its flaws. As one man sacrifices his own daughter while another goes to war to protect his son, the core ideas remain compelling, but the execution needs a bit of work.
There is some really interesting storytelling going on in this series. In this second episode, we see the consequences of a diplomatic incident snowball out of control until a bloody war has been started. “No one wants this war”, says Odysseus, and he’s right. Odysseus tried to get out of fighting, Helen and Paris just want to have lots of sex with each other, Hecuba wants to help Helen and protect Paris, Priam wants to protect his son and his lands. Even Agamemnon, usually the warmonger character, has more complex motivations here. When ordered to sacrifice his own daughter, he wants to back down but can’t without looking weak; once he has killed her, he can’t back out of the war without winning something to justify such a great loss. Only Menelaus is really war-hungry, and he is motivated by hurt pride and humiliation. A mistake in international diplomacy leading to a war no one really wants is a theme that resonates throughout history and a really interesting approach to take to this story.
The series’ biggest strength, though, is its visuals. Not only is the production design excellent, the cinematography is really beautiful. We see Cassandra appearing like a Japanese ghost with long unkempt hair at Helen’s bed, and Helen, dressed in white, surrounded by angry armed men demanding her return. As the battle looms, we see the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite moving among the two armies and blessing their favourites, with Aphrodite leading the charge as the two sides clash. Each image resonates powerfully and captures beauty and horror together.
The flaws of episode 1, however, are also still apparent here. None of these characters is really likeable. Paris and Helen are extremely selfish, and any goodwill Helen’s backstory (forced into marriage at 14) earns her is lost when she takes far too long to offer to hand herself back. Priam still doesn’t seem very bright, Hector and Andromache are entirely two-dimensional, and even Odysseus is too grim and far too quick to sacrifice an innocent child to be as likeable as his mythological equivalent.
This is partly the result of the series’ other major problem, its pacing. The show is in such a hurry to get us to the war that it rushes all the preliminaries, leaving us no time to get to know these characters before they head into battle. This is especially damaging in the case of Agamemnon. He sacrifices his daughter (whose name, pronounced I-fi-gin-I-a, he can’t quite spit out, calling her I-fi-gin-ya) only 26 minutes into the episode and barely ten minutes after we’ve met him. Johnny Harris pours his heart and soul into the performance and his face when he learns Iphigenia thinks she is to be married is heart-breaking, but we simply have not seen him agonise for long enough over this decision for there to be any chance at having sympathy for a man willing to kill his own daughter for a wind.
In the case of many other characters, the audience is simply offered a list of names without context. Anyone familiar with the Trojan War cycle of myths knows who Aeneas is and why we should care about him, or Diomedes, or Telamonian Ajax, but the viewer with no knowledge of the myth is given no reason to care about any of them, or even remember their names. Aphrodite doesn’t even mention that she’s Aeneas’ mother when she blesses him.
Even for those of us who do know the story, just knowing the bare bones of the plot is not enough to make us care for these characters. There is too much of a tendency to just tell us about them – Achilles is a great and handsome warrior, Odysseus is clever – without actually showing us any of these qualities. We need some kind of introduction to these characters that shows us who they are. A bit of humour wouldn’t go amiss either – the whole thing is still unbearably po-faced and serious.
This episode gives us a scene of the gods without a human witness, confirming that, in the show’s created world, they are real (which is almost a bit disappointing – when Agamemnon killed his daughter on the word of a priest, the possibility that he was doing it all for something that existed only in the priest’s head was an interesting one). So far they have not done much except strut around – Hera demands Zeus’ loyalty to her but once again, if you don’t know the myths (she is his sister-wife and Zeus is always sleeping around) this is a statement without context and doesn’t tell us much about her character.
This episode went to a lot of trouble to emphasise the element of time. The weight given to Odysseus leaving Penelope was nicely done and we have had plenty of foreshadowing about how long the war might take. Perhaps, now that the war has started, the pace will slow down a bit and allow us to get to know these characters a bit better.
Read Juliette’s review of the previous episode, Black Blood, here.