This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This review contains spoilers
1.4 Spoils Of War
This episode is titled ‘Spoils of War’, and the plot developments and subject matter it deals with are often the most challenging for modern screenwriters to adapt.
The incident that kicks off Homer’s Iliad, the earliest ancient poem dedicated entirely to a story about the Trojan War (the earliest surviving Greek poem of all, in fact, though the Near Eastern Epic of Gilgamesh is older), is a dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles over war booty. The problem, when it comes to adapting this story for modern audiences, is that the war booty in question is human women.
The characterisation of Achilles in this series is rather effective. He is brutal, cold and fairly unpleasant to everyone except Patroclus. All of these characteristics match his depiction in Homer, but because he is the protagonist of the Iliad and because modern audiences tend to prefer more likeable characters, they are usually played down in screen versions of the character. In this case, his tenderness only comes out when he’s with Patroclus, which does a nice job of humanising him and making him a more three dimensional character.
The series is also still wise enough to adapt the story to make it palatable for modern audiences. However brash and moody Achilles is, when he takes Briseis back we hear other Greeks say, “First time I’ve seen you take a spoil” – so we’re making it okay that Achilles takes a woman as prisoner because he doesn’t usually do it. His capture of her is further justified when he tells her that he brought her because he thought she deserved to live, not to be a slave, and Patroclus promises her safety. All of this does rather contrast with his behaviour towards Helen in the previous episode, though that is perhaps explainable as his way of getting information out of her.
As in other screen versions, Achilles’ behaviour towards Briseis is contrasted with Agamemnon’s towards Chryseis, which swiftly moves from projecting his guilt over the death of his daughter Iphigenia onto Chryseis, to abusing her. Agamemnon’s brutalising and rape of Chryseis is more explicit here than in other, more family-friendly, versions of the story, but the technique of having Agamemnon behave in the (sadly) normal way for a hero from Greek myth while Achilles is set up as a contrast who treats his booty well and has higher motives for capturing her is a common method for ensuring the audience sympathise with Achilles and not with Agamemnon, as the story requires them to.
However, the crucial scene between Achilles and Agamemnon in which Agamemnon takes Briseis to replace Chryseis after he has had to give her up is a strange one. The Iliad talks about the rage of Achilles, his absolute fury at Agamemnon for stealing his prize. We see a little bit of that, but not a lot. Here, Achilles allows Agamemnon to take Briseis, knowing full well what will happen to her and after promising her safety, simply stating that he will not fight. It’s possible that the series is saving his real rage for something else later (which we won’t spoil for those unfamiliar with the story), and perhaps he intended it as a bluff, not expecting Agamemnon to call him on it, but it doesn’t say much for his promise to Briseis to keep her safe, and it demonstrates that whatever nice things he said to her about not wanting her as a slave, he still considers her a slave – he sees her as his property, and while he will refuse to fight if Agamemnon takes her, he feels no need to fight more actively to keep her with him, but can bargain her away for his own and Patroclus’ safety.
With this development, we’ve already reached parts of the story that happen in the last couple of years of the war in the myths. It may be that the adaptation is re-ordering events, but it seems equally likely that the plan is to speed up the war so that the siege does not end up taking up the mythical ten years. The pace is still rather fast, with this episode rushing through the entire incident between Agamemnon and Achilles within the hour, which means we don’t really feel the stress and agony of the plague, as it only lasts five or ten minutes.
On the other hand, in Troy, we do get a somewhat slower pace of events. The Trojan half of this episode focuses on the loss of Cilicia and the hunt for the traitor who gave it away to the Greeks. Since the audience know full well it was Helen, the entire plot is about her sense of guilt, expressed wordlessly. It’s effective, but drags a bit, especially in contrast to the fast-paced Greek story, and does rather give the impression that the Trojans are treading water while the Greek story progresses (which is, of course, exactly what they’re doing, as the Trojans are sitting around under siege while the Greeks do their thing outside). They are doing one thing – Priam must have been dyeing his moustache, it’s darker again.
The whole series is still unrelentingly grim. Granted, it’s a war story, but any successful modern war story will include scenes of fighters joking together and enjoying moments of calm in the storm – as indeed, real life stories from war tend to as well. This series is telling the story of a lengthy siege, so there should be plenty of opportunity for moments of light relief and scenes of companionship and warmth, but these are few and far between. The closest we get is the rather beautifully lit scene of Achilles and Patroclus wrestling and making out on the beach, which quickly becomes a three-way sex scene between the two of them and Briseis. Sex scenes offer a different sort of relief from the grimness, but they can’t entirely replace scenes of simple human connection between multiple characters (as opposed to two or three) and genuine humour.
It’s interesting to see the consequences of the gods being a visible and active force in the story. One the one hand, Chryseis’ calm judgment that Apollo will punish Agamemnon for what he has done to her is rather satisfying, as we know she is absolutely right. On the other hand, it robs the characters of some of their own agency. If the gods were less visible, this could be used as an opportunity to have human characters argue against the poor treatment of war captives for their own reasons, using the gods as a reason to give Agamemnon to behave better. And of course, there’s that ending, where Aphrodite turns up and tells Paris to save his own life, apparently at the cost of everyone else in Troy, and the question of whether anyone else can see her becomes really quite urgent – though we will have to wait for next week to find out…
Read Juliette’s review of the previous episode, Siege, here.