Troy: Fall Of A City episode 8 review: Offering
This review contains spoilers.
Contains spoilers – do not read unless you have seen the episode (yes, even if you know the story!)
Well, we have finally reached the event promised by the title Troy: Fall Of A City. Most viewers probably have a general idea of what’s going to happen in this episode, so we open on a shot of Odysseus lying on a beach, looking at a horse. Just in case anyone had forgotten where all this was going. This is followed by a few scenes of the Trojans working out that Helen has betrayed them, which are sad, but since the audience already knows exactly what’s going on, there’s not much tension in them. Luckily the episode gets to the point fairly quickly after that.
Unfortunately, the ‘point’ is the point of a sword and the rest of the episode is nothing but misery piled on top of misery. Tragic stories featuring countless deaths in war can work – see for example just about any story set in the First World War or during the Holocaust. Sadness and loss on an epic scale can produce gut-wrenching drama. However, there are a couple of things we need for that to work. For one thing, the First World War and the Holocaust are both real events, so watching them unfold in fictional form is a way of understanding them. While there were, no doubt, wars between Greeks and Trojans in the second millennium BC, this particular war is a fiction, so that element of understanding something real is not there.
The other thing we need in order to experience the level of emotion required to produce a sense of catharsis in the audience is characters to identify with, and this is where this series really falls down. The writers’ dedication to producing characters that feel like ancient Greek warriors is admirable, and Agamemnon, Menelaus and the late Achilles are all appropriately unpleasant. However, wherever there was an opportunity to create a character the audience could identify with and root for, the series has tended to squander it. Odysseus is grim and dour, and his vague attempt to save Astyanax at the end is not enough to compensate for his actually killing him (something he does in some but not all versions of the myth – the identity of Astyanax’s killer varies). Aeneas is likeable enough, but has been given no characterisation at all, he just stands around being generally helpful. Andromache, who should be one of the most sympathetic characters in the story, is written as too grumpy, doing nothing but complain all the time, which makes her hard to like. Only Paris, the lead character and the one who has received the most time, attention and characterisation, is really likeable, but he comes attached to Helen, who is perhaps the third most unlikeable of the lot (next to Agamemnon and Menelaus, who are really awful).
It’s a shame, because there are some really interesting ideas here, and the writers have done rather better at dealing with the biggest inherent plot problem of this story. Even the writers of Greek myths knew that this story requires the Trojans to be utterly stupid, as they bring a large object big enough to hide at least one or two men into their city just as it looks like the people who have been besieging it for ten years have gone away in the night (as a wise man once said, ‘Beware Trojans, they’re complete smegheads’). In myth, a Trojan priest called Laocoon tries to warn Priam not to bring the horse into the city, but because the gods have declared that Troy must fall, they send serpents to kill Laocoon and his sons before they can do so. Andromache plays that role here, accompanied by Cassandra, but of course no one believes Cassandra. Neither of them are immediately killed by serpents, though by the end they might have wished to be.
The series does a good job of explaining why a random wooden horse might be interpreted as an offering to a god, as there’s a nice parallel drawn with Agamemon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia. We saw a man kill his own daughter to get a wind earlier in the series, which makes the idea that the Greeks have built a big horse to appease Poseidon reasonably plausible (and much less violent than the earlier example). And to explain why they bring this random Greek offering into their city, they check inside it and find that the horse is full of grain, which the Trojans desperately need. They even empty the main body of it in full daylight. They still should have taken the grain out instead in sections rather than being lazy and just dragging the horse in whole, though. And if it was offered to a god, they shouldn’t be eating it – when animals were sacrificed, the bones and fat were offered to the gods and the valuable meat eaten, but if grain is offered to the gods, it should really stay offered.
The writers also make a nice choice in having Thersites as the Greek left tied up to sell their story to the Trojans. Thersites made a brief appearance in the Iliad, making fun of Agamemnon and getting hit over the head with a stick by Odysseus for his pains. He has appeared in this series a few times, generally complaining, so his appearance here isn’t out of nowhere and he plays an important role in making this version of the story work. Menelaus popping out of the horse first to meet Helen is a nice touch as well.
But then the city falls, and we sit and watch Trojan after Trojan get mowed down by Greeks. The death of Priam was described by the First Player in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and was filmed as silent insets with John Gielgud as Priam and Judi Dench as Hecuba, narrated by Charlton Heston, in Kenneth Branagh’s epic four-hour film. It’s pretty hard to match that kind of raw power, and Priam’s death here is inevitably a bit pale in comparison.
On the whole, it’s a spectacularly grim ending in general. Some of that goes with the story, of course, and Helen returning to Menelaus is also a recurring feature in the myths, accompanied by various different explanations for why he doesn’t kill her and they go back to living peacefully together afterwards. But this version, in which Helen has become increasingly unlikeable and actively betrayed the Trojans, but is then in turn betrayed by Menelaus not keeping his word, has to watch him kill Paris, and is left stuck with him for the rest of her life, is especially miserable.
On top of all that, we actually see Odysseus chuck poor little Astyanax off the battlements. Greek tragedy famously does not show acts of violence on stage – the audience might hear noises from behind the scenery, but any such act was described onstage by a witness. Similarly, Greek poetry was performed by bards in song, but not acted out. So although this is a key event in the fall of Troy, Greek audiences did not actually sit around and watch a hero of Greek mythology throwing an infant off from a tall building. This series, however, actually went there. How well this will go down with audiences, and whether such a graphic image was really necessary, is hard to say.
And so, Troy has fallen and the series is over. The whole thing looked absolutely gorgeous and was beautifully put together right up to the end, with a lovely colourful design on the horse, which was expertly shot. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that will be quite enough to get them the obvious sequel based on Odysseus’ journey home in Homer’s Odyssey. The story is grim enough as it is, and without much in the way of humour to balance out the misery that is the main plot, what we end up with is eight hours of bad things happening over and over again, to largely unlikeable people. That’s unlikely to leave audiences hungry for eight more hours following one of those fairly unlikeable people, while more bad things happen to him, but with extra added giants and monsters. Alternatively, we could follow Aeneas in a series based on the Aeneid, but while Aeneas is perfectly likeable, he has been given no character whatsoever. Both those stories have rather happier endings – perhaps depending on your point of view – but the chances of an audience sticking with them to get that far are not great. The story of the fall of Troy is a captivating saga that has kept people interested for millennia, and there must be some potential for a really great modern version buried in there somewhere. But this, while an admirable effort, is not quite that version.
Read Juliette’s review of the previous episode, Twelve Days, here.