“Rise” lives up to its title as Livia embraces Rome’s politics in an effort to reclaim her birthright.
This recap of Domina season 1, episode 2, “Rise”, contains spoilers.
In its broad strokes, Domina is about a naïve woman learning to play the game of Rome’s cutthroat politics, so it’s fitting that the second episode, “Rise”, feels like the show coming into its own just as much as Livia is. The premiere wasn’t a good time for her; with all its setup now out of the way, and the stakes of her personal quest following the death of her father and her exile with her uncaring husband Nero now established, Domina episode 2 hits the ground running with a better episode that has the same kind of girl-boss energy but in a more layered and meaningful way.
In Rome, being a girl-boss means weaponizing sex, which it turns out Livia has been doing with Sextus in order to build an amnesty clause into the treaty he’s signing with Gaius – that allows her and Nero to return home, as much as Sextus would like her to remain in Sicily as his mistress, where she can start working towards reclaiming her birthright following her father’s suicide.
But that isn’t to say things are going all that well. Antigone has been sold at the market after being discovered without Livia and is currently languishing as a prisoner in a brothel. The classism and politics around Livia, Nero, Sextus, and Scribonia are also complicated; Nero is looking to get his political career back on track by cozying up to Scribonia and divorcing Livia for a more obedient spouse, but Livia is plotting to have Gaius divorce Scribonia and marry her instead, hedging her bets that the allure of marrying into ancient Roman patrician lineage will convince him to take the risk of ruining the peace treaty and causing a long and costly war.
There’s a matter of morality to consider in Domina episode 2. Nobody has much of it. Right and wrong are fluid concepts and don’t neatly apply to the heroes and villains as they might in other kinds of stories. Livia announces that she’s willing to give up Tiberius and her unborn child since Roman law allows the husband to keep the children in divorce; she and Gaius also put their plan into action on the day that Scribonia gives birth, so Scribonia has to hand her newborn, Julia, over to Livia. It’s grim stuff, but par for the course, and gets at the idea that Livia is playing a very long game – a sentiment confirmed when she reminds a spiteful Nero, who threatens to forbid her from ever seeing the children, that nobody lives forever.
Domina season 1, episode 2 makes for good drama, though. Trying to graft contemporary ethics onto it is pointless anyway – the point is the soapy melodramatics and the big fist-pump power-plays, such as when Livia swans into the brothel to retrieve Antigone from captivity. “Fall” was about exactly that; a rapid tumble from relative privilege to utter despair. But “Rise” feels much more like a mission statement for the entire show. The only way to go is up.