“Secrets” continues to showcase Livia as a great character and a master manipulator, but everything else in the show fails to meet her lofty standards.
This recap of Domina season 1, episode 4, “Secrets”, contains spoilers.
Domina episode 4, “Secrets”, feels a bit like the show coming into its own as a melodrama just as Livia is coming into hers as a political schemer. It’d be a mistake, despite Domina being backgrounded by real history, to assume there’s much here that might be considered particularly realistic. But in playing up the soapier side of Roman life, politics, and drama, the show is finding a very specific rhythm and tone that’s much more Reign than Rome.
You won’t find me complaining about any of this, since there’s something pretty grating about self-serious historical epics, and there’s always room for more empowering girl-boss television in this climate. Simply seeing how quickly Livia divorces and leaves Gaius is probably pretty inspiring; admittedly, though, she’s doing it because her latest miscarried son has ravaged her body so badly that she’ll never again be able to birth children, meaning that Gaius’s chance to continue his lineage and thus her grasp on power in Rome are looking rather tenuous.
As tends to be the case with Livia, everything is a ruse. Remember, her end goal is returning power to the Senate as per her father’s wishes, which involves bestowing Godlike powers on Gaius, which he’s incapable of doing himself since he doesn’t understand people or politics the way she does. So, she has no real intention of divorcing him, but instead of stoking revolt by way of Agrippa, a man with perhaps the lowest body fat percentage I’ve ever seen. As it turns out, who’s marrying who is kind of a big deal in Rome.
Despite all this, the specter of real history looms large, since it’s Tiberius, a weird, potentially psychopathic child whom nobody likes or trusts, including Livia, who will ultimately become Rome’s second Emperor after Octavian. Real-life Tiberius has a bit of a reputation for being a great general, but a reluctant one – “the gloomiest of men”, he apparently was, which tracks with his depiction here, even if his ascent doesn’t mesh well with Livia’s self-serving plans.
Anyway, last week I lamented how much attention is being paid to the kids post-time-skip, and that gripe continues in Domina season 1, episode 4. Most of these kids just seem like ciphers for various teen-drama plotlines, so it’s difficult to really root for any of them on their own terms. Marcellus, Gaius’s nephew, whom everyone wants to marry Julia for various perks, is the stand-in for being closeted; Julia represents forbidden love and desiring the one person you shouldn’t, Romeo & Juliet style. So, there are shades of classism and prejudice here, timeless themes no doubt, but they’re just so rote and uninteresting in their presentation and filtered through truly annoying personalities that it feels like tedious filler designed to check certain boxes rather than organic drama springing up out of the specific and complicated nature of Roman high-society.
Still, there are things to like in “Secrets”, most of them involving Livia, which I suppose is the show performing as advertised. But the chance to really unpack some of the deeper intricacies of this period of history seems to have been missed, and that’s a shame.