EPIX has steadily increased its prestige TV in recent years, and the latest entry in that vein is “Domina,” a new historical period drama that will definitely fill the “Game of Thrones“- or “Vikings“- or “Spartacus: Blood and Sand“-shaped holes in your heart and of course, TV viewing schedule.
The show stars Kasia Smutniak, a relative unknown to U.S. audiences, who earned the meaty role of Livia Drusilla, the “Lady Macbeth” to Roman emperor Augustus Caesar (Matthew McNulty) in the first century AD. But in an intriguing storytelling device, the show also stars Nadia Parkes as young Livia, giving viewers glimpses of her life as a teenager prior to her most infamous political dealings.
Both Smutniak and Parkes are likely destined for massive fame if “Domina” is any indication of their talent. Both actresses shine as Livia at different parts of her life and would be reason enough to tune into the show, even if the rest of the cast weren’t as scene-stealing. However, the other performers more than hold their own opposite Smutniak and Parkes; they populate Livia’s world with power-hungry figures as she struggles to survive and protect herself and her children in a time when women were considered hardly more than property.
McNulty and Tom Glynn-Carney are Smutniak and Parkes’ counterparts as the older and younger Augustus, respectively, and they provide quite a juxtaposition to the strong female lead. Both actors bring a surprising amount of pathos to the ruthless Roman emperor while still giving a clear picture of what Livia is up against.
The show also boasts strong performances by Claire Forlani as Augustus’ sister, Octavia, and veteran Italian powerhouse actress Isabella Rossellini as a brothel owner named Balbina who becomes Livia’s enemy early on. “Game of Thrones” fans will also recognize Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth) as Livia’s father, Livius.
The supporting cast gives Smutniak and Parkes a lot to play off of and helps color the world in a way that lets Livia’s machinations be framed as something much more nuanced than one typically sees for the character.
The real-life, historical figure Livia has often been cast as a Machiavellian villain, having a hand in many deaths and willing to go to harsh lengths to achieve her ends — most notably in Robert Graves’ famous novel “I, Claudius” and the British miniseries of the same name. In those versions of Emperor Augustus’ life, the Washington Post described Livia as a “wicked woman” and IndieWire added that she was “as deft with flattery and blackmail as with her vials of poison.” She is mostly shown as a heartless, cruel woman to almost a caricatural degree.
In “Domina,” Livia is portrayed as a political powerhouse — a strong, smart woman who pursues a marriage she doesn’t really want because of the political upside. There does come to be some affection between Livia and Augustus, but, overall, it is a marriage of convenience on both sides.
The “Domina” writers go to great lengths to reframe Livia’s actions as sharp political moves, rather than simply portray the nosy meddlings of the woman behind her husband’s empire, and it is here that the series most strongly resembles hit TV shows “Game of Thrones,” “Spartacus” and “Vikings.”
In all of those shows, men seemingly had the power, but as the shows went on, it was the women who were often making the smart decisions to protect their families’ interests, particularly on “Game of Thrones.”
There are definitely shades of Lucretia (Lucy Lawless, “Spartacus“), Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick, “Vikings“) and Cersei (Lena Headey, “Game of Thrones“) in Livia — and we mean that in the best possible way. After all, some might argue that Cersei Lannister was simply misunderstood, and Livia is much the same. “Domina” constantly reminds viewers that whatever aspirations a woman might have had back then were wholly contingent on the opinions and actions of her father and then her husband — and it’s refreshing to see that from a female perspective, particularly a female who is not going to take that kind of male control lying down.
Additionally, like “Game of Thrones,” “Vikings” and “Spartacus,” the action comes fast and furious. This is not a slow-burn TV series, which is part of what makes it so enjoyable. If you like your political dramas with a side of sexy time and carnage, “Domina” hits all those notes as much as its spiritual predecessors did. What grounds “Domina” into a more compelling drama, however, is the gravitas of its heroine and the performances of the two actresses who play her.
Finally, “Domina” has the added big-budget production value of these other period dramas that ground the show in reality. It was filmed on location, and the costumes were beautifully designed by Gabriella Pescucci, an Oscar- and Emmy-winning costume designer who has worked on such films as “Once Upon a Time in America,” “The Age of Innocence” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and TV series “Penny Dreadful” and “The Borgias.” The impressive production value creates a rich world for the actors to play in and helps transport viewers back to the time period the show is depicting.
It all adds up into a highly enjoyable EPIX drama that hopefully will be renewed for a second season of double-dealings and dastardly deeds, because it feels as though Livia Drusilla’s behind-the-scenes reign over the Roman Empire is far from over.