This article was originally published on the defunct Ancient World Magazine website and is now re-published here.
When it was announced that the BBC and Netflix had joined forces to produce a television series based on the story of the Trojan War, I was optimistic. A few months ago, heated discussions erupted on Twitter about the show’s casting choices, specifically the casting of black actor David Gyasi as the Greek champion Achilles.
Some people claimed that Achilles couldn’t possibly have been black. That argument, of course, is facetious. The story of the Trojan War is just that – a story. It might have that dreaded “kernel of truth”, based perhaps on a raid or even an actual war fought in the northwestern corner of Anatolia at some point in the Late Bronze Age, but the ancient tale itself was twisted and changed over time so much that by the time it was written down, perhaps as early as ca. 700 BC, it was essentially a fantasy.
Indeed, ancient authors usually place the story of the Trojan War in a long lost “Age of Heroes” or “Age of Bronze”, not to be confused with the archaeological concept of the Bronze Age. In a story where gods and other mythical creatures make regular appearances, who cares about the colour of a fictional person’s skin?
Moreover, an argument can be made that our main sources on the Trojan War, the Iliad and Odyssey, both attributed in ancient times to a nebulous figure known only as “Homer”, have become part of world literature, and are therefore the property of humanity as a whole. There’s no reason why a modern retelling of that story shouldn’t be as diverse as its intended audience. Only a very narrow-minded person would object to that.
No, if there’s one complaint to be made about this show, it’s that it has managed to accomplish what I previously thought was inconceivable. Troy: Fall of a City has managed to make the story of the Trojan War utterly boring. While only eight, one-hour episodes long, the show feels like a slog to get through, and I was relieved when it was finally over.
The fall of Troy
Paris (Louis Hunter) and Helen (Bella Dayne) are the main characters of the show, with most of the action centring on them. For better or for worse, this means that many of the other characters, especially on the Greek side, are barely more than caricatures.
The first episode, “Black blood”, focuses on the details of Paris’ birth and the prophecy that foretells he will bring about Troy’s downfall. His parents, King Priam (David Threlfall) and his wife Hecuba (Frances O’Connor), order a shepherd to abandon the infant on a mountain. But the shepherd (Danny Keogh) takes pity on him and raises him as his own, giving him the name Paris.
One element here is that Paris and the shepherd herd cattle while riding horses, like cowboys. While I’ve noted that the story is essentially a fantasy, there are still rules that good fantasy should adhere to, or else it becomes a free-for-all in which anything goes. Suspension of disbelief requires consistency and logic within the bounds of the story being told.
Within the epic world of the Trojan War (as well as in actual ancient society, after which the world of Greek myth and legend is modelled), horses are part and parcel of the accoutrements of aristocracy: Hector, after all, is referred to in the Iliad as a “breaker of horses”, and the princes and kings use chariots to transport themselves. As such, it seems unlikely that humble shepherds in this fictional world would have had access to horses. But I digress.
In any event, while chasing a lost calf, Paris happens upon Zeus (played with restraint and gravitas by Hakeem Kae-Kazim) and three goddesses. He is asked which of the three he would award with a golden apple. While I appreciate the inclusion of the Judgement of Paris, I feel that too much was cut here to make sense of this scene if you’re unfamiliar with the context. Why not include the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, seeing as they’re Achilles’ parents, and thus link the fates of both Achilles and Paris? As it stands, this crucial scene appears out of the blue and makes much of what happens after seem rather nonsensical.
The rest of the episode follows through mostly familiar beats, with Paris being revealed at Troy to be actually prince Alexander. He is almost immediately sent out on a diplomatic mission to King Menelaus (played by Jonas Armstrong, who is singularly one-note), where he naturally falls in love with Helen, the woman he was promised by the goddess Aphrodite (Lex King) after he awarded her with the golden apple.
The second episode, “Conditions”, has Priam and Hecuba accept Helen’s presence at Troy, while the Greeks assemble at Aulis and prepare to set sail. In order to placate Artemis (Thando Bulane-Hopa), Agamemnon (Johnny Harris) is forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia (Lauren Coe). This version of Agamemnon is perhaps the least likeable that has been presented to modern audiences so far. In fact, none of the Greeks are particularly likeable, with the possible exception of Odysseus (Joseph Mawle), who nevertheless causes no small amount of grief.
In “Siege”, the Greeks arrive at Troy. In the Iliad, it’s obvious that the Greeks don’t really besiege the city: Troy is able to resupply itself freely. In the show, the Greeks somehow cut Troy off completely, forcing the Trojans to dig a tunnel to the coast where they can be resupplied by Cilicia, the kingdom ruled by Eetion (Grant Swanby), the father of Hector’s wife, Andromache (played in a terribly unlikeable fashion by the miscast Chloe Pirrie).
The supply from Cilicia is cut short in “Spoils of war” when Achilles (David Gyasi) kills Eetion and sacks his city (thanks to Helen’s betrayal; more on that nonsense below). During this raid, the Greeks capture Chryseis, the daughter of the priest of Apollo, as well as Briseis (Amy Louis Wilson), who in this retelling of the story has been mystifyingly made the sister of the Trojan spy Dolon (Michael MacKenzie). In the original sources, Achilles engages in many raids, both on land and sea, but here it seems only one town had to suffer his wrath.
This fourth episode also moves the show into the territory covered by the Iliad. A duel is proposed between Menelaus and Paris. For a show that features the gods, the famous scene in which Paris is returned to Troy under the cover of a dense mist conjured up by Aphrodite has been cast aside by having Paris simply run away when Menelaus is about to slay him.
This choice makes zero sense within the context of the story: even the 2004 movie’s solution – have Hector step in and kill Menelaus – was a better way to handle Paris’ cowardice. (Check out our podcast on the movie.) Meanwhile, Achilles has had Briseis taken from him by Agamemnon and sulks in his tent, having sworn that his Myrmidons will no longer fight with the Greeks.
In “Hunted”, Paris is rescued by the Amazons, who in the original story don’t show up until after Achilles’ defeat of Hector. This episode also features Patroclus (Lemogang Tsipa) donning Achilles’ armour to fight against the Trojans, an action that leads to him being killed by Hector. Typically for this oftentimes badly edited production, we are only shown the final few seconds of the fight, followed immediately by an enraged Achilles carrying the body of his dead comrade/lover away.
Because the writers don’t have a clue on how to handle their own version of the Trojan War, in “Battle on the beach”, Aphrodite tells Hector and others in Troy that because Paris’ heart had stopped briefly – don’t worry, he got better somehow – the curse is lifted and Troy might survive the war, only for Zeus to later tell her that they cannot change fate anyway. It’s been a while since I last experience storytelling this sloppy.
Meanwhile, Paris returns to Troy with the Amazons and Achilles drives out to Troy in a scene heavily inspired by the 2004 movie rather than the Iliad. As in the film, Achilles is alone in front of the gates and shouts out Hector’s name, though in this case he also kills two of three prisoners that he’s brought along. The duel that follows is serviceable, but like so much else in the show somehow, paradoxically, feels both rushed as well as incredibly dull. There’s no excitement to be had here, as if everyone involved is simply going through the motions.
In “Twelve days”, Priam arrives at the Greek camp and rather petulantly demands to see Achilles, going so far as to organize a one-man sit-in in front of the Greek champion’s tent. Perhaps the writers felt badly about ripping off the 2004 movie, so that they tried something different here, but it’s not nearly as effective as the superior film, which actually followed Homer quite closely when it came to Priam’s begging for the return of Hector’s body.
In any event, Achilles and Priam broker a truce. But whereas in the Iliad (and the 2004 movie) the Greeks and Trojans honour the agreement, here the Greeks conspire to break it. Odysseus is asked to hatch a plan to convince Achilles to join the surprise attack, at which point they actually kill one of the Myrmidons and make it look like the Trojans did it. What follows is perhaps the stupidest thing I’ve seen in a long time: Achilles making the trek back to Troy to challenge Priam, only to get shot and killed by Paris, but not before they make clear that he was betrayed by his own people.
Even more insanely, the writers of this show make Helen ultimately responsible for the Greeks being able to enter and sack Troy. In “Offering”, the show’s final episode, the Greeks seemingly abandon the city and leave a giant wooden horse on the beach. In a desperate need to rationalize why the Trojans would drag the horse into Troy, someone stabs the belly of the beast only for grain to fall out (which some Trojans proceed to eat raw).
Betrayal is a major theme in the show. I’ve avoided it so far, but I guess this is as good a place as any to bring it up. From the get go, Helen isn’t trusted fully by the Trojans, and especially not by Andromache, Hector’s sullen wife. They have good cause: Helen unwittingly betrays Cilicia to Achilles when the latter sneaked into the city. Pandarus (Alex Lanipekun), here an adviser to the king rather than a skilled archer, is framed as a traitor by a Greek spy to draw attention away from Helen. Even worse, the former Spartan queen later helps this Greek spy escape, going so far as to help murder a Trojan guard.
But the worst is yet to come. The writers of this show ultimately make Helen responsible for the Greeks being able to enter and sack the city. When she goes to the wooden horse, Menelaus and Odysseus pop out. Helen says she will come quitely if no one else dies: Menelaus and Odysseus promptly kill a few more Trojan guards. When they reach and open the gates, Helen hears the sounds of an army on the march. Surprise! Menelaus had no intention of keeping his word.
The destruction of the city and the death of nearly all its inhabitants, save for Aeneas (Alfred Enoch) and three others, is handled in a drawn out fashion by the makers of the show. Menelaus parades Helen in front of Paris and tells him that she has betrayed Troy. Paris professes his love for her anyway and is then stabbed, after which he dies slowly enough for someone to get up and fix a cup of coffee in the meantime.
Andromache is taken away as a slave, but not before Odysseus is ordered by the sadistic Agamemon to throw the infant Astyanax from the walls. (This is actually consistent with some of the ancient sources.) The show ends with a closeup of Odysseus, looking distraught. I imagine that was more or less what my face looked like by the time that the credits started to roll.
Basically, it’s rubbish
The show is a painful slog. In particular, I hated what the writers did with the character of Helen. The show’s subtitle shouldn’t have been Fall of a City, but rather Let’s Kick Helen Around Some More.
Were the writers afraid that Helen wouldn’t have anything meaningful to do? Why not have her inspire the population instead? The original sources also mention that she and Paris had children: milk some drama from that instead of using her like a punching bag.
Troy: Fall of a City consists of just eight episodes of one hour each, but it feels like it drags on for an eternity. Well-known scenes are rushed through, while new scenes and even new characters are invented that drag on for what seems like forever.
And it might well be forever. It’s impossible to determine, based on the episodes alone, how much time passes between scenes. Andromache becomes pregnant one episode, only to give birth a short while after, with no indication to the audience that there was nine months between those two events. Similarly, the last few episodes talk about the war as if it has been going on for years, but there’s little indication that that’s actually been the case. It’s all so sloppy and lazy.
Many changes were made to the original source material. One of the most mysterious is the decision on the part of the writers to have the Trojans outnumber the Greeks. This, again, makes zero sense. In the Iliad, for example, the catalogues in book 2 make clear that the Greeks outnumber the Trojans by a large margin.
That makes sense: if Troy had a larger army than its besiegers, why would they cower behind their walls? Why not pour out of the city and overwhelm the attackers? But in Troy: Fall of a City, the utterly baffling decision was made to have the Greeks be outnumbered. Agamemnon is not only a sadist and a rapist (yes, the writers included a few rape scenes), but he’s also got the strategical acumen of a four-year-old.
Furthermore, much was made of the fact that, unlike the 2004 movie, the television show included the gods. I was actually looking forward to see what they would do with them. The answer? Not much. Zeus, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite appear every once in a while, but they do so little that they might as well have been left entirely on the cutting room floor.
It causes problems in those instances where the writers studiously avoid using the deities. When Paris is about to be killed by Menelaus, Aphrodite should have rescued him and taken him back to Helen. The Greeks and Trojans would have been left confused, at which point Athena should’ve whispered in a Trojan archer’s ear to take a shot at Menelaus, which would have caused both sides to engage in a full-scale battle.
Instead, the writers simply have Paris run away, at which point both the Greeks and the Trojans just stand there, looking confused. What happens next is beyond stupid and something that I’ve already described above, so I won’t repeat myself. Why introduce the gods if you refuse to do anything with them? Like so much else about this show, it’s a crying shame; an absolute waste of potential.
The core of this show’s problem is its plotting. To put not too fine a point on it: it’s absolutely terrible. The pacing is turgid, while at the same time the show feels like it’s falling over itself to get all the expected story beats over and done with as soon as possible. Few scenes are allowed to breathe; few characters get the time necessary to develop into something interesting.
The production values for the television show are fine. But it doesn’t feature anything original. If you’ve seen the movie Troy or stuff like the 2010-version of Clash of the Titans, the sets and costumes will be familiar enough. Call it generic ancient fantasy, complete with those silly bracers that all men must apparently wear on their forearms.
There is the odd touch here and there of something, mainly pottery, that suggests that at least one person on the production crew once glanced at a book about the archaeology of the Aegean Bronze Age, but those moments are few and far between.
The cast are generally okay. Like the sets and the costumes, they’re generally serviceable. The actors do their best with what little the screenplay hands them. But most of the characters get so little screentime that there’s not much for the viewer to latch onto. Agamemnon is a bastard. Menelaus is a petty little man. Deiphobus shows up sometimes.
The characters that we do spend more time with are generally not much better developed. Alexander is a jerk who eventually grows a spine. Helen can’t help but make one bad decision after another. Priam is a good king. Hecuba is a dutiful wife. Cassandra is, mystifyingly, not cursed with having her prophecies not believed by anyone, but instead presented as a troubled girl that just needs her parents’ attention.
Of course, it doesn’t help that a show like this, which looks very similar to the 2004 movie, has a cast that absolutely pales in comparison to it. How do these actors stack up to the likes of such personalities as Brian Cox, Brendan Gleeson, Peter O’Toole, Sean Bean, Eric Bana, or Brad Pitt? The answer is that they don’t. But that’s not necessarily, of course, a fault of the cast themselves.
No, the main problem with the show is its writing. It’s something I cannot stress enough. It feels like it was written by someone who maybe once, long ago, read a few summaries of the story of the Trojan War and then felt confident enough to cobble together whatever this was supposed to be. The final result is a complete and utter disappointment, and boring to boot.
What a waste.