Roman girl power continues in Domina season 2, review and breakdown

Kasia Smutniak as Livia Drusilla. Image courtesy Moris Puccio/Tiger Aspect/Banijay Rights/MGM+
Kasia Smutniak as Livia Drusilla. Image courtesy Moris Puccio/Tiger Aspect/Banijay Rights/MGM+ /

Mild spoilers follow for Domina season 2, available to stream on MGM+ by July 9.

The first season of Domina, Sky Atlantic, and Epix Studio’s story of the Roman Empire through the eyes of Livia Drusilla and her family, was such a surprise hit that they ordered a second season of carnage and politics. MGM has since bought out Epix’s four linear pay TV channels and renamed one to their own streaming platform.

By funding a new season of Domina, they’re hoping to take advantage of the good faith and cult popularity that brought it a 78% fresh critics score on Rotten Tomatoes in season 1 (63% for audiences).

Domina season 2
Matthew McNulty as Gaius Julius Caesar; Kasia Smutniak as Livia Drusilla . Image courtesy Moris Puccio/Tiger Aspect/Banijay Rights/MGM+ /

Season 2 focuses more on the continuing maturity of Livia as Roman power player and how she must deal with increasing obstacles as the stakes get higher for their legacy. The truth is that, even from the first season, which told the story of how a naive young girl in the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination became the emperor Augustus’ wife, this series was already an amalgam of Shakespeare in the Park meets Class B production budget.

Domina season 2 breakdown and review: Gaius x Livia return to power

Kasia Smutniak as Livia, tries her damn best to embody Roman girl power, as the cunning mind wielding Caesar Augustus’s mailed glove. There’s a big cast of characters to contend with here, from her sons and relations, to Gaius’s relations and partners in political and military power.

Nine episodes into the streamers they provided for us, I still haven’t gotten everybody’s names exactly right or how exactly everyone is related to Augustus and Livia. Standouts do include Claire Forlani as Octavia, the sister of Gaius, plus Ben Batt as Agrippa.

But other than those guys, things are alternately hazy and DGAF for me.

Season 2 takes us to how Gaius and Livia returned to power, following the scandalous events in season 1. In fact, the first episode of the new season is just about them returning to Rome from exile in the province and running into all sorts of trouble as they tried to re-cement their power base.

The rest of the season is enjoyable and surprising for its range of atrocities and ever increasing “Oh No She Didn’t!” twists of ghastly acts. Plans and executions that would, in theory, preserve the power of Ceasar and the Republic, an old school empire in all but name.

How low will Livia go in the next episode? Quite low.

The affairs, assassinations, forced marriages, and even one attempt at legit baby killing, is enough to stir the blood with curiosity for the next installment.

Domina season 2
Ben Batt as Agrippa; Matthew McNulty as Gaius Julius Caesar. Image courtesy Moris Puccio/Tiger Aspect/Banijay Rights/MGM+ /

Domina season 2 breakdown and review: Italian made, less gravitas

The plot thickens and congeals and thins and then out of nowhere, rises like the best kind of Sourdough. It’s not consistent storytelling but it does hit some very high points.

Domina was “Italian-made” from the start. Shot at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, where big names like Leone, Scorsese, and even Bertolucci have all pitched their directorial tents.

But really the sets and costumes are all merely passable, lacking that touch of Class A production to make them believably “there” for the period. I mean, some walls look like theatrical, just-made Papier-mâché.

Like the set design folks missed out on that course on how to age their environments for the camera. Sometimes, it’s pretty hilarious because I totally expected some of these walls to just collapse as characters lean on them for dramatic moments.

In one of the later episodes, a Gladius’s sword pommel looked way too much like painted cardboard. This wouldn’t have been so evident had the sword not been thrust deep into a character’s chest.

While the actor himself, pinned and bleeding profusely as he was, was giving it his thespian all, acting as hard as he could in an almost-death scene.

Domina season 2
Kasia Smutniak as Livia Drusilla. Image courtesy Moris Puccio/Tiger Aspect/Banijay Rights/MGM+ /

Domina season 2 breakdown and review: Sex, lies, and true Romans

Another glaring thing, and other critics have pointed this out too in season 1, is the lack of epic field battles. Something like Philippi’s chaos in HBO’s Rome or the Battle of the Bastards in Game of Thrones would make Domina competitive on that level.

But nope. The female point of view continues too, with childbirths and marriages as the focal events for women in the upper echelons of Roman strata.

But the fact is that there’s also way too many sequences featuring brothels. Whether it’s the dalliances of the Roman rich kids in them or as dire warnings to the rest of the society women that they’ll end up there, there’s scenes galore taking place in one seedy commercial bed chamber after another.

They even put Isabella Rossellini in multiple episodes as whore house momma san Balbina in season 1. If you haven’t watched the first season then I won’t spoil it.

But I kid you not.

Domina season 2
Joseph Ollman as Iullus; David Avery as Domitius; Benjamin Isaac as Tiberius; Ewan Horrocks as Drusus. Image courtesy Moris Puccio/Tiger Aspect/Banijay Rights/MGM+ /

Domina season 2 breakdown and review: A blight upon the house of Caesar

Despite all that, there’s no denying that if you gloss over the cosplay vibe togas and armor, it’s extremely well-made for its budget. For me it’s a solid 7/10 of a guilty pleasure binge.

Smutniak’s Livia is mesmerizing, a cross between Emily Ratajkowski and Gabrielle Anwar. She acts with as much understated gravitas as she can muster in her Polish-Italian accent, that appears and disappears like a Roman slave’s hopes of freedom.

I found myself actually rooting for Livia success in evil doing, that I knew at some point the writers had also done their craft pretty well. Considering that the Roman historian Tacitus had described Livia in his writings as, “A blight upon the nation as a mother, a blight upon the house of Caesar as a stepmother,” I’d call Smutniak’s acting making Livia likeable a pretty good accomplishment.

Credit also goes to the directors and screenwriters for those very cool cliffhangers. As far as fantasized Rome histories go, it’s pretty damn engaging.

Domina season 2
Kasia Smutniak as Livia Drusilla; Matthew McNulty asGaius Julius Caesar. Image courtesy Moris Puccio/Tiger Aspect/Banijay Rights/MGM+ /

Truly a good move on MGM’s part for investing in this pop culture historical junk food that aimed for HBO’s Rome and hit high enough that it landed on a dramatic version of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Next. Highlights and recap of The Bear season 2, episode 2: Pasta. dark

You can stream Domina, season 2 on MGM+.