Even though I’ve been extra forgiving of Spartacus: Vengeance in the wake of having to replace their leading man, I found myself thinking that episode five would need to be something special. Were we to quantify plot progression to date into a form of linear measurement, I suspect the net distance traveled would be measured in yards rather than miles. And while the last two episodes have seen some Roman intrigue boiling to the surface, they’ve also seen Spartacus reduced to a bit character within the series. The first season was at its best when the intrigues of the villa spilled into the ludus below. Removed from that environment, the show has struggled to find a way to bring these two political spheres together. “Libertus” does so in perhaps the most dramatic way possible.
Word reaches Spartacus and gang, now holed up in a temple at the foothills of Vesuvius, that Crixus, Oenomaus and that Gaul who loved showing off his wang are to be executed in the arena. Naturally Spartacus decides that a rescue is in order: “Who knows the arena better than we gladiators?” The sands of the arena perhaps, but I had no idea that gladiators were so well versed in the architecture of the building and how it connected to Capua’s sewer system. Be warned that some small measure of suspension of disbelief is in order.
Also, Agron kisses Nassir on the mouth when the latter emerges from his sickbed. It was good for Agron and weird for Nassir.
Meanwhile in Capua, things are looking grim indeed for Praetor Glaber. The quadruple entente between Senator Albinius, Praetor Varinius, Lucretia, and Ilithyia is in full effect. The only thing standing in the way of Albinius dissolving Glaber and Ilithyia’s marriage is the “inconvenient lineage” growing in her belly. That’s right kids, it’s time for ye olde Roman abortion. Though I’d never suggest looking too deep into Spartacus for allegorical messages, I do enjoy seeing female characters playing politics with their reproductive system.
Also, for some reason the powers that be thought it would be fun to bring Gannicus back into the show. He’s going to be Crixus et al’s to be the executioner. The former champion makes a big show of how pointless his life has become what with all the drinking and shagging of four denarii whores, (BTW if a lady of the night only charges four denarii, she probably has a disease) not to mention the burden of always having to carry around a rudis as proof of his status as a freedman.
I never cared for Gannicus as a character, nor do I have any particular love for Dustin Clare, the man who plays him. My only assumption is that the producers/writers brought him back to make Gods of the Arena seem less terrible and perhaps make Liam McIntyre look better by comparison.
Back in the ludus, Glaber decides that Ashur is of no further use. Thus he is to be put to death with Crixus and company. Naturally, the writers can’t get rid of everybody’s favourite Syrian in such a pointless way. Enter Lucretia with a deal. If Ashur sneaks into Ilithyia’s room and switches the bottle of abortion juice for a placebo, she will convince Glaber that the gods have a plan for Ashur’s life.
Behold Lucretia’s long con in all its glory. I think we all knew that she was planning something big. Now we have the first real evidence of her master plan. At that moment I was never more convinced that she scheming to marry Albinius, thus securing her station in the world, and then avenge her lost child on Ilithyia’s when it is born. Why else would she want to keep the spawn of Glaber and Ilithyia alive?
Of course, Ashur is never one to be outdone. On the morning of the execution, Ashur takes his life into his hands and dares to speak with Glaber, who had begrudgingly agreed to spare the former’s life. Ashur informs Glaber that he saw Ilithyia holding a vial of abortion juice as she moved about the villa. Upon confronting Ilithyia, Glaber finds his wife far too confident in her new station. Making sure to remind Glaber that he’s an inferior specimen, Ilithyia spills the details of her arrangement with Varinius. The cuckolded Praetor now mirrors the perpetually screwed over spirit of Quintus Batiatus.
But there’s no time for a temper tantrum because the couple is late for the arena. Glaber and Ilithyia, who now oozes with herpes hubris, trade knowing glances and barbed comments with each other. Ilithyia also quietly admits to Lucretia that her husband discovered the abortion juice in her room. Remember how I said that a small dosage of suspension of disbelief was necessary for this episode? Considering that the only people who were supposed to know about the illicit tincture were Ilithyia and Lucretia, I don’t know why the former didn’t suspect the latter of blabbing. Ilithyia already has reason to doubt Lucretia’s loyalty; it seems perfectly natural that she would confront Lucretia over this matter. Alas it does not come to pass.
But that’s okay because the execution is starting! Oenomaus and Gannicus trade some words about the former champion taking the once-Doctore’s wife to bed. Wang Gaul gets killed. Crixus gets stabbed a couple times but keeps on going. Mira and a bunch of red shirt rebels set the basement of the stadium on fire. Wait what?
It’s a pretty impressive scene that finally brings together upper and lower class Roman society. Spartacus and Agron replace two of the stadium guards inside the arena. Their plan is to wait for the fire to cause enough of a distraction that they can retrieve Crixus and the others; a dramatic but reasonable course of action. Then I watched hundreds of Romans plunging to their death as their seats burned out from under them. As more sections of arena collapsed into the fiery blaze, I actually found myself feeling sorry for the spectators. Is it the fault of the great unwashed that the Roman system was unjust? Of course it could be said that they are complicit in supporting it by attending public spectacles – no allegory there at all. As common folk dove from their seats to the sands below and the elites in the podium fought through rubble to escape, it dawned on me that this is Capua’s 9/11 moment.
Now hold on, don’t go lynching me for comparing one thing to the other. The camera work that captures the gradual collapse of the arena accurately embodies the visual characteristics of a controlled implosion. For that alone it’s hard not to make the comparison. On a more sub-textual level, this is a 9/11 moment because only as the arena is burning around the citizens of Capua does the reality of Roman imperialism and internal colonialism come home to roost. The thing with city dwellers is that nothing is real until it is happening to them; it was true 2082 years ago and its true today. Burning the arena makes Spartacus something that is real for the people of Capua, not just an abstract object of hate who killed some nobles and looted villas off to the south.
It also makes the nature of Spartacus’ rebellion that much more complex. Even without a current climate of anti-elitism, the audience can easily cheer for Spartacus looting and plundering the rich estates of the Italian countryside. Now Spartacus, Agron, and Mira are directly responsible for the wholesale slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands of common folk. There is a word for people who kill civilians as a means of acting against a government: terrorists. How’s that for an interesting idea? No longer the shiny ideologue of freedom for all, Spartacus’ approval of this plan suggests a new philosophy of freedom at any cost.
As if that wasn’t enough to turn the series on its head, one final development unfolds in the burning wreck of the arena. During their flight from the podium, Senator Albinius gets separated from the rest of the nobles. Glaber comes upon him trapped under a beam and begging for help. Being the loyal Roman that he is, Glaber lifts the beam, only to smash it into Albinius’ head. His line, “I’m not the fool you and your daughter take me for.”
Brilliant! In one fell stroke Glaber has gone from cuckold to deus ex machina. Ilithyia’s plans crumble like the arena in the background when Glaber admits that her father is dead. Even the unflappable Praetor Varinius is taken aback when Glaber puts his hand around his wife, and admits that they will endure the trauma as husband and wife. The Greeks might have invented Hubris, but it took the Romans to perfect it.
Albinius death secures not only Glaber’s marriage and lineage, but also leaves him the sole inheritor to all of Albinius’ wealth. Wealth, that we have been told, is second only to the fortune of Marcus Crassus himself. While Spartacus might remain Glaber’s embarrassment, the Thracian’s actions have indirectly served to make his enemy more powerful and more dangerous than he ever was before.
Obvious as they were, I’ll forgive the episode’s deficiencies in the suspension of disbelief department when it moves the narrative with such gusto. Now let’s see if the momentum continues into next week.