The moral quagmire that is Spartacus’ war against Rome deepens as the rebel army takes stock of their newly captured city.

Spoilers Ahead…

Episode Overview

Men of Honor focuses almost exclusively on the rebel army within the newly captured/liberated city of Sinuessa. Despite Spartacus’ best efforts, the deposed Aedile’s plan to pitch and torch the city’s grain supplies was effective enough to render most of Sinuessa’s food stores inedible. Once again facing starvation, the former slaves direct their anger toward the captured Romans. Meanwhile, Spartacus brokers a deal with a band of Silesian pirates who could see the rebel army well provisioned, assuming each side can find cause to trust the other.

What happens when all sides think themselves righteous?

It is perhaps the core question to the entire episode. Spartacus’ army thinks they are liberating the oppressed people of Republic. The Republic, as personified in Crassus, who was remarkably absent this episode, is trying to save lives by putting down a horde bent on plunder and vengeance. As an audience we must ask ourselves if Spartacus has any right to shatter the shield which protects all of Italy from barbarism and chaos. Of course, if shielding the citizens of the Republic from the horrors of the outside world demands institutionalized slavery, is it a freedom worth maintaining?

These questions become all the more poignant when the episode sees Spartacus’ captains forcing two surviving Romans into a death match over half a loaf of bread. Agron, Nassir, and Gannicus all stand silent while Crixus, of all characters, sets two fat Romans upon each other. Naevia is all but frothing at the mouth to see the duo fight it out. On a positive note, the scene finally gives Manu Bennett something to do as Crixus. Crixus, who held to the brotherhood of gladiators above all else, abides the honourless slaughter of an untrained Roman. Maybe there’s a bit of  Maximus style, “Are you not entertained?” subtext from Crixus, but even in the aftermath of bloodshed the character offers no readily discernible remorse for his actions. After a year of being Spartacus yes-man, it’s fantastic to see Crixus beholden only unto himself. It’s just a shame to see the character’s story bound to his psycho girlfriend.

How do you solve a problem like Naevia?

That’s right, I went musical. The invocation of Rogers and Hammerstein should indicate just how serious I am when I ask if Naevia something of a problematic character? I understand that after watching her turn Attius’ face into ground chuck the audience is meant to question her stability. I’ll also concede there is a bit of Kill Bill charm to Naevia. But where the Bride was perpetually an ass kicker of the first order, Naevia was a docile house slave whose off-camera debasement yielded first a victim, and then a hot blooded killer. Is there a discussion of female empowerment to be had in the wake of her cleaving the fingers of a defenseless fat Roman? Or is she just a sociopath who uses her victimization to justify visiting equal horrors upon the world?

Compare Naevia to Laeta (Anna Hutchison), who assumes the mantle of power left by her husband in dealing with Spartacus on behalf of the surviving Romans. Sure, she abides Spartacus one-way negotiations in handing over the Aedile’s seal, but she also takes advantage of Spartacus’ pedestrian honor to see her people sheltered from the barbarism of rebels like Naevia. Is there not more room for character depth in this study of empowerment? Of course, I could just as easily argue that Naevia is inhabiting a role which we wouldn’t question in a male character; therein Laeta is nothing more than a broad application of socially appropriate maternal behaviour.

I’ll leave that issue open for debate.

Then things got gay…

When I stop to think about it, Agron and Nassir are probably the most well adjusted couple in the history of the series. Lucretia was in love with Crixus while married to Batiatus. Ilithyia would spread her legs for whoever had the most power. Crassus has no love for his wife, preferring the company of a slave. I’m not even going to open the can of worms that is Crixus and Naevia’s relationship. Agron and Nassir, however, went into their relationship on equal footing and seem to have kept it on an even keel. So why not give them the only real sex scene of the episode? Why not take that one scene, bracketed by images of extras of both sexes in various states of undress, and say, “Hey, we’re not just about pandering to one idea of sexuality here.”

Extra kudos to the writers for the two-girl/one-guy threesome fake-out which immediately followed Agron and Nassir’s tumble. For a moment I thought the show would only go gay if immediately followed up with a pubescent male’s ideal three-way as a means of reinforcing heteronormativity. Instead, Gannicus calls off the hedonism, opting for a moment of character growth when he tells Sibyl (Gwendoline Taylor) that she should stay far away from men like him. It is in these moments when we see just how far Gannicus has come since his introduction in the utterly tedious Gods of the Arena.

The fleeting moments of genuine comedy among the madness.

The War of the Damned season title illustrates two things: first, the slaves themselves are likely damned for the suffering they have visited upon Italy; second, the rebellion itself is doomed to failure.

Amid the political intrigues of Rome, the practical concerns of the rebel army, and the moral relativism of both, the story risks exhausting its viewers. In the past, the series has used fights in the arena and eight-way orgies as a means of breaking the tension. This week’s episode saw some laugh out loud dialogue punctuating the drama.

The most memorable line, for what will no doubt be seen as a variety of reasons, was the naked slave who named his cock “magic” only to have a deadpan Crixus say, “Then make it disappear from sight.”

The Worst Legion

Call me a pedant, but Tiberus Crassus’ charge into battle against Spartacus and the Silesian pirates was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen on this series. Roman soldiers do not charge into battle like a bunch of drunk Gauls. The strength of the Roman Legion was its discipline. Each man covers the man to the left of him with his shield. Thus, when Roman soldiers advance they do so as one cohesive centuria, commanded by a centurion, not a fucking tribune. TC taking point would be the same as a Major commanding a modern infantry company.

Yes, fine Tiberus Crassus is an ignorant whelp of a soldier, but his men would never break ranks and blunder forth like so many barbarians. For all the minor historical details this show gets right, it makes some giant glaring errors on the fundamentals.

The Verdict

While Men of Honor only advanced the season’s plot in its final ten minutes, the episode gets top marks for casting a considerable pallor over the virtue of our would-be heroes. Can we truly call Spartacus’ cause righteous when his captains are forcing their captives to fight for scraps of food? Where does revenge end and justice begin? What happens when Spartacus isn’t able to control the men who follow him? Perhaps when men of honour find themselves on opposing ends of a cause the only solution is greater bloodshed.