Spartacus War of the Damned Archive


TV Review: Spartacus – A Brief Retrospective

It’s a challenge to look back on a series like Spartacus. When it began in 2009, I took it as a juvenile attempt to bring together over-the-top 300-style violence with the baseline hetero-male audience’s collective desire to see Lucy Lawless naked. I had all but written the series off until it showed signs of transforming midway through the first season. Shock and awe-yeahhhh camera work gave way to actual narrative. Sure, it wasn’t HBO’s Rome, but that didn’t make it uninteresting to watch John Hannah curse Jupiter’s cock as he attempted to climb Capua’s social latter. Subtext began to appear within the series’ imagery and long form story-telling found its way into the mix. I offered a public mea culpa before admitting to being hooked on Spartacus. For my last official Spartacus War of the Damned post, I thought I would talk about some parts of the show that have really stood out to me over the last few years.

Target Demographic

In the final episode of War of the Damned, Agron promises a dying Spartacus that his legend will live on throughout history. It’s a touching meta moment in the series, and perhaps the best thing a dying leader can hope to hear. But who actually carried Spartacus’ memory through history?

Until Spartacus entered popular culture in the 1960s, he was relegated to the realm of classists and historians. The legend of Spartacus, as written by the Romans, was not about the triumph of individual agency, but the validation of Roman law and civilization. Much to the fictional Agron’s horror, Spartacus spent the better part of two millennia as a ghost story for aristocrats. He was a warning for what happens when the higher orders push those under them beyond the breaking point.

The last fifty years have seen Spartacus appropriated from the narrative of “haves” and rebranded as a populist figure – historical accuracy be damned. Steven DeKnight’s Spartacus is perhaps even more a folk hero than the character directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by Howard Fast. The post-modern Spartacus began as a soldier within the Roman Auxiliary. He only became a slave when a betrayal from his Roman commanders saw him fighting in an imperial conquest rather than defending his homeland. A subsequent decision to desert led to Spartacus’ capture and colonization into the lowest order of Roman society.

I won’t presume to guess how much this resonates with the working poor of America, but it’s hard not to see the contemporary influence on the Spartacus story. How many disenfranchised Americans want nothing more than a chance to be a part of the system, yet find themselves betrayed and marginalized by those institutions? How many people put themselves into the spectacle of the internet in search of fame, glory, and a lasting memory by entertaining the masses? In this, DeKnight’s Spartacus is quite successful in continuing the democratization of Spartacus, as initiated by Kubrick and Fast. Moreover, the desire for individual recognition among an alienating global community, where the Internet is our arena, further allows the series’ gladiators, the rock stars of Rome, to inhabit a conceptual space common to a broad audience obsessed with getting their fifteen minutes of fame.

Spartacus and Gay Culture

When I was in high school I wrote a review of Spartacus (1960) for a writer’s craft course. When my teacher asked why I didn’t devote more time to discussing Spartacus’ queer-friendly scenes, I answered with a rather flip, “People were cooler about gay stuff before Christianity. The movie didn’t make a big deal out of it, why should I?”

Upon first watching DeKnight’s Spartacus I found myself a little put off with series in terms of its approach to sexual identities as well as the critical discussion surrounding them.

During Spartacus’ first season bonafide television and culture critics, I mean people who get paid to do write about TV for a living, would not shut up about Crixus’ and Spartacus’ apparent unresolved sexual tension. I was unimpressed. Neither character was gay. Characters are allowed to hate each other without wanting to have sex with each other, deal with it. Meanwhile Barca, one of the series openly gay characters, inhabited a character space akin to one of the gang rapists from The Shawshank Redemption. Simultaneously, all the women, once again playing into sophomoric fantasies, were secretly bi-curious. Yet critics could not seem to move past the juvenilia of Spartacus’ and Crixus’ non-existent tension.

Thankfully, the series seemed content to grow up while a great many other people were trying to figure out pitchers and catchers. Vengeance, the series’ second chronological season, saw the creation of a new same-sex relationship. In a series where seemingly every other relationship was forged out of convenience, politics, opportunity, lust, protection, or revenge, Agron and Nassir proved to be the only healthy and mutually supportive paring of the show.

I’m sure a great many people, likely with more legitimacy to speak on gay-advocacy than I possess, have written at length on the importance of Agron and Nassir as an openly gay couple within a very hetero-normative cable TV series. But if I can revisit a modified form of my high school thesis on Spartacus (1960), I think this series has done a great thing in crafting a space where everybody is cool with same-sex couples, even if it has to do a little girl-on-girl pandering along the way.

Spartacus Vengeance’s Fatal Mistake

Point 1 – Losing Andy Whitfield was a tragedy. Not finding a way to keep John Hannah in the series was a mistake. When a long form drama has the chops to maintain multiple leading men (John Hannah, Andy Whitfield, and Manu Bennet) it can’t afford to lose two of them at the same time. Gods of the Arena didn’t even have the decency to make its half-season arc focus on Crixus. Such a decision would have facilitated an introduction to Liam McIntyre couched in a greater attachment to Crixus.

Point 2 – Rather than having Batiatus survive the attack on the Ludus, and subsequently be elevated to desired station, thus giving the series an actual reason to be rooted in Capua, we were introduced to half a dozen new Romans with one-off intrigues. The Upstairs Downstairs element of the show was lost at a time when McIntyre was uncertain as Spartacus and the writers only saw fit to have him speaking in dry speeches. Even if John Hannah was only used for five episodes, it would afforded enough time to allow Galber to become a leading man in his own right.  Meanwhile having Batiatus concentrate a half-dozen new intrigues into one character would have made the story telling infinitely more efficient.

Historical Accuracy

I’ve taken issue with the series’ historical accuracy from time to time. All too often Spartacus seemed to get the minor details right while buggering up some of the bigger ideas. Upon re-reading some Plutarch and Appian I’ve been reminded of one of my earliest lessons in Roman history: The Romans are the biggest liars of them all.

Seriously, history is a hell of a lot easier to write when the goal is not to be accurate to fact, but to create a legacy for your allies while simultaneously vilifying your enemies. Bearing that in mind I’ve put together a point-counterpoint on some of the series ongoing historical “liberties.”

Ancient Romans were a pious and proper people. Nobody had sex like they did on Spartacus.

Right, and Silvio Burlusconi would have made sure his biographer included the part about Bunga Bunga parties if the press hadn’t found out about them.

Spartacus died in 71BC.

Maybe, maybe not. The “I’m Spartacus” moment/sequence in Kubrick’s movie and DeKnight’s series, respectively, reflects the fact that in an ancient army few people can recognize their general. Most people in Spartacus’ army were just following the person in front of them. Only a handful of Captains would have been able to recognize Spartacus or Crixus. Of course, the Romans are not going to be apt to write a history where the man who undermined the Republic escaped to perhaps one day threaten Rome again. Spartacus died as an idea in 71BC, the man bearing his name may have survived.

Roman swords are great for cutting off people’s heads.

False. The gladius is a short sword that would be quite terrible as a tool for beheading. It is best used when partnered with a legionaries’ shield and used as a stabbing weapon.

Final Thoughts, for now

I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t more to say about Spartacus. When three big themes and three smaller ones run nearly 1700 words it probably indicates a need for me to write an actual paper on the subject.

In the end, Spartacus’ legacy will be as a show that began as tawdry titillation and grew into a series which questioned the way we interact with history. It didn’t seek to subvert what we think we know, rather it looked for gaps in the primary sources and choose to live in those spaces, spaces where perceptions of the past are checked by modern historical sensibilities. This is no small feat. Arguably something like Game of Thrones, though similar in format and tone to Spartacus, will never be able to do what Spartacus accomplished. For that reason, as well as countless others, Spartacus will prove to be a pop culture event worthy of much critical discussion and dissection.

Thanks to everybody who kept up with these posts over the last ten weeks; it was a hell of a ride. A special thanks to the Google+ Spartacus Circle for allowing me to promote my work every week. Further thanks to Jennifer Adese who has been a fantastic supporter of these reviews, and this website, since I got it off the ground.

Nos morituri te salutamus


TV Review: Spartacus War of the Damned Episode 10 – Victory

Bloodied but not beaten

As the title card flashed the single word “Victory” on screen, I immediately asked myself, “Victory for whom?” Who could possibly call himself a winner in this version of Spartacus’ legend? Could anything other than inevitable Roman glory triumph in the wake of Spartacus’ rebellion? For all the memorable aspects of this episode, and there are many, my take away has to be the way in which the acting, writing, and directing all came together to play with the audience’s almost certain quixotic hopes for historical revision.

NB: I’m going to try to limit my discussion of Victory to the episode itself. Next week I have plans to talk about the broader implications of the season and the series as a whole.

Also, do not read any further if you haven’t seen the episode. Seriously! This goes beyond a spoiler alert and into “you’ll ruin the entire fucking experience if you haven’t seen the series up to this point” territory.

In the broadest possible sense, I think this was the ending that Spartacus fans deserved. Victory walks a very fine line between the competing forces of the series’ sensationalized interpretation of Roman history, the tropes of a modern soap opera, and the demands of literary tragedy. Balancing on this high wire act produced a heretofore unseen sense of tension throughout the episode. Arguably a huge contributor to this edge-of-the-seat phenomenon came from the knowledge that any of the characters we have come to care about over the last four years could have died within the span of fifty-five minutes. In such a state, every line becomes a potential final word, each scene a potential grave yard. And anchoring almost every moment therein was Liam McIntyre.

This is not to suggest that Liam McIntyre hasn’t been on his game all season, but in this episode he inhabited Spartacus as if the character had been his all along. One of the episode’s many heart wrenching scenes saw the freed slaves offering gratitude to Spartacus. There was no clichéd extra suggesting he speaks for the group when he says (insert 3rd act gimmick here). They simply said, “Gratitude, Spartacus.” For McIntyre’s part, he reacted as if the words were a kick to the stomach. It’s the soul of poignancy to see King Spartacus thanked by his people, knowing they may well die despite everything that has passed.

Gratitude: a word uttered by John Hannah, Lucy Lawless, Simon Merrells, Todd Lasance, and every other actor playing a Roman. It is a word used so frequently among the Romans that it carries all the impact of a quick “thanks” offered to a clerk at a burger joint. Yet when “gratitude” passes from the lips of extras and third tier characters to a man whose name isn’t his own, the word finds new meaning.

As I said before, the episode lives at the intersection of powerful writing, acting, directing, and hope.

Shades of Gladiator

On the meeting of Spartacus and Crassus I could likely write a thousand words. For the sake of this review I’ll content myself with a hundred. Nowhere do we better see the literal “War of the Damned” theme come to a head than in this meeting. So much of the scene is carried in subtext and body language, culminating in a handshake between worthy foes. The two men are captives of an idea, and that idea is called Rome. Spartacus’ war was against the nation which sanctioned the rape and murder of his wife and reaps the daily labour of tens of thousands of slaves. Crassus is the living embodiment of that nation. He can no more let Spartacus honourably withdraw from Italy than he can forgive Kore for her betrayal. Both Spartacus and Crassus end the war damned tethered to their fate by the idea of Rome, regardless of if they can find a respect for the other.

And then, the dominos begin to fall. I admit I took no joy in the end of Naevia. Even though I’ve been a critic of how the writers managed her character, she demonstrated enough growth last week to make her death a bitter affair. Gannicus is another character who I detested in Gods of the Arena, if only because I was firmly in the “You’re not Andy” camp at the time. While I wish the writers would have found something more interesting to do than have him shack up with Sybil mid-season, his vision of Oenomaus and the arena amid crucifixion was a moving piece of closure. Similarly, Saxa’s death was a heartbreaking thing to watch. Even with the scant dialogue she received over the last two years, the Conan-esque sensibility Ellen Hollman brought to the role made the character’s death meaningful.

But what of Spartacus?

In the moment the spears hit him the audience is taken back to Crixus’ death. Yet, I won’t deny some peace of mind when it happened, despite the timing which only TV is capable of delivering. With a pilum through his heart, Spartacus would die quickly. The Romans could put him up on a cross, but he would not be Kirk Douglas, crucified along the Via Appia. It would have been a fitting death if it had ended there. Instead, the only functional couple the series has ever seen, who just happen to be a same-sex couple, pull him off the battlefield.

Yet it is not a deus ex machina. What follows is the writers’ last assault on whatever dam the audience uses to maintain composure during moments of tragedy. In Spartacus’ final minutes we witness him finding peace in two distinct ways. The obvious is his impending return to his wife in the afterlife. Beyond that, and left unspoken, is the answer to the series’ ultimate question: what is it all for? Even with Pompey rounding up a number of freed slaves who broke for the Alps, the others who waited for Spartacus secured their lasting freedom by being in the right place at the right time. Thus proving even Jupiter can’t rain piss and shit on everybody all of the time.

The beginning and the end

Laeta, Nassir, Agron, Sybil, the mother and her newborn child, and all the rest who make it to freedom justify Spartacus’ belief in the cause of life. Marked by a red serpent, the series comes full circle with a shot on Spartacus’ grave.

I don’t use the word perfect a lot in my reviews, but considering what the series began as, what it endured, and what it turned into this year, Victory was a perfect ending to an imperfect story. Where Stanley Kubrick gave us a tragedy without end, Steven DeKnight offered us a literary tragedy, where death informs the life that survives in its wake.

Tune in next week when I talk about the series as a whole, historical revision, and what I see as the enduring nature of the Spartacus Legend.


TV Review: Spartacus War of the Damned Episode 9 – The Dead and the Dying

It’s never good to impose too much upon one’s brain the day after returning from a sci-fi convention. In that spirit, I do so hope my readers will forgive me if I diverge from the usual pattern for these reviews and instead focus a mere two aspects of this episode that I think were perhaps more important, though less grand, than Crixus’ glorious funeral: Naevia earning my respect as a character, and Kore as possibly the bravest character in the series.

*Spoilers Ahead*

I’ve always been quite direct with my thoughts on Naevia as a poorly written character in the aftermath of her removal from the House of Batiatus. Where do you go with a character who revels in base bloodlust and PTSD manifesting as a good ol’ fashioned case of the crazies? Absent Crixus, who was both an enabler and restraint for her issues, I expected Naevia to turn into a berserker. Instead, the writers let her find some wisdom in grief.

Sure, Naevia is willing to participate in Spartacus’ games, slaying the captured Romans to commemorate the honoured dead. On a side note, the funeral pyre scene will likely become one of the series’ most iconic scenes. However, Naevia also confesses her sins to Spartacus before the spectacle begins. She willingly admits that she steered Crixus against Spartacus on a number of occasions. When Spartacus lays the decision to spare Tiberius’ life in exchange for five hundred wounded rebels – captured in what I’ll now call the Battle of Rome – at Naevia’s feet, she embraces the greater good and turns Tiberius over to Spartacus.

At this point in the series I don’t know if these few actions are enough to redeem her character. The writers have spent the last two seasons doing seemingly everything they can to dehumanize Naevia in the eyes of the audience. However, the character has certainly offered enough growth in one episode to make her almost certain death in next week’s finale resonate with some level of tragedy.

For the episode’s big win we must turn our attention to Kore. Bound up in the internal politics of the House of Crassus, Kore has been one of the most abused characters of the season, if not the series as a whole. Tiberius raped her not because he wanted her for himself, as Ashur did Lucretia, but to find a way to hurt his father. She then fled from Crassus but was unwilling to slit his throat as he slept. This episode sees her come full circle, stabbing Tiberius as he was on his way back to Crassus’ camp. And before we can have a chance to revel in Tiberius’ death, Spartacus has to come along and remind Kore that five hundred men will now suffer for her righteous desire to reclaim agency against a boy who reduced her to less than a slave. So much for the audience’s catharsis.

But wait, what is Kore’s first act as a newly empowered character? Before the blood on her hands has had a chance to dry, Kore offers herself as a trade to Crassus in place of his slain son. For the sake of his own political fortunes, Caesar plays along with the ruse, legitimizing Kore’s return to her former master. And in the scene that follows we witness the power of a name.

Upon revealing Kore to Crassus, Crassus says, “Thank you, Gaius.” Crassus doesn’t thank his Tribune or the name of House Caesar, placing family name before the individual; Crassus thanks the man before him. Crassus thanks an equal.

Reunited, Kore steps forward and utters a quiet “Marcus” before Crassus roughly embraces her. Yet his first words to Kore belie any emotion his act might suggest.

“From here on you will address me as Dominus.”

Whatever agency Kore gained in killing Tiberius, whatever justice she crafted for herself, the dead prostitute in the follower’s camp, or even for ass raped Caesar, Kore loses as Crassus reduces her to former station with but a word.

Is there another character in the series who has done so much for so many people at such a great personal cost as Kore? As if to make her choice all the more poignant in its tragedy, Kore’s actions fit perfectly with the theme of the season. Kore took one life then offered her own to save five hundred. But will be there a point to it? Are those returned to the rebel army anything but soon to be corpses and crucified bodies at the hands of Pompey and Crassus? Might not Kore also end up on a cross despite doing the right thing? Once again we see there are none truly righteous in the War of the Damned.

With the emergence of Pompey as another piece on the board, if not a character in his own right, any hopes I may have secretly nurtured for an alternate history ending are as dead as Crixus. Realistically, with the undefeated Gaul dead, is there any other place for Spartacus to end up but upon a cross? Save for perhaps a scant handful of minor characters, next week is likely not going to end well. Regardless of what happens, though, we can at least take some satisfaction in a iconic send off for Crixus and unexpected growth for Naevia. What a shame Kore’s good deed is being appropriately punished.


TV Review: Spartacus War of the Damned – Episode 8 Separate Paths

Spartacus and Crixus part ways not with a mug to the face, but through the bonds of brotherhood. Crassus, blinded by Kore’s betrayal, must choose between protecting Rome or chasing Spartacus north toward the Alps.

People die and the future is foreshadowed in a powerful episode of War of the Damned.

*Spoiler Alert*

Ave Crixus

What do you say about a character like Crixus? I always had the impression there was more to Crixus than was ever revealed. Who was he before being enslaved to Batiatus? He speaks about the nature of war in this episode like a man experienced in its ways. Too bad we will never find out.

Certainly, the forty-three year old Manu Bennett has been a stabilizing force within the series. I suspect many people kept with the show during Liam McIntyre’s first season because of Crixus’s Gallic charm. Though he was never quite as clever as Spartacus, Crixus’ personal transformation was no less poignant. And in Separate Paths we saw the final step in his evolution: General Crixus and Crixus, the man who would be a father.

“A child born into piss and shit,” says the cynical Gaul as he sits encamped, watching a mother feed her newborn son. Therein we witness a profound sense of loss emerging from Crixus. He knows nothing of a world absent fighting, yet he longs for a quiet life. What follows is some of the best dialogue Crixus has ever uttered in the series, and Naevia almost comes across as likable, almost.

For all the handshakes, reminiscing, and affirmations of brotherhood, I think it quite obvious the writers wanted us to know this was the end for Crixus and Agron (maybe). However, rebranding him as “Crixus the Undefeated” might have added a shade too much hubris to the whole ordeal. I mean, didn’t Crixus sort of lose against Theocales?

On a technical level, I have to object to the means of Crixus’ death. I’ve thrice watched the video after Crassus gives the order to take Crixus’ head, and each time I am convinced that the sword’s path would put it nowhere near cleaving head from neck. I know, I know, it’s tedious to complain about technical details, but this is Crixus we are talking about.

Watching his head fly from neck as reflected in Naevia’s teary eyes is a fun picture-on-picture effect, but the death of a titan should not be marred by any imperfection. Crixus’ death deserved to be flawless, thus allowing viewers get lost in the tragedy of the moment. Instead, I found myself complaining about fight choreography and the series’ habit of using a gladius for slashing rather than stabbing.

Turn Your Head and Cough

Who would have thought Julius Caesar would become the voice of reason within the Roman camp? And who would have thought being the voice of reason would result in yet another rape.

I’ve said this before but it merits repeating; Spartacus never fails to impress me with its treatment of sexual assault. Where the series revels in the heady bacchanal of consenting adults and simultaneously shines an uncomfortable light on the icky nature of class based sexual obligation, it is at its best when illustrating the dehumanizing power of sexual abuse.

First and foremost, Tiberius forcing himself upon Caesar is no more or less horrifying than when he violated Kore. Though I suspect male-on-male rape is certainly more shocking for the audience, at least outside of a prison movie, the writing is smart enough not to make an extra big deal out of the scene. It’s not a gay rape scene, it’s just a rape sequence.

This reality is best seen in the equal ramifications visited upon Kore and Caesar in the wake of Tiberius’ action. Kore bore both emotional scars and a physical fear of contact after being raped. In Caesar’s case, he is left unable to perform as a soldier befitting his station. He bears a physical reminder of the ordeal, which strikes at the core of who Caesar is as a Roman soldier.

This brings us to an interesting crossroads. Will either Caesar or Kore reclaim lost agency by avenging themselves upon Tiberius? If Tiberius dies at the hands of another, he leaves his rape victims to deal with the long-term psychological damage of his actions. Given the series’ penchant for comeuppance, I doubt things will end so easily for Tiberius.

The Bringer of Rain, No More

Given that Spartacus very literally escaped the ridge above Sinuessa upon the backs of his fallen comrades, I can see why he would turn pragmatist and make for the Alps. The realization is written across McIntyre’s face, though the character never says it: the rebels are beaten. The cause of ending slavery in Rome is an impossible one. This episode witnesses the death of General Spartacus and the true birth of King Spartacus, for what is a king’s first obligation if not to protect the people who follow him.

What then are we to make of Spartacus tumble with Laeta? Is it just an excuse to give an otherwise celibate Spartacus a sex scene this season? I’m sure Mira and Sura aren’t waiting to kick his ass in the afterlife for going to bed with a Roman. I guess we’re also supposed to forget that Spartacus put a spear through the back of Laeta’s husband’s head, as well. What sort of ex-wife goes to bed with the guy who killed her husband? Here I thought the house of Atreus was dysfunctional.

After witnessing this scene I have a sneaking suspicion we might get an ending along the lines of Kubrick’s Spartacus.

Team Nagron

While Liam McIntyre and Anna Hutchison may have been a study in forced chemistry and ersatz passion, Dan Feuerriegel and Pana Hema-Taylor nailed it in their farewell. Seriously, the scene was magnificent and heart breaking. Agron’s need to fight reminds us that he is equally a warrior and a man who failed to protect his brother during the initial uprising at Batiatus’ ludus. In sending Nassir with Spartacus, he is doing for his lover what he could not do for his brother. The act is touching, but over the long-term might end up tasting like ash if Crassus or Pompey massacre Spartacus’ remaining troop.

A Study in Futility

Either in the next episode or the one to follow, somebody is going to ask about the point of the rebellion. This question will likely be followed by a high minded speech on freedom. We, as an audience, are going to be left with the same question. Is there a point to fighting a hopeless cause? Can anything ever be changed in the world? The potential for allegory is limitless when put in the context of something like the Occupy movement.

In sending off two of the series’ primary cast, Separate Paths does much to setup this fundamental question. The answer will depend greatly upon who dies in the weeks to come. Will this be a narrative of heroic sacrifice or will it be a cold reminder of the implacable nature of history? No matter how much we may want a happy ending, sometimes everybody dies.


TV Review: Spartacus War of the Damned – Episode 7 Mors Indecepta

Where Spartacus’ retreat from Sinuessa could have stagnated the plot, Mors Indecepta presents game changers which might just allow Spartacus to defy his destiny.

*Spoilers Ahead*

Episode Overview

With the rebel army trapped between Crassus’ wall and his approaching army, tensions once again flare between Spartacus and Crixus. While Crixus favours a head-on attack against Crassus, Spartacus struggles to find a strategy that will outfox Rome’s tactical genius.

Meanwhile a thousand rebels die from exposure as a bitter storm ravages the cliffs above Sinuessa. Facing death on all fronts, Spartacus uses the frozen bodies of his dead companions to bridge the Roman trench and assault Crassus’ wall, which when pressed reveals itself to be garrisoned with only a small force of legionaries. The rebel army then flees into the wilderness, accompanied by Kore, who has seemingly abandoned Crassus after learning she was to remain in Sinuessa as Tiberius’ head of household staff.

The Big Question

At this point in the series, there’s only one thing I want to know: is War of the Damned going to keep faith with Roman history, or at least history defined by Stanley Kubrick – which might as well be history after 60 years of pop culture ubiquity – or will it do something unique with the Spartacus story?

Theory #1 Pompey Magnus

With Spartacus and the rebels escaping through Crassus’ wall, Pompey and his legions could easily turn this potential win into bitter defeat. Though the series has made mention of Pompey, we’ve yet to actually see him, and there is no record of the Magnus on the series’ IMDB page. Why then do I bring him up? In history, knowledge of Pompey’s arrival in Italy put significant pressure on Crassus to decisively end Spartacus’ rebellion. If the writers are keen to ignore Pompey’s contribution therein, what other elements of the recorded or adapted history might they eschew? Maybe some of the rebels will get out alive? Perhaps the name of Spartacus will die, but not the man we know as Spartacus himself. Remember the name was foisted upon the ex-legionary Thracian after he survived execution in Capua’s arena.

Theory #2: Kore

Of all the things to happen in this episode, Kore’s defection is as fascinating as it is unexpected. It also stands as another big hint that Steven DeKnight might be out to tell his own interpretation of Spartacus, unbound by Kubrick or the infamously prejudicial Roman histories.

Given the physical and emotional wringer Tiberius has visited upon Kore, it’s quite conceivable that she would play Caesar as a means of escaping a life of rape and humiliation with Tiberius. But if that was the case, why not slit Crassus’ throat while he slept? If she knows he won’t save her, what use is he to her? Does she love him that much? Or is something else at work?

Perhaps Kore’s plan is to cement a relationship between Crassus and Caesar as a second Trojan Horse. Once triggered, all Caesar has to do is manipulate the situation to make Tiberius look like an idiot (not a difficult proposition) and return Kore unharmed to Crassus’ side. Kore would then be free of Tiberius once Caesar supplants the boy as Crassus’ right hand.

A twist like this also this has the potential to make up for an entire season of enduring Naveia’s victim-turned-psycho routine. An elegant symmetry emerges when we recall that Spartacus’ reason for fighting, first with the Romans as an Auxiliary and then against them as a rebel, was his wife; the idea of another woman, equally righteous in her cause as Spartacus, catalyzing the downfall of the Bringer of Rain offers a bloody sort of balance to the story’s long arc.

Crixus vs Spartacus Round…who the hell is counting anymore?

If Crixus were a woman, this kind of tension totally would have led to sex.











Gods of the Arena – Crixus and Spartacus hate each other. Mutual distain gives way to begrudging respect, followed by an alliance of convenience.

Vengeance – Crixus is Spartacus’ yes man and best bro for the whole season.

War of the Damned – Best bro status continues until Crixus starts killing civilians. Spartacus and Crixus fight, then make up, and now they are fighting again. Of course, who wouldn’t want to fight if they got a mug broken across their face?

Seriously though, the double alpha dog thing is getting a bit over played. They either need to kiss each other, kill each other, or find a way to disagree without all the machismo BS getting in the story’s way.

For all of the Spartacus v. Crixus tension, it never seems to amount to anything. We all thought it was going somewhere in Blood Brothers but instead the tension petered out and left us right back where the season started. I’m glad to see the writers doing more with Manu Bennett this year than they did in Vengeance – can’t have the fan favourite showing up the new guy who is replacing the dead guy – but this is not the way to give the character more screen time. Now it just seems like he’s the show’s Mr. Worf, whose only function is to put forward ideas which get summarily shot down by King Spartacus.

Nagron in the City

In a perfect world, The Doctor will walk out of the TARDIS and take Nassir and Agron two-thousand fifty years into the future where they can have their own spin-off series. Seriously, I would watch the hell out of that show, and I say this as a white heterosexual male.

I’ll also thank whatever gods you care to name for the writers putting Nassir’s and Agron’s jealousy sub-plot to rest. The conflict between the two characters felt like a forced gimmick designed to increase the stakes of the show. Since neither of the characters died in the immediate aftermath of their tiff, I question the purpose of setting them at odds in the first place. Though if somebody told me they fought just so we could have the
“don’t give me that look” moment, I’d be okay with it.

Yellow Cards

If it’s cold enough to kill people where they kneel, then it’s nothing but tedious titillation to have Sibyl unlace her coverings as a prelude to a roll in the snow with Gannicus. Also, is it still cheating if Saxa already gave a green light to a threesome?

If it’s cold enough to kill a thousand people in one night, then there should be a lot more frostbite among the rebel army. Last I checked they were all wearing sandals. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t see some black feet next week.

Crassus’ Mors Indecepta trick involved a lot of talking about the legion’s “Praetorians.” While this might sound good and Romanesque, it’s a mistake. Republican Praetorians were a small contingent of a legate’s bodyguards. Killing them would not breakdown the leadership of Crassus’ army. Killing all the army’s Centurions, however, would have done some serious damage to the legion’s overall effectiveness.


My biggest fear going into Mors Indecepta was the series setting itself up for another drawn out finale a la Vengeance. Mea culpa. Now we get to witness the continuation of Spartacus’ game of chess with Crassus. The question must now become, who will be the new piece on the board. Will it be Kore? Will it be Pompey? Or is the Spartacus versus Crassus battle going to play out independent of external factors?


TV Review: Spartacus War of the Damned Episode 6 – Spoils of War

Spartacus’ forced retreat from Sinuessa allows the episode to focus almost exclusively on Roman intrigue.

*Spoilers Ahead*

Episode Overview

Crassus’ legions occupy the city, leaving Gannicus and Sibyl (Gwendoline Taylor) as the only rebel characters of note in Sinuessa. Their eventual escape, accompanied by a newly branded Laeta, finds the rebel army trapped atop the much talked about ridge. Meanwhile in Sinuessa, Caesar is celebrated as a hero while Crassus makes plans to manipulate the Senate into rewarding him with the entire city as plunder.

A Much Needed Pause

Spartacus has moved at an absolute break-neck pace this season. Spoils of War offers the audience, and likely some of the cast, a bit of a reprieve. After the city’s initial capture, where we finally get to see the Roman army marching in proper formation, much of the episode’s focus is spent on intrigue.

Among these intrigues is the revelation that Caesar himself bought the loyalty of the Silesian pirates. Again, I think this would have done a greater service to the audience if it were shown rather than told after the fact. The only thing we ever saw Caesar doing in Sinuessa was inflaming the anti-Roman faction of the rebel army. The post-game confession feels a bit tacked on to make up for an overall lack of clarity.

Arguably the most important maneuver to emerge out of the episode is Crassus’ plan to take Sinuessa as plunder once Spartacus is defeated. In watching Simon Merrells outline Crassus’ endgame are we seeing hubris in action, or hints of a new Starz produced series about the rise of Julius Caesar?

She but Stands As Slave

Poor Laeta is the Theon Greyjoy of antiquity. Seemingly everything bad that happens this season happens to her, only unlike Theon she doesn’t deserve it. In six episodes, Laeta has watched her husband die at the hands of Spartacus. She has witnessed Crixus butcher her friends for sport. And despite Laeta’s standing as a citizen of the Republic, Crassus sells her to Heraclio whereupon she’s branded like any common house slave.

For all his base pirate logic, Heraclio brings up a big point the series tried, but ultimately failed, to explore in Spartacus Vengenace. The position of a Roman woman was only as secure as that of her nearest male relative. As a widow, Laeta would become the problem of her son or failing that her husband’s closest living male relative. In history, this led to widows used as glue to seal political and commercial arrangements. Though Laeta’s sale reflects upon Crassus’ willingness to break Roman law for the greater glory of Rome, it’s also a poignant reminder of how the line between slave and citizen can be quite arbitrary.

Emperor Tiberius Looks Good by Comparison

Christian Antidromi brings it for all it is worth as young Tiberius Crassus. His interchange with Kore and Marcus Crassus was nothing short of horrifying. Equal credit must go to the writers for their stunningly creepy dialogue, “I laid heavy burden upon Kore.” As he said that line, somewhere, one bro said to another, “Oh yeah he did,” and then offered up a meat headed high-five.

But for all of Tiberius’ Joffrey Lannister style posturing with Kore, it is delightful to see Caesar reminding Tiberius of his true worth. With naked slave girls in arm, Caesar points out that Tiberius is nothing more than an exile boy, who disgraced the legion with poor leadership and cowardice. It’s a fair assessment. While Tiberius was suffering decimation and exile, Caesar was using guile and steel to bring a city to its knees. And after a dressing down from Julius Caesar his, “Say anything to daddy and I’ll rape you again” speech with Kore paints him as little more than weakling bully in the eyes of the audience.

They Each Think Themselves Hero

Spoils of War saw Marcus Crassus saying aloud what we have all known for the last few weeks. Both Crassus and Spartacus think they are the hero of the story. Spartacus is fighting for human dignity at the expense of human life. Crassus is fighting for stability and Roman glory at the expense of human dignity. It will be interesting to see if the endgame of the rebellion leads Crassus to a place where he doubts the righteousness of his cause. We have seen moments of hesitation etched on Liam McIntyre’s face, but so far Merrells’ taciturn demeanor has not offered any trace of Crassus wavering in the face of bloodshed and battle.

Glaring Plot Holes

Though the episode closed the loop on the how and why of the Silesian pirates’ betrayal, a few things are left unanswered. Where did that Roman fleet come from in the previous episode? Naevia identified the ships as Roman, but they don’t make any appearance in this episode. Along the same lines, I guess we’re never going to find out how Crixus went from leading a counter-attack against Crassus to saving Spartacus.

I’m also wondering what, if any, role Pompey is going to play in this slaughter. With Spartacus trapped between Crassus’ wall at the top of the ridge and his legions below, how can Pompey steal the glory? With the breach sealed between Crixus and Spartacus, for now at least, there seems little chance for Crixus to lead his fringe group toward the Alps, only to be crushed under Pompey’s legions.

The End of the Line

With Spartacus penned in and four episodes to go, the series is at something of a critical juncture. From a military point of view, Crassus’ best option is a siege. He should winter his men in Sinuessa and let Spartacus freeze on the ridge. Yet the writer in me would hate Steven DeKnight if he lets the show end through attrition rather than a blaze of glory. Moreover, now that Crassus knows what Spartacus looks like, how is the “I’m Spartacus” moment going to transpire? Will it involve Pompey blustering in at the last moment? Will there even be a Kirk Douglas homage?

The final act is upon us.


TV Review: Spartacus War of the Damned Episode 5 – Blood Brothers

Surrounded on land and at sea by Crassus’ forces, this week’s Spartacus crams two episodes worth of content into a single outing. The results of this decision are interesting if somewhat problematic.

*Spoiler Alert*

Episode Overview

Spartacus releases Sinuessa’s remaining Romans to the vanguard of Crassus’ army. The tension between Crixus and Spartacus nearly comes to a boiling point, only to fade into the ether once Spartacus reveals his master plan to use disinformation against Crassus. Unfortunately this gambit is made somewhat pointless when Caesar betrays the slave army just in time to have Crassus’ ram break through the city gate.

So, what just happened?

Granted it has been a while since I’ve watched any episodes of Blood and Sand or Vengeance, but Blood Brothers is likely one of the most dubious episodes of the entire series. It wasn’t terrible, mind you. Yet when we compare this episode to the four that preceded it, it’s hard not to notice the forced march rapidity with which plot holes are synched in favour of bulldogging the story forward.

Allow me to annotate the major developments which manage to occur in a fifty-one minute episode. The breach between Spartacus and Crixus, which sees Agron reaffirming his loyalty to Spartacus, just in case, fizzles in the face of common foe. Spartacus raids Sicily and returns to Sinuessa seemingly within the span of a day. Crassus buys the allegiance of the Silesian pirates, despite the fact they ever appear docked in Sinuessa or at sea with members of the slave army on board. Crassus mobilizes a fleet; though I suppose this could be Pompey crossing the Tyrenian from Spain. Caesar turns on Nemetes and gets into a prolonged fight with Agron. And finally, Crassus assaults Sinuessa’s gates. This is a considerable amount of content crammed into an episode which still makes time for a romantic sex scene and a rape – more on that later.

Geography Alert!

Not to pick nits, but this whole Sicily thing really bothers me. Let’s go to the map.







As seen in William R. Shepherd’s 1923 Historical Atlas, Sinuessa sits almost directly west of Capua along the Via Appia (red line leading to Rome). Sailing in a straight line, which is quite impossible without a compass, from Sinuessa to Messina, the northern and eastern most Roman city in Sicily, is a journey of approximately 350km. Getting from Sinuessa to Messina while keeping close Italy’s coast, which is the only way to sail in the Classical era, is a trip of roughly 450km.

Let us assume that Spartacus’ ship caught a good wind both ways, the boat does not appear to have oars befitting a bireme or trireme of the era, and maintained a steady seven knots, or 13 kilometers per hour. Even a perfectly straight course from Sinuessa to Messina, which they couldn’t do anyway, would take twenty-six hours. Under the best possible and most improbably circumstances, that’s two days of travel time and at least a half day to pillage.

Time compression for TV is all well and good, but asking the audience to believe that Spartacus disappeared without notice for three days is a bit much. By rights, this sea voyage should have encapsulated its own episode. Doing so would have allowed for a visible moment of treachery from the pirates. Now’s the pirate’s betrayal is just a convenience rather than the back breaking moment we saw in Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus.

The tedium of tactics

Spartacus’ plan to move on Crassus appears as nothing more than a random assortment of words and checkers moving about an otherwise meaningless map. Granted the scene is supposed to convey Spartacus as a tactician akin to Crassus himself, but the vapid strategy session proved pointless with the arrival of Legionaries aboard the pirate ship and the Roman assault on the gate.

In the aftermath of all this chaos, a few questions of continuity emerge.

Wasn’t Crixus supposed to be off leading the fight outside of the city? How did he end up at the port just in time to save the day? What’s this ridge people keep talking about? I thought Sinuessa was a walled city, which should effectively trap the slave army in one place. Spartacus has seen characters catch their foes out of position before, but rarely has the series ever left me outright dumbfounded as to how something happened. The best laid plans of Thracians went to hell without any real explanation.

We could chalk this uncertainty up to the realities of war. Spartacus is a fighter playing at general; whereas Crassus is a general commanding a professional army in field manoeuvres. Perhaps the audience’s confusion is intentional as a means of demonstrating the chaos of war. I know, it’s a stretch, and I don’t really buy that myself. More likely the pacing is an attempt to shoehorn a fortnight’s intrigues into a single episode as a means of transitioning us from the first act to the second.

Then things get uncomfortable

I knew things were going to get weird when Kore tells Crassus that she will approach Tiberius and attempt to mend fences between father and son. I mean how could they not? What I did not expect was whiny little Tiberius’ testicles to descend in such a profound way. And I have to give credit to Jenna Lind and Christian Antidromi, they handled the scene remarkably well. Its positioning after the episode’s tender lovemaking between Crassus and Kore made Tiberius’s assault all the more chilling a thing to witness.

I know some of my colleagues in criticism question if rape scenes should be depicted in any form of fiction. Despite the awful reality of sexual assault, I think this fictionalized depiction was well handled. First and foremost, it didn’t marginalize the crime or sensationalize the act. More importantly, the rape was done with narrative purpose. After questioning who is worse, Romans or Rebels, over the last few weeks, Tiberius’ actions are a visceral reminder of what slavery actually represents within the Republic. Kore who is Crassus’ collarless equal in the boudoir is nothing but a thing to Tiberius, a means of settling accounts with his father. This may not justify Spartacus’ ongoing bloodshed, but it at least reminds the audience how some Romans treat their slaves.

Missed Opportunities

The arrival of an envoy from Rome was a chance to focus on the political wranglings of the Republic. Granted we learnt that Pompey, who history records as stealing Crassus’ glory in the aftermath of Spartacus’ defeat, is on his way from Spain. This revelation, however, need not have come directly from Rome. Furthermore, why bother bringing the political fallout of Crassus decimation into play only to ignore it for the rest of the episode? Even if it promises future intrigues for the back nine of the season, the gesture was all but lost amid the rest of the episode’s frantic pace.

Similarly the quarrel between Agron and Nassir is getting tired. Point in fact, Agron’s being written as a petulant child. He has the wisdom to side with Spartacus against Crixus, for all the temporary symbolism the gesture was worth, but when Nassir says, “Seriously, nothing happened,” Agron acts like an idiot. The worst part is I can see where this bickering is going; Nassir is going to die. There will be more tension and drama, then a deathbed reaffirmation of mutual love. How do I know this? Because it’s exactly what happened last year with Mira and Spartacus.

The Bottom Line

When the slaves destroyed Capua’s arena at the midpoint of Vengeance the writers gave Spartacus, as a series, a 9/11 moment. If hemming Spartacus in by land and sea is a similar attempt at raising the stakes, it fell flat. The abundance of exposition and info dumping amounted to absolutely nothing by the end of the episode. For all the plans of Crassus and Spartacus, the end game proved overly simplistic. It’s a noticeable deviation from the elegant game of cat and mouse the two have been playing for the last five weeks.

Moreover, I fear that the series remaining episodes are going to be hamstrung by a similar linear direction. Spartacus isn’t simply besieged, he is about to be breached. His only salvation rests in a Deus ex Machina, which can do nothing but prolong the inevitable tragedy. It is going to take writing forged with equal measures of cleverness and poignancy to make these last five episodes something other than a depressing exercise killing off primaries in a build up to the “I’m Spartacus” moment.


TV Review: Spartacus War of the Damned Episode 4 – Decimation

Crassus attempts to save face in the aftermath of his son’s defeat at Sinuessa’s gates. Within the city, the powder keg that is the slave army explodes.

Spoilers Ahead

Episode Overview

Where the previous episode illustrated the growing cracks in the slave army, this week’s offering yields an outright schism. The revelation that Laeta (Anna Hutchinson) has been hiding Romans in the stables of Sinussea’s former Aedile spurs a confrontation between Gannicus and Naveia. From this spark, and continued food shortages, Crixus leads the rebels on a campaign of extermination within the city’s walls. Meanwhile Crassus teaches Tiberius a lesson in manhood as he orders his son to participate in the decimation of the fifty men who survived his failed attack on Spartacus.


A month ago Spartacus’ audience witnessed what many perceived to be a kinky mix of fellatio and blood play at the crotch of Julius Caesar. The reality of that act was a considerably less sexy ploy crafted by none other than Crassus. The Imperator ordered Caesar’s leg scarred which, along with his feral haircut and beard, allowed him to pass as a slave who had cut away the mark of his owner.

A Nelson Muntz’ trademarked “Ha ha!” echoed through my head as visions of writers taking victory laps around their room filled my mind’s eye. Honestly, good on the writers. Dare I say this is an artful manipulation of audience expectations. After three seasons of Spartacus, vampire blowjobs hardly seem out of the ordinary for a rough and tumble Julius Caesar as played by Todd Lasance. Instead Crassus’ subtle intrigue reinforces the idea that he is a foe unlike any Spartacus has ever known. The sharp writing also stands as another example of the series’ ongoing discussion on body politics. It is pretty standard fare to witness a dominus/domina exploiting a slave; it’s another matter to contemplate a Roman noble ordering another to disfigure himself as a battle stratagem.

And then there’s Saxa

Ellen Hollman as the German warrior Saxa

Since joining the cast in the third season, I’ve had little and less to say about Ellen Hollman’s portrayal of the Germanic warrior woman Saxa. During much of her screen time she’s either fighting, fucking, or firing off a one liner. The results are consistently shallow even when she is paired with Gannicus. However, a new thought occurred to me this week. Saxa is the Roman answer to Conan the Barbarian.

When the slave army’s officers are screening the entry of refugee slaves into Sinuessa, Saxa does a little hands-on investigation with a Roman slave girl. Because why not toss in some random girl-on-girl action, it’s cable, right?

Shortly afterwards the camera cuts to Nemetes (Ditch Davey) swindling an incoming slave out of his coin. How interesting. The male character is pilfering trinkets while the female is falling into the sexually exploitative and traditionally male role. Of course the exchange between Saxa and the slave was hardly forced. Rather it was the series’ usual mix of sultry and trashy. It’s moments like this that continue to make me object to the writers’ treatment of Naevia as a character. Saxa occupies a male space, fights and lusts like any other man, and, like Conan, seemingly all women swoon before her. All of this comes from within the character, and some consistent if previously ignored acting from Hollman, rather than as a reaction to external degradation. While I would never suggest all characters need to be the same, I would argue that Saxa, for all her past shallowness, is actually a better constructed character than Naevia.

The Wolves in Sheep’s clothing

Much like Saxa, Julius Caesar has been something of a slow burn character. Being that he’s Caesar, we know he will go on to do great things, if not in this series then in his inevitable spin-off. But in the first three episodes we saw little more than an obnoxious frat boy. Posing as a slave has finally given Lascance a chance to give Caesar some depth. When he must rape and torture Fabia, a captive Roman, to prove his loyalty to the rebellion, Caesar drops his slave facade and appears as a comforting figure. In that moment he’s not just some wild dog, but a man fighting for a cause. After mercy killing Fabia, Caesar makes a public show of her corpse and in doing so fans the flames of dissent which already exist within the camp.

With Caesar and Nemetes calling for Roman blood, Crixus dons the “kill all the Romans” mantle of leadership. But what’s bad for the rebellion is great for the audience. Manu Bennett and the late Andy Whitfield were at their best when their characters were at the other’s throat. Last season saw Crixus as Spartacus’ staunch ally, yet the transformation turned the Gallic champion into a brooding man-child. Now Bennett is crossing steel with McIntyre’s Spartacus, and the conflict is teeming with potential developments.

There are no good options, only the necessary ones.

Between the wholesale slaughter of Roman captives and the unrepentantly brutal decimation sequence, this episode further clouds the line between hero and villain. What really muddies the waters is the recognition that both parties are justified in their actions. Crixus’ frenzy is as much informed by the very real need to conserve dwindling food stores as it is revenge. Meanwhile Crassus must take decisive action to ensure the main force of his men fear their general more than they do Spartacus. Neither are good decisions per se, but they are necessary for survival. With Spartacus’ idealism seemingly an endangered commodity, the audience is left to ponder which side’s vision of freedom is best.


Where did all this tension between Agron and Nassir come from? Everything was fine in the first half of the episode. Then Nassir walks into a room accompanied by a Silesian and apparent implications of infidelity? I suspect something got lost on the cutting room floor.

In other WTF news, how is exiling the decimation’s survivors to the legion’s follower camp a punishment? I mean I know how it is supposed to be punishment, but sending a bunch of soldiers to live with slaves and prostitutes seems a bit more like a vacation than a shaming.

The Bottom Line

What I initially thought to be a slow episode rapidly built up speed in its second half. While there were no glorious battles, intercutting the decimation in Crassus’ camp with the slaughter in Sinussea demonstrates just how far both sides have fallen in their quest to be righteous. Even if the writers chose to ignore history, it is hard to see how Spartacus could truly be victorious in the aftermath of so much bloodshed. As for Crassus, this week proved his is the smartest character this series has ever seen. 


TV Review-Recap: Spartacus War of the Damned Episode 3 – Men of Honor

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.


TV Review-Recap: Spartacus War of the Damned Episode 2 – Wolves at the Gate

War of the Damned takes a few more steps in the deep footprints of HBO’s Rome. Meanwhile, Liam McIntyre casts aside all doubts about his ability to make Spartacus his own character.

Spoilers ahead.

Episode Overview

Crassus continues to build his grand army, enlisting the help of an unshaven and heavily indebted Roman noble by the name of Gaius Julius Caesar. Meanwhile, Spartacus and Gannicus conduct a reconnaissance mission within the seaside city of Sinuessa. Therein, Spartacus must come to terms with the absolute human cost of the war he is visiting upon the Republic.

Ave, Caesar!

Todd Lasance as Gaius Julius Caesar

If Brad Pitt has a younger non-union counterpart, surely it must be Todd Lasance as Spartacus’ long haired and unshaven depiction of Gaius J. Caesar. And why not? Caesar’s early life is pock marked with time spent in exile, the loss of fortune under Sulla’s dictatorship, and pirate hunting in the Aegean sea. Caesar was only elected Questor, the lowest Roman political office, in 69 BC, so it’s perfectly reasonable for the series to cast him as a roughian looking to match fortune to family name in 72 BC. Ambitious and impetuous, Lasance’s Caesar plays a strong foil for the calculating, and almost respectable, Crassus. He’s also being written as potential deviant in a scene which pairs kinky blood play with (possible) fellatio. All the while Caesar’s notorious ambition, both political and sexual, resonates with John Hannah’s deceased Batiatus. Strange as it may sound, I think I missed hearing a British accent invoke “Jupiter’s cock” on a weekly basis.

Family Issues

In the past, Spartacus has dipped its toe in the complex structure of Roman familial politics. Seeing young Tiberius Crassus (Christian Antidormi) pine for his father’s approval, thus demonstrating the Pater Familias as a dominus in the most robust sense of the word, revisits this theme in a way not seen since the intrigues of Quintus and Titus Batiatus.

Similarly, it would be easy to dismiss Crassus’ desire to ditch his wife for favoured slave girl, Kore (Jenna Lind), as another example of Roman excess. Yet before we condemn Crassus as a lothario, and the writers as panderers, we would do well to remember the foundation of his relationship with Caesar. Crassus has wealth beyond reckoning, but lacks the family name to secure political office. In Rome, your name is your life, an idea well defined in the series’ first season. Therefore it is probably safe to assume Crassus’ marriage was arranged out of political convenience rather than any genuine affection. So when Crassus asks Kore, as a man rather than as dominus, what she would desire, he does so out of love. Once again we see the writers drawing a line between Crassus and Spartacus, whose whole rebellion against Rome was to avenge his wife’s death at the hands of Glaber and Batiatus.

Heavy is the Head

Spartacus goes Roman, and with a glance questions the righteousness of his cause.

It may seem odd dwelling on Liam McIntyre’s acting as he is twelve episodes into his stint as Spartacus, yet it’s hard not to comment given the strength of this week’s performance. Sure, a blind person could see the foreshadowing when Spartacus comes across a cherub faced child and her mother in the streets of Sinuessa.

“Keep close to your mother,” says Spartacus, posing as a grain merchant when he’s in fact determining the best way to sack the city.

It’s the silent remorse on McIntyre’s face that  succeeds in selling the scene. As Romans, the mother and daughter are just as culpable for the institution of slavery as all those who gathered in the forum to participate in stoning a slave. But as people, Spartacus knows them to be innocent. They’ve done nothing to merit the violence about to befall their city. And in that moment, in a single look from Liam McIntyre, we see a world of doubt in the eyes of Spartacus. Of course, he’ll stay the course, but to my knowledge this is the first time Spartacus has ever had to look at the cost of his rebellion in terms of innocent blood spilled.

The plot thread is heart breaking stuff from the writers, delivered with first rate nuance from Mr. McIntyre. It also raises some doubt on the episode’s fundamental question: are the wolves Crassus and the Romans, about to march on Spartacus, or the slave army itself, bringing death and destruction in the name of freedom?

Let He Who Is Without Sin…Nevermind.

Early in the episode, Spartacus, Gannicus, and Crixus come across a slave being stoned in Sinuessa’s public square. Though I’m conceptually aware of how people might conduct themselves amid a stoning, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more horrifying vision of it brought to life. The make-up and post-production team must have worked overtime on this scene. The combination of toned down, but none the less gruesome, splatter effects and perfectly timed switches between wide and tight shots sell the sequence as a truly horrifying demonstration of slavery as an institution. Moreover, it puts blood on Spartacus’ hands as he tosses the stone which prematurely ends what would have otherwise been a drawn out spectacle. Again, the episode effectively foreshadows the fact that Spartacus won’t get out of Sinuessa without dirtying his hands.

Notable absentees

I wonder if Cynthia Addai-Robinson ever asked, "Did you have to have my character viciously gang raped to make her more interesting?"

Other than serving as human props and fighting bodies amid the sacking of Sinuessa, Agron and Nassir are notably absent within this episode. In fact, second for second, I think they received less screen time than Naevia, who at least got to beat up the horse butcher from last week as the intro to this episode. But where I noticeably miss the screen presence of Pana Hema-Taylor and Dan Feuerriegel, I’m keen to see Cynthia Addai-Robinson’s Naevia get put to the sword.

Where Liam McIntyre has made Spartacus his own character, Addai-Robinson can make no such claim. Her berserker Amazon charm holds little appeal, less so when compared to the Artemis inspired fusion of power and tactical sense that was Katrina Law’s Mira. Yes, yes, I know Naevia is meant to be a story of female empowerment in the face of abuse and degradation. None of that changes the fact that her only real function was to motivate Crixus to rebellion. Say nothing for the fact that nobody had to gang rape Mira to make her a strong character in her own right.

The Verdict

Spartacus will never be HBO’s Rome, as much as I want it to be at times. However, Wolves at the Gate is the sort of episode that makes me appreciate just how much this show has evolved over the last three years. Try as I might, I can’t think of another series which began as a picayune exercise in titillation only to grow into genuine historical(ish) drama. While this week still sees some obligatory slave girl nudity, the episode eschews any of the series’ hallmark soft-core porn. Instead, the focus is on intrigue and characterization culminating in an impressive battle sequence.

Momentum = maintained. Well done, Spartacus.