Spartacus is a great show that doesn’t start off well. All the pieces were there, but the coherent dramatic plotting the show did at its best was nowhere near them.
To the extent that the first three episodes conveyed a message, it was that our sympathetic near-widower nameless friend survived, perhaps through divine prophecy, an impossible death sentence, only to be condemned to a far worse fate in life. With a fake mythic name assigned to him along with his slave brand, Spartacus has only one path of action – gladiatorial glory.
It was not, however, as he learned the hard way, a path through which he could sprint. Thus begins the second act of the season, where the story’s brilliance shows its first signs of life. From here on out, we have structured episodes. They center around one or two very simple issues or conflicts in which characters become so absorbed to the point that either they change in some small way or experience a consequence that will magnify and exacerbate their difficulties.
I do not claim that Spartacus is anything revolutionary. Rather, it is simply and strangely the best overall version of itself as a story about passion. It is a textbook dramatic construction stemmed from a fundamentally sensational elevator pitch, and the greatest ever example of how to mine genuine emotion and thematic sophistication – the kind that many falsely believe only exists in award-bait, high-art drama – from the lowest and poorest source.
It begins with The Thing in the Pit.
Our hero is at his lowest point yet – even worse off than when he woke for the first time in Batiatus’s ludus. We know this because it is explained to us rather verbosely in the first scene. Only one path remains – a place of violence, disfigurement, and death somehow orders of magnitude worse than the arena ever could be.
Thus far in the series, Batiatus has tried convincing Spartacus that although the titles of master and slave separate them, their fates are bound together. Spartacus will not get his wife back if the House of Batiatus can’t sustain itself. And the House is desperate. Much to Lucretia’s palpable chagrin, that means that Quintus himself must brave the danger and go into the pits with him.
This is the only episode in the season (and one of only two in the whole show) to feature the pits. And what an atmosphere it is. The crowd is a mosh. The host is insane. The weapons are… I don’t even know. In the first fight we see, a guy face is torn off – as sure a sign as anything else that no one really wins down here.
Indeed, every time Spartacus walks out a survivor, he’s rather noticeably lost a piece of himself to it. His victories in the pits aren’t even all that fun to watch. They’re so brutal, gross, and painful, you just want him out of there. But The Thing in the Pit doesn’t stop at your basic understanding of this. The episode is a soul search, mining for the first time the depth of our hero’s longing for Sura. He can’t take her cloth to the pits with him. And the more each fight punishes him, the further he feels from her reach even as he “wins.”
It is here, midway through the episode, that we catch a glimpse of something that will become one of Blood and Sand’s most important themes. When Spartacus is in a senseless, near-vegetative state like this, or when he is confused and alone, Sura comes to him. Her influence saved his life in the arena once already. The vision he sees of her drowning in rains of blood is clear, but with sanity slipping so rapidly from his mind, can he understand it? The episode is ambiguous on this, but what is clear is that the thing in the pit is Spartacus himself.
All of this would come across as far too meditative for anyone’s good taste if it weren’t for the intimacy gained from this claustrophobic setting, and Andy Whitfield’s most intense performance in the first half of the season. His physicality is his greatest asset here, and all Director Jesse Warn’s camera need do is keep just a little bit of distance from his face until it’s time to connect with Sura. Whitfield doesn’t force his character’s vulnerability. He simply plays up Spartacus himself trying to make sense of it.
The final plan he and Batiatus engineer is, therefore, the perfect plan to go horribly wrong by the intrusion an interloper.
With the ending mostly restoring the status quo from two episodes prior, The Thing in the Pit will undoubtedly seem a little disposable. But to me it feels less like fat and more like an “all is lost” moment coming sooner than you’d expect with character insights that affect the entire show. It does as much, if not more, to show (instead of tell) us the extent to which Spartacus’s soul and heart belong to Sura, and what kind of mindless beast he could become without her. It takes us into maybe the closest thing in that time period to the Heart of Darkness, and lets us see its victim as something that could very well belong there if it wasn’t for the things that keep him human.
In Shadow Games, we get the first big payoff.
In so many ways Shadow Games is the episode that Legends should’ve been, where the reach of our hero is tested against the backdrop of tall tales of the arena, where that which was hilariously unbelievable reveals as scarily true, and where everyone buys too deeply into their favorite narratives.
Except one: Doctore.
My favorite scenes in this episode aren’t in the final fight (which is good), but in the ludus where Peter Mensah commands your attention. “You attack as you would a man. Theokoles is beyond flesh, beyond blood and bone!” Mensah is sensational, putting Spartacus and Crixus through the gauntlet before soberly imparting the truly important lesson that this colossus they’re about to face cannot be impressed – only outmatched through teamwork.
That’s a tall order for two guys who hate each other, and another thing Shadow Games does right is dramatically parse out those differences. It wasn’t just an irksome personality clash in the beginning or some petty regional rivalry of Gaul vs. Thrace. Crixus hates the very idea of Spartacus as he is right now. An outsider who doesn’t truly accept being a gladiator, who thinks he can just use it as a means of escape like it’s that easy – of course this would offend the sensibilities of the House of Batiatus’s greatest and most loyal champion who accepts his master and fights to honor him.
But of course, Crixus now has a reason to doubt his own story. That reason is Naevia – Lucretia’s head body slave, whose virginity has been preserved like an apple from Eden. Crixus has been smitten with her since Legends, with his almost comical failure to get to her being due to both his terrible conversation game and his duty to fuck the Domina.
Shadow Games accelerates that love triangle through another pair of great scenes before the fight. First is the exposé after establishing a friendship between Lucretia and Ilithyia (Viva Bianca) that will be one of the show’s most important and fascinating relationships. Ilithyia taunts Spartacus but fawns over Crixus to the point of making both Lucretia and Naevia visibly envious. Then it’s when Batiatus has gone to murder Ovidius and maybe his family, but Lucretia, on the only night she may ever get to make a child, can’t use Crixus either because “love makes a man weak before battle.”
But what a battle it is, with enough gape-wounding and flesh slicing to… quench your thirst for it, so to speak. It’s exactly the kind of epic arena fight that would make a champion out of someone, given the circumstances. A shadow roars, a champion nearly dies, then a simple moment of teamwork brings the shadow down. A dehydrated city bathes in rain, and a legend is born.
Between The Thing in the Pit and Shadow Games, Spartacus: Blood and Sand has rather efficiently developed an Act II – establishing small conflicts that will grow and manifest into the entire season’s larger conflicts, making the best of its aesthetic and even giving Batiatus and Lucretia a dramatic struggle of their own to invest in. We’ve connected with both as human beings, not just as slave masters, and now Spartacus has become a bigger household name and city commodity than they may be prepared for.
But don’t get too excited. Act III brings forth the early surprises, the twist reveals, the sudden and shocking moments that flip the story on its head and make you reconsider what you’ve really been watching this whole time. And while I wish Delicate Things was a better overall episode, it pulls this off perfectly.
Delicate Things is one of those entries that fades into obscurity in all but the two major developments it resolves. Crixus spends the whole episode in agony clinging to life and Lucretia spends it fretting over everything. Varro spends it almost in limbo, used as the rational sounding board against the terrible plan Spartacus concocts to free his wife. But just a little commitment by the episode does the necessary work to get us buying just enough of it to be devastated when the gut punch line lands on us.
This is a show about passion, and with Spartacus having bought into his own myth and drank his own kool aid yet again, Sura takes another shape in his mind. Only this time it isn’t as another prophecy, but his elation imagining her at her best, as the feisty, guard-killing partner in crime and horse-riding warrior women he rescued back in the pilot. You know he can’t afford to try something like this, but in Spartacus thus far we’ve seen just enough absurd things to think… “maybe. Just maybe.”
Speaking of taking chances, I’ve been putting off talking about Barca and Pietros because… well it’s not easy to talk about. A genuine, affectionate homosexual couple on screen like that but as mere side characters who haven’t come to directly implicate the main plot until now – this is just kind of something the show does and makes you deal with because of the historical reality. So many shows want to shoehorn some kind of normalcy point from relationships like this, but how ingenious instead to have gotten it used as the basis for yet another tragedy, and character manipulation, even though it’s kind of hard to figure out until the end. Barca murdered a child at his master’s bidding but his compassion compelled him to lie about that to his lover. The lover is made to reveal this, believing it’s what the “nice” master wants to hear, and what follows from there is blood and tragedy. You knew Ashur was a snake, but did you know he was that good of one?
Delicate Things removes the lampshades from those in power one by one, starting with Ashur. If you were ever rooting for him or hoping that he’d secretly turn into an ally of Spartacus given the way other gladiators treat him, no dice. As it turns out, he’s earned every ounce of the abuse they’ve been giving him seemingly for years.
As has Batiatus. With a tenacity that surprises even his wife, the end turn not only kills Sura but reveals to us that this was Batiatus plan the whole time. That while Spartacus was conjuring up crazy key-sneaking prison breaks and hostage thrillers with the fancy vivid specter of his wife, and as the episode slowly turned the pieces to his side one by one, the real con artist and cruel trickster is Batiatus himself. He was never the humble underdog slave owner we willed ourselves to believing or a guy worth trusting life and limb for. He is a man who will kill a slave and bodyguard in a river of blood upon a simple misunderstanding while the poor, innocent lover celebrates haplessly with the jubilee of imminent freedom that will never come.
The final scene with Spartacus holding a dying Sura is wrenching. All dreams, all hopes, all visions of achievement with her lying limp, helpless, and bleeding out in his arms.
“My word is kept. They’re reunited.”
And so we come to the mid-season finale. As an episode Great and Unfortunate Things could be better. It feels like it’s trying hard to recreate the organic magic of Shadow Games while wrapping up potential plot holes and possible logic issues. The actual arena battle at the end is one of the best moments of spectacle maybe in the whole season, but maybe could’ve used a bit more context. It gets by on some minimalism.
For example, the opening contrast flashing back to the first time Spartacus and Sura laid together with her present day funeral make her words a neat foreboding. Maybe the show will give him a girl or two to be interested in, but he will never love again. But the premise of the arena battle itself offends him because he would be pretending to slaughter his own Tracians? Where did that come from? Was this something he would always have taken issue with and said no to before Sura was killed? Or with Sura dead, is he now feeling more protective of his true past than ever before? It’s one thing to leave things to the imagination, such as the issue of Spartacus using the gods to help him fight. But this feels like the kind of central character question that isn’t as fleshed out as it should be.
We can maybe chalk it up to growing pains. After all, Great and Unfortunate Things takes a big leap forward with a massive character decision – Spartacus permanently, at least until something changes, embracing the gladiator life the way he never had before, and reconciling it with his faith in Sura’s gods, his final connection to her. And the battle stages it perfectly, with a Super Bowl LI type of progression and his final victim turning into a specter of his former self that once survived that very execution ceremony.
Spartacus is now on the other side of the sword that should’ve killed him in the pilot. Thematically, it’s exactly the place to go at this point in time, but mechanically, I can’t really blame you if by the end you aren’t fully there.
So I will instead talk about my other favorite moment – after Spartacus catapults Gnaeus off the cliff for raping Pietros while the boy was down – when he’s in the Medicus and given a moment to reconcile with Crixus. Crixus is all ready to get defensive about the details of their fight with the Shadow, but the moment Spartacus casually slips that Gnaeus is dead, Crixus turns a degree of dead-serious outraged that we’ve simply never seen from his character. In a show where John Hannah’s theatricality and legendary cursing makes Batiatus the most easily memorable presence, this little performance by Manu Bennett sticks with me. We always knew that Crixus took his gladiator lifestyle seriously, but you’d have been forgiven for thinking that that meant by necessity that he couldn’t care for any of the other men for fear of potentially having to kill them. On the contrary, to Crixus that only makes the bonds of brotherhood stronger.
If Spartacus is to truly be the ultimate gladiator, with the mighty fake Roman name bellowing to the crowd as they cheer it in return, he’ll need to remember that.
The Thing in the Pit: 8/10
Shadow Games: 8/10
Delicate Things: 7.5/10
Great and Unfortunate Things: 7.5/10