“Spartacus: Blood and Sand” (2010) (Episodes 8-10): Ilithyia in the House (TV Review)
For recaps of Episodes 1-3, click here.
For recaps of Episodes 4-7, click here.
The second half of Spartacus: Blood and Sand is better than the first.
It’s more confident, tighter, and it plays a lot of cards you wouldn’t have thought a show like this was capable of. It directs your expectations, then defies them beautifully, and when the payoffs hit, they are as thrilling as catharsis in television could ever be. The first half rarely deviated from the orbit of the arena of Capua. So it’s here, in episodes 8-10 that the show takes bit of a break from that noisy place and shifts its center of gravity to the corridors, chambers, fountains, and sacred grounds of the House of Batiatus itself. This is where Acts 4-5 happen, but also where the structure of my own column for this show kind of fails me.
My intention for this column was always to do the following: Blood and Sand reviewed in five articles, Gods of the Arena reviewed in one, Vengeance reviewed in four, and War of the Damned reviewed in another four. It may ultimately end up having the same number of words as a volume of individual recaps, but it feels more efficient to do it this way because it means that I can talk structure, mechanics, thematic spillover, etc.
Why do I bring this up here? From here on out, many of these pieces will cover an act and a half. That is to say, the second or third episode recapped in these articles will often not be the end of its respective act in the story. And as I started thinking about this, I realized that this was very specifically where I had to address the actual definition of “an act” in the story as I use the term.
An act is like a standalone chapter in a story that performs a propulsive function. Getting characters from A to B or C to D efficiently through their experiences, conflicts, or relationships with something that contributes to the greater essence or meaning of the story as a whole. They begin usually with a consequence of what or where he is, and end with a character making a fated choice from which he will not turn back or where the central perception of an event or mini-story ceases. Most good stories have not three acts but five or more.
“Okay, so why isn’t every episode an act?” You can argue that it is, but the breakdown is even smaller than that. Every episode usually has something like five acts: Establishment, escalation, problem, fallout/epiphany, conclusion. In order to make sense of what makes some stories so dramatically effective, it helps to do two things with structure. We must both heavily compartmentalize events, moments, and emotions, and we must layer them together holistically to better understand the greater intent within them.
So while I can definitely say that Mark of the Brotherhood, Whore, and Party Favors are standalone, wholesome experiences that only each get better, together they are the “Ilithyia in the House” episodes. That’s important when we consider the greater overall character progression in the story.
We start Act 4 with Mark of the Brotherhood, where a montage of arena victories allow an unclear amount of time to pass for Spartacus to continue thrilling as champion, Batiatus to get rich enough to get openly petty, and Crixus to heal just enough to not remain confined to a bed. Batiatus expands his ludus with a fresh batch of new recruits, and now it’s Spartacus as the shining example of emulation. Squeezing the juice out of that irony, the episode even features Spartacus whacking Crixus around like a tennis ball and turning into exactly what Crixus used to be at his cruelest.
I get that the point is to generate sympathy for Crixus, given that this happens right as Batiatus is strongly considering selling the man, but to me it always felt a little cheap. For one, it would’ve been nice to get even a quick look into the personalities or motivations of Vibius, the lanista who was apparently supposed to buy him. For two, the discussion they had in the baths felt like dwelling needlessly. But to its credit, it does fix expectations well for the end twist where Crixus shows his courage by saving his hated brother in that very same place. It seems that even when believing that he was sold, the bonds of brotherhood with his fellow Batiatus gladiators grip him enough to want them to die gloriously, not from an ambush.
What spurred Segovax, the stupidly well endowed #1 fanboy of Spartacus to go all prison assassin on him? Ilithyia – possibly the show’s best sower of chaos and discord, even more-so than Ashur. It’s amazing how simple rich girl embarrassment can inflame such murderous jealousy. And to see it happen in one of the manliest shows ever is a real treat.
I’m less clear on the actual rules of her ownership of Segovax. Does the House of Batiatus not get credit if Segovax were to win in the arena? I thought the Brotherhood had more to do with their shared experience and confinement, not laws of ownership that slaves wouldn’t know the first thing about. Is he just not affiliated with any of them now? And if it’s just that easy for someone with disposable income to fork over some rent for the chance to tattoo an I on a gladiator’s arm instead of a B, why isn’t everyone trying their hand at it? Hell, when Spartacus was new to the ludus, finding a sucker on whom to pawn him might’ve been smart business for Batiatus.
Regardless, despite its minor delights, Mark of the Brotherhood is the weakest episode in the second half of Blood and Sand. So let’s get to the more exciting one – the one about sex.
Whore is the show’s first great episode. It’s great on every level. Great structure, great pacing, great highlights, great acting, and great… climax; a near-perfect synthesization of the essence of Spartacus as a television show, directed with seemingly effortless verve by a tight script and the cinematographic instincts of Director Michael Hurst (the show’s best slow motion user). It pays off what its predecessor promised, memorably introduces Katrina Law as Mira as a new regular for the show, and takes the relationship between Spartacus and Ilithyia to a whole new level of… heat.
The episode is so standalone, it could probably be your first entry into the entire show and you wouldn’t feel as though you’ve missed all that much. I know I’m making innuendo after innuendo here, but its needs as a story really feel as though they’re met and never neglected. Other television shows have entire seasons run by before reaching the sexual and dramatic thrills in Whore; and we’re only on 9/13.
Let’s take that five-act structure I brought up before. Establishment: Licinia wants to sleep with Spartacus, and Varro is preoccupied with thoughts of making things right with his wife. Escalation: Lucretia sends Mira to give Spartacus practice, whom Spartacus refuses, and Spartacus helps Varro pay Ashur to seek out his wife. Problem: Ilithyia demands an evening with Crixus (who is both longing for Naevia and hungry for a return to the sands) as the price for her silence, and Ashur returns with news of a break-in and bloodshed in Varro’s home. Spiral: Spartacus helps Varro again by sending Mira, Crixus observes Naevia flirting with a guard, and Lucretia prepares Spartacus for the evening. Resolution: one of the hottest sex scenes in television history immediately followed by one of the bloodiest, most shocking kills in the show.
Whore is about as aware as an episode can be about the fact that the viewer has already anticipated Spartacus being paired with Ilithyia. The fact that they’re to remain anonymous and wordless; if that isn’t enough, we know Lucretia all too well by now to think that she would ever allow Crixus to be shared. That and, of course, if you’re like me, you noted the obvious difference in the chests of those two women, and came to the only possible conclusion. Thus, the surprise is not in the reveal, but in the fallout from it. And it makes perfect sense both in character and in structure. It’s a hell of a payoff.
The payoff comes from propulsion, allowing each scene, each moment, to soak in the show’s essence. By the time you’re finished watching the episode, you feel like you’ve just consumed the entire show in pure liquid form. By essence, I mean the feel and spirit of the story – the kind of mysterious and intangible quality that overwhelms you, puts you in a certain mood or state of mind, and defines your experience with it. By now you see that Spartacus has a ton of essence. It’s a show about passion, and in Whore, the passions of nearly every character are the most intense you’ve seen yet. Lucretia, Licinia, Ilithyia, Crixus, Varro, and Spartacus all grapple with their sexual instincts within the framework of this twisted institution of slavery. It serves nearly all of them their delights just before a critical moment of comeuppance. It is in Whore where you understand, maybe for the first time ever, how deeply the urges and fantasies of these people drive their actions and cause them to make mistakes that are hilarious and horrifying.
And then there’s Party Favors.
Okay, seriously. If you have reached this section and have not yet watched that episode, stop right here, right now, and go watch it.
This episode is a masterpiece. An easy Top 4 for the entire show. It’s so good at playing with your expectations that even the moment where I realized it was astonishing was not when I would have expected to.
That moment came not when the thumb went down, but before. It was when Varro was selected for the exhibition match against Spartacus. “That’s odd,” I thought, running the opening arena chain battle through my head to try and remember if Numerius had said anything about Varro being great (he didn’t – he called him “an inferior gladiator”). Then I saw the way Varro reacted to being chosen. That goofy smile on his face – the same smile Pietros had on his face four episodes ago when enjoying himself way too much at the same time that Barca was being slaughtered.
It was the moment of character bliss that matched and revealed my own in the course of watching this episode and examining where we were in this uncertain and creatively libertine moment in the story of the man himself. How could I not have seen this coming sooner? How could I forget that this is the great and unfortunate life of Spartacus, whom we knew already was living a false life, serving the master who murdered his wife?
The funny thing is, while Ashur is off peeping on Crixus and Naevia, this episode gives us a rather blunt reminder of what the exact terms of this life are for even a man like Spartacus. He defends Mira from the guard Hector, whose key Naevia had swiped last episode, and Batiatus, after having just sing his praises everywhere, berates him with the full force of his fury.
These are the moments Party Favors lives for as it revels in the complacency and calm of the House of Batiatus. Lucretia believes she has made Ilithyia her docile puppet due to the fiasco last episode. With that comes this – the start of Act 5 – full of small delights like Spartacus teaching Batiatus how to play checkers, Varro reuniting with Aurelia, and Duro proving his resilience against Crixus.
But its true genius lies in showing, in a far more dramatically effective way than in Mark of the Brotherhood, that Ilithyia is only more dangerous under these conditions. Actress Viva Bianca reportedly burst into tears upon finishing the script of this episode for the time, in utter disbelief and disgust at what the monster her character had become.
In Delicate Things, Spartacus lost the owner of his heart – the woman he risked surviving as a gladiator to get back. Here he loses the brother who made his life since Sura’s death worth living again.
Andy Whitfield is simply astonishing in the vulnerability he displays in that final sequence. To see him tear apart his room – the champion’s quarters where we had seen him dwell on his “accomplishments” as a gladiator, punch the concrete wall until his hands were practically pulp. Then Mira shows up and holds him, not with sex, but simply with a small gesture of friendship that he had denied her earlier.
It’s the kind of twist that makes you scream in agony for the character yet at the same time say “of course.” Of course it was always going to come to this, in some form or another. This dream, this false idyllic life was always going to shatter. And now, at long last, his true path shall present itself before him. It’s going to be awesome.
All thanks to some truly brilliant dramatic work with Ilithyia in the House.
Mark of the Brotherhood: 7/10
Party Favors: 10/10