“Sacramentum Gladiatorum” picks up where Spartacus’ pilot leaves off, functioning far more as a part two to “The Red Serpent” than a discrete second installment of the series. Whereas the pilot is expansive, spanning the Empire, “Sacramentum Gladiatorum” immediately narrows the series’ scope, focusing exclusively on the ludus of Quintus Lentulus Batiatus and the men and women within. This is where Spartacus will spend much of his time and the episode goes out of its way to establish its significance. Several of the gladiators make an impression, particularly Manu Bennett’s Crixus, Peter Mensah’s Doctore, Jai Courtney’s Varro, and Nick E. Tarabya’s Ashur. Bennett struggles with his vocal performance, which is overly broad, but excels in his physicality. Crixus’ first scene is one example of many of Spartacus using explicit content to explore character, but the notes of confidence and even exhibitionist bravado demonstrated by him in this sequence may be overshadowed by the shock of actually seeing a naked man on American television. As for the others, Doctore, Varro, and Ashur each fill a specific, familiar role in the narrative, but given the series’ heightened approach to storytelling and the strong presence of the actors, this feels comforting rather than tiresome.
Lead Andy Whitfield handles Spartacus’ action ably, but more importantly he balances the character’s strength with his despair, anger, and helplessness; his impassioned pleas on his wife’s behalf are truly moving, as is his reaction to her strip of cloth. Spartacus’ desperation seeps throughout the episode, but so does Batiatus and his wife Lucretia’s. It’s remarkable how quickly the writers and actors manage to make the couple relatable and even likeable. John Hannah and Lucy Lawless are incredibly charismatic in their roles and work very well together, but it’s the nuance to the characters’ backstories as well as the performances that lures viewers in. Batiatus is presented as an underdog, a third generation lanista unsure of himself and struggling to make ends meet. Lucretia is childless, clearly not by choice, in a culture that prizes lineage and family honor. They are of their time, and yet Lucretia is an advocate for female empowerment and when Batiatus discovers the fate of Sura, Spartacus’ wife, he offers his help. They’re easy characters to root for and that is an accomplishment, because not only do they run a ludus and own slaves, in their first scene together, they force two of their slaves to perform sex acts on them.
It’s easy to look at Spartacus: Blood and Sand (season one) and see its depictions of sex as utterly gratuitous, but while this episode’s opening scene—Spartacus’ fantasy of his wife—certainly goes on longer than it needs to, it acts as a direct counterpoint to the aforementioned troubling scene of Batiatus, Lucretia, and their slaves. Both sequences are grounded in character: Spartacus and Sura are desperate to be reunited and ask for nothing more, while Batiatus and Lucretia use others at a whim and don’t even see the deadened eyes of their victims as they abuse them. They’re monsters, but charming ones, representative of the civilized exterior and rotten core of the Roman Empire. To its credit, Spartacus presents this parallel but doesn’t underline it, challenging viewers to see what the characters themselves do not.
Despite its promising elements, “Sacramentum Gladiatorum” is still a second episode and unsurprisingly, it has some kinks to work out. The painterly approach to the visuals makes the lackluster pan over the roof of the ludus stand out like a sore thumb and as is often the case in the early run of a series, there is far too much unnecessary recapping for the audience’s benefit. A bigger misstep is the late episode shot of Lucretia’s at this point unnamed slave (Naevia, played by Lesley-Ann Brandt) smirking in apparent agreement at Lucretia’s, “A fact known well to every woman.” This is the episode’s only reaction shot of a slave who isn’t a gladiator and the sudden shift in perspective is jarring. To this point, these characters have been relegated to the background and not allowed personhood. Having the only glimpse of the personality of one of these slaves be a confirmation of her sexually abusive owner’s joke about men is disappointing, to say the least.
On the whole, however, “Sacramentum Gladiatorum” is an entertaining and engaging follow-up to “The Red Serpent” and does a good job of setting up the interpersonal dynamics of the ludus while completing Spartacus’ transition from free Thracian to dedicated gladiator.
Syfy Slice-And-Dice: Fans of Spartacus will note that the versions airing on Syfy have been tweaked from the originals (because there’s no way they could air on basic cable otherwise). In this episode, the main changes deal with nudity, language, and runtime. The opening sex scene covers Sura’s breasts with a CGI lens flare, holds on Spartacus’ side of things rather than cutting back and forth, and reframes the final shot of the scene to be a close-up of Sura’s face. It’s also a few seconds shorter. Lucretia’s moments in her sex scene with Batiatus are reframed as well, to focus on her upper body, and Crixus’ first scene holds on Spartacus’ face, with Crixus behind him, rather than the original’s long shots. In the one moment where Crixus’ lower half could not be avoided, a CGI loincloth has been added.
As for the language, there are a few dubbings that are mostly handled well, all things considered, and several standard cable-unfriendly exchanges have been cut altogether: There are no C-bombs on Syfy. The most significant changes are the scenes cut for time. Several Varro moments are out, particularly his hopefulness that all of the recruits might survive the test, one of Doctore’s conversations with Batiatus is shortened, part of Glaber’s scene with Spartacus is gone, and the entirety of Lucretia’s moonlit reassurance of Batiatus is cut. The flashback to Spartacus’ fight in the arena is also substantially shortened, and not for violence.
- There are several moments of effective and memorable music, but my favorite is the contrast of the rock scoring of the end of the first Spartacus and Crixus fight with the epic, classical choral of the training montage not long afterward. Composer Joe LoDuca’s willingness to take advantage of both ends of the musicological spectrum is exciting.
- The line of the episode has to be Lucretia’s fantastic, “Proper is a word forged by men who would seek to enslave us with it.” Not only is it a fun line, but it might as well be the motto for the show, which has a similar approach to the rules of what quality television can and can’t be.
- Several genre series have gladiatorial episodes (Star Trek’s “Arena,” Angel’s “The Ring”). These inevitably come down to the hero being forced to kill someone who has done them no wrong, refusing to do so because they are so very noble, and then managing to find a way out of the situation at the very end. Spartacus throws the notion that our lead has any chance of not killing (comparative) innocents out the window with the deadly fallout of Spartacus’ attempt on Crixus. It’s only episode two and there is already collateral damage.