I’m of two minds about this, the penultimate installment of Spartacus. As an act of tribute, it’s pretty much a flawless success. The entire hour is basically one long ode to those that have fallen over the course of the series, primarily Crixus. The “Undefeated Gaul” no longer stands as such, but Spartacus himself refuses to acknowledge the final battle that felled his brother. Instead, he restages and inverts the arena battles that kicked off the series and kicked off the central conflict within it. No longer are Romans heckling the slaves below gathered for their entertainment. Instead, Romans serve as the entertainment for those still longing to be free. All of this is well and good, and the climax, in which the names of the dead are offered up in tribute, is absolutely thrilling, emotional stuff.
But as an episode of television? I’m not sure this is Spartacus at its best. It’s good. There’s a lot to like. But it’s also in many ways a stalling technique to get us to the final hour in which all hell will break loose. If you look at exactly what happened of narrative importance tonight, the answer is one thing: the death of Tiberius, which gives closure to Kore, partial closure to Naevia/Spartacus, returns Caesar to an elevated position, and gives Crassus the last push he needs to drop all fucking games and just overwhelm Spartacus with brute force. That’s a lot of things for one event to affect, but breaking things down, that’s the sum total of the sturm und drang that was “The Dead And The Dying.”
A penultimate episode is a tricky thing, primarily existing to set up the proper conditions for the finale rather than have a lot of excitement unto itself. It may seem silly to say an episode that was nearly 50% battle scenes is lacking excitement, but aside from the Naevia/Tiberius battle, the games established by Spartacus to honor Crixus were lacking in personal animosity. The best battles in the show’s history have been full of emotional import. The Spartacus/Varro fight in season one took the show from “hey, this is pretty good” to “fuck, this show kinda owns me now, doesn’t it.”And that had nothing to do with the fight itself but rather the forces at work that created the conditions for that fight in the first place. Even last season’s “Monsters,” in which Spartacus paired people off in order to settle season-long grievances, had personal stakes intermingled with the blood and sand. But what we got tonight were people we knew fighting the idea of Rome, not people with whom they had personal grudges.
Now, the lack of personal engagement may have been the point, as Spartacus and company needed someone, ANYONE against whom to lash out. But the amount of time given to the impromptu games robbed the episode of much-needed scenes in which people could deal with grief not with sword but through consul. Those that were on display were so strong that I wished for more of those and less of Saxa stabbing people. I love me a good Saxa stabbing, trust me. But the Spartacus/Naevia scene could have gone on another ten minutes and I’m not sure I would have minded. Liam McIntyre has found a quiet reserve this season to augment his already fierce intensity, and it’s made all the difference in the world. It’s one thing to plant two swords on the ground for the express reason to later throw an enemy’s neck directly upon them. (Speaking of which: ewww.) But it’s another to not simply accept Crassus’ offer of five hundred captured soldiers in exchange for Tiberius without consulting Naevia first. McIntyre can play both sides of Spartacus equally well, which speaks to both his increased skill as an actor but also the show’s ability to portray someone who thousands would willingly follow into death. He doesn’t command through fear, as Crassus does. He leads by example, and he would be a poor leader to wax poetic about freedom and then rob Naevia of the choice to kill Tiberius.
As for Tiberius…well, adios, Ye Who May Be Hated More Than Joffrey At This Point. Last week’s comments saw many of you wondering why I was giving Tiberius so much credit on the field of battle, given that his “victories” over Agron and Crixus were essentially cheap shots delivered by an above-average soldier. (“Above-average” is a fair assessment; and it’s one Naevia herself essentially gives during their duel.) It’s a fair point, but I would also say that my issues were less about Tiberius’ skill and more about the odds that Crixus and Agron had overcome throughout the series. Naevia’s retelling of the tale confirms what many theorized in the comments: Crixus’ death was, by design, non-glorious. The “non-glorious” part didn’t bother me at all. Tiberius getting both cheap hits in the same episode in which he employed henchmen to rape did, since it made him superhuman in his timing more than anything else. Still, it’s fitting that the last person you’d expect to undo you is sometimes the final face you see. Which brings us to Kore.
Ah, Kore. You all but had a sign on you this episode saying, “Don’t let me within five feet of that fuck.” But it’s fascinating how so much of the pain inflicted by men in this show eventually gets filtered through its women. On occasion, those women do as much if not more damage than their male counterparts. But on others, they serve to either absorb, redirect, or ultimately change the anger around them. That made the dual conversations between Gannicus/Sibyl and Spartacus/Laeta so interesting. Both work as exposition, but also instruction, and felt like the types of tales told in order to exist long after the deaths of those telling them. This isn’t about false “men destroy, women create” dichotomy. But there are different types of strength on this show, and quite often the females exhibit a wisdom and generosity the men either don’t or can’t. After all, it’s not simply that the men of these pairs are teaching the women lessons. Those women, by their very presence, are offering up instruction as well.
These are the types of discussions that often happen in penultimate episodes, where the basic themes of the episode are articulated so that doing so isn’t necessary in the finale. By the end of this hour, we should understand the purpose of the show as a whole. That goal was certainly achieved in the funeral scene at hour’s end. But the overreliance on the fight scenes meant that necessary narrative (Tiberius killing the slave that told Caesar of Kore’s rape, Caesar tricking Crassus/Tiberius, Agron’s crucifixion) got relatively short shrift. They were things that needed to happen in order to move the pieces, but were inserted as perfunctory segments instead of fleshed-out discourses. (I honestly forgot who Opelia was, and why Caesar knew her, until about halfway through their scene together.) In seasons’ past, time spent with Romans felt equally as compelling as time with the rebels. There have been plenty of fascinating moments spent with Crassus, Caesar, Tiberius, and Kore, but they haven’t quite lived up to the heights of Lucretia, Batiatus, Ilithyia, and Glaber.
Then again, that’s probably just a function of pure time as much as characterization. We have had three and a half seasons with some of these characters, and only nine episodes with this season’s antagonists. In skipping to the end of the Spartacus story, Stephen DeKnight and company eschewed milking a successful series by getting to the good stuff. But in doing so, they placed a monster burden on themselves to tell a large story in only ten hours. By and large, this has worked. But it’s not just that we haven’t spent years with Crassus, therefore can’t empathize with him. It’s that the time spent with him this season was slightly too short and also emphasized only two or three real characteristics. (He is a brilliant man, a pretty awful father, and someone in love with his slave yet cannot truly bring himself to see the inherent inequities of slavery itself.) Whereas Vengeance could split time between the two sides because we already had an equal baseline of knowledge for both parties, in War Of The Damned we’ve seen amazing depth added to those we already knew and a more condensed analysis of those recently introduced.
Still, most of this complaining stems from the fact that we only have a single hour left in this series, one that television fans will be discovering for years to come and then chastising those that never told them how good it was. Oh well. We tried. I just want to spend more time with all these characters. But all good things must come to an end, and I’d rather have a few short seasons of consistently amazing TV than one that ran for eight seasons and found its metaphorical cock limping along. No thanks. For now, let’s engage in comments once again in anticipation of glorious (and gloriously sad) end on the near horizon.
- Last time out, many of you corrected things from the review by using the previews for the following episode. I’m not going to lecture anyone on whether or not to watch previews. (I’m not a fan, but that’s just me.) What I would ask is that if you want to talk about the previews (which are not on the screeners sent out), just clearly mark threads with this information in bold so those, like me, can easily skip them in favor of being completely surprised when the final episode airs.
- In terms of creative kills, Spartacus jamming two swords through the back of that Roman’s head and having them pierce his eyeballs from the inside is pretty damn creative. Also hellishly gross.
- After a season in which Gannicus was built up as the heir apparent to Spartacus’ inspirational platform, we really haven’t seen much of him in the last two episodes. Still, with Crixus dead, and Agron essentially unable to fight anymore, there’s only one that truly stands besides Spartacus now. So look for him to shine in the finale.
- While I alluded earlier that there hasn’t been a huge depth to the show’s characterization of Crassus, his soft insistence that Kore call him “Dominus” from now on was downright chilling.
- I’m curious to know your favorite episodes/moments in the show’s history. Let’s celebrate this show in the week leading up to its finale. It’s been one of the great pleasures and privileges to cover Spartacus for this site, and a great deal of that comes from the amazing intelligence, passion, and wit you have brought to the comments.