Sunday, 14 July 2013

Spartacus War of the Damned: The Dead and the Dying

Spartacus lurches towards its final finale with a well-intentioned though odd and oddly-paced episode.

A group of Romans are having a picnic by a bonfire when they are abruptly added to the menu by Spartacus, Helga and Gannicus. It turns out that these aren’t Crassus’ men, but the as-yet-unseen Pompey’s – maybe there’s hope for a First Triumvirate spin-off yet! Spartacus is unimpressed by Pompey’s reputation, but their discussion is interrupted by a messenger from Crixus’ army – Naevia, carrying Crixus’ head in a bag. As you do.

Naevia is refusing to eat or drink and feels Crixus was robbed of glory by being executed rather than dying mid-combat. She recaps the end of the previous episode so that we can see the CGI montage of their victories and the very unconvincing Roman countryside again. She mentions that the actual fatal wounding and beheading of Crixus was Tiberius’ work, thus producing another two or three people who want Tiberius dead (get in line). She also has to break the news about Number One (currently MIA, last seen getting a bash on the head) to The Artist.

Gannicus points out that Crassus is trying to goad Spartacus into doing something stupid, but Spartacus is sensibly more concerned with Pompey’s approaching legions and trying to work out how not to get caught between two armies.

Crassus is discussing strategy with Tiberius, who is more interested in loudly noting that the camp follower Caesar befriended last episode has been horribly murdered. Two of Pompey’s soldiers approach the camp and offer support against Spartacus, and suggest a small meeting on neutral ground. Tiberius suggests that Pompey just wants intelligence on Spartacus so he can take victory and credit (a nice nod to history, according to which Pompey did in fact turn up after the main fighting was done and try to take all the credit), but Caesar points out that Pompey is a hero and they shouldn’t insult him – plus they could use two armies at once. Caesar suggests sending Tiberius to negotiate with Pompey, which Tiberius thinks is a great idea because he’s massively underestimated Caesar's ability to squash anyone who mistreats him like a bug.

After a brief scene of Naevia complaining about Maid Marian not taking the opportunity to kill Crassus before leaving, we see Tiberius arriving to talk to Pompey. Instead, he is greeted by Spartacus, who has set the whole thing up, hoping to catch Crassus himself. For a moment it looks horribly like the slimeball Tiberius will escape again, but Spartacus pulls him off his horse and captures him and his men, saying he wants them to give honour to the dead in advance of joining their ranks. We learn that Caesar had seen this coming when he tells a terrified camp follower that the man who killed her friend is dead, having been sent to ‘deserved slaughter’ and gets on with what he does best – having sex.

Spartacus declares that Tiberius and his men’s blood is for a higher purpose – he’s going to put on some gladiatorial games in Crixus and the others’ memory. He gives Naevia Crixus/Tiberius’ sword and tells her who Tiberius is, and that he’s saved Tiberius especially for her to kill, so they’ll build a pyre and pay tribute to ‘the undefeated Gaul.’ Naevia apologises for trying to turn Crixus away from Spartacus and they bond over their planned murder of unarmed prisoners in mock-gladiatorial games.

Good grief, Number One’s still alive! How on earth did he manage that?! He’s tied up, cursing Romans and having dubious-coloured liquid thrown at him. Caesar wants to make him a gladiator again, but Crassus crucifies him as a warning to the others. Caesar takes an inordinate amount of pleasure in driving the nails into his palms (his arms are tied up, just in case anyone’s wondering).

A fresh envoy from Pompey arrives – a real one, this time, who tells Crassus other messengers were dispatched, but not to Crassus. Crassus realises the first was Spartacus’ but holds out hope for Tiberius, thinking he’s a valuable hostage (and because he wants it to be true), and decides he’s off to rescue him. Caesar tells him he’ll be killed on sight and offers to send some random called Rufus, but Crassus makes him go himself, since Caesar knows them, and he thinks they won’t kill him (though he’s not really that bothered either way).

Tiberius realises that Caesar knew it was Spartacus’ man he sent him off with, but just as he’s going on about how Spartacus and his gang are just slaves, Maid Marian turns up to gloat. He tells her Crassus still loves her and tries to get her to free him, but although she’s grateful to hear Crassus loves her, she’s looking forward to seeing Tiberius die that night (as are we all).

Spartacus has set up in a theatre (i.e. a semi-circular area with audience seating, usually used for plays in ancient Rome, whereas circular amphitheatres were used for gladiatorial games) which is, of course, on the edge of a cliff (I sometimes think this series massively over-estimates the number of conveniently located landlocked cliffs in Italy). He does his best impression of Maximus from Gladiator, grabbing at handfuls of earth, and gives a little speech about how he was forced to be a gladiator and is now returning the favour to the captured Romans.

Tiberius and his men are sent out into the mini-arena to face Spartacus, Gannicus, The Artist, Naevia and some bald guy (he’ll get killed, then). The first Roman soldier refuses to fight for others’ entertainment, so Spartacus just kills him quickly and tells the others they’ll fight or die right away. Next, two Romans are sent out at once, and we’re back to the glory-days of gladiatorial combat. Everyone seems to be enjoying it except Eponine, who it turns out has never been to the Games and who is somewhat discombobulated to realise that Gannicus actually misses fighting in the arena.

Lots of fighting ensues, including some lovely inventive deaths, like the guy who gets impaled on two swords sitting in the ground and the guy who gets knifed in the back of the head with the weapon coming out through the eyes. After Spartacus has defeated two men at once, Gannicus takes on three and we finally see one kicked off the cliff, which the scene has clearly been saving up for that moment. (Spartacus and Gannicus are wearing as little clothing as usual while the Romans are in armour, but this seems to make no difference). Boudicca is still around, surprised to hear that Gannicus is free and joined up with Spartacus anyway, insisting that the Romans are no longer her people and flinching from the Games while at the same time reveling in what’s happening as much as everyone else.

This all goes on for a while. Gannicus throws the head of one of the defeated Romans into the audience, Baldy takes out another Roman, a bearded rebel another, Helga another, and everyone has a whale of a time. Even The Artist gets in on the action in Number One’s memory (to the obvious consternation of his pirate admirer). Naevia says she told Crixus she didn’t like the games when they first met, but now they’re all she wants.

During The Artist’s fight, Caesar turns up and Gannicus and Spartacus nip off to beat him up a bit. He offers Crassus’ trade – 500 of their men held prisoner by Crassus for Tiberius. He then informs them that he personally is not interested in saving the ‘festering disease that fell from [Crassus]’ loins’ that is Tiberius, but that if Spartacus kills him, the 500 prisoners will die too.

By this point, only Tiberius is left to get slaughtered, and Helga brings him out for Naevia to dispatch in Crixus’ honour. Tiberius, because he’s terminally awful, demands that Naevia return his sword and calls her ‘Slave!’ so she calls him a woman ‘or sickly child’ and they get on with it. Tiberius’ armour does actually give him some protection against blows that might otherwise have finished him but Naevia bets him down all the same. Then just as she’s about to chop off his head, to the utter frustration of everyone there including Maid Marian and every single TV viewer, Spartacus stops her.

Spartacus tells the crowd that Crassus has offered to trade their 500 comrades for Tiberius but no one is overly thrilled (that’s how much everyone wants to see Tiberius dead by this point). Naevia says Crassus is lying. Spartacus says he doesn’t think so, but that he’ll give her the choice. So Naevia, unhappily moral creature that she is, punches the twerp, taunts him a bit, and lets him go. Maid Marian is not happy and nor is anyone else.

Tiberius is led out without his armour, in a scrappy tunic, to the waiting Caesar, but just as Caesar is explaining how dangerous the journey is, Maid Marian runs screaming from behind and kills him herself. Tiberius finally goes down, thank goodness, and Maid Marian looks extremely satisfied, though no one else is impressed, since they don’t want the 500 prisoners to die. Spartacus is about to finish off Caesar, but Maid Marian offers to go herself in trade for the prisoners.

Caesar tells Crassus a rebel slave killed Tiberius as he brings him back his body. Crassus is not impressed that Caesar held to the bargain anyway, but is distracted at that moment when Maid Marian walks into the tent. Crassus sends Caesar away and kisses her, but tells her to call him ‘dominus’, not Marcus.

The 500 prisoners are returned to Spartacus – including, to everyone’s surprise, Number One, which cheers everyone up except the pirate. Naevia has a funeral ceremony for Crixus’ head in the theatre which everyone attends while Spartacus speechifies about how nice it is that they’ve got some people back and about the sacrifice of those who’ve already died. Everyone shouts out the names of their most missed fallen comrades and everyone ends up shouting ‘Crixus!’ over and over again while even Spartacus starts to show emotion and makes a lot of promises about how much Crassus is going to suffer as they make a final stand against Rome. End of episode.

This episode combines a couple of Classical elements in producing its commemorative Games. In the Iliad, the Greeks hold spectacular (though much less bloody) athletic games in memory of Patroclus, and gladiatorial games in general began as a funerary custom (even into the early Roman empire, they were often held in memory of a dead person). Even more importantly, Appian claims that after Crixus’ death, Spartacus slaughtered 300 Roman prisoners to his memory. (Appian does not like Spartacus very much, as opposed to Plutarch, who sees him as more of a noble rebel, ‘more Greek than Thracian,’ i.e. someone to be admired – as far as Plutarch is concerned, to be Greek is to be the best).

I was hoping the series would do something with this tidbit of Appian’s – it’s so bloody and vicious, while at the same time indicative of such a strong bond between Spartacus and Crixus and such an outpouring of grief on Crixus’ death, that it’s far too good for the show to pass up. I think I was picturing more of an enraged, grief-stricken, blood-thirsty crazed attack on some part of the Roman army, but this works too. Spartacus is totally calm, cheerfully declaring his desire to pay tribute to Crixus and Agron, but has completely become his enemy now, putting on his own gladiatorial show. It’s like the end of Animal Farm (which is, I confess, the only bit of Animal Farm I’ve actually read).

Most of all, of course, this is a neat way to return to the gladiatorial combat scenes that were the backbone of the show in season one and the prequel series, and on which its success was founded. Throughout season two, the show seemed to falter outside of the structure of the arena, and although the battles in season three helped it to find its way again, it’s never quite been able to move on from the established pattern of duel – sex – duel that dominated those early episodes.

The only problem is, something about this episode just doesn’t quite work. Tiberius’ long-awaited death misses its moment and lacks punch as a result. As an audience, we’re all ready for him to cop it at Naevia’s hands and we feel the crowd’s disappointment when he doesn’t; as a result his actual death just afterwards feels anti-climactic. I’m happy to have Agron back but Crassus’ release of the prisoners doesn’t seem terribly plausible. Still, it’s fun to be back in the arena again (sort of) and at least with Tiberius out of the way, we can focus on Spartacus himself and our rebel heroes as we charge into the final episode and find out once and for all who is or isn’t going to make it out alive…


Crassus: I’ve never know Pompey to support any cause but his own interests.

Crassus (re Tiberius): He stands a man now and I wish for him all that he deserves.

Spartacus: This I promise you – we will live free, or join our brothers in death!


  1. Lots of bloodshed.

    And then lots more.

    And some extra, just for good measure.

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