Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Spartacus War of the Damned: Victory

So here we are at the end. The failure of Spartacus’ rebellion is something of a foregone conclusion, but as far as the fates of individual characters go, all bets are off on everyone except Crassus and Caesar. Elite ancient historians weren’t particularly interested in what happened to Gannicus, Spartacus’ body was never found, and everyone else is fictional – all of which means there’s an impressive degree of tension throughout this episode, despite the general outcome being widely known.

We open with an old quote from Spartacus’ long-dead wife in the previously on – ‘if you go to war you are destined for great and unfortunate things.’

The actual opening of the episode is a rather sweet tribute to the Stanley Kubrick movie; starting with Gannicus, we see several of Spartacus’ men attacking Roman villas in different locations, declaring ‘I am Spartacus!’ There’s also a lot of blood and fire and heads on sticks an so forth. We finish, of course, on Spartacus himself.

Crassus is onto him, and figures this is designed to confuse Pompey. Caesar is determined that the two of them are supposed to be finishing off Spartacus, not Pompey. Meanwhile, Spartacus and Gannicus agree that they’re screwed and all they can do is choose where to face Crassus – but they hope to give some of the others a chance to escape while they distract him. Number One wants to join in, but since he was crucified last week, he’s having some trouble holding things. Like swords. Gannicus thinks he’s more dead than living, but Spartacus wants him to lead those who can’t fight to the north. Naevia is still moping over Crixus, so Spartacus tries to cheer her up with thoughts of killing Romans.

The Artist, who knows the way to his guy’s heart, has designed an exciting shield-come-weapon, since Number One is grimly determined to go into battle, recent crucifixion notwithstanding. The shield he’s used has a red serpent painted on it, which is Symbolic.

Gannicus and Eponine have sappy, romantic sex with swelling romantic music over it. I am becoming seriously concerned for my beloved Gannicus, who I’d been hoping would be a survivor.

Crassus is practicing his sword-fighting. No one is wearing shirts, because that would be sensible. Maid Marian appears, in chains in case she runs away again. She and Crassus discuss Tiberius’ death mask, which Crassus thinks is a reflection of his father in its general sulkiness. Maid Marian claims he was killed by an older man covered in scars and Crassus wishes the guy had died. He hasn’t asked why Maid Marian ran away because he thinks nothing can excuse it.

Boudicca insists that her group will wait for Spartacus at the foot of the mountains, which he keeps trying to dissuade her of, since he’s going on a suicide mission. Number One shows Spartacus his fancy new shieldy thing and explains that he and The Artist are coming to the battle. Spartacus says he's honoured, and points out that Number One is the last left who fought their way out of Batiatus’ ludus way back in season one, looking at his B brand (he’s also the last remaining actor from season one, due to casting changes for Spartacus and Naevia). They say goodbye to the women, children and injured-and-not-insane who are heading north, in an attempt to escape over the mountains. (Spartacus says they’re going ‘beyond snapping jaws of Rome’. Presumably they’re heading to Gaul, where they’ll enjoy about twelve or so years of peace before they’ll be seeing a certain Gaius Julius Caesar again…) Spartacus says goodbye to Boudicca, Eponine and the random blonde woman who had a baby last week, who thanks him. Then the pirate appears to warn them that the Romans are coming, and off they go.

The two armies meet, but Crassus wants a chit-chat first, so they go find an appropriately dramatic-
looking cliff to stand on to do so. Crassus hands his sword to Caesar and Spartacus hands his to Gannicus, who looks massively uncomfortable, not so much because he thinks it’s a bad idea but because he still doesn’t want to be Spartacus’ second, even though Crixus is dead and Number One seriously disadvantaged.

Crassus, who understands the laws of drama, wants to meet and talk with Spartacus face to face before they finish each other off. Crassus insists Spartacus cannot win and Spartacus says they all say that. Also, Crassus wants to sulk about Tiberius not dying on the field of battle with honour – at which point Spartacus defends himself by pointing out that ‘the woman’ had been ill-treated by him – oops. Spartacus insists that Crassus’ grief for his son cannot be as great as his for his wife, which seems a pointless bit of one-upmanship (then again, Tiberius was a little twerp). Crassus and Spartacus shake hands and Spartacus says he’ll kill Crassus when they meet again. Crassus says he’ll try, and Spartacus says that’s all a free man can do.

Crassus confronts Caesar about Tiberius’ death and Caesar, to his credit, continues to cover for Maid Marian, but she gives up and ‘fesses up because she still wants forgiveness. She and Caesar explain exactly what a little sh*t Tiberius was and thankfully Crassus believes them, though if Maid Marian thinks she’s getting away with this, she’s got another think coming. Crassus smashes Tiberius’ death mask and apologises to Maid Marian, saying all she’s suffered ‘shall end when Spartacus falls.’ Hmm.

Spartacus takes a break from strategizing to look at a map of his homeland, Thracia. He finally manages to persuade Gannicus that he has to be his second because, frankly, there’s no one else. Gannicus has stopped drinking! Truly, this is the end.

Spartacus explains how when he first got together with his wife, she told him how the gods had delivered oracles in her dreams and prophesied that Spartacus would never love another woman – which despite finding comfort in others, has proved to be true. This is a really nice nod to Plutarch, who claims that Spartacus' wife was subject to fits of Dionysiac frenzy and visions, and on seeing a serpent coiled about Spartacus' face when they were first brought to Rome, said it was a sign of great power. Spartacus muses that they thought victory could be defined by Roman deaths, but now he thinks victory will be the lives of Eponine, Boudicca and the random blonde and her baby.

Finally, it’s epic CGI battle time! On the well-known desert wastelands of Italy. (It looks very much like North Africa. If only that was where they actually were). There’s just time for one more big speech. ‘Let us teach them that all who draw breath are of equal worth!’ declares Spartacus. Then they all go into battle ‘with a cry of freedom!’ I like to think the extras are yelling, ‘they may take our clothes, but they’ll never take our freedom!’

Spartacus’ army gain an early advantage from a technique previously seen in The Chronicles of Narnia, but soon it’s all hand-to-hand combat. The battle is suitably epic and features spikes, huge arrow-things, flaming catapults (or are they trebuchets? I can never tell the difference - Crassus says catapults), testudo formations (Naevia observes this is their ‘predicted maneuvre’ which shows she has watched the odd Roman epic film in her time, though possibly not any actual Roman battles), people randomly getting off their horses for no reason (surely a horse is a major advantage?) etc. etc. etc.

As the battle heats up, Crassus gives some instructions. 'No wounded enemy is to be blessed with merciful passing. I would make example of all those who dare raise hand against the glory of Rome!' This is because he plans to crucify all the survivors. Crucifixion was a death given to very poor provincials and slaves, especially runaway slaves. By crucifying Spartacus' people, Crassus is putting them back in their place as slaves, rather than allowing them to die as free people.

First named character to die is the beardy guy. I mean, I know he has a name, I just have no idea what it is. He goes up in flames and gets stabbed twice, yelling rude things about the Romans’ mothers in German the whole time. The pirate is next to go (again, I am aware that he has a name…) His last words are to sulk that he never got to be The Artist’s boyfriend – right at The Artist and Number One. Nice. Number One does not look like he’ll mourn him.

Spartacus and Crassus try to go at each other but Crassus is forcibly protected by his men, who take him up a hill. (Where was this hill in the big aerial shots? Hmm.) Spartacus tells Number One he’s off after Crassus and away he goes. Caesar and Gannicus spot each other and go at it with
enthusiasm. Spartacus appears over the hill to attack Crassus like a bloody avenging angel. He offs all Crassus’ guards, though gets a nasty cut across the back in the process, and they get to it.

Helga is the next to die, in Gannicus’ arms, then Naevia, who gets taken down by Caesar himself (taking back the sword in the process). She gets the honour of a lingering death shot. Gannicus is by now completely surrounded and outnumbered, attacked not only by Caesar, but bounced between dozens of Roman soldiers. They injure him, then knock him out (Caesar smirking the entire time). Nooooo, he’s gonna get crucified! Not my beloved Gannicus! I had really hoped he would be the one who survived.

Spartacus and Crassus are both pretty badly injured, but Spartacus prevails and is about to finish Crassus off despite the Gladiator-style visions of his wife and Mira and Neighbours Reject (hey! Neighbours Reject!) that keep flashing before his eyes when he’s abruptly speared through the back three times by some Roman soldiers ex machina. Somehow still breathing, Spartacus kneels before Crassus, who is about to give him a clean death (which, if you think yourself into a twisted Roman mindset, is really, really nice of him – he’s planning to crucify everyone else) when he’s unexpectedly rescued by Number One and The Artist, who carry him off despite his clearly fatal injuries. I mean, he has two fricking great spears sticking out of him, guys. This is a lost cause. They look back towards the battle, which the Romans have obviously won.

Crassus is annoyed that Spartacus got away, but confident he’s dying, so he tells Caesar to see the survivors ‘to promised reward upon Appian Way.’ Gannicus is now the guy who gets a full-on messianic death-scene. He’s crucified along with 2,999 others all along the Appian Way (this is, I'm afraid to say, completely historically accurate) - including Maid Marian. Caesar is rather regretful about this, but Crassus insists it's necessary; he's forgiven her, but she'll still have to die for killing Tiberius.

We interrupt this intimate drama to bring you… Pompey! In Mark Antony’s armour from Cleopatra by the looks of things. He has destroyed Spartacus’ people in the north and taken all the credit for crushing the rebellion, which Crassus graciously allows him in the interest of future alliances. Caesar is unimpressed at Pompey stealing all their glory after the amount of crap he put himself through, but Crassus is looking to the future, largely because the present is so unpleasant.

Meanwhile, as Gannicus dies very slowly on the cross, he sees visions of DSG (yay! DSG!) followed by full on 3D-visions of an arena filled with cheering crowds. Maybe to Gannicus, heaven is a gladiatorial arena?

Spartacus is, improbably, still alive and has been dragged all the way to the mountains. Boudicca, Eponine and the others waited for him, which was stupid, because Pompey attacked them and killed most of them. Luckily, Boudicca, Eponine and the random blonde with the baby are all still alive, so this still constitutes a ‘victory’ according to the very specific criteria Spartacus set down earlier in the episode. As Boudicca pesters him with, ‘Spartacus!’ he points out that that is not his name, and, clutching the B brand on Number One’s arm, looks forward to seeing his wife again. ‘There is no greater victory than to fall from this world a free man,’ he says, and dies. The clouds cover the sun and it starts to rain, because the gods like a dramatic ending as much as anyone else.

Random Blonde and her baby, Boudicca, Eponine, their very small group of survivors and finally, The Artist and Number One walk off into the sunset, leaving the red serpent-painted shieldy-thing on Spartacus’ grave. The final credits (with suitably epic music) show images of the major characters from all four seasons (yay! Batiatus and Lucretia!) and end on a brief shot of Liam McIntyre and finally a clip of the late Andy Whitfield declaring loudly ‘I am Spartacus!’

This was a fantastic ending, allowing the show to really go out on a high. So many productions promise an epic battle and then don’t deliver, but for my money this one really does – everyone involved has really stretched the budget as far as it can possibly go. More importantly, it’s the character work that really has us invested in that battle, knowing that we’re going to see most of the regulars get mown down – with only Caesar and Crassus safe, it’s genuinely exciting to watch. Spartacus refers to his earlier self as ‘a man who no longer exists’ and mentions his real name, but we never get to hear it, which is sort of disappointing but probably wise, as whatever it was revealed to be could only disappoint.

Agron and Nasir as the two survivors (plus the main non-combatants) is a nice decision. It completely inverts the trope of, as TV Tropes puts it, ‘Bury Your Gays’ by making the gay couple the sole survivors of the final battle, which is very pleasant to see. It also means that one of Batiatus’ slaves and gladiators has survived, allowing the first season finale to hold on to a tiny bit of satisfaction, knowing that at least one person has, ultimately, been saved, even though the others are all doomed (though, um, thousands of others have died. The inclusion of Laeta among the survivors who make it a victory is a bit weird, considering that without Spartacus’ rebellion, she would still be living happily in the city with her husband). I’m sad it wasn’t Gannicus who got to survive, but I guess, since Gannicus was already free and chose to join Spartacus because he didn’t have much to live for, saving Agron and Nasir makes more sense.

Pompey is in the series for about as long as Richard I is in your average Robin Hood film (and dressed in white to boot) but I’m hoping that’s because eventually the creators will do a First Triumvirate spin-off. The First Triumvirate was formed about 10 years later, so they have plenty of time! And Crassus’ eventual fate – probably exaggerated by the ancient historians, but whatever – is just crying out for the Spartacus treatment. Pompey was very sneery and annoying here, too, which means if they ever do the civil war between him and Caesar, we may finally feel like we’ve got a happy ending. (Pompey is usually depicted as fighting for the Republic and Caesar’s triumph as the tragic death of democracy – this goes back to Lucan’s treatment of the subject in the first century AD – but I think there’s room for a depiction of both being as bad as each other and the Republic doomed either way! If it’s these two, I’m definitely on Caesar’s side).

The final montage is just gorgeous. I loved seeing all the old faces again, especially on a show with this high a body count (has anyone done a Game of Thrones-style In Memoriam for this show on You Tube? That could go on for a while…). Finishing with Andy Whitfield was a sweet tribute to the original star.

And so, Spartacus is over. What do we do now?! For more ancient world-goodness, the second Percy Jackson film is out in a couple of weeks. For more gladiators, the second Hunger Games film is out in November. On TV, the BBC’s Atlantis will be coming in the autumn (quite excited about that), though if you’re after anything not aimed at a family audience, you’ll have to wait for the next season of Plebs sometime next year…

Only one thing for it. Rome, followed by I, Claudius, followed by The Roman Mysteries. Then start the whole cycle again with Spartacus: Gods of the Arena!

Idiotic things to say in the series finale:

Gannicus: I am no martyr upon cross, but I would gladly give my life that those more deserving may live.

Kore: I would give life to gaze upon forgiveness in [Crassus'] eyes.

Quotes

Spartacus: Why did you call me here, Crassus?
Crassus: Same reason you came – curiosity.

Spartacus: There is no justice, not in this world.
Crassus: At last, a thing we agree upon.

Crassus: Would that you had been born a Roman and stood beside me.
Spartacus: I bless the Fates that it was not so.

Crassus (re himself, Caesar and Pompey): We shall stand fearsome triumvirate with means to bend the course of history.

Agron to Spartacus (last line): One day Rome shall fade and crumble. Yet you shall always be remembered in the hearts of all who yearn for freedom.

Lots of people, but most importantly both Liam McIntyre and Andy Whitfield as Spartacus (last
line of all): I! Am! Spartacus!


2 comments:

  1. The scene between Crassus and Spartacus is very Shakespearean, but a little difficult to accept. I find it hard to believe that Crassus would show so much respect to a rebellious slave as to actually meet with him.

    Horses weren't that much of an advantage in this era. Philip and Alexander introduced a couple of innovations to the cavalry, but their real function was just to get soldiers somewhere quickly. It took the stirrup, which came to Europe sometime in the fifth or sixth century, to make it possible to really fight from horseback.

    Pompey would make a lovely villain. It was generally thought that his father was about to march on Rome in 87, just like Sulla or Marius, but died on the way. So he had that hanging over him. He had a habit of coming along at the end of things and taking far more credit then he deserved. And he thought awfully well of himself. Rumor was that he gave himself the Magnus cognomen and there was his lovely assurance to the optimates in the early days of the civil war that all he had to do was stamp his foot and his former soldiers would rise to his call. But when he stamped almost nobody came. And there's so much complexity to his relationship with Caesar. Both men seem to have really doted on Julia. You could do so much with him, yet he's generally ignored by the popular media.

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  2. If one has to go out, why not go out in style?

    Thanks for the recap!

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