There’s a difference between an episode of television playing out logically, and an episode of television playing out the way you expected. A show like Breaking Bad excels at producing episodes that are surprising in the moment but inevitable afterwards, making you think, “Well, how else could that have unfolded?” I’d generally throw Spartacus into that category, but tonight definitely smacked of playing into expectation more so than normal. In light of Gannicus’ kidnapping of Ilithyia, did any of the big beats in tonight’s episode prove terrifically surprising?
That lack of surprise bothered me a little the first time I watched tonight’s hour, “Balance.” But upon second view, most of that bother washed away for two reasons. The first is that while things played out as I thought they might on a macro level, each micro element still felt fresh, alive, and fairly surprising. The second? Steven DeKnight, his writing staff, and these actors have combined to make these characters richly identifiable, which enables the viewing audience to anticipate certain actions or reactions on their part. To understand why Spartacus wouldn’t instantly cut Ilithyia’s throat isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.
The issue surrounding Ilithyia’s fate served as the central aspect for the hour, around which everything else bounced off each other. It started with her capture, and ended with her release. What matters, however, is what happened in between to everyone else when confronted with the possibility of her imminent death. For much of the season, the worlds of the newly freed slaves on the run and those in Capua attempting to capture them have felt connected yet distant. Glaber mentions tonight it would take months to search the vast countryside for his wife, and yet her presence in Lucius’ abode makes the two sides feel more closely connected than ever.
Tonight’s credited writer Jed Whedon takes advantages of those connections by allowing the titular theme to coarse through each scene, providing a throughline that keeps things moving while offering a constantly rotating set of perspectives. One could easily turn the overuse of the word “vengeance” onscreen into a type of drinking game. But introducing “balance” into the equation speaks to issues of freedom versus slavery not in terms of social status, but rather of moral stature. We’ve see Spartacus struggle all season with trying to lead a rebellion against Glaber, and by extension Rome as a whole. But he’s struggled, not only with the logistics of the endeavor but also the philosophy of it as well. George Orwell wouldn’t be born for a few thousand years, but he would certainly recognize Spartacus’ struggle to not become the very thing he hates during his campaign.
Mira tells Ilithyia, “It is a terrible thing, is it not? To live in want and fear. That is what it is to be a slave.” That’s part of what being a slave is, to be sure. But one can be a slave to one’s thoughts, desires, and weaknesses as well. And that aspect of slavery got a good workout across several characters. Ilithyia temporarily stays Spartacus’ bloodthirsty hands with news of his possible paternity, but what really stops him cold is the idea that he would meet a disapproving Sura in the afterlife. People on this show are fond of invoking the gods for either valid or more nefarious purposes, but there’s also a running thread throughout the show of greeting those already dead and having to measure up in their eyes. Batiatus spoke of it often while walking the halls of his household. Oenomaus and Crixus have both fixated on meeting loved ones upon seemingly certain death. And tonight, Spartacus faced the same dilemma.
As I surmised last week, Ilithyia’s plan throws a huge monkey wrench into the ever-increasing closeness of Spartacus and Mira. While there have been a host of great performances this year, Katrina Law has quietly been making the case for Stealth MVP of Vengeance as a whole. It’s a fairly impossible role, both for an actor and a character, to live up to the memory of Sura when in the presence of Spartacus. While we didn’t spend much screen time with Sura, Spartacus’ actions are best understood as honoring her memory. As such, anything that gets in the way of that memory can be seen as a roadblock at best, and a desecration at worst. Mira has had a tremendous arc this season in working herself into a position where she’s both a valid member of the uprising but also a worthy object of Spartacus’ affections. She has to exist outside of Sura’s shadow while still embodying qualities that he would find appealing.
All of this makes her attempt to kill Ilithyia both understandable and completely gut-wrenching. The look Law gives when realizing how badly she’s misjudged Spartacus’ intent is devastating, conveying just how much connection she fears has been lost in a moment between them. And if Law rises to the occasion tonight, so too does Liam McIntyre, who honestly hasn’t been given many different notes and shades to play since leaving Capua early in the season. Yes, it’s jarring to see his face inserted into scenes from Blood and Sand while reliving his one night with Ilithyia. But seeing him struggle to stay righteous in the face of easy opportunity to balance the bloody scales with Glaber yields some of McIntyre’s best work of the year.
If Spartacus is consumed by the moral weight of his choices, Glaber is all too eager to have options removed from his path. When Lucius shows up not to aid Ilithyia but rather deliver a message from Spartacus, both Lucretia and Seppia are horrified to learn he’s considering Spartacus’ offer to meet in a neutral location to exchange his wife for weapons. (Saxa has worn down the wooden sticks used during combat training, ifyaknowwhatImean.) Glaber insists that he has no choice in the matter, but that’s not really true: he’s just looking for an excuse to get off the hook for abandoning one wife and upgrading to a newer, more fawning model. And yet, as is this show’s wont, his decisions are reprehensible yet entirely understandable. As Ashur so eloquently tells Lucretia, “Is it any wonder he prefers the caress of her tongue to the sound of yours?” Seppia offers the one thing his wife, father-in-law, and other members of the Senate did not: a sense of self-worth.
That he buys into such a delusion is no doubt part of his upcoming downfall. But it’s much easier to live a lie than face impossible choices. Spartacus faces those tonight, but so does Gannicus, who delivers Ilithyia not simply to stop the crucifixions in Capua but also to lift the burden from his heart from his betrayal with Melitta. He has a hard time believing neither Spartacus nor Oenomaus will take the “eye for an eye” approach in order to balance what was taken from them. But what those men understand, even if Gannicus does not, is that it’s the intent of the act, not the act itself, that truly matters. Would Glaber suffer over his wife’s death the way Spartacus did over Sura’s passing, then the Thracian would have felt no moral sting by killing her after Glaber broke their promised meeting conditions. But that betrayal proved to Spartacus just how hollow his retribution would be.
As such, Ilithyia lives to see another day. Whether or not Glaber, whose murder of Seppius has now come to light thanks to Ashur’s unfortunate hoarding tendencies, will is another story altogether. It would be somewhat ironic if Seppia pulled an Aurelia and killed someone inside the House of Batiatus who least suspected it. That seems like a somewhat cheap way to go, but that’s the beauty of Spartacus: you never quite know what’s going to happen in the moment. I didn’t think the show would have Mira kill Ilithyia tonight. But in the actual moment? I thought she was a fucking goner. This show means business, and after Varro’s death in the first season constructed a world in which no one is safe. (Speaking of? RIP, Lucius. Least you’ll be able to face your family with shoulders held high after your work tonight.) If no one is safe, that means every action matters. But again: it’s not simply the action that matters. It’s the meaning behind that action. Spartacus clearly knows this now. And that should inform things as we head into this season’s end game.
- I could be reading waaaaay too much into this, but was there a glimmer of regret when Ashur told Lucretia about his interrogation techniques? And what are the odds he made that bracelet so easy to reveal in order to work his way out from Glaber’s thumb?
- Nice little scene between Naevia and Crixus as she starts feeling more self-sufficient. Crixus also had a great exchange with Gannicus that ended with this exchange: “I would do anything to rise in his eyes again.” “Capturing the Praetor’s bitch is a fine start.”
- I made little mention of Viva Bianca in the review, since so much of the action revolves around other characters reacting to her situation. But Bianca sold her horror, fear, and disgust quite well. It’s a new aspect of that character, one that will no doubt inform things upon her return to Capua.
- Oenomaus telling Gannicus to believe in something felt like Whedon’s ode to his brother Joss’ film Serenity, in which Shepherd Book exhorts Mal Reynolds to have faith in order to defeat the Operative.
- “The sum of my loss is no small thing.” Lucius says this to Ilithyia, and both she and Glaber make the mistake of thinking he’s only talking about money. Lucius is in some ways the prime example of someone who really has no choice tonight: While the offer of financial restitution would be nice, it still wouldn’t balance out the losses incurred thanks to Sulla.
- Agron’s “Gratitude!” to Mira upon her relieving him and Nasir of watch made me snort more than a little. But dear god, show: give Nasir something to do. Anything. Have Saxa whup his ass in the name of toughening him up for battle. Something. Please.
- Anyone else invoke their best Admiral Ackbar impression when that cart rolled into Atella?