Roughly a year ago, Spartacus aired “Libertus,” the fifth episode of its second full season. It’s one of the stand-out episodes of the series as a whole, and one of my favorite hours of television from 2012. It neatly cleaved the season in two, and established a brand new scope for the show as well. Gone was the arena, in was all of Italy. “Blood Brothers,” likewise the fifth episode in this, the final season, bears a passing resemblance to “Libertus” in terms of their respective structures. But they are almost identical in terms of scope, in terms of the destroying the status quo, and in terms of establishing new parameters for the show to explore.
Above all else, “Blood Brothers” takes great delight in exploding every preconceived notion an audience member might have about where it’s going, constantly zigging instead of zagging. Part of this has to do with good old-fashioned storytelling. But a large chunk of this comes from the fact that while this episode featured more than its share of physical skirmishes (big and small), “Blood Brothers” was in fact a series of chess moves between Spartacus and Crassus. While much blood scattered into the wind and onto the ground, the primary action tonight lay in the arena of cat-and-mouse games, with two worthy and almost respectful opponents tempting the other to make the first mistake.
One of the hardest things to do in any narrative is line up the world’s understanding of an individual’s merit and the audience’s understanding of that merit. Should the two not line up, the results are disastrous. (I’m looking at you, Mr. Holland’s Opus and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip). It’s one thing for the show to tell us how brilliant Spartacus and Crassus are as tacticians. But it’s quite another to see the proof for ourselves. We’ve already seen examples of the intellects of each in the past. But for every parry and blow in the realm of swordplay, there was an equal and equally deadly parry and blow in terms of tactics both military and/or psychological in nature. The former gives the show its sheen. The latter gives the show its depth.
It’s easy to haggle with the logic of each leader, since when picked apart in the cold light of day it appears that both are playing four-dimensional chess. They move and countermove with a speed and complexity that Vizzini from The Princess Bride himself would marvel. But these men, and Spartacus in general, understand that bold passions only take people so far in this world. They serve as fuel, but not full solutions. That dispassionate approach frustrates those closest to both men, but what seems like inaction is, in fact, anything but. Metellus might feel that Crassus is lingering a half-day’s journey from Sinuessa for no good reason, and Crixus worries that Spartacus has lost his damn mind in giving aid to the Romans left standing within the city’s walls. But both men offer up illusions of idleness in order to serve greater purpose.
Of course, before these long-planned traps can be sprung, the costs of patience have unfortunate side effects. I haven’t much cared for the show’s use of Crixus over the past two episodes, as he’s seemed to turn on Spartacus more because the show needed him to rather than organically arriving at a point of dissension with him. But “Blood Brothers” tweaked Crixus’ disagreement into an almost soul-destroying pain, one that left him unsure not only of his place beside Spartacus but his very place in the world itself. There’s a hint of insanity in Manu Bennett’s eyes this week that seem to be looking for something, ANYTHING, that seems familiar. Simultaneously, a half-day’s journey away, the light in Tiberius’ eyes has gone out, replaced by a dull ache that gazes upon equally unfamiliar territory. Spartacus has long excelled at treating both sides of this increasingly large conflict with equal parts dignity and complexity. The fact that I felt for Tiberius tonight after rolling my eyes at his presence over the first few weeks is just the latest in the long line of conversion jobs that the show has accomplished in its series run.
The difference, of course, lies in the fact that Crixus finds out Spartacus’ true purpose tonight, while Tiberius stays woefully in the dark. What has seemed like an approaching civil war is diffused the moment after Spartacus lets Laeta and the remaining Romans leave the city. Spartacus then fills Crixus in on his long-ranging plan: securing grain thanks to information gleaned from Heracleo, placing misinformation in Laeta’s ears after allowing her to witness dissension among the ranks, and then striking Crassus’ divided army in one fell swoop. It’s a great scene, one that doesn’t negate the conflict from previous episodes but rather incorporates it into a newly reunited front.
Tiberius, by contrast, only sees his estranged father as Imperator, distanced both in rank and in familial relation. Kore once again tries to break peace between the two, and while both men deep down want that reconciliation, it seems that Sabinus wasn’t the only one decimated last week. Any real attempt at reuniting father and son, however, is forever lost when a distraught Tiberius sees the lavish tent that Crassus has set up for Kore and proceeds to rape her. It’s an act that is horrifying even though (and really, probably because of the fact that) we see it coming long before she does. Before Tiberius himself understands what he’s about to do, we understand. This is Spartacus, a show in which demonstrations of power show both the best and worst of the human spirit. For every act of self-realization such as Naevia’s climatic confrontation with Ashur, we have a scene of self-destruction such as this.
Kore’s fate ties into one of the major motifs tonight: people unwittingly providing others with the means to destroy them. While Kore’s attempts to mend familial fences ends up with her ruin, Nemestes’ distribution of a sword to Caesar ends up costing him as well. We haven’t talked about Caesar yet, but holy fuck, let’s talk about some Caesar. Everything about his part in Crassus’ sneak attack on Sinuessa is gold, with him serving as one-half silver-tongued snake and one-half bad-ass motherfucker kicking ass, taking names, signing autographs, and burning down the house before Spartacus and company have a clear sense of what the hell hit them.
But what really makes everything about this attack gratifying gets back to something I alluded to earlier. “Blood Brothers” is the fifth episode of the season, but drops narrative bombshells and burns through plot points as if it’s a finale. “Libertus” did this as well, and while it’s somewhat stale to talk about season-long narrative structures, it’s still pretty goddamn surprising to see Caesar plunge a knife into Spartacus’ back halfway through the final season. That, and everything that unfolded in an orgy of operatically staged violence thereafter, felt like material we might see eventually down the line. Not only did I have that sense because we’re only halfway through the season, but because the narrative beats dropped throughout the show indicated that we’d see a final great push on the part of Spartacus and his comrades before history swooped in with its inevitable broom and push this all aside.
The show sets up this surprise as much for Spartacus as for us, and his inability to truly understand the mind of his opponent that nearly undoes him in this hour. Spartacus simply doesn’t see Heracleo’s betrayal coming, never saw Caesar’s true nature, and certainly didn’t anticipate what looks like every Roman ship able to float coming to the shores to finish the uprising off once and for all. Spartacus has been beaten back many times over the course of this show, but he’s never quite been as intellectually outmatched as he was tonight. What makes it worse is that Spartacus did basically everything right, and it still wasn’t enough. He had a long-ranging plan, incorporated Crixus’ anger as a calculated risk, and sent away hoards of Romans to spread false information. Meanwhile, Crassus was having his men carve a fucking battering ram like he knew this would unfold thusly all along. Checkmate.
This is pretty much as good a time as any to put away critical pretensions and just say: Hot damn, that was some great action tonight. Honestly, for the attack on Crassus’ grain supplies alone, this episode deserves high marks. It’s the splash page of a graphic novel come to life, with a slickly-edited series of shots zooming in and out across the panorama of blood and mayhem. Sure, The Avengers probably did this “comic book come to life” trick a bit better, but I’m equally sure that Spartacus was operating on a mere fraction of that budget and still pulled off something equally astounding. Really, the productive values are second-to-none in “Blood Brothers,” with gorgeous lighting (especially as Spartacus and Gannicus sail to Sicilia) and stunning visuals (the hanging Roman bodies are the stuff of nightmares). Sure, there isn’t anything as individually epic as the arena burning to the ground. But tonight, it felt like Italy as a whole was going to be swallowed in this conflict.
So what’s left after all this death, destruction, and carnage? It’s not about where the show can go from here plot-wise (since it seems like we’re running out of options in that respect), but where Spartacus goes in terms of imparting its ultimate morality. Once again, I turn to Gannicus for guidance, since both Spartacus and Spartacus look to him as something of a bridge between worlds. He’s a slave and a free man, a fiercely independent man who shows tremendous loyalty, someone who wishes nothing but to be left alone yet finds himself coming to the aid of ever more people.
While sailing to Sicilia, Spartacus urges Gannicus once again to think more of himself in order to be better prepared for a true leadership role in the coming days/weeks/months. Gannicus once again tries to dissuade Spartacus from being the heir apparent should the latter fall. But it’s clear that the message is sinking in. It’s not about Spartacus placing ideas into Gannicus’ head, so much as gradually revealing those thoughts to be inside there already. Spartacus asks Gannicus to seek inspiration for greatness in someone else in order to propel himself to the next stage of his life. “Perhaps one day you will find reason closer to heart to assume deserved mantle.” "Perhaps I will fall this night,” retorts Gannicus, “And leave you to weep with the other women.” (Gannicus is, as per usual, the best.)
Saxa is on board with them when this conversation happens, but it’s clear neither man sees Gannicus’ salvation in the form of hot, blonde, lethal German craziness. That makes Sibyl extremely important in the final stretch of the show, as someone who bypasses Gannicus’ barriers seemingly without trying. The two have a chaste relationship, and it’s neither here nor there if they ever consummate their relationship sexually. But what is important is how to she figures into Gannicus’ transformation. It’s not enough for Spartacus to show the rise and fall of a single man. The program needs to impart why this man’s life matters, and why it has resonance. That resonance need not be located solely in the final arc of Gannicus, but that seems the best place right now to track what the show ultimately wants to say about the world it has depicted over the course of its run. Push aside the scope of this show, and you simply have a group of people who all want something badly from someone else. How they achieve those desires defines the spine of the show’s events. The blood spilt on the ground defines Spartacus to non-viewers, but the blood beating in the hearts of its participants defines the show for those that do watch it. These people all ache at this point, and we ache in turn for them. We ache to see them succeed, we ache upon seeing them fail.
And we will ache when this show leaves us in a scant five weeks.
- I didn’t mention much above about the Agron/Nasir squabbles, since they were generally used to set up tension that one of them would die and leave the other regretting their final fight. Still, it’s always amazing to watch Spartacus treat this couple the same as every single heterosexual couple on the show. It’s no big deal, and yet it’s a monstrously huge deal considering how infrequently gay relationships are treated in such manner on television right now.
- Have we seen the end of Laeta at this point? Hard to tell where they go from here, unless she and Kore somehow intersect in the coming weeks.
- Lugo fears water monsters, which is adorable. Never thought I’d use the words “Lugo” and “adorable” in the same sentence, but there you go.
- R.I.P. Nemetes. You went out like a huge baby. Hope you’re happy in the afterlife.
- Gannicus/Caesar Round 2 isn’t as fun as the first installment, but I’d pay good money to see the third installment on pay-per-view.
- Seriously: I could watch that splash page fight scene a few dozen more times and never get sick of it. I’ve already watched it a dozen times and caught something new during each iteration.
- “Now would be time to run.” I might have cheered, very loudly, upon hearing Caesar say those episode-ending lines.