Jupiter’s Cock, but this is a dark hour of television.
War Of The Damned is a melodramatic subtitle for this final season of Spartacus, but it’s easy to see why such a name stuck after viewing “Decimation.” I’ve watched it a few times now, because it’s such a dense hour of material, but it’s been a difficult episode to get through each time around. That says nothing about the quality of the episode (which is by and large excellent) but everything about the intensity of it. The Walking Dead treads similarly nihilistic grounds on a weekly basis. Both that and “Decimation” ask a fundamental question: Why do these people bother fighting another day when all sense of moral purpose seems frayed at best, and absent at worst?
What makes this episode even more brutal than the most dire of all zombie-filled apocalypses is the care that goes into each and every character on Spartacus. When these people hurt, we in turn hurt, and we often find ourselves in the weird position of wondering how yet another seemingly two-dimensional character suddenly holds sway over our emotions. Take Tiberius, heretofore a little shit who seemed primed for an early and forgettable exit. But through the course of “Decimation,” the show puts him through the ringer through forces on one level intimate (a father/son dynamic) and yet impossibly large (coming at the end of a multi-year war that has engulfed the entire country). Spartacus works at its best when zooming in on key characters swept up in much larger things than they can ever hope to understand, make choices based on limited information, and sometimes find themselves helpless when absent any choice at all.
“Decimation” is an episode in which both sides desperately try to get their respective houses in order before the final battle that will tip the war to one side or the other. And yet while both fear the other (and rightly so), each fails to realize that both are ready to crumble at a moment’s notice. The tragedy of Tiberius isn’t that he died due to his father’s resuscitation of the long-abandoned disciplinary action that gives tonight’s episode its title. It’s that he survived it. Or… did he? He left his old self on the field where he participated in the brutal beating of his dearest friend, returning to Crassus as someone else entirely. “Your lesson well learned, Imperator,” he blandly tells the man whom Tiberius may never call “Father” again. Just as Spartacus changed after being forced to kill Varro in Blood And Sand, so too has Tiberius changed.
Giving both the “good” and “bad” sides equal and equally complex arc makes Spartacus as a whole stand out. But those words are put inside quotations because even before these past two installments, the line between the two has long been blurred. The rebel army have long held just cause for their actions. But those actions themselves have always walked a fine line between justice and brutality. If Crixus and company walked right up to that line last time around, they fucking triple jumped over that during the massacre of the Romans within the city walls. Spartacus cannot believe they disobey his orders to leave the prisoners unharmed, but he’s also harnessed an energy he can no longer control.
Keeping his small group together last year took all of his might. But controlling the minds of each member of his swelling ranks to hold true to the same conceptual image of “freedom” is a simply impossible task. Perhaps he understands this, which is why he’s been collecting coin from all who enter the city in order to strike a grand bargain with Heracleo that could swiftly end Crassus’ nascent campaign. But while Caesar’s presence inside the city walls hastened the dissension among Spartacus’ ranks, it’s not like he had to do a lot to actually set the entire thing ablaze. These are slaves conditioned by years of brutality at the hands of their masters, have gotten a taste for revenge, and have a hard time slaking that thirst. Throw in the claustrophobia of the city, the limited rations of food, and the simple passage of time, and you get a group of people for whom patience isn’t a virtue. The characters on Spartacus don’t simply exist. They consume life at every moment, whether it is through food, drink, sex, or violence. The passive life is not for these people, and the idea of doing nothing simply does not compute.
Many of you in the comments have found fault in the characterization of Caesar this season. I won’t say that you’re wrong. I never held much in the way of a preconceived notion of how the man would act at this age. I would say that the characterization in and of itself has been fine, but nothing spectacular. But “Decimation” went a long way on selling me on this character’s arc and this actor’s skill. Todd Lasance brought his A-game to this episode, selling the bravado, the charisma, and the melancholy of Caesar. And the episode also went a long way toward showing certain curious things throughout this season (his unshorn locks, his “Oh my God what is that slave doing with that knife so close to his junk?” proclivities) were actually built into the show’s longer-term plans. That shouldn’t surprise about Spartacus, and yet it constantly does. Plenty of shows lay groundwork that merely yields expected outcome. Spartacus constantly sprinkles in key information yet hides it in plain sight.
There are such hidden gems laid in throughout the hour. Gannicus’ quick look of disappointment at Spartacus’ selection of Crixus as commander—should The Bringer of Rain himself fall—informs Gannicus’ actions throughout the hour. At first, he’s the one noble sergeant in Spartacus’ inner circle, carrying out orders without question and with a modicum of compassion. Later, he seems ready to assume command aside Spartacus in the upcoming civil war brewing among the rebel army. Elsewhere, what feels like a long con played by Caesar upon Nemestes is in fact a multi-faceted trick whereby both sides are trying to suss out the other’s true motives. On the Roman side, an unfortunate phrase by Kora sets in motion a plan that leaves Tiberius stripped of his friend and Crassus possibly stripped of a son. These are all ripples in a blood-soaked pond, with the various people at cross-purposes crashing into one another and creating waves that crest ever higher.
So what’s keeping this from a perfect grade? The Crixus/Naevia stuff continues to be a curious note for the show to play, even if inner turmoil amongst Spartacus’ army feels like something that would inevitably play out this season. Manu Bennett does some fine work as a man physically sickened by the idea of no longer following Spartacus. But the show is using his love for Naevia as a crutch to make him act against his own best interests. Now, people do stupid shit for love all the time on this show. (Hell, Agron’s probably going to undo the entire deal with the pirates because of his jealousy issues with Nasir.) I get it. But the story of Crixus and Naevia essentially ended in the finale of Vengeance, for all intents and purposes. Dramatically, the show put a button on that pair. So to make them the current drivers of story by actually taking some of that closure away feels off. Some of you in the comments have noted that there’s no reason to think Naevia was magically and permanently cured after her fight with Ashur, and that’s a fair point. But there’s a line at which psychological “realism” oddly feels unnatural when played out onscreen.
Mileage will obviously vary on this one. And clearly, this schism will end poorly and tragically for all. But hopefully it ends up not actually hurting our love of these characters in the process. People who do stupid things for understandable reasons can still earn our sympathy. Those that do stupid things because the plot needs them to be stupid don’t always earn that. When Laeta tells Spartacus a tale about Crassus’ financial maneuvers, they sound awfully familiar to him. And they should, since Spartacus now understands that he may already be doing what his opponent wants him to do. Patience will be key in the upcoming battle. But patience is as absent within the city walls as grain at this point, and the enemy without isn’t nearly as pressing as the one within.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I suppose.
- The training montage early in the episode was brilliant for two reasons. Firstly, it actually served as a way for Crixus and Gannicus to test whom among the new slaves within the city might be spies. Secondly, it gave us the spine-tingling first battle between Gannicus and Caesar, with the more-than-implied promise of a glorious rematch at a later date.
- If the Gannicus/Caesar fight was fun, the Gannicus/Crixus fight was about as ugly as it gets. Rather than staging a hyper-choreographed sequence, director Michael Hurst opted for a messier, more frantic, and unpolished skirmish between the two. It was a smart move.
- “Owe it to Spartacus. I tend to agree about the pikes.” A few weeks ago, I mentioned that it was worth it to follow Gannicus’ arc this season, and Dustin Clare hasn’t let me down yet. I don’t know the ultimate role the show intends for this character, but it seems more vital each week.
- While on the subject of praising actors, I do enjoy how Simon Merrells allows Crassus to be human-sized around Kora. Sure, he’s smarter than the average (Roman) bear, but sometimes you get the impression he loathes the fact that he has to carry this particular load. He’d rather own a B&B with Kora and call it a day.
- The stuff with Fabia is pretty much the stuff of nightmares. We’re supposed to root for people that slice a chained woman’s skin after raping her? The show makes sure that Caesar understands that Spartacus has no knowledge of this (something that may or may not matter down the line), but Christ.
- The montage of morbidity near the hour’s end is horrific, but a strong way to unify the two camps. Spartacus has had slight trouble since breaking free from Batiatus’ ludus in making it feel as if the two sides in the show operate in the same universe. But the intercutting put both in close proximity to other, somewhere in the same circle of hell.