News that this would be the final season of Spartacus fell hard upon the ears of hardcore fans. (Though, to be fair, “hardcore fan” is something of a redundant phrase when it comes to this show.) But what the show will lack in overall episodes it will hopefully gain in lack of extraneous storytelling in this final installment. Too many shows linger on far past their real expiration date, either staying past their welcome or artificially delaying the endpoint due to financial reasons. A show like Law & Order can carry on infinitely, because there’s no reach point on the horizon for the show to reach. But with Spartacus, the end was known from the beginning. “Enemies Of Rome” marks the first step of that last, inevitable leg.
Creator Stephen DeKnight and his writing team know how to create bloody good finales, but those episodes often clear the playing field so much that repopulating it at the start of the next season can be cumbersome. That’s a good problem to have, in that it means the show doesn’t fuck around when it comes to killing off people when the narrative requires it. But it also means it’s constantly introducing new characters and having to make the audience care about them as much as those who have avoided a trip to the afterlife. So it’s smart for the show to start off in the heat of battle, one full of familiar faces. Not unlike the premiere of The Walking Dead this past Fall, we see Spartacus’ core group of warriors acting as one, the “closed fist” towards which he aimed during Vengeance. Sure, warriors such as Crixus and Saxa were always bad-asses. But seeing them tear the Roman legions to shreds not only served to throw us back into this hyper-real world, but also quickly indicated how deadly this group had become in our time away from them.
But ultimately, this is Crassus’ hour through and through, something that’s only truly obvious after the entire hour plays out. That makes the initial viewing of this episode slightly stilted, but that’s simply a function of the show’s need to bring new players onto the chessboard. Simon Merrells plays Crassus in this early installment as a twin figure to Liam McIntyre’s Spartacus, and the script, cinematography, and editing all serve to further cement these two as two sides of the same coin. Crassus is a threat unlike any other this series has offered up because he’s the first to refuse to underestimate his opponent. “Underestimating your opponent is a Roman trait, Agron. Do not fall prey to it,” Spartacus warns Agron at once point. Likewise, Crassus offers up a similar lesson to his son Tiberius, asking, “You believe wealth and position grant you advantage over those beneath you?” Both men both understand and show respect towards their opponents in ways that forces both to think like the other.
The Roman Senate underestimates the number of slaves that have joined Spartacus’ ranks. But they also fail to treat the insurgents as actually worth of engaging on a serious level. We learn tonight the Senate is busy funding a half-dozen conflicts around the world, which leads them to turn to Crassus and his vast personal wealth to help raise another 10,000 troops against Spartacus. Crassus is painted tonight as nouveau richewhen compared to other members of the Senate, which places both sides at odds with one another. Crassus doesn’t appreciate those around him born into power without working for it. Senators such as Metellus, by contrast, try to ignore him lest he flaunt his personal ethos in their faces. Neither side wishes to deal with one another, which helps explains why it’s taken so long for the two to join forces in quelling Spartacus’ rebellion.
What we learn tonight is that what Crassus lacks in military acumen he more than makes up for in strategy and manipulation. On one level, crosscutting between Crassus’ life-or-death battle with his slave Hilarus with Spartacus’ attempt to kill Roman ranking officers Furius and Cossinius is meant to connect the two in cunning. However, in the end we realize that Crassus has played Spartacus just as much as Hilarus. Upon rewatch, one can see Crassus’ wheels turning from the moment Metellus enters his training room. He plays out each possibility in his head, working out each variable, and all the while positioning himself for the best possible outcome. In some ways, his plan works because he holds Spartacus in such high regard. Crassus assumes his opponent will be as clever as he, an assumption that lands Marcus as sole head of a newly organized army funded from his private coffers. On top of all this, he does so in a way to that eschews any outward signs of villainy. In fact, his offer to raise a statue in Hilarus’ honor is almost… noble. (Well, noble as a slaveowner can be, I guess. It’s complicated.) Our loyalties naturally lie with Spartacus here, but this Crassus is the best kind of nemesis. Not only does Crassus fashion himself the hero of this story, but it’s easy for the audience to empathize with that perspective.
Best of all? Spartacus doesn’t have a clue any of this has happened. He doesn’t understand that he just acted as Crassus’ fist in the field, much as he once acted as Batiatus’ fist in the arena. He’s more worried about the growing number of problems that have arisen from his swelling forces. Some of these issues come from the sheer practicality that comes from trying to feed and clothe thousands of people newly released from slavery. Someone calls him “King Spartacus” at one point, which speaks not only to his position but also his potential distance from those he considers to be brothers. Still, it’s easy to maintain a brotherhood when it’s inside a ludus, or spread out among a small, core group outside of it. How can thousands of people truly be a fist? Spartacus is larger than life at this point. But he’s also someone can pour their own hopes and fears upon as well. That gives each individual his or her own version of the man, but can also cause complications if and when that fantasy is turned into harsh reality.
But Spartacus’ problems also stem from more personal reasons as well. The sheer momentum of his movement has clouded its ultimate purpose. As Gannicus points out to him in a fantastic scene in the episode’s midpoint, everyone directly related to Sura’s death have been dispatched. The nominal reason for Spartacus’ fury has been quelled. But we still see him driving aquilas into soldiers’ faces until they turn into pulp. Without Sura or even Mira around to temper his anger, Spartacus is somewhat morally aimless when it comes to the big picture. “There is no one I hold to heart left to break such balming words,” he tells Gannicus, after learning of the peace the latter gained from Oenomaus.
Thus is the genius of Spartacus as a whole, to take what it would dub “grand spectacle” and reduce it to a two-person scene in which two hardened individuals lay themselves emotionally bare. Both McIntyre and Dustin Clare took time to truly find their footing inside the world of this show, but now the pair can not only tag-team in battle (holy shit was that toss-and-slash move cool) but also bring out the best dramatically in one other once the carnage has stopped. It isn’t afraid to stop and see what makes characters tick, whether it’s sketching out Tiberius’ love/hate relationship with his father, the growing respect/love between Agron and Nasir, or the rock-solid pairing of Crixus and Naevia. The show doesn’t spend time with these characters as stop gaps between the carnage. These scenes are the true meat of the series, and they’re what elevate it beyond the T&A fare Spartacus haters assume it is.
The decisions those characters make have ramifications they can’t even understand. An act of love can either raise an army or raze it to the ground. That kind of butterfly effect is one that’s been with the show ever since it found its footing halfway through Blood And Sand, and carries through into War Of The Damned. The show’s so good at doing it at this point that it’s tempting to take it for granted. But with only a single season left, we underestimate this show at our own peril.
- Man, that poor horse. Seeing it speared was bad. Seeing it cut up to feed the undernourished members of the rebel army was worse. But in true Spartacus form, those scenes actually pay off in weeks to come.
- “We fought. We won. Does that cover needed ground?” I want Gannicus to attend my weekly status meetings. They would go by sooooo much faster.
- “This is my fucking tent!” Ah, Saxa: That’s some “Girlfriend of the Year” shit you pulled tonight. Bravo. Still, you have to feel bad for Gannicus’ comrade-in-arms.
- “You ask me to kill you.” “I command you to try.” Everything to do with Crassus and Hilarus was gold tonight. THAT is how you introduce a character, people.