Spoilers follow for everything up until the fifth episode of the second season of Spartacus, just like in a normal TV Club review.
OK, that? That was awesome.
That’s not the most academic response to this hour of television, I’ll agree. But there are times in which one need simply sit back and marvel at what’s unfolding on the small screen. Vengeance already approached greatness in its third installment, which featured a brutal sequence in the name of liberating Naevia. But tonight’s hour, “Libertus,” was that mine sequence stretched out over an entire hour. This episode was brutal, glorious spectacle, one worthy of the arena itself. It might just be the finest hour of television produced in 2012 so far.
Strangely enough, it’s also one of the simplest to recount. Quite often, these reviews have taken great pains to spell out the action that unfolded. But don’t mistake simplicity for a lack of quality. Everything one needed to know about tonight’s actions was in the four episodes leading up to it. Those first four hours led various parties to the breaking point, and then this fifth episode squeezed them for 60 minutes to see what they might do with their backs against the wall. I’ve spoken at great length about the emotional clarity of Spartacus this season, and that clarity yielded an hour that, on the surface, seems straightforward, but in fact is a masterful mix of desires at cross-purpose to one another. Some emerge bloody but victorious. Other see their fortunes fall. But all realize that the world around them has changed.
Indeed, what unfolded tonight seems somewhat shocking at this point in the season. Tonight could have served as a season finale, given the scale of both the scope of the episode and the seismic shifts that unfold within that vast landscape. Earlier this week, I wrote a piece for The A.V. Club about the potential loss of the episode as the central narrative building block of television. That piece wasn’t a call for the re-affirmation of the stand-alone, procedural method of small-screen storytelling. It was a way to emphasize that the best shows in the history of television have served both short- and long-term needs simultaneously. Too often, shows have an end goal in mind, but little to no skill in actually creating compelling content along the way. Spartacus creator Steven DeKnight does not have this problem in the slightest.
In decrying the way that some shows string along viewers in the name of long-term payoff, I argued that pacing is often the problem that befalls lesser shows. By sticking the events of “Libertus” smack dab in the middle of the season, DeKnight honors the story he is trying to tell by cresting it at exactly the proper time. Too many shows arbitrarily stall their stories in order to squeeze out more hours for air. But “Libertus” is the logical extension of these first four hours. Had this been the ninth or tenth episode of the season, Spartacus would have turned into one of those puppeteers that affixes life-sized dummies to each side in order to make the Romans think the rebellion had more fighters still remaining. But in planning the season-long story, this show took pains to create mini-arcs inside each episode that pushed every single person toward a crossroads by the fifth hour.
As such, the events that have occurred all season now grow in context, even while they entertained upon initial airing. Spartacus’ season-long arc can be seen as a way to take him from a position of small, incremental change to a desire to make one larger, risk-filled statement in a cogent, logical manner. Had he moped around for an entire season only to get some balls in the final moments, we would have probably grown sick and tired of scene after scene of emo doubt. Another four episodes of Ilithyia asymptotically approaching divorce would have been frustrating. Another month of Oenomaus bitching about women might have grown intolerable. But by placing all these concerns within a half-season arc that will lead directly into a new one in the back half of Vengeance? All these elements suddenly become not only more tolerable, but also more narratively justified.
Moreover, tonight’s episode threw one new (OK, old) wrinkle into the mix: the return of Gannicus. When we witness his first chronological appearance, his cock seems to be slouching, rather than raging, on. He’s a shell of a man, one with legal freedom but still shackled by emotional chains. The sword which extolls his past glories is also a reminder of Melitta. One gets the immediate sense that he’s gone all Bruce Banner in the time since Gods Of The Arena, wandering from town to town without ever finding a home. I will confess that his initial appearance had me scrambling to see if my screener was broken. I was unaware until the title card appeared that the show was dropping the narrative trick first deployed in another series highlight, “Kill Them All.” Having everything jump back 24 hours was a fun trick, one that might grow tiresome if too often deployed. (I’m looking at you, Alias.) But it worked here as a way to both get the audience immediately invested in the action and once again peel away new layers of narrative context as the show re-approached its starting point.
In jumping back from the arena, “Libertus” sketches everyone’s motivations in succinct manner. Each character gets pushed to the point at which action is necessary. Spartacus learns of the imminent sacrifice of Crixus in the arena and decides to lead his remaining forces in for a large demonstration to stir fellow captives. Ilithyia decides to pursue her divorce from Glaber, who finds out through Ashur about his wife’s desire to both leave him and abort the baby. Ashur only tells Glaber of this after deciding that being Lucretia’s lapdog no longer holds merit. These aren’t wild character swings, but rather, the natural endpoint for various boiling plotlines. Throw in a Gannicus willing to end the lives of his brotherhood in some failed attempt at restoring honor to his own life, and it’s on like Donkey Kong.
Many of you have felt the fighting sequences this season haven’t been up to snuff. I agree to a point, but that’s only in context to the inventive sequences already established in this show. Still, the multiple fights inside the arena this week were insane: Not only did they feature many players employing many styles, but they also featured a central fight between Gannicus and Oenomaus that had the tinge of tragic destiny. Every blow each man landed upon the other hurt in a visceral way. Every blow felt like the culmination of pent-up rage, regret, and self-loathing. Oh, and amidst all that? The fucking arena burned to the ground.
For a show that once looked like it was shot in Travis’ green screen room from Cougar Town, Spartacus has unleashed ever more impressive effects work over the series’ run. And while the wide shots of the mines were impressive, seeing various chunks of the blood-thirsty horde fall into chasms of flame was truly amazing. There are times to celebrate the show’s nuanced character work, its emotional beats, and its analysis of the power dynamics at play in an unequal society. There are also times to go, “We don’t need no water, let that motherfucker burn!” Again: Maybe that’s not the most academic approach. But simply approaching this show academically misses the fake forest for the fake trees. (Sorry, I’m still having flashbacks to the Neverending Woods from last week.)
Were it only a fiery display, it would still be great. But fire often symbolizes rebirth, and from the ashes of that awesome carnage comes the rebirth not only of hope for some, but self-realization for others. In particular, Glaber transformed this week from “necessary antagonist” to “a true nemesis.” I haven’t given Craig Parker much in the way of explicit praise this season, which speaks more to the way his character seemed to serve a function, rather than exist as a three-dimensional person. But these last two weeks have gone a long way toward humanizing him, even as he turns into something of a demon in the process. Killing Albinius inside the arena is a pivotal moment for that character, one in which he made a conscious choice to retake the power slowly stripped away from him by his father, wife, political rival, and Lucretia. The latter saw a transformation as well this hour, from one seemingly with all the cards back to someone who might not survive another day. Then again, one would be unwise to count her out, especially with her back against the corner.
I could go on and on for another thousand words, but ultimately, this is an episode one must experience, rather than recount. Trying to convince people that Spartacus is more than a T&A fest is somewhat of a fool’s errand at this point. But I’d put episodes such as this against anything on television, in any genre, on any network. Those that would deny themselves something this powerful because of preconceptions probably deserve to miss out. But it’s still a shame that more people won’t experience the epitome of what television can do better than any other medium. “Libertus” pays off the past, satisfies in the present, and sets the stage for a wide-open future. You simply can’t ask more from an hour of television.
- Anyone else get an Apocalypse Now vibe from Spartacus emerging from the water inside the arena?
- Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way to hell, Cossutius. In so many ways, what unfolded in the arena in this episode started with you.
- “I am for wine. And the embrace of questionable women.”
- “We have suffered wound and loss. We have been divided. Yet we are free.”
- “We do what we must in the face of growing disappointment.”
- “I am not the fool you and your daughter think me.”