Spartacus: “Mark Of The Brotherhood”
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Manu Bennett, Lesley-Ann Brandt (Starz)
Manu Bennett, Lesley-Ann Brandt (Starz)

Spartacus: “Mark Of The Brotherhood”

The good guys finally get a win

Much like its immediate predecessor, “Mark Of The Brotherhood” is a place-setting episode, resolving the lingering question of Crixus’ return to the ludus and laying the groundwork for the rest of the season to come. Of a piece with “Sacramentum Gladiatorum” and “Legends,” this episode allows viewers to sit back and take stock of the season to this point, reassessing the characters who have propelled much of the action to this point. Many of them have been reshaped by the season’s various traumas, some to the point that, eight episodes in, they are nearly unrecognizable.

The biggest changes are in Batiatus, Spartacus, and Crixus. Introduced as a scheming but relatable underdog, Batiatus is now reckless, haughtily throwing money around to annoy Solonius. With this behavior, it’s easy to see how the House of Batiatus built up such crushing debt in the first place. Success has made Batiatus arrogant and this, along with how easily Ashur manipulates him into selling the still-healing Crixus, makes Batiatus appear as foolish as he has all season. Spartacus, on the other hand, is calm. He’s still proud, but he’s focused and disciplined as well, deferring to Doctore and Batiatus, and when he’s prompted by Segovax, Spartacus paraphrases the advice Crixus shared in “Shadow Games.” He may not like Crixus, but after the loss of Sura, Spartacus sees the wisdom in a gladiator closing his mind off to the possibility of another life. This moment cements the role reversal of Spartacus and the now humbled Crixus.

In only seven episodes, Spartacus has managed to take the diametrically opposed Spartacus and Crixus and have them organically adopt each other’s starting philosophy and position. Crixus is now the desperate, undervalued slave fighting to be near his love, while Spartacus taunts and makes an example of the overstepping, weaker man; Spartacus sees only his place in the ludus, while Crixus is disenchanted, bitter towards the dominus who would so readily cast him aside. He started out the series solidly, but Manu Bennett has already begun to grow as Crixus and he is compelling throughout the episode, handling the promotion from supporting player to romantic lead well. Anyone previously not aboard the good ‘ship Craevia is likely a fan by the end of this episode, and with the loss of Barca and Pietros, each small victory for Crixus and Naevia—in this episode, just managing to stay in the same household—is one to be treasured, a sign that perhaps love is possible for the slaves after all.

There’s more than one relationship to be invested in, however, and the bromance between Spartacus and Varro is as strong as ever. By the end of the episode, Spartacus seems to have gotten through to Varro, but whether this will influence his behavior toward Aurelia remains to be seen. The series has done a tremendous job building up the friendship between these two and having Spartacus join in the dice game as a way of trying to curb Varro’s gambling, rather than lecturing him, shows Spartacus’ regard for his friend. It’s notable that while on the surface Spartacus and Varro have replaced Crixus and Barca, the latter laughing knowingly at the new recruits, Spartacus remains silent while Varro and the rest of the gladiators cheer for the House of Batiatus. Varro may have embraced the notion of fighting for the glory of this ludus, but while Spartacus sees no life outside of it, he does not share his comrades’ identification with it.

While these relationships have continued to develop, others remain the same. The tension between Spartacus and Crixus is still present, now tempered with respect and obligation, and the rapport between Bennett and Andy Whitfield grows stronger with each episode they share. More surprising is the fantastic chemistry between Whitfield and Viva Bianca, whose previous scenes together have worked well, but who are particularly connected in their brief exchange here. Bianca is a blast when playing the unrepentantly bitchy side of Ilithyia, but her best moments are her most intense, and in their scene together, she’s well matched by Whitfield. Spartacus’ careful scrutiny of Ilithyia’s face as she cuts his chest is intriguing. The cut is barely more than a scratch to him; his focus is instead on her face and that decision, to have Spartacus consider her rather than stare off blankly as he has in the past when presented for ogling by Romans, implies that he sees something of interest in her, greater depths and more nuance than she usually shows. With Crixus and Spartacus finding an understanding, Ovidius out of the picture, and Solonius on the defensive, Ilithyia emerges in this episode as the latest wildcard and an active threat to Spartacus; given the actors’ strong dynamic, it’s a promising development.

In its first eight episodes, Spartacus has established its world, introduced its characters, upended them, and found stable ground once more. “Mark Of The Brotherhood” reflects on this progress, showing Spartacus’ transformation into a version of a man he once hated while critiquing the romantic whims of those who would follow in his footsteps. After the devastating emotional roller coaster of the first half of the season, it’s nice to finally get an episode with Spartacus seemingly stable and the series’ protagonists, rather than the villains, coming out on top.

How to Speak Spartacus: Should the need arise to play the villain, take a page from the ever-slippery Ashur’s book and rather than a pedestrian, “I’m listening,” instead say, “I cannot stop a free man from speech.”

Syfy Slice-And-Dice: It’s the triumphant return of the Slice-And-Dice, and in time for Segovax and his, well, endowment. As in the past, the profanity is comparatively well handled, with euphemisms replacing the offensive terms and plenty of F-bombs edited out. There are two significant dubbings in this episode, with Varro’s memorable “horse cock” statement changed to, “the one built like a beast” and Lucretia’s episode ending, “even when parted from his cock,” changed to, “even when tortured for hours.” The final moments of the episode, showing Segovax’s crucifixion, are significantly less striking with a digital loincloth added to the man and any mention of the specific horror of his maiming removed.

Any other nudity is also trimmed out, and Crixus and Lucretia’s two sex scenes are edited down, the second to specifically remove a shot of the clothed Lucretia’s reactions of pleasure. The other edits are for time. Batiatus’ speech to the recruits is significantly cut, along with Ilithyia’s mention of his oratory skills, Ashur’s end-of-month survey of the gladiators is cut down, and Spartacus and Crixus’ conversation after their initial fight is substantially edited, with Crixus’ words on the import of leadership and brotherhood lost.

Stray observations:

  • Much like the first few episodes don’t allow the slaves Batiatus and Lucretia sexually assault a reaction, instead focusing on their abusers, this episode doesn’t linger on the men Spartacus kills in its beautifully designed opening montage. Spartacus replays his bouts in the arena in his mind, smiling all the while, and the camera stays on him throughout much of the sequence. There are a couple shots, however, of his opponents’ faces and their final moments of life. The camera is starting to remind the viewers of their personhood, even if Spartacus does not consider them worthy of such consideration. His perspective will change, gut-wrenchingly, but not yet.
  • As ever, there’s a lot of gorgeous imagery in this episode. The opening’s red mist is particularly evocative, but the standout design elements are the fabulous costume and hair design for Lucretia, Ilithyia, and her friends.
  • There’s a grooming or shaving scene in nearly every episode of Spartacus: Blood And Sand, and yet in this episode, both Ashur and Spartacus have closely-cropped beards. There was a tradition in Ancient Rome of men not shaving while in mourning, which explains Spartacus’ beard, but this is an odd choice for Ashur, considering being clean-shaven was such a cultural norm.
  • Segovax is an interesting figure, but first of all, holy crap is his crucifixion horrifying, yet another reminder of the threat the slaves live under. As for the character himself, though he initially shares traits with the deferential Varro, Segovax winds up as a foil for Spartacus, behaving much as he would have when he first arrived, if put in that situation. The recruit is desperate to regain his freedom and rash, believing he’ll be able to kill Spartacus when his guard is down—Spartacus would have made the same assessment about Crixus early on, and he would have been just as wrong. This is now the second example, Barca being the first, of how ineffectual one man is when trying to take on other members of the House of Batiatus alone.

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