The title “Men of Honor” is a tip-off that some unsavory acts will unfurl in this week’s episode of Spartacus. What little honor that is left in this world is clouded in bloodshed, betrayal, but above all, distrust. Things have gone sideways for so long for both sides that trust is all but severed at this stage of the game. Even when individuals or groups have cause to work together, they can’t risk the chance of being undercut and then sent to the afterlife. Calling everyone’s loyalty into question is the stuff of good drama, but also ensures that this episode of the show is yet another one in which very little of note actually happens.
To be sure, there’s more forward momentum than last week, which spent a lot of time introducing major characters into the fold in order to be deployed later. But the biggest movement tonight came from the fireballs launched from Heracleo’s ships during the installment’s climatic battle. The staging of that scene was superb, to be sure. But context matters in battles such as these. It’s not just about laying out the geography of the battlefield itself, but laying out what each character wants to get out of the battle before anyone steps foot upon it.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s step back and lay out what happened on the path to that fiery fight. Spartacus and his men have taken a key stronghold in Sinuessa en Valle, but find themselves lacking the necessary supplies to last through winter. The city’s granaries have been rendered partially useless thanks to Ennius’ tarring of them before his death, and the fact that Spartacus insists on feeding the Roman prisoners as well as his own army makes an already small supply of viable food even smaller. Sure, Attius has helped them forge swords from the broken shackles that once held the city’s slave population, but it’s hard to fight an enemy when one is fighting starvation.
In steps (or, more accurately, saunters) Heracleo, leader of a group of Cilician pirates that once worked for Ennius. While Ennius publicly offered up a bounty for Heracleo’s capture, in secret the two worked out a deal in which the former offered up use of his official seal for the latter. Heracleo would then take out Ennius’ rivals upon the high seas and use the seal to trade the stolen goods in port without raising undue suspicion. With supplies short, Spartacus agrees to find the seal and let Heracleo use it in perpetuity. In exchange, the pirates will supply the slave army with enough resources to withstand any attempt by Crassus to starve them out of the city.
This is all solid, if mechanical, stuff. Spartacus needs something, and strikes a bargain with someone unsavory in order to achieve it. It’s something the show has done dozens of times before, and will undoubtedly do another dozen times. I imagine Heracleo’s affectations might have struck some as too theatrical by half, but it’s also part and parcel of his character. He’s a showman that uses his affectations in order to lure people into a false sense of security. Had Tiberius not decided to act as he did, it’s very likely that Spartacus and his best men would have perished in flames when the deal between slaves and pirates went sour just before dawn outside the city’s gates. That doesn’t put him at the level of Crassus in terms of a dangerous foe by any stretch, but it does suggest a large swath of power that could be used at some point to destroy Spartacus’ forces down the road.
Then again, a large chunk of “Men of Honor” is dedicated to the notion that Spartacus’ army needs no outside force to undo itself. They seem to be on the road towards doing a bang-up job of that themselves. If the bloodshed on display at the end of “Wolves at the Gate” offered up a mixed bag of heroic action and horrific slaughter, the scene in which Crixus stages a mock gladiatorial battle between Ulpianus and another Roman citizen offers up no such layered viewing experience. This is ugliness, plain and simple. The laughing hoardes that cry for blood to be spilled are no better or worse than someone like Gannicus, who looks on with conflicted emotion yet does nothing. Only Attius expresses any moral outrage at the proceedings, which forces us to ask, “Are we still supposed to root for these people to win?” Or, as Attius puts it, “How do your friends differ from the fucking villain they brand me?"
It’s a bold question to ask, and one the show should be applauded for introducing. Rather than having this be a moral quandary these warriors face early in their campaign, Spartacus is throwing this problem at them as they near the apex of their journey. The stronger this force becomes, the more dangerous they become not just to Rome, but to themselves. These problems play out on large scales (such as the aforementioned “spectacle”) as well as small, primarily through intimate scenes between Spartacus and Laeta. She’s upset to learn about her husband’s duplicitous dealings, but Spartacus is too numb to revelations such as this. Everyone is filtered through Batiatus, Glaber, and the dozens of other Romans that turned him from an unnamed Thracian into a man whose name rings in every village of Italy. He’s not completely immune to the idea of trust, but even these small instances are fraught with peril. Only through Roman intervention does he realize that Hercleo was telling the truth, and his decision to let Laeta roam the streets might undo their entire plan. His successes have bred a new series of complications, and these are problems that cannot simply be struck down by steel.
If there’s one sour note to this episode, it’s in the virtual retcon of Naevia’s character. Her arc in this episode is so jarring that I needed to watch it several times in order to figure out what was truly going on. In Vengeance, the show took great pains to build her character back up from her harrowing experiences after being tossed out of Batiatus’ house. Killing Ashur was completely a hard-fought journey in which Crixus aided her in being able to not only seek vengeance against the man who engineered her banishment. Crixus also aided her in standing on her own two feet again. That journey wasn’t about restoring a lost love, but reaffirming her inner strength. Crixus and Naevia are equals, and stood as such through the first two episodes of this season.
But now? We see her this week attack not one, but two innocent men due to untold trauma only now revealed. Now? Any man that acts with any amount of outward kindness is a target in her eyes, thanks to a Roman who once sheltered her only to viciously rape her under the cover of night before returning to his adoring family. (“The beast from the previous night transformed into a man who held no threat,” she spits at Crixus.) It’s not about suddenly revealing an event that couldn’t have happened within the established timeline. It’s about lining up the painstaking work of last season versus the character we know see before us. And honestly? Those two things don’t line up. Now, characters ebb and flow all the time. No single person moves in a straight line through life. But it’s another thing to suddenly adopt a new world order due to events that unfold and to suddenly act opposite of the way one has simply because the plot requires it. Because Spartcus is so good at doing the former, it’s really odd to see the latter take up so much real estate tonight. The Naevia at this point last year would have done the things we saw her do tonight. Or, to be more accurate, she would have tried to do these things. The lessons Crixus taught her about fighting last season made tonight’s bloodshed possible. The strength Crixus helped her rediscover last season should have prevented that bloodshed from happening in the first place.
If there’s someone to keep an eye on amidst all this talk of honor, it’s Gannicus. Through three episodes this season, it feels like he’s the one to really watch as the rest of this series unfolds. His role in the show was essentially pre-ordained by historical fact, but the unplanned Gods of the Arena gave this character a rich backstory that allowed him to stand witness from close proximity to the ideas inspired by Spartacus’ rebellion. Regardless of how closely the show hews to historical precedent, Gannicus seems a ripe candidate to be audience proxy as to how to best filter the worthy aspects of this campaign from the less unsavory ones. Look at his actions tonight: his disgust over the human cockfighting, his disinterest in deflowering Sibyl, his guilt over Attius’ death. None of these things suggest a man above and beyond reproach. But they do suggest a man who is slowly awakening to a world view that goes beyond mere appetites.
As with everything else thus far in this final season, I look forward to seeing more of this down the line. But more than anything, I look forward to this show establishing firm ground and running with it. The time for table-setting is over. It’s time to burn this fucking thing to the ground.
- “Suck cock, you long-haired woman!” Sweet. I have a new insult every time I see an English professor.
- Hell hath no fury like a jealous Agron. Still, given how it seemed like the show shied away from depicting the sex between him and Nasir in the season premiere, it was good to see this episode dedicate equal screen time to all. (Also, I agree with those of you who have been predicting Nasir as the first big death this season. That seems almost a given, no?)
- No Crassus this time around, and almost no Caesar. But at least we got more talk about the latter’s beard. So, yay?
- “My cock is magic.” “Then see it vanish from sight.” OK, that? That was fucking hysterical. I haven’t laughed at anything in 2013 much more than that so far.
- My interest in Laeta jumped 100% this week with that last-second reveal. The idea of a smart woman using her cunning for good, not evil, is a smart reversal of previous tropes the show’s established. And given how shitty Spartacus’ army is acting right now, we’re now given to be sympathetic to her plight. It’s fantastic.
- "My father desires a wolf of battle. Not a well-heeled dog." As suspected, Tiberius’ eavesdropping led to a horrible decision down the line. This played out like Downton Abbey, only with more blood and swearing.
- Everything about the pre-dawn meeting between Spartacus and Heracleo looked gorgeous. It’s a testament to how well Spartacus knows how to stretch its budget, but also a testament to how far technology has come in just the past few years. The way this show has leaned into its financial limitations in order to create a unique aesthetic will be this program’s longest-lasting legacy. (That, and the “My Cock Rages On” song. Clearly.)
- Programming note: STARZ is taking periodic weeks off during the run of this final season in order to air "catch-up" nights. So no new episode next week, with the fourth episode airing on February 22.