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Spartacus: "Missio"

“We do what we must in this house.”—Melitta

The last line of tonight’s second installment of the prequel series Spartacus: Gods of the Arena sums up the overall theme of the episode nicely. Rather than focus on the titular gods of the still unbuilt arena, this hour focused on the lowly slaves and the things they are forced to do in service of The House of Batiatus. But what exactly constitutes said House? We get hints of what it was in the marble busts that represent the champions of generations past. But it will be five years before Batitatus commissions the visage of Spartacus to be added to that gallery. Both Batiatus and his house have a lot of growing pains to get through before achieving that particular point. Some housekeeping seems in order, even if almost everything is in complete, gluttonous disarray by the end of the hour.

In last week’s “Past Transgressions” was about establishing the various positions of familiar characters, and introducing some key new ones to fill familiar roles, then “Missio” was all about letting them loose in the great, painful, often orifice-soaked ways that filled the latter half of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Just as in that season, Batiatus hatches another plan that lands both himself and his slaves in hot water, with the slaves often having to perform dangerous and/or humiliating acts in order to get them all out of harm’s way. It’s not that Batiatus draws them in brazenly. Instead, he lures them in a way where events spiral so far out of control so quickly that he’s often left more confused than the slaves who perform second-hand bidding to save their master’s behind. (Then again, after the beating he got after refusing sale of Gannicus last week, it makes sense why he acquiesces to almost every request this week.)

Even with only two episodes under their belts, Gannicus and Melitta managed to ring a great deal of pathos during their forced copulation in front of Varus, Gaia, and well, just about everyone in the ludus not watching Doctore Jango Fett fight his would-be successor Oenomaus. These intertwining scenes featured Spartacus at its wordless, visual, emotive best, with both Oenomaus and Melitta reluctantly, then viscerally, then mournfully, performing the duties thrust upon them. (See what I did there?)

It’s the Spartacus version of a double penetration scene, to be sure. But what elevates it above simply Lusty Gladiators 2: Ludus Boogaloo are the layers of emotion the show heaps upon nearly every one of its characters. The brief, warm scene between Gannicus, Oenomaus, and Melitta early on added what little we saw of the three in “Past Transgressions.” Those few moments produced something that may not have had the cumulative weight of say, the Spartacus/Varro scenes in “Party Favors” but still carried much more weight into their interlaced encounters later than it had any right to do so early in this short season. There was clearly tension between Gannicus and Melitta from their first scene together, but tonight’s payoff normally could have been expected in, say, episode four or five, not as the climax (so to speak) of episode two. Then again, the show loves to burn through story faster than Doctore loves to burn Syrian recruits with the mark of the brotherhood.

What makes such acts in the ludus all the more powerful is the clear sense that we saw a new, almost improvisational use of slaves by Batiatus throughout the hour. He’s not interested in the decorum of the past, as expressed by Solonius and the now-deceased Doctore Fett. He’s interested in obtaining results by whatever means/resources necessary. And so he takes an almost progressive approach to his in-house human labor, deigning people not merely gladiators but also assassins, whores, and whatever other role might be required to raise his house’s level of fame. (He’d rent Barca out to make balloon animals at a children’s party if he thought it could secure the Primus for his house.)

Batiatus’ impatience/disregard for the old ways means that Ashur’s brand came with an asterisk, so to speak, in the eyes of the old school members of the ludus. He’s almost like the Roger Maris of the gladiator world, if you will: a member with an advantage that few before him, if any, could have exploited. Then again, the slight tragedy of Ashur is that he would have preferred to have gone in the “normal” way, meaning that Batiatus on some level set him inexorably down a path in which he was of the brotherhood but not truly in it. It’s easy to see how the power-hungry Crixus would later see Ashur as an outsider, a less-than-true member of that all-important society. This impatience also plants the first seeds of dissent between Batiatus and Solonius. The latter wants to keep things old school (not Sugar Hill old school, more like Papa Batiatus old school), with appeals to things such as “reason” and “temperance” and other words that fall on the deaf ears of a man that still has urine inside said auditory cavities.

But while the “lower” people suffer or simply stay in their present stations, Batiatus still has his cake and his wife’s bisexual lover as well. Contrasting the way in which those free celebrate while those imprisoned returns to their cells to sulk is a staple of the show, but what will only become clear to Batiatus later on is that he’s in many ways as enslaved as those inside his ludus. Power is merely perspective in this world, and while Batiatus seeks to have his house rise, there are plenty of other pieces of real estate that still block the sun from truly shining on his. And in Solonius, there’s a man who will soon be equally anxious to eclipse his once friend on the way onwards and upwards in Capua.

Stray observations:

  • Some truly great action in this episode, not only in the Doctore/ Oenomaus fight but in the surprisingly even-handed Crixus/Gannicus battle.
  • The show seemed to bring out a few new visual tricks this week. Some of the dissolves between scenes were heavily CG’ed yet effective as transitions, and the silhouetted way in which Batiatus remembered his beating at the hand of Tullius was quite striking.
  • Gaia reminds me of no character so much as the one that Heather Graham played in the woefully underrated film Bowfinger, just sleeping her way through everyone on the way to the top. I approve of this similarity.
  • “I’m not a babe, new dropped from fucking womb!”
  • “You counsel to suck the cock that pisses on me!” Well, when you put it THAT way…
  • I’d say it’s ridiculous that Gannicus got the Primus based on his sexual performance, but then again, I’ve seen some Hollywood casting that suggests this isn’t exactly a practice that’s gone out of style.
  • There’s probably a connection between “Gannicus having sex with Melitta” and “Gannicus not being alive five years later.” Just saying.

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