Well, I need a cigarette after that. Spartacus has been strong all season, but the scenes in Lucius’ abode had slightly stripped the show of some urgency in the back half of the season. However, since the capture of Ilithyia of last week, there has been both a stronger connection between the two main locations of the central characters and a keener sense that danger lurks around every corner. While spending time in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius has allowed some important character work to unfold, it’s also given the show at times an almost leisurely pace that is tantamount to dramatic death within the world of this show.
“Monsters” is many things, but “leisurely” sure as hell ain’t one of them. It’s a clearing of the deck. It’s a settling of debts. It’s a realignment of loyalty. It’s an affirmation of purpose. And it’s one of the most thrilling hours in the show’s history, a veritable opera of blood, sex, and yes, vengeance. But it’s also something more: It’s an important step in the transformation of the title character, building upon the character work laid out in last week’s “Balance.” Spartacus has struggled all season to transform from a sole man seeking personal revenge into one who can unite an army in single purpose. Crixus tonight described their rag-tag bunch as a group of twitching fingers, not a single fist. While Spartacus has united them before in the near suicide-attempt in “Libertus,” here he comes up with a plan more measured and ultimately more effective.
That plan? Let them get drunk and fight each other. At first, it seems like a curious plan. After all, earlier celebrations this season have been met with scolding by Spartacus. But that’s probably the point. He has a sense of moral purpose, but little in the way of actually affecting its outcome. Spartacus knows brute force won’t work, and that exhortations of “we need to stand together” work as a temporary balm not as a full-time preventative measure. So he seeks to bond them not by having them rally over him, but rather, each other. First, he uses Crixus and Gannicus to pose as Roman soldiers alongside him to demonstrate how unprepared they are as a group to fend off attacks. It’s easy to see early on that these “Roman soldiers” are far too adept at combat to be the real thing, but it’s a smart move all the same to scare those too tired to tell the difference.
Then, he sends Agron out to attack a Roman carriage bearing enough wine to keep college kids happy on Spring Break. Once they are properly lubricated, he pairs them off in fighting competitions to work through their long-standing grudges built up over the season. If it reeks a bit of Battlestar: Galactica’s episode “Unfinished Business,” well, that’s OK. I like that episode a lot, and if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. The fights themselves run the gamut from serviceable to entertaining (the main event was slightly underwhelming, truth be told), but these sequences were less about the fights than the man running them. Not only did we get to see him marvel at the way his forces were coalescing, we also understood the irony of the situation. After all, the one pair that could not be truly mended by hour’s end? Spartacus and Mira, still split after the events of “Balance.”
One couple that did get back together was Glaber and Ilithyia. Holy shit did they get back together. That was some crazy stuff right there, even for Spartacus. Such a pairing seems unlikely early in the hour, when Glaber enjoys his position of authority and power over his suddenly-returned wife. He describes his transformation in the events after “Libertus” as turning into the titular “monster,” one “rough-hewn by unfortunate events and given breath by necessity." Again, we see a man who embraces this darkness as if it’s destiny, not choice. But it’s still fun to see a man such as Glaber see himself for who he truly is. Delusional villains are often much less entertaining, after all.
Not to be outdone, Ilithyia hatches a plot with Lucretia to take back her previous life. In one sense, the obliqueness with which these two women speak about their plans gives away the game being played. But it was still crazy-go-nuts to see Ilithyia cut Seppia’s throat, unleash a geyser of blood into both the pool and Glaber’s shocked face, and then proceed to fuck her husband while he looks as if he has just been spit forth from his mother’s womb. I mean, that’s just not the type of scenario you can find on the Discreet Encounters sections of Craigslist, people. Yikes.
Thanks to Ilithyia’s description of her capture, and Ashur’s knowledge of the nearby lands, Glaber soon realizes the location of Spartacus’ army. Unfortunately for Glaber, he accidentally reveals that intelligence to Varinius, who plans to usurp Glaber’s glory. That doesn’t work for Glaber, who by this point is all-Spartacus, all-the-time. Nor does it work for Ashur, who has been promised both Lucretia as wife and the ludus as home upon successful capture of Spartacus by Glaber. So while Spartacus might have successfully prepared his forces for one army, he’s sadly ill-prepared to fight two.
All this leads to the glorious final fifteen minutes, which do a damn successful recreation of the Helm’s Deep sequence from the Lord of the Rings films considering the disparity in budget between the two productions. Everything is geographically clear, well-strategized, and extremely well-paced. The battle keeps going and going, like an Energizer bunny of carnage. By the time Varinius took a fucking fireball to the face, I just stopped taking notes and starting clapping at the insanity of it all. Because Spartacus is a show in which anyone can die at any moment, each scene carries with it the weight of mortality. This isn’t a show in which arrows miss each other the way Imperial stormtrooper fire always seems to miss Han Solo. These blows land, maim, and kill with alarming regularity.
All of this works because we’ve spent so much time with these characters that the spectre of death means some people we actually care about will actually bite the bullet. It also means that Spartacus’ work in creating a fist actually means the loss of one affects the whole. But that’s the show in a nutshell: these disparate characters affect one another in ways that they don’t even understand themselves. There’s a butterfly effect in play where the action of one alters the life of another in ways only the audience can understand. But these characters often feel it all the same, even if they can’t consciously comprehend the connection.
The overwhelming numbers force Spartacus, Crixus, and a half-blinded Oenomaus scurrying into the mountain. They are essentially trapped, with the only way down swarming with Roman soldiers. And while many died tonight in the Battle of Vesuvius, something tells me the death toll will rise significantly when it comes to next week’s finale. Glaber echoes Spartacus himself when he states he will “kill them all.” And the scary thing is? We now believe this monster is fully capable of doing it.
- The vertiginous shot of Seppia sending ripples through the pool of Batiatus’ house is one of the most hypnotic the show has ever pulled off.
- Not much Lucretia this week. Don’t worry. We’ll be seeing plenty of her in the finale.
- When Glaber tells Ashur he will bring the fiery might of Rome down upon Spartacus, he is NOT speaking metaphorically.
- I’m a fan of the slo-mo in this show, but the shots of Gannicus gleefully pouring wine onto Nasir and Ludo as they attacked their brethren made me giggle more than a little.
- “The House of Ashur” smells like a spin-off I would watch the shit out of, even if I’m worried he won’t make it past this season to actually have this be a reality. It could be a wacky comedy with Lucretia as his put-upon wife and The Egyptian in the Well as their wacky neighbor!
- Poor Seppia. She never had a freakin’ chance in the world inside that den of vipers.
- “Hold this, you fuck. And do not drink it.” Part of me wants Gannicus to evolve. Part of me hopes he never, ever does.
- "We cannot be what we were." "Then let us be what we are." Those could be vows spoken at a ceremony to renew one’s vows. And yet look at the circumstances under which these words were spoken. Spartacus is the best sometimes.
- The Buffy the Vampire Slayer in me wants Oenomaus to confer with the one-eyed member of Buffy’s Scooby Gang about the best way to contribute going forth.