What “Mors Indecepta” has, above all else, is scale. Everything is ridiculously huge in this episode, from the large Roman army amassing to strike the final blow against the rebellion, the vast landscapes that fill the screen, and the roiling emotions that explode to the surface. So much of drama involves putting people’s backs against the wall and seeing what they do. This episode literally puts Spartacus up against a wall, one constructed at great cost by Crassus to create the final stage upon which this long-fomenting war will end. But while Crassus has, until this point, had full control over the proceedings, Spartacus demonstrates that he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. As such, he earns little more than a respite from the ever-present onslaught. But in a season in which defeat has followed defeat, it’s a welcome respite all the same.
Still, such respite was earned on the backs of the thousand or so rebels that died due to frostbite thanks to the harsh conditions in the mountains. Let’s put aside for a moment any thought as to how Spartacus and company laid those bodies across the vast ditch without a single Roman soldier noticing what was going on. Let’s instead focus on the catharsis that came from Spartacus finally making a move Crassus could not anticipate. While Spartacus the show has a rock ’n’ roll sensibility, much of this season has played like an extended jazz solo, with the show teasing out a sustained section of tension through the middle third of the season. While that can be unbearable, such struggle makes success that much sweeter, for those onscreen and off.
The tactical victory at the end of this hour was desperately needed inside a season that has seen superior wealth, superior numbers, and superior strategy gradually break down Spartacus’ once-unstoppable horde. It’s not so much that we want Spartacus to rewrite the history books, pull an Inglourious Basterds, and have Spartacus shove a sword down Crassus’ throat. Rather, a season in which either side, good or bad, consistently dominate the opponent isn’t an interesting season to watch, no matter the sides (or show) involved. Crassus has spoken all season of Spartacus as a worthy adversary, but the show has presented Crassus as a man playing chess to Spartacus’ checkers. To be fair, Spartacus kicks ass at checkers, but he’s simply been out-of-step this season, even while recognizing the intelligence in his opponent.
The environment itself played into Spartacus’ ultimate breakthrough, with the fierce weather engulfing the encampment serving as a character unto itself. At times, Spartacus has showed the seams in its budget, with the same corner standing in for the city as a whole. And while everything atop the mountain is as green-screened as anything else in this show’s history, the depth of field the show can achieve without having buildings in the way is simply breathtaking. The Peter Jackson-esque tracking shot from the Romans at the bottom of the mountain up toward the rebels a thousand meters away, the way Crixus stands on the frozen landscape like a Titan as he mows down Roman after Roman to avenge Naevia’s injury—everything is suitably epic for this, the final arc of the show’s operatic journey.
But nothing is bigger, more larger-than-life than the fight between Spartacus and Crixus. Not only does it have three seasons of emotional weight behind it, but it was shot in a way to suggest two gods descending upon earth in order to shake mortals from their slumber. Everything leading up to the fight is shot in extreme close-up, with every pore on the faces of Liam McIntyre and Manu Bennett available for inspection. When the punches are thrown, the camera doesn’t back away, instead maintaining its tight gaze upon these two warriors battling the cold, battling the elements, battling the shrinking odds of defeating Crassus—and above all, battling for the soul of this very war. Neither man particularly expects to live. But only Spartacus seems to care about what happens after they die. For Crixus, dying with a sword piercing his chest rather than his back is enough. For Spartacus, his death has to mean as much, if not more, than the example he tries to set while alive.
It’s appropriate to now turn gaze to Gannicus, who has served as proxy for this meaning all season long. Gannicus is to Spartacus as Cordelia Chase is to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel. Both start out as fairly comic characters. Both shirk anything related to responsibility when they’re introduced. And yet each finds themselves continually surprised by their capacity for compassion, their inner reserves of strengths, and their inability to simply stand aside and watch the horrors of the world pass them by. McIntyre and Bennett have done solid-to-spectacular work this season, but War Of The Damned really belongs to Dustin Clare, whose Han Solo-esque affectations have melted away over the course of the season.
Part of the reason for that melting lies in the interactions between Spartacus and Gannicus, with the former coaching the latter on looking beyond his own immediate desires. But the other part lies with Sibyl, someone who seemed destined to be a catalyst for this journey from the moment the camera gazed upon her in the season’s second episode. You could argue that the show telegraphed the pairing between these two from the first moment, and that’s a fair argument. But more compelling than “Will they get together?” is this question: “Would Gannicus allow himself to accept love rather than pleasure?” The Gannicus/Sibyl love scene involves so little nudity because of the icy conditions under which it happens. (The potential for frostbite makes me involuntarily shudder.) But part of it also has to do with the tenderness on display, a quality lacking in the normally ravenous sex scenes on this show. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about a ravenous sex scene on Spartacus. But this one, by its nature, has to be different, and those differences can be seen in the choice of venues, choice of shots depicting the encounter, and even the music, which features a more melodic score that eschews the show’s typical reliance on electric guitars and bass-laden percussion.
Were this installment as rebel-heavy as last week’s episode was Roman-heavy, I might have given “Mors Indecepta” a higher score. Unfortunately, everything related to the Crassus/Tiberius/Caesar/Kore side of things is slightly off. Some of this simply has to do with the stakes that the rebels face, which are infinitely more desperate at this stage of the game. But most of it boils down to a lot of machinations being deployed very late in the game with people we simply don’t know as well as our core cast. There’s also a weird sense of déjà vu surrounding the proceedings, with whispered dealings between powerful people turning the tide of power at a moment’s notice. Close your eyes and watch those scenes again: hear the ghosts of Batiatus, Ilithyia, and Glaber pour into your ear.
For the show to dip into a well that has served it so well in the past shouldn’t serve as penalty. But seven episodes in, Crassus is still as socially dumb as he is strategically brilliant. That’s a problem when you keep waiting for him to realize how much he has miscalculated in his treatment of both Tiberius and Kore, but the show keeps providing reasons for such insight to slip from grasp. A season-long series of secrets wouldn’t be an inherently bad thing, except the show has consistently demonstrated how fucking brilliant this guy is at everything else. Having a blind spot makes him human, to be sure. But this is a blind spot the size of the chasm he built to trap Spartacus, and it does neither him nor the show any favors to keep him in the dark.
Still, that ignorance serves to allow Kore to elude him and join the rebels in the middle of the night. Here, we return once again to what this show ultimately means. Why has Spartacus done all of this? What did he seek to inspire, and what rose up (both in himself and others) that he could not predict? That Kore slips away is as surprising to Crassus as Spartacus building a bridge made out of frozen corpses. Crassus simply can’t imagine a reason why Kore would want to leave Sinuessa, which is to say that he can’t imagine why she would ever want more than what her place in society deems available. Spartacus isn’t just trying to win a war. He’s trying to effect change on an atomic level in the minds and hearts of those involved with the struggle. Men are easy to kill. Ideas are not. (Bruce Wayne would agree.) And over and over again, we have changes in attitude slowly emerging. What people used to take for granted (or simply assumed to be unassailably true) has fallen away, with the veil lifted to reveal a more complex reality. Not everyone likes what he or she sees. But they also can’t go back to their previous viewpoints, either. There’s only one way, and that’s forward. Winning or losing is secondary at this point. What gets passed on as a result of this is where the true measure of this war will be judged.
- If I had to hazard a guess given the tenor of the comments this season, many of you are mad that Naevia didn’t die in this episode. I have found fault in the way that the show has occasionally written her since Cynthia Addai-Robinson took the role, but I do think criticism of her performance has been extreme. The show has miscalculated with her (especially around the third and fourth episode of this season), but I just don’t get the vehemence hurled Robinson’s way.
- Actual note I jotted down while watching the episode: “Roman calls Crixus a coward. Probably a bad idea.” Nailed that prediction!
- In terms of pure trickery, having the camera roll on the ground in perfect synchronization with Spartacus mid-fight is inspired.
- I honestly thought for a half-second that Crixus had killed Spartacus when he hit him with that vase of ice water.
- “Do not fucking cast that look.” That might be my favorite Agron line of all time. That was hysterical and adorable.
- I occasionally wondered if Jon Snow would wander into frame, realize he was in the wrong show, then scurry off.
- “You ask the impossible.” Sibyl’s line to Gannicus after he once again warns her to stay away from a man like himself is achingly romantic. It’s a simple line, perfectly delivered, and transported me back to the season-one courtship of Crixus and Naevia. Then again, since Steven DeKnight graduated from the Joss Whedon Graduate School of Pain and Misery, I fear Sibyl has a huge target on her back now. The test here: Would Gannicus revert to what he was, or turn into the next version of a man who starts a revolution to avenge a loved one?
- Given the resources at Crassus’ disposal, I was prepared to see anything behind that wall. Had there been a 25-story casino with working electricity, I wouldn’t have batted an eye.