Spartacus: “Party Favors”/“Old Wounds”
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Spartacus: “Party Favors”/“Old Wounds”

Varro’s sacrifice marks the end of the beginning

“Party Favors”

Spartacus loses his brother

From its first moments, “Party Favors” toys with the audience, offering glimpses of the episode’s eventual darkness from behind its buoyant, celebratory tone. There are clues to Varro’s eventual fate peppered through the episode, but viewers are carefully distracted with the renewed conflict between Spartacus and Crixus, which makes the final act turn all the more gut-wrenching. The writers’ manipulation of expectations is masterful. The stakes of the arena are shown in the opening shot, then Varro and Spartacus win a spectacular victory. Crixus attempts to intimidate Varro, saying that his reunion with his wife at least ensures someone will weep when he falls, only for Varro and Spartacus to mock him, shifting the focus to Crixus’ lowered standing in the ludus. Most significantly, the episode stresses time and again that Numerius’ exhibition will be a relaxed, joyous celebration, with little blood if any to be shed. Right up until the final moments of the climactic scene, Varro’s inclusion in the proceedings is presented as a compliment to his growing skills, rather than the devastating manipulation it truly is.

The tone of much of the episode is infectious. The opening battle is more than energetic—it’s triumphant, Spartacus and Varro’s final moments of gladiatorial joy. Spartacus has been lying in bed, replaying his victories and reveling in them, and with this fight, the viewer is invited to do the same. The stunt choreography is impressive and features Spartacus’ second gladiatorial shield run (the first was a highlight of the Theokoles fight), and between the physicality of the sequence, the editing, the scoring, and the reactions of the crowd and main cast, the sequence manages to whip even the most skeptical viewer into a frenzy, with Batiatus, Lucretia, and Numerius’ reactions a stand-in for the audience’s. The episode then deftly transitions from the visceral thrill of the fight to the satisfying emotional reunion of Varro and Aurelia, with the supportive and playful rapport of Spartacus and Varro underpinning the transitions into and out of the scene. This is by far the most at peace Spartacus has been since Sura’s death, and with news of Aurelia’s safety, both Varro and Spartacus can breathe easy and actually enjoy their training. Every time the episode returns to either character, it is for a moment of levity or contentedness, emotions that have been notably absent through much of the series.

Even Batiatus picks up on Spartacus’ good mood, sitting him down for a cup of wine and a lesson in military strategy. Watching this interaction, it’s easy to forget that not long ago, Batiatus had Spartacus’ wife slaughtered—Batiatus’ lack of consideration of this is yet another demonstration of the kind of monster he is. Lucretia at least thinks of Spartacus as nothing more than an animal, to be put down when he is no longer useful. Batiatus sees him as something much more, and yet feels no guilt about having murdered his wife. The scene that follows, with Lucretia dressing down her husband for his informal manner with Spartacus, is among the episode’s best, and Lucy Lawless’ delivery of, “It’s beneath you” is particularly striking. Both Lawless and John Hannah have been fantastic throughout the season, deepening the fascinating contradictions at the core of their characters with each episode.

The power of the episode, however, comes from its heartbreaking climax, made all the more painful by the brotherly relationship of Spartacus and Varro, who have never been closer. In an instant, they go from happily joking to frozen in terror, the futility of Varro’s planning with Aurelia and Spartacus’ measured contentment underlined as the whims of a child tear them away. This act by Numerius, manipulated into action by Ilithyia, her anger fueled by Lucretia’s scheming, puts Spartacus back on the path history fans know he must tread. Varro’s sacrifice makes the moment all the more potent. He knows his friend and sees the writing on the wall, and prevents Spartacus from acting in desperation in a way that could easily bring dire consequences to Varro’s wife and son, as well killing both men. In this moment, Varro’s importance to Spartacus’ psychological well-being is made abundantly clear, as is how important a presence Jai Courtney has been on the series.

Often an episode’s sole (non-Roman) source of levity, Courtney brings much-needed ease to his role. As the only short-term slave in the ludus (with a two year contract, as implied in “Sacramentum Gladiatorum”), Varro has a very different perspective than the other gladiators and can actively plan on a future outside the arena, reunited with his wife and son. His presence in the ludus is of his own doing, a sign of agency rather than enslavement, which makes his death even more jarring. Courtney is heartbreakingly vulnerable in Varro’s last moments, his physicality shifting from exuberant to tense to painfully open, when Varro resigns himself to his fate.

Just as impressive is Andy Whitfield, who is at his best in this moment and in its aftermath; Spartacus is somehow even more destroyed by Varro’s death than his beloved Sura’s, and the loss is just as strongly felt by the audience. The past several episodes have shown Spartacus growing comfortable with his place in the ludus and enjoying the perks of being the Champion of Capua. Varro’s death rips away this façade and forces Spartacus to face the intolerability of his situation, and once he does, there can be no going back. In a season full of emotional moments and memorable deaths, none is as affecting as Varro’s sacrifice. “Party Favors” bids a fond and fitting farewell to the audience favorite, and pushes the season closer to its inevitable conclusion.

How to Speak Spartacus: When discussing a closely held secret, rather than something akin to, “No one will find out, as long as you keep quiet,” try to find your inner Lucretia, who puts it far more colorfully: “The truth will only unfold if—if your jaw splits and your tongue unfurls in song.”

Stray observations:

  • Viva Bianca is once again excellent as Ilithyia. Her scenes with Lawless are great, as the two women constantly slide between being supportive and controlling. Particularly effective is the smoky visage of Licinia, still laughing at Ilithyia from beyond the grave.
  • Speaking of Ilithyia, damn is she sexy when she wants to be! Poor Numerius never stood a chance. Ilithyia may have very little control over her life at the moment, as Lucretia reminds her, but she’s crafty and bent on hurting Spartacus and destroying Lucretia. She can’t know what will come of her actions, but she does know killing his friend will bring Spartacus pain, and she’s more than happy to arrange it.
  • Crixus’ arc through the episode may primarily draw attention away from Varro, but he also gets plenty to do. His read of the situation is proven correct when the gladiator-obsessed Numerius demands blood, far from the first sign that Crixus is more canny than many think. Manu Bennett continues to impress, and Crixus’ disappointment and fear upon being benched is palpable.
  • The writers give plenty of characters dialogue that foreshadows Varro’s death. During his game with Batiatus, Spartacus gets a line that hints at much more: “Battles may be lost, and yet the war concludes in victory.” It’s cold comfort, but it’s something.
  • Apparently, SyFy aired “Mark Of The Brotherhood” and “Whore” back to back, meaning they’re now up to “Old Wounds.” Without any further ado…

“Old Wounds”

Spartacus discovers the source of his affliction

“Old Wounds” picks up shortly after “Party Favors,” on the pale, lifeless body of Varro. His death weighs heavily on Spartacus throughout the episode, but unlike “Great And Unfortunate Things,” Spartacus’ grieving process takes up only a small portion of the action. Instead, the episode is far more plot-heavy, with Batiatus’ schemes and Crixus’ return to form filling the bulk of the runtime. These elements build on the careful work of the previous few episodes, continuing the second half of the season’s race to the finale.

Wisely, the writers give Ilithyia the episode off, allowing Spartacus and the viewers much needed space from Varro’s true killer. Instead Batiatus’ machinations take center stage, with Lucretia left fretting at the periphery. Despite her own considerable will and comfort with violence, Lucretia questions the wisdom of Batiatus’ ego-fueled vendetta. It’s fascinating to watch these two push each other further and further into darkness, as one and then the other takes a step forward the other would have argued against. Lucretia’s not the only one who needs convicing—Batiatus may deliver his line, “We are committed,” to Ashur, but he’s speaking to himself. John Hannah’s performance throughout is excellent, particularly when compared to his equally effective work earlier in the series. With the writers, Hannah has crafted a distinct arc for the character, making him a relatable business owner, then a heartless manipulator, and now an overconfident, reckless power-grabber. His glee at Solonius’ entrapment, having Ashur return to the scene to stand beside him so that he may enjoy Solonius’ realization of the scope of Batiatus’ ploy, would give him away if Numerius were a bit older and wiser, and not overwhelmed by his father’s death. As Batiatus says, “All men fall beneath the hell of their hubris,” and if he keeps this up, Batiatus will be no exception.

As Magistrate Calavius, John Bach brings significant gravitas to his few moments. His taunt of Batiatus, tying the man’s standing entirely to Spartacus’ victories in the arena, bears the ring of truth and is perhaps something Batiatus is already aware of—his description of Calavius’ perception of him mimics Lucretia’s description of Spartacus in “Party Favors.” In the end, Calavius proves himself to be a stern and tenacious man. He has nowhere near the subtlety that has allowed Ilithyia to continue to operate while under Lucretia’s thumb, but he’s not to be underestimated; his taking a bite out of Aulus is the episode’s most surprising moment. The timing of Solonius’ discovery of Calavius is intentional and therefor easy to accept, but his decision to cut the man’s ropes before checking to see if he is alive is a bit sloppy, as is the disappointingly obvious end of episode dialogue between Batiatus and Ashur, confirming for the audience that Ashur had been manipulating Solonius all along, confiding in him on Biatatus’ orders. Despite these minor quibbles, however, this episode brings an exciting end to Batiatus’ most recent conflict and ties a neat bow on his grudge with Solonius, the man whose attempt on Batiatus in “The Thing In The Pit” stopped Spartacus from sacrificing his life and ending the series at episode four.

Crixus’ victorious return to the arena is just as deftly handled. In contrast to the previous episode’s electrifying opening bout, Crixus’ fight with Pericles is a brawl. The two dance around each other briefly, but the acrobatics are forgotten almost immediately, with Crixus quickly beaten down. It’s among the least glamorous fights of the season, and at the end, Crixus stands alone and the victory is hollow. The crowd may chant his name, but all he sees is an empty space where Naevia should be. Crixus has also changed dramatically since the start of the series and the love of the fickle crowd is no longer enough for him.

The heart of the episode, however, is in Spartacus’ torment over Varro’s death and the feverish dreams that he experiences, brought on by his guilt. Andy Whitfield is especially strong in this episode, bringing new levels of intensity to his argument with Duro and his confrontation of Aulus. It may take him the length of the episode to fully recover, but from its opening moments, Spartacus is already questioning the company line he’s been spouting for the past few episodes. Whereas Doctore, Batiatus, and Crixus speak of the glory of a gladiator, Spartacus can only remember Varro as a husband and father.

This disconnect grows when Spartacus glimpses Aulus and his subconscious notes what he is at first unwilling to see. Spartacus’ dreams and hallucinations of Varro are effective, particularly during his sparring session with Agron, and Jai Courtney’s stillness as the ghostly Varro underlines the gravity of his message. Even more successful than Varro’s return is Sura’s. A mainstay of much of the first half of the season, this is Erin Cummings’ first appearance since “Great And Unfortunate Things” and it is Sura’s steady hand that guides Spartacus back to himself. The cold blue light and steady calm of the dreams beautifully match the weight of their message: Spartacus must embrace his fate not as an honored gladiator in the House of Batiatus, but as an instrument of its destruction, a road that the series has already demonstrated is an extremely dangerous one. While the rest of the episode sees Batiatus and Crixus vanquish their foes and solidify their positions, by far the most important transformation happens within Spartacus’ feverish mind and with Spartacus’ determined final line, the stage is set for an intense final two episodes.

How to Speak Spartacus: Doctore’s words to Spartacus, “It is never an easy thing to see a friend once loved now absent breath,” are a beautiful variation on, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Syfy Slice-And-Dice: On the whole, there is very little cut from this episode. Transitions are trimmed down, as are a few scenes, the most significant of which are Spartacus and Batiatus’ first conversation, Batiatus and Calavius’ scene, and Solonius’ first clandestine meeting with Ashur. There’s little nudity to worry about, but the slave forced along with Mira to have sex with Aulus has her nipples covered by CGI golden discs and like Ilithyia in “Whore,” Sura’s hair is lengthened and thickened with CGI to cover her nipples when she first approaches Spartacus while masked. There are also many language edits, cutting out F-bombs and dubbing in workarounds like “maggoty rash” for some of the episodes’ more colorful descriptors (in this case, Ashur’s description of Aulus’ wound). Once again, the fountains of blood during the arena scenes remain unchanged.

Stray observations:

  • The glimpses shown of the CGI sky during the Primus are absolutely gorgeous. Less so is Spartacus’ festering wound, which is downright disgusting, and the shot of gold falling out of Spartacus’ side is legitimately disturbing.
  • There are several effective moments of scoring, particularly a shuddering flute cue that mimics Spartacus’ ragged breath when he’s lying on the Medicus’ table. The score is overall rather subdued, helping to ground the more emotional scenes.
  • When he’s talking to the tied up Calavius, Batiatus kicks over his chair in a slow motion shot very reminiscent of the most famous moment in 300—perhaps this is a knowing nod to the film so many casual viewers assumed the series wanted to emulate?
  • Mira may feel a connection to Spartacus, but he clearly doesn’t think about her very much. His conversation with her, asking her to pass along his thanks to Aulus for trying to help Sura, is shockingly thickheaded and hilariously self-involved. Mira has just told him that she had no choice in having sex with Aulus, and he asks her to thank the man for him the next time she’s being raped by him. Spartacus clearly has a long way to go. The exchange also emphasizes that Spartacus is not romantically interested in Mira in any significant way, which is a wonderful subversion of expectations.

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