Spartacus finally learns patience
Given the climactic final line of “Old Wounds” and Spartacus’ history of bold and perhaps foolhardy moves, “Revelations” comes as a bit of a surprise. It is here, finally, that Spartacus learns patience. Rather than rush headlong into what most viewers know will eventually happen, Spartacus’ rebellion, the writers focus on all the other pieces that must come together to make Spartacus’ attempt successful. This episode is engrossing and filled with character beats, and yet it’s also a table setter. Spartacus’ careful balancing of the needs of each episode with the needs of the season arc is one of its greatest strengths, and is on full display here.
As the penultimate episode of Blood And Sand, “Revelations” fittingly features several callbacks to earlier in the season. The opening is a mirror of the beginning of the pilot, starting with a fight in the arena before cutting to Solonius, chained below and clad only in a loincloth, listening to the roar of the crowd and watching as sand falls down between the floorboards. Whereas Spartacus sat in isolation however, Solonius is taunted by the gloating Batiatus, and unlike Spartacus, Solonius is fully aware of what lies ahead for him. Varro is introduced in the second episode as a Roman who’s sold himself into bondage until he can pay off his debts; here Aurelia fills that role. The pilot saw Spartacus and Sura caught unawares and captured by Legatus Glaber a handful of Roman soldiers, a number Spartacus handily dispatches in this episode’s main action setpiece. Even the dramatic final line is a quote of Sura’s charge to Spartacus in “The Thing In The Pit,” itself a callback to the pilot, “Kill them all.”
Each of these moments lends this episode weight and a sense of its place in the season. They build on the momentum of the previous several episodes and tease the audience—the just desserts of the finale may not yet be here, but they’re coming soon. With his final breaths, Solonius becomes an audience surrogate. Spartacus’ assurance that Batiatus’ day is nearing prompts a dazzling smile, a hearty laugh, and a measure of contentment. This surety helps buoy what is an otherwise emotionally draining episode. Crixus and Naevia were bound to be found out, especially once they started enjoying lengthy, and reckless, rendezvous by the gate. Their discovery is not surprising, nor are their punishments. However Ashur’s sadistic glee at the notion of raping Naevia, his delight in her and Crixus’ inability to stop him, is difficult to watch.
The act is made somehow worse by Ashur’s non-violent approach. Director Michael Hurst shoots the scene effectively, maintaining the space between them before having Ashur’s back push Naevia out of the frame. Rather than ending the scene there, however, Hurst continues, holding closely on Naevia’s face as Ashur circles around her, savoring the moment and building his anticipation and her dread. Ashur wants the pretense of romance, lighting candles and speaking softly; he wants to dominate not only her body, but her will, possessing her not with brutish force, but through his cunning. The shot ends when Ashur finally removes her dress, and then the audience must watch from outside the window, helpless as Ashur eyes his gift and gently leads the powerless Naevia from the camera’s line of sight.
Less gut-wrenching but effective nonetheless is this episode’s reaffirmation that despite Mira’s affection for Spartacus and her comfort of him after Varro’s death, Spartacus still doesn’t feel any meaningful connection to her. He clearly likes her and respects her strength, but he is unconcerned with the affect his actions will have on her and the rest of the slaves and gladiators in the House of Batiatus. Mira’s look of incredulity when Aurelia’s presence stays his hand is hilarious. He may be a great fighter, but Spartacus is not yet a leader, and he was not looking at the bigger picture. Aurelia may give him pause, but it takes Mira to show Spartacus the weight of his actions—he had no choice with Varro. He does now, and he must choose wisely.
All of this is on his mind when Spartacus stands before Glaber. Andy Whitfield continues his excellent work in the role, loading the moment with possibility. Anything could happen, and Crixus and Ashur notice this, before they are drawn back into their own drama. Even Batiatus starts to see the change in Spartacus, a wonderful moment from John Hannah as Batiatus watches the Champion brandish Solonius’ head atop his sword. Batiatus’ ability to read Spartacus has been crucial in their relationship. It told him Spartacus was worth purchasing in the pilot, was worth sparing in “Legends,” and could be trusted to sacrifice himself in “The Thing In The Pit.” If Batiatus was focused on his work as a lanista and not distracted so completely with his political schemes, he would know what this look means. Instead he continues to fixate on what he does not have instead of what he does, and pays the price.
This is an episode devoted to the weight of secrets and it is fitting that before the finale, everything comes out. Batiatus reveals that he has known about Lucretia’s affair with Crixus all along, Glaber is shown the decaying proof of Ilithyia’s murder of Licinia, and in one of the episode’s most tantalizing moments, Doctore finds out about Barca. Season one has built seamlessly to this point, and with the show’s heroes on the precipice of dramatic and life-changing decisions, and the villains at their most triumphant, the long-awaited finale can finally begin.
How to Speak Spartacus: Some people say, “Talk to me.” Others say, “Spill!” When Mira wants Spartacus tell her the secrets he’s carrying, she says, “break open head and share them.” Mira’s way is clearly best.
Syfy Slice-And-Dice: Due to technical difficulties, I was only able to compare the second half of the episode. Along with the standard reframing for nudity or to avoid showing characters’ lips while they are being dubbed for language, there are several scenes cut for time. The most significant are Spartacus’ scene with Aurelia by the gate, with Spartacus’ warning about Batiatus cut, the presentation of Licinia’s hand, and Batiatus’ lecture to the gladiators preceding Crixus’ whipping. The single most glaring change is the removal of Doctore’s words of grim advice, “Embrace the pain,” which gives a very different feel to the Doctore and Crixus relationship.
- It’s nice to have one final show of love between Batiatus and Lucretia before the finale. Their supportive relationship has been crucial to their humanization and the success of the series as a whole. Lucretia rarely refers to Batiatus by name, so when she says, “You’re to be a father, Quintus,” it’s particularly touching.
- Lucretia’s pregnancy is a big surprise and likely threw many viewers for a loop—it’s easy to imagine a grisly death for either or both in the finale, but then why introduce a plot point here, her pregnancy, that could easily power much of season two? Even in the penultimate episode, Blood And Sand keeps the audience guessing.
- Craig Walsh-Wrightson has been a treat as Solonius and it’s great to see the character go out with whatever dignity he can muster. Walsh-Wrightson’s proud walk into the arena, doing his best to stand tall and face his sentence well—even earning praise, however faint, from Spartacus—says a lot about Solonius.
- Speaking of Solonius, Ilithyia’s comment about his giant, toothy grin is a fantastic bit of specificity from the writers, who clearly paid attention to Walsh-Wrightson’s performance.
- Ilithyia’s use of her sexuality as a weapon has been consistent all season and her reclamation of her power from Lucretia with one of her domination kisses is a fun touch. Their relationship throughout the season can be charted in these kisses, and it’s a particularly nice detail here, where its ultimate meaninglessness is revealed. She doesn’t have true power, she’s subject to her husband, and kiss or no, he throws her to Batiatus and Lucretia at the end of the episode.
- Spartacus is clearly a more focused man than he was in the pilot, but based on this, so is Glaber. He felt soft in his first appearances. Now he’s more battle-hardened. He’s thinner, stronger, and more precise in his movements. His and Spartacus’ sizing up of each other is an entertaining preview of what Vengeance will bring.
- It’s interesting that the writers choose to have Sura appear only in flashback, not as a guide to Spartacus. While another appearance could have been touching, it’s unnecessary. Spartacus doesn’t need her; he already knows what to do.
“Kill Them All”
Spartacus embraces his brothers
Some series focus on crafting intricate, labyrinthine plots, satisfying audiences with twists and deftly executed reveals. Others put precision to the side, centering instead on human drama and the emotional and psychological journeys of their characters. Very few attempt to do both, and even fewer succeed. With “Kill Them All,” Spartacus places itself in that lauded minority, presenting the inevitable culmination of each character’s decisions throughout the season, and the paths that led them there.
When looking at Blood And Sand, it’s easy to point to certain moments as the instigating factor in Spartacus’ eventual rebellion. If Numerius hadn’t demanded sine missione. If Ilithyia hadn’t killed Licinia. If Lucretia hadn’t paired Spartacus with Ilithyia. If Batiatus hadn’t ordered Sura’s death. Truthfully, however, the seeds of Spartacus’ attack are present in the pilot and each episode in season one sees the characters take steps—some small, some large—that seem wise in the moment but end up tightening the noose around everyone’s necks.
There is a clear and satisfying causal relationship between each of the slaves’ experiences and their decision to join, or stand aside and not stop, the rebellion. For Crixus, it’s the poisoning. For Doctore, it’s Barca. For Aurelia, it’s Varro. For Mira, it’s her frequent rape as well as her affection for Spartacus. A ludus is specifically designed to ensure the gladiators can’t rise up and attack their owners. Everything needs to go right for Spartacus to be victorious and rather than short cut this, Spartacus gives the main characters powerful motivations, and does the work necessary over the course of the season to show why they will make the choices they do.
“Kill Them All” plays wonderfully with audience expectations, both those of history buffs who are familiar with Spartacus’ story and of those completely unaware of the historical figure. It is no accident Doctore is only named in the finale. Historians watching have no idea which side “Doctore” will support in the inevitable conflict, but the historical Crixus and Oenomaus—who were both Gauls, not a Gaul and a Numidian, as in the series—went on to be leaders of the rebellion with Spartacus. Changing Oenomaus’ ethnicity and saving his identity as a finale reveal is incredibly effective and for those unfamiliar with the name, Batiatus’ use of it plays well as a sign of respect for the wavering Doctore right when he must make his decision.
As for Crixus, despite the symmetry of Spartacus and him coming together in the finale after a season of discord—which TV fans will expect—the writers wisely give the Undefeated Gaul a compelling reason not to rebel. Rather than cementing his desire for freedom, Crixus’ loss of Naevia ties him more firmly to the ludus, particularly if a trusted ally like Doctore is in charge. Until he feels the poison, Crixus has the hardest choice to make—either could lose him Naevia forever. It’s this final betrayal from Batiatus that pushes him and by extension, the other gladiators over the edge. A lesser show would have the gladiators join Spartacus simply out of the injustice of their enslavement. That’s not a good enough reason—more slaves would have risen up against Rome were that the case. Spartacus knows this, and respects its audience enough to expect they know it too.
When the moment finally comes, it’s as epic and satisfying as one could hope for. Spartacus makes his third and most climactic shield jump of the season, launching himself at Batiatus against the backdrop of a breathtaking CGI-rendered sunset, and from there, it’s chaos and blood from the Roman perspective, long-overdue justice from the slaves’ perspective, and terrible, yet beautiful art from the camera’s perspective. Director Jesse Warn slows down the action, turning the fleeing Romans into a sculpted relief, a document of a battle long gone, then speeds the camera back up to highlight the immediacy of the more personal beats. Crixus stabs Lucretia in the gut, content to let her slowly bleed out. Doctore pursues Ashur, unwilling to hear his pleas for sympathy. Aurelia at first shields the young Numerius, but even when surrounded by the bloody result of his oppressive system, he does not see the slaves’ suffering. Her rage is powerful and all-consuming, and Brooke Williams is fantastic in the scene, her fury matched with the building, frenetic intensity of the score.
The final confrontation between Spartacus and Batiatus is tremendous, carefully balancing the personal with the universal. The rebellion starts with Mira, not Spartacus, and Sura’s death alone did not bring them to this point. Lucretia and Batiatus’ careless disregard for life, time and again, did; their mistreatment of their slaves, their constant abuse. They made their bed each week and in the finale’s most striking image, they lay in it, their blood spilling into the pool they were so desperate to fill at the beginning of the season. As the gladiators stand in the villa, covered in blood and surrounded by death, they are all shaken. Violence begets violence, and while this finale offers no alternative to their actions, it does not shrink from the cost, both to the victims and slaves.
This has been an excellent season of television, and an even more impressive first season. The performances down the line have been fantastic, with genre favorites Lucy Lawless and John Hannah giving wonderful performances and lesser known actors—to American audiences at least—Manu Bennett, Viva Bianca, Nick E. Tarabay, and Peter Mensah, among others, making big impressions. In the end, though, this is Spartacus’ story and it’s Andy Whitfield who makes Spartacus work, bringing incredible intensity and physicality to the role, paired with deep emotion and, in the rare moments afforded the character, genuine humor. Whitfield’s death from non-Hodgkin lymphoma a mere 18 months after his diagnosis—while Blood And Sand was still airing on Starz—was tragic, but fortunately at least this season remains as a testament to his talent as an actor.
With this season, Spartacus creator and showrunner Steven S. DeKnight introduced a singular series, one with a distinct voice and tone, with sweeping visuals, gripping action, intense passion, and at its core, an unwavering dedication to the humanity of its characters. This is a series telling an enormous story, and with the groundwork laid and the rebellion begun, it can only expand in season two.
How to Speak Spartacus: Should you want to cheer someone up after a bad day, skip the, “I’m sorry” and instead go with Batiatus’ advice to Lucretia, “Turn thoughts from unfortunate past, and fix on glorious future.” Maybe just skip it though, if it’s right before your gladiator-themed party.
Syfy Slice-And-Dice: For comparison’s sake, I used the version on the DVD box set, which is labeled on the DVD as “enhanced.” This cut of the finale is 54 minutes, leading many of the early scenes, particularly those with Ilithyia or Lucretia, to be cut down for time. The most significant cuts are the conversation between Crixus and Spartacus, including Crixus’ description of them as brothers in another life, and Agron and Duro’s exchange during the midday break. Even parts of the Spartacus and Crixus fight are trimmed, when the episode cuts back to them in the middle, and many reaction shots and lines of dialogue from the Romans are lifted out entirely. The sex scene with Mira and Spartacus is edited to avoid nudity and is trimmed for time, and Batiatus and Lucretia’s discussion of his father is reframed and cut to avoid showing the slaves’ exposed breasts. The standard swearing dubs are back, and many are fairly subtle, but hugely distracting is the frequent dub of “freaking” for “fucking,” which does not work at all, given the situation. The attack on the Romans is cut up distractingly to add commercial breaks, and to remove swearing when it pops up, but otherwise it remains untouched.
- Many characters may get their comeuppance, but of course Ashur escapes. Mensah’s bellowed, “Ashur!” is fantastic, as is the scene that follows, but Ashur is too slippery of a character to not make it out of this finale. He at least is disturbed by the slaughter—Ilithyia practically cackles as the doors close, fleeing after giving Lucretia one final dominating kiss.
- After the many different examples of sexual transaction shown throughout the season, Mira and Spartacus’ coupling could be problematic, with her extorting sexual favors. However Whitfield and Katrina Law play the scene far more vulnerably and the legwork has been done previously to establish Spartacus’ attraction towards and affinity for Mira, so it feels like an honest coming together of equals.
- For a bloodbath finale, surprisingly few gladiator deaths get significant time, but Duro’s stands in well for these. Given the comparatively recent addition of the character and lack of development, beyond his role as younger and weaker brother to Agron, his death is unexpectedly moving.
- I have to give one final mention to the gorgeous costume and hair design on this series. These departments’ work, along with the rest of the production team, is absolutely stunning.
- It has been a pleasure reviewing season one of Spartacus! For those readers following along with Syfy’s airing of the series, I heartily recommend continuing on to Ryan McGee’s excellent reviews for Gods Of The Arena, Vengeance, and War Of The Damned.