It’s really too bad that Breaking Bad already went ahead and called its fourth season finale “Face Off.” Because honestly, that would have made a much better title for tonight’s Spartacus than “Sacramentum.” That latter title refers to the oaths sworn by the swelling armies of both Spartacus and Glaber. But really, all anyone’s really going to remember from this episode in years to come will be, “Oh, right, that’s the episode where Spartacus cut that German’s face clean off of his freakin’ head!” And while there are much worse things by which an episode of television can be remembered, it also speaks to the fact that by this show’s standards, things moved rather slowly tonight.
Such a pace made sense last week, as a breather in light of the events inside the still smoldering arena. But now, as we head into the final few hours? The pace simply felt slower than it should, with pieces arranged on the table rather than sprung forth into action. In the immediate aftermath of the episode, this might not seem so apparent. Indeed, a rush of excitement filled the air in the final ten minutes. But that comes less from the show finally allowing simmering tensions to boil over and more from the essential lack of forward movement before that.
This was most pronounced in the segments that followed Spartacus, Agron, and Crixus debating the recent arrival of newly freed Germans from the Naples port. Agron chooses to liberate these prisoners of war as the best of three available ships on the docks. However, what makes this ship “best” comes quickly under suspicion. Crixus instantly worries that Agron is making a play to take control over the entire group, while Agron openly admits that he didn’t want to free more Gauls at the port. In some respects, the season has built towards this movement with its constant quarreling between Spartacus’ two highest ranked men. On the other hand, get on with it, show. We understand fully that the two hate each other, and hate each other's ethnicities as well as personalities. Let’s move on.
It doesn’t help that the Germans are surprisingly one-note throughout the hour. For a show that’s so good at drawing specific characters from the moment they arrive onscreen (Nasir is a great example of this), there’s little tonight to really help the audience gain any insight into their culture, background, or motivations. They are Abstractly Angry Germans, who like to eat, drink, fight, and fuck. (Only sometimes in that order. And even less frequently one at a time.) They exist as an obstacle, not as new players in the drama, serving to provide tension while the Romans are still licking their wounds. This points to a larger problem: so long as Spartacus and his men exist in relative (extremely relative, I recognize) safety in a single location, the show loses a lot of tension. It’s not to the extent that the super-safe setting in Terra Nova sucked out any sense of danger in that world. But it’s the second week in which internal squabbles took over in light of an external threat. Ideally, both happen simultaneously. And so often in this show, they do. But not over these past two weeks.
Those still in Capua really don’t need to engage Spartacus in order to generate drama. Unfortunately, Spartacus falls slightly short as a leader when he’s not executing a raid or defacing a man the size of Theokoles. It’s not that Liam McIntyre isn’t doing a good job in the role: it’s that he’s only given about one speech an episode as a way to rally people to his cause. That’s not exactly enough to justify the way in which various characters say that Spartacus has “shown them the way”. But once you see him in action, defending Agron’s life after Sedullus’ attempt on Naevia, it’s easy to see why men would follow him to the end of the earth. Much of this season has been spent organically showing how Spartacus turned from a slave into the leader of an army. That sort of thing takes time, and involves some necessary indecision. Hopefully, the conscription of the Germans to his cause helps kick the next phase of things into high gear.
As we turn thoughts (and analysis) to Capua, here’s a little thought experiment: Had this season only been about the activities inside or around The House of Batiatus, with only mention of what was happening outside the city, would this series still work as a potent drama? I’m not suggesting for a second that time spent with Spartacus and his army is a narrative misstep. However, I would note that the two episodes this season that have been less than successful both had their primary faults in that part of the world. Spartacus’ “long night’s journey into day” back in “Empty Hands” and his rather passive approach for most of tonight’s episode represent perhaps the only two ineffective segments of an otherwise stellar season. However, just about every moment in Capua has been top-notch from top to bottom. So thoughts of turning this into the gladiatorial version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead are both completely hypothetical, but plenty intriguing all the same.
“The whole world has slipped from reason, “ Lucretia tells Gannicus near the middle of tonight’s hour. And the very fact these two are even talking to each other shows just how correct she is. Just three episodes ago, Gannicus was still roaming the countryside. Ilithyia was planning her divorce. Albinius still drew breath. And Glaber was an impotent fool in the eyes of both his family and the Senate. Well, now, up is down, left is right, dogs and cats are living together. You know, mass hysteria and such. Glaber’s power has grown to the point where he can now command forces to crucify those who speak Spartacus’ name. But more important, his power has grown to the point where his own wife lives in mortal terror of him.
And it’s not just Ilithyia that has found her power recently stripped. Lucretia tonight is at one of the lowest points we’ve ever seen her, and that’s saying a lot for someone who was stabbed in the belly while pregnant and left to die next to the corpse of her husband. It was bad enough to see Ashur rape her last week, but I’m not sure I anticipated that he would continue to play “Who’s Your Dominus?” with her repeatedly after that initial assault. She lies with him nightly now, and is forced by him to wear the red wig that helped define her character in Blood And Sand. The wig is a marvel of shorthand storytelling: In Blood and Sand, it served as an attempted symbol of status; in Gods Of The Arena, it transformed into homage for a lost friend; in Vengeance, it’s a mark of shame and submission. The wig hasn’t changed. But the person wearing it couldn’t be in a more different place.
Gannicus serves to underline the central message that affects everyone in Capua, no matter what stature: Absolutely no one living there is truly free. He seeks to reclaim his purse from the match in Capua, but he also seeks his rudis, the sword that legally helps keep from from re-enslavement. The very fact that misplacing it could jeopardize that freedom shows just how fleeting it is. But freedom is fleeting for all, if it indeed exists. Glaber crucifies slaves from his house for sport, while Lucretia cuts her own wrists in a vain attempt to free herself from the house by faking a potential miscarriage of Ilithyia’s child. Whereas Spartacus bides his time, Lucretia never sits still, always forging new alliances to repair the damage from those recently severed.
Her appeal to Gannicus is both shrew but sound. We probably shouldn’t be rooting for her to succeed by convincing the former champion of her house to kill its current owner. But the episode does a good job at making it plausible that Gannicus would go along with it. We already know that he doesn’t really believe in Spartacus’ cause, deeming it a fool’s errand. Lucretia’s plan serves her end, but also offers him a chance to see members of his former brotherhood escape what he deems certain slaughter. His encounter with Glaber somewhat changes his perspective, but what really does is a visit back to the whorehouse he frequented before his confrontation with Oenomaus on the sands. He’s shocked to learn how many there still whisper Spartacus’ name, despite Glaber’s decree. The only more fleeting thing in the world of this show than freedom? Power. Glaber and Ashur think they have achieved it in totality, only to have that illusion shattered upon seeing Gannicus’ rudis buried in the neck of the man sworn to protect Ilithyia on the way to Rome. Their hubris is now gone, along with the mysteriously absent Gannicus and Ilithyia.
- OK, prediction time: Gannicus didn’t kill Ilithyia, but will bring her to Spartacus as a form of either barter or protection from Glaber. There, everyone will realize who the real baby daddy is, Mira will get pissed, and Spartacus will have a really good reason to keep Ilithyia alive. Total conjecture, but that feels like where we’re headed. (Speaking of, does Ilithyia know there’s a chance Spartacus is the father? I honestly can’t remember.)
- As much as I love Nick Tarabay’s performance on this show, Ashur kinda has to die for his transgressions this season, no? It’s one thing to root for an asshole that screws over his fellow gladiators and has a knack for staying alive. It’s another to root for someone that rapes another repeatedly. The show has a pretty strict moral code, in terms of who lives and dies. And while losing Ashur would mean losing a big piece of the show, it may come to a point where he has to go. Sons of Anarchy had a similar dilemma this season, and punted the chance to do right by the stakes it established. I have more faith in Spartacus’ ability to zig where Sons zagged.
- I loved the fight between Mira and German-Who-Look-Like-Chadra. That was some slick choreography, and was well-executed.
- Seeing the cart come to carry Ilithyia away to Rome brought back some fierce flashbacks of Sura’s arrival in a similar vehicle.
- This hour missed a prime chance to give Nasir some shading, particularly in helping Agron see that his fellow Germans might actually be a threat. While I noted earlier that the show sketched him in well from the outset, they haven’t done much with him since.
- Poor Oenomaus. Lugo just wanted you to get laid, man. Melitta’s dead. You aren’t.