Spartacus: “Shadow Games”
B+
Andy Whitfield, Reuben De Jong, Manu Bennett (Starz)
Andy Whitfield, Reuben De Jong, Manu Bennett (Starz)

Spartacus: “Shadow Games”

Spartacus’ star continues to climb as two legends fall

After a very successful first four episodes, Spartacus shifts into a new gear with “Shadow Games,” as Spartacus and Crixus are pitted in the area against the great Theokoles. While a few of the improvements of “The Thing in the Pit” are not present—the show will likely take a couple episodes to embrace these changes—this installment sees the series darkening, with Batiatus employing methods that startle even Lucretia, Barca being assigned a despicable task, and Ashur scheming against Crixus and by extension, Spartacus. As Batiatus and Solonius reveal the more sinister sides of their nature, Lucretia commits what is for her a selfless act, allowing Crixus to not have sex with her and sacrificing whatever benefits to fertility Illythia’s healer was able to bestow. This role reversal, demonizing Batiatus, who has thus far been Spartacus’ ally, and further humanizing Lucretia, who only the episode prior pled for his death, deepens the world and makes the show more thoughtful and challenging. Both John Hannah and Lucy Lawless continue to shine in their roles, but Lawless in particular stands out as Lucretia turns her back to the camera and sobs not only for Crixus’ feared fate, but for the loss of any hope for a child.

Much of “Shadow Games” benefits from the diligent work the four previous episodes have done building up the world. The heat and dustiness of Capua have been well established and are active presences onscreen, their stifling oppressiveness having been felt since “Sacramentum Gladiatorum.” Rather than pay lip service to the temperature in the script, these episodes show the characters becoming progressively grimier, their clothing limper, and their energy levels dwindled, sucked out by the heat, making the opening of the heavens at the end of the episode hugely effective. The ecstasy of the crowd is profoundly felt and feels deserved, the rain a relief to everyone save Crixus, Naevia, Lucretia, and Solonius. It’s a beautiful moment of release for Spartacus and the episode’s straightforwardly jubilant portrayal of it pushes the audience to forget his ominous dream and its warning from Sura.

Just as crucial to the success of “Shadow Games” is the legwork done in “Legends” to establish Theokoles, and Doctore’s previous encounter with him. Theokoles has been spoken of in hushed tones for the past several episodes and the reactions of the entire cast to his mere name give his eventual appearance greater weight. Reuben De Jong’s physicality and intensity are impressive, but the character’s striking look could easily be distracting. After most of an episode of warnings from a deadly serious Doctore, Theokoles’ design needs to be as heightened as everything around him and live up to the audience’s imagination, but he’s nearly cartoonish in his monstrosity. Doctore’s reaction as Theokoles is announced, a rare moment of anxiety from the reserved trainer, counters this significantly and as soon as Theokoles starts moving, any doubts are wiped away. What follows is a compelling and excellently staged fight, quite possibly the series’ best yet, which is saying quite a bit.

Crixus and Spartacus’ arc through the episode is a familiar one—they’re an unlikely duo with a beef forced to work together against a common enemy. Most of their interactions follow along the prescribed path, but the climactic showdown with Theokoles thankfully subverts expectations. Rather than have their initial teamwork rewarded with a swift victory, Theokoles shakes off the attack and mirrors Crixus during his initial arena battle with Spartacus in “Legends,” crying, “Capua, shall I begin?” Crixus’ desperation is felt in this moment, as he abandons Doctore’s advice and strikes out rashly. His ability to keep his senses as he clutches his stomach and push his intestines back in is impressive, let alone being able to formulate and carry out a simple, manageable action to distract Theokeles. Crixus may act without thinking, but when able to collect his thoughts, he is clever and determined, an opponent one underestimates at their peril. Spartacus’ use of Crixus’ shield to turn his wounding into a strategic advantage demonstrates his clear, quick thinking; when the two work together, they are something to see and for the history buffs watching, this fight is particularly encouraging. For everyone else, it’s an exciting and intense sequence that promises change.

Also prominent in the episode is Illythia, who returns after taking “The Thing In The Pit” off. The character is dangerous and wonderfully immature, a marked contrast to Lucretia, whose wary handling of her shows good judgment. Illythia is a threat and her reappearance reminds viewers of the lingering specter of Legatus Glaber and the rest of the Roman world. She may behave like a child, but Illythia also has one of the episode’s best lines, the evocative, “The heat is a thing living, crawling down the throat.” The contrast of such a thoughtful line coming from such a self-involved, shallow woman mirrors the writers’ use of language elsewhere in the episode.

While the trademark Spartacus syntax present in “The Thing In The Pit” is missing here, there are several examples of the writers playing with and pairing stylized and modern speech, from Batiatus’, “May the Gods grant us miracle. They fucking owe us something” to Doctore’s, “Heal old wounds. Kill that fucking son of a whore.” The show’s dialogue is usually formal, but having more accessible expressions creep in during particularly emotional moments works well and humanizes the characters. Eventually, the linguistic rhythms of the previous episode will be added to complement this approach, but only five episodes in, it’s hard to hold the fledgling state of its speech patterns against the show. Spartacus has already demonstrated its dedication to nuanced, thoughtful characters and world-building. With “Shadow Games,” it muddies the world and upsets the status quo, giving Spartacus his first significant victory and the series another entertaining episode in its strong opening run.

How to Speak Spartacus: Rather than, “I’d like to speak with them,” channel your inner Batiatus and say, “I would have conversation.” And of course, “Thank you” or “Thanks” should always be replaced with “Gratitude.”

Stray Observations:

  • Ashur may be effective, but his methods are less than savory. The maggots that open the episode are just as disgusting as presumably intended and his glee at Crixus’ seeming defeat, along with his attempts to sabotage Spartacus and Crixus’ ability to trust each other in battle, are despicable.
  • Illythia does some serious name dropping in this episode. The women she claims recommend her healer include Cornelia, the wife of Gaius Julius Caesar, and Servilia, Caesar’s long-term mistress and the mother of Marcus Junius Brutus (yes, that Brutus).
  • Andy Whitfield is once again excellent as Spartacus. Perhaps his single most entertaining moment this episode, however, is not the show-stopping battle with Theokoles, but the delightfully bitchy line delivery Whitfield gives, “I have seen you, with Legatus Glaber.”
  • There’s some memorable scoring in this episode, but the most effective choice is the use of a choir to underscore the falling of the rain. The harmonies and call and response repetition give it an air of the sacred, complementing the power of the moment beautifully.
  • The MVP of this episode is Peter Mensah as Doctore. His gravitas puts Spartacus and Crixus to shame, revealing them as petulant children, at least at this moment. Doctore’s slow motion simultaneous tripping of the two followed by his assessment, “Pathetic,” is fantastic and the flashbacks to his time in the arena are just as effective.

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