Most fans of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena will refer to certain scenes as “jaw-dropping.” Well, the show’s not one to take things metaphorically, and so in tonight’s season finale, a jaw literally dropped onto the sands of the newly christened arena. But while tonight’s episode featured some of the biggest spectacle that the show’s ever produced, something got a little lost along the way.
The gladiatorial fights have always been a hallmark of the show, to be sure. But it’s the battles in which personal stakes are highest that produce the greatest drama. I’m not sure any fight can possible top Spartacus/Varro in Blood and Sand, and that didn’t even need an arena to produce the most heartbreaking battle in show history. Seeing the new arena broken in with fights lasting nearly half of the episode paid honor to the scale and scope of the new center of Capua but also came off like the bloody child of the WWE’s Royal Rumble and The Karate Kid’s All Valley Karate Tournament.
That such length of time would be devoted to paying off storylines of the short season would have been fine, a way to literally end conflict between warring factions. But the show didn’t do that so much as kick start both Blood and Sand and the upcoming second season of the show. All the stuff with Tullius and Vettius? Settled in the first half-hour, a plot-heavy 30 minutes that largely paid off that storyline in order to place Solonius into a familiar, inevitable position against Quintus. To see Tullius buried within the literal walls of the arena was satisfying (it was Extreme Arena Makeover: Capua Edition!), but also robbed the ensuing battles of thematic resonance that would have made the stakes much higher.
In fact, probably the most emotional moment inside the arena took place before a single battle was fought. Watching Diona be dragged out for execution as what can only be described as the warm-up act for the actual fights was Spartacus at its brutal, unflinching best. Last week, I wrote that Diona’s escape was one of the few bright spots in a dark, claustrophobic hour. Well, leave it to the Powers That Be to shove that right back in my face this week and kill her for sport. Still, there was a moment between Diona and Naevia that suggested that maybe, just maybe, death held more promise for her than a life on the run from her domina and haunted by memories of a man who couldn’t even be bothered to remember the name of the woman he raped. Small comfort, but that’s about all one can hope for on this show.
The only other real tension in the gladiatorial battles lay in the ultimate fate of Gannicus. Many of you surmised that simple history removed most of the doubt about his character’s fate. Regardless, his absence in Blood and Sand has now been explained as a combination of his freedom being granted and Quintus’ gag order on his name being mentioned in the house again. I kept waiting for Gannicus’ gushing about Melitta to raise even a spectre of doubt in Oenomaus’ mind, but I guess the show’s holding that little conflict for season two. His cock rages on, after all...
The rest of the last half-hour consisted of a lot of connect-the-dots moments, in which we saw Crixus go to the ludus’ Supercuts to obtain his season one look, Ashur lose full use of his legs, and above all else, the establishment of Solonius as a power player in the world of Capuan games. Was this last storyline predicted all season? Absolutely. Did Solonius’ triple cross delight? You betcha. Did it have to happen when it did in the episode? I’m not so sure. So much of the episode was built upon Quintus’ gladiators fighting to honor Titus (or, in Gannicus’ case, Melitta), which they did through the entrapment of Tullius early on. However, the entire opening of the new arena turned into a power play between two men only then and there made into mortal enemies, thus robbing the ensuing battles of any lasting, lingering weight.
And thus we come full circle when it comes to the problems of prequels. I voiced such concerns in the first episode of this short season, and I come back to them now. From the outset, we saw dissension in the ranks between Quintus and Solonius, even if Quintus himself never truly did until it was too late. But was it the job of this prequel to show Solonius’ power play any more than it had to show the first time in which Lucretia used Crixus’ penis as her personal pony? Storytelling comes down to deciding which moments are dramatic enough to show onscreen, but it’s also about knowing which elements fit into the overall structure and then finally knowing where those pieces fit.
Had Solonius pulled the freedom card as his first strike against Quintus, that might have worked slightly better for me. Obviously, doing things that way would have forced a slight restructuring of the episode, but I wonder if it would have given the episode more room to breathe and given quieter moments more prominence. It’s fairly clear that Solonius covets Quintus’ lifestyle, especially the part that consists of seeing Lucretia naked on a regular basis. But he also sees how much Quintus wastes that opportunity, telling him, “Is this not what set tragedy in motion? Arrogance and impatience! You are forever reaching beyond grasp and dragging those beside you as you fall!” Naturally, we all know where Solonius’ own overreach tonight lands him by the end of Blood and Sand.
This past week, I got the chance to talk to Spartacus executive producer Steven S. DeKnight about the show, along with my podcast partner Maureen Ryan. He told us how he sympathized with characters that are underdogs, people told they can’t do something, who then desperately try to do exactly that. And that’s a thread that goes through not only the slaves in this show but those that own them as well. While Quintus and Solonius both own plenty of slaves, they were but pawns amidst the mighty and powerful in Capua in the new arena, essentially slaves themselves to the socially superior whims of people like Cossutius. (More than half of them used the House of Batiatus as their personal Ludus 54 throughout the season.)
But DeKnight’s desire to show characters overcoming their stations and achieving maximum potential allows a lot of the decisions in the show to make much more sense. Take a peek at Ashur in his final moments tonight, limping in that familiar way, eyes fixed in hatred and yet impossible sadness upon the man who crippled him. In that moment, the villain we all know and love takes shape out of a desire to take his seemingly eternal outsider status and use it to forge a stronger man outside of the arena than could ever be inside of it. The ways in which he, Quintus, Oenomaus, and so forth choose to achieve said potential are wildly different, but all spring from the same well in which one person’s master is another person’s slave. Achieving one’s potential is as close to freedom as many will ever get, if they even get that close.
All those elements were present in tonight’s finale, but unfortunately, they were slightly muffled by the pageantry of the arena. That it’s hollow violence for the bloodthirsty masses is fine; that’s the point for them. But it shouldn’t be, and usually isn’t, the point for the audience at home. The show excels in showing violence, but usually excels even more in kicking the audience in the emotional gut. “Reckoning” did the latter so well that it was slightly, but only slightly, disappointing to see “The Bitter End” not quite achieve those heights. But there will be plenty of time for that when the show returns 12 months hence.
- Did we know Naevia was still a virgin when she gave herself to Crixus? In either case, good to see that Lucretia didn’t go completely cold in the wake of Titus’ murder.
- The House of Batiatus honoring Titus by fighting before his ignited funeral pyre? Badass. Just glad we didn’t see his holograph standing next to Yoda while it went on.
- In addition to setting up the above storylines for season two, tonight also positioned Vettius to return then, given Solonius’ death last year.
- In terms of sadly ironic foreshadowing, Barca insisting that he’ll join Gannicus in freedom made me a bit sad.
- “Turn desire to piss and shit, and see yourself well satisfied!” Quintus, quoting Craigslist classifieds again.
- “I did not seek pleasure. I needed only your cock.” Soon enough, Lucretia. Soon enough.
- For all those that couldn’t get over Gannicus’ likeness to WWE’s Shawn Michaels, that mid-arena missile dropkick probably didn’t help.
- As cheesy as that kick was, the retiarius’ flaming net was freakin’ awesome.
- I give the interwebs three days before that primus is on YouTube, scored to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”