Trying to convince people that Spartacus is more than just sex and violence is like trying to convince people that Cougar Town isn’t a show about Courteney Cox boinking twenty-something himbos. Making the argument that neither is the case is noble, but usually futile. Oh well. Their loss. “The Greater Good” is a great, succinct summation of what makes Spartacus so addictive. There’s a clarity of purpose at work in this episode, one slightly lacking in the first two installments of the season. Those two haven’t been bad episodes by any stretch, but they were essentially laying down narrative tiles all over the map. Tonight? The pieces fell into place, and were summarily knocked down.
Whereas many shows with long-form narrative get bogged down in what’s loosely defined as “mythology” (whatever the hell that means in a post-Lost era), Spartacus thrives on defining action through emotional intent. Whatever happens is the result of someone trying desperately to get something (or someone) they want. That’s the very essence of drama, and yet so many shows seem to think the heart of drama lies in a complex, often indecipherable mystery that swallows up its players in a morass of ever-murky waters. However, Spartacus as a show has gotten bigger because the goals and ambitions of those within it have gotten bigger.
That’s a crucial difference, and goes above and beyond seeing the enormity of the mines at the end of this hour. Sure, the mines look great, and feel absolutely immense. But more immense is the pressure Spartacus is under to make the mission to save Naevia successful. Getting to that point in the episode has meant the sacrifice of roughly half of his slave-based army in the process. He has retained the Gauls, but lost those following Agron. Agron and Spartacus come to metaphorical blows over the proper path to take. Agron and Crixus come to literal blows when the latter finds out the former lied about Naevia’s death in order to serve the titular “greater good.”
It’s a fascinating argument, since there’s merit on both sides. Spartacus argues that every single life holds meaning. This argument rings true for many, since nearly everyone within earshot can sympathize with the loss of a loved one at Roman hands. However, Agron questions the validity of dying blindly for any cause, no matter how moral. He wants to avoid going to the mines in favor of augmenting their forces along the coast. Morality gets in the way of tactics, and while geographical maps are scattered across the episode, there are few in the way of maps in order to find the right course of emotional action.
One such emotional map, however, is laid out by Lucretia to Ashur as he interrogates Oenomaus. Why didn’t Spartacus allow him to find out about Gannicus’ affair with Melitta in Gods of the Arena? Because it’s approximately a thousand times more effective to let that fact hang in the air until deployed for maximum effect. Ashur’s initial attempts to loosen Oenomaus’ tongue fail. In fact, Ashur hurts his own wrist more than Oenomaus’ back through repeated lashings. But then Lucretia gives Ashur the information we’ve long dreaded Oenomaus to hear. Once you heard Lucretia talking about setting a "corpse to purpose", you realized it was on like Donkey Kong. (My Kong rages on!) It breaks Oenomaus’ silence, and soon, Ashur learns of their destination. Why? Because he’s Ashur, and he’s fucking awesome. Awful, sure. But awesome as well.
Ashur laughs at Oenomaus for being yet another man ruled by his loins. But it’s not really “loins” so much as “passions” that drive these men. That might sound like a justification for talking about this show in a serious manner, but it also speaks to the way in which these men (and women) love is an extension of their identity and the type of world in which they want to live. It’s ironic, then, that the Glaber/Ilithyia troubles stem from a perceived lack of passion. “Lust, as all things, fades with the passing of years,” says Ilithyia to Seppia. But it’s more than Glaber’s current passion lies in his station within the Senate, and the desire to be seen as equal to Varinius. Sex with his wife is only a “task” in the current context of his life, not his marriage. Glaber’s power play in showing up his fellow praeter speaks to his passion for achieving a higher position in the Senate. That this passion makes Glaber’s wife feel neglected is just another consequence within the world of this show, and one that will certainly have ripple effects down the line.
All of this comes together in a bravura sequence at the episode’s end in which all those aforementioned pieces start to fall. The walls start to close in on Spartacus, literally and figuratively, as Ashur leads Glaber’s men into the mines to root out the rebellion. Intercut with these scenes are an old-school gladiator fight inside the arena that serves as both counterpoint and augmentation to the claustrophobic fights deep with the mine’s tunnels. The gladiators might be playing out their struggles in a more open arena, but it’s still one in which they are trapped without hope of escape. Crixus does manage to reunite with Naevia, but only for a brief moment. In the final moments, Crixus sacrifices his own freedom in order to secure hers. He’s the embodiment of Spartacus’ earlier ethos that each person’s life holds meaning. But that ethos has led to his capture. As Spartacus looks on in horror, you can see doubt creep into his eyes. Freedom has its own costs, and the players in Spartacus are only starting to truly learn that.
- Tonight’s episode featured multiple flashbacks to events in Blood and Sand, but with new actors inhabiting old scenes. Both Liam McIntyre and Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who now plays Naevia after Lesley-Ann Brandt left the role, appear in earlier contexts. I’d be curious to hear how jarring that felt for others.
- Vengeance is doing some really great work with Mira this year, as she tries to escape Sura’s shadow. Her violent, completely redundant stabbing of the slave driver emphasizes how much the dam has broken within her to not be a passive figure in this struggle.
- Also appreciated? The way the show zigged instead of zagged with Nasir and his allegiance to Agron. A lesser program would have let the lie of Naevia’s status hang over the show for multiple episodes, due to Nasir’s affections for Agron. Here? It’s revealed almost instantly, and Nasir becomes a stronger character for it.
- I also enjoyed Nasir’s short conversation with Chadara about their respective positions within the rebellion. It’s quick, builds character, and speaks volumes about the sexual mores of the time. They are practical people with dreams bigger than themselves. In other words, they are identical to almost everyone else on the show.
- Anyone else hear a little Darth Vader in Ashur when he told Oenomaus, “Search hard and feel the sting of truth”?
- “We do not choose love. It claims each man as it will.”
- “Stone at last cracks. In defense of a fucking whore.”
- “I will give them pause, so you may slip from grasp.”