Spartacus: “The Thing In The Pit”
C+
Andy Whitfield (Starz)
Andy Whitfield (Starz)

Spartacus: “The Thing In The Pit”

Spartacus finds its voice

After the previous episode’s heights of the Primus, “The Thing In The Pit” sees Spartacus fall to his lowest point yet. As the character struggles to hold on to his life and his sanity, the series reaches solid ground, firmly establishing its voice and hinting at the future history fans know is coming. The first three episodes of Spartacus present a world of extreme violence and passion, elements that remain throughout the series’ run, but while they quickly establish character, the distinct linguistic flair that becomes just as crucial to the show’s success is still a work in progress. Episode four changes this. From Batiatus’ memorable, “Do you shoot magic coins out of your ass? If so, squat and produce!” in the very first scene, “The Thing In The Pit” embraces this new syntax and the unique energy it lends the show.

With its mythic central figure and heavily stylized aesthetics, it’s only natural that Spartacus’ dialogue would be heightened as well. Personal pronouns (like “I” and “you”) are dropped in favor of articles (“the”), giving the dialogue a feeling of universality and downplaying the specificity of a given character’s experience or wishes. Over the millennia, Spartacus has become more of a symbol than a man, and it’s fitting that the series embraces this with its speech patterns. Sentences are also streamlined and then augmented with colorful flourishes, depending on the speaker and moment. It’s astonishing just how much can be removed from a typical sentence without the central meaning being affected, and watching the writers play with this will be a treat moving forward.

Other important elements are introduced in this episode as well, including Barca’s relationship with Pietros and the comfort of both the series and its characters with homosexuality. Batiatus’ father is referenced by Doctore as well, a relationship that will be explored later in the series, and the writers take advantage of the audience’s extratextual knowledge to cast Lucretia in the Cassandra role, prophesying the spreading curse of Spartacus. While the series has toyed with the character’s legacy in the past, this is its most prominent use of dramatic irony yet and the moment works well. Ancient Rome’s was a highly superstitious culture, at least to modern eyes, and Lucretia’s fear of Spartacus being cursed is not something that would necessarily have been taken lightly. Having her voice this fear, allowing Batiatus to be warned to an extent of what may come from sparing Spartacus, gives agency to the character and makes him an active player in what will come next.

“The Thing In The Pit” strips Spartacus of any nobility, turning him into one of the dogs of the pits. There’s no pretense or moral outrage: He fights to stay alive and he fights to save his wife, and though horrified and grim, the specter of Sura does not condemn her husband, but encourages him to action. Once again, Andy Whitfield gives a strong performance as Spartacus. The fights in the pits are visceral, but the highlights are the episode’s quiet moments, as Spartacus reflects on his wife Sura or sits alone, grasping at the threads of his sanity.  Lucy Lawless is also fantastic as Lucretia—the dread on her face sells the danger of the pits more than Doctore’s disapproval or Kerza’s fear—and John Hannah continues to ground much of the action, giving Batiatus enough desperation to balance his bluster and allowing a glimmer of decency to shine through. Hannah also manages to sell a ridiculous amount of recap in the episode’s first scene, aided by the writers’ structuring of this audience catch-up as a lecture from Batiatus to a willful Spartacus. The two have established a strong rapport and Spartacus’ trust of Batiatus, and vice versa, is unexpected and striking.

While this episode features a number of intense fights and is on the whole an improvement on “Legends,” it ends up feeling rather disposable. Viewers know Spartacus won’t die in the pits and though it’s important to see him face consequences for his actions in the lead up to and during the Primus, at the end of the episode, Spartacus has returned to the ludus and the only lingering effect of the episode is the attempt on Batiatus’ life. Focusing on the crowd at the pits as a mob works far better than the approach taken in “Legends,” but there’s still a ways for Spartacus to go. That being said, this is a series that has established its characters and their world, found its tone, and developed a unique voice in only four episodes. It’s an incredible accomplishment and with all the major pieces in place, Spartacus is primed to take off in its coming episodes.

How to Speak Spartacus: Next time you’d say, “I’m not proud of it,” instead try, “Pride does not follow the statement” (Varro to Spartacus, re: gambling in the pits)

Syfy Slice-And-Dice: When Syfy announced they’d be airing Spartacus, many viewers wondered how they could possibly air the series, how they could possibly cut around its violence and sexuality. Based on the Slice-And-Dice for “The Thing In The Pit,” the answer is simple—they don’t intend to. The re-edit for this episode is very straightforward, aided by the original episode’s comparatively short runtime of 49 minutes. Other than a few seconds shaved off of transitional moments, there are only two significant changes to the episode: one shot is re-framed to avoid showing Crixus’ exposed lower half and just about every f- and c-bomb is cut or dubbed over. “Shaft” and “rod” remain the words of choice to replace “cock” and in general, “fuck” is trimmed out without replacement. Meanwhile, despite its occasionally graphic nature (why hello, Kerza’s exposed eyeballs), little if any of the violence or gore has been touched.

Stray Observations:

  • Apparently the House of Batiatus adheres to Vegas rules: What happens in the halls and by the stairs stays in the halls and by the stairs. Lucretia does not seem concerned that the slaves will tell Batiatus of her use of Crixus (though, to be fair, perhaps he already knows) and Naevia and Crixus certainly aren’t that secretive, given how nearby that guard is.
  • The cut from Kerza’s bold declaration of intent for the pits to his less than stellar showing is very effective. It’s both humorous and deadly serious, underlining the danger Spartacus faces. The brutal violence of this fight and the disturbing dismemberment of Kerza underline the depravity of the pits and the toll it takes upon those who fight or spectate there.
  • Having Sura return in this episode works well, her physical presence the reminder that the cloth can’t be, as Spartacus has relinquished it to Batiatus for safekeeping. The blocking in their scenes is particularly effective, with Sura whispering in Spartacus’ ear, kept in his mind but out of his line of sight.
  • The Slice-And-Dice will be going on hiatus for the next two reviews, as I’ll be unable to watch the Syfy versions while at San Diego ComicCon and then on vacation with my family the week after. Reviews of the original versions will continue to go up after the Syfy airings, however.

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