There are certain episodes in any series’ run that are, for lack of a better word, necessary. They exist because certain things have to be established, introduced, or set in motion in order to make the whole endeavor eventually work. Usually this episode is either the pilot of a series or the premiere of a season, both of which often have to carry the large burden of introducing key pieces at the expense of letting them actually play out. “Wolves at the Gate” is the second episode of this final season of Spartacus, and the series places a lot of that narrative burden within its framework. Again: this is necessary work. But there are times at which it does feel like work, and that’s when things become a problem.
Indeed, there are plenty of times throughout this hour in which one can feel the writers laboring as heavily as Gannicus and Spartacus to lift the heavy gate keeping the slave army from attacking a key city in the Sinuessa en Valle. Last week’s premiere quickly sketched out the state of Spartacus’ efforts and joined them with a brisk, effortless introduction to Marcus Crassus. This time around, the number of characters introduced and plotlines established nearly double, and the episode occasionally groans under the weight. The shortened seasons of Spartacus means that Steven DeKnight and company have little room to truly fuck around with digressions, and that’s a good thing by and large. But in episodes like this, a bit more breathing room overall might have helped spread some of this dense material around a bit more.
Even with all of this density on display, “Wolves at the Gate” is still a good episode of the show, if not a classic one. The table-setting on display helps establish several character dynamics that will play out as the final eight episodes unfold. Using information gleaned from his encounter with Diotimos last week, Spartacus hatches a plan to conquer a seaside city in order to both fortify position against Crassus’ army but also provide safe haven and needed rest for his ever-swelling horde. However, the town in which Diotimos once served as a slave is heavily fortified, with only one real entrance point. On top of that, all those that enter the city have to give up their weapons during their stay inside the walls.
But Gannicus has an inside man from his post-gladiator travels: Atticus, a Roman blacksmith whose allegiances sway based upon the person placing coin in his hand. So he and Spartacus enter the city, armed with tactical information. But what they don’t have is a clear sense of the town’s inhabitants. On one side, they engage in public stoning spectacles, an act clearly meant to establish the city’s uglier side. But there’s also a sense of innocence throughout it, whether it be a girl playing ball in the street, or even the aedile’s wife Laeta, a figure who is married to a relatively high-ranking official but has sympathies for those bound by chains within the town’s walls. "Show an animal kindness and it will give loyalty until the heavens fall,” she tells her husband Ennius. “Show it nothing but the lash, and wonder not why it bears teeth."
Spartacus and Laeta have several encounters throughout the hour, in which her growing admiration for him is severed the moment she realizes his true purpose inside the city. Her introduction into the show’s narrative potentially springs from Spartacus’ admission last week to Gannicus that he no longer had anyone inside his heart still alive to keep him morally anchored. That’s not to say that Laeta will be a love interest for him. Last season’s arc with Mira essentially established that he’ll be an emotionally monogamous man until his death. But there has always been someone to tether Spartacus from turning into the very thing he despises, and that someone is usually a female.
That tether might become necessary, as “Wolves at the Gate” does little to hide the fact that the carnage that ensues in the middle of the night is far from heroic. Spartacus’ army achieves victory, but at what cost? Both sides have reasonable cause to fear the other, but those “reasonable” causes are also baked inside a cyclical series of events in which the oppressed and oppressors switch roles but maintain the established treatment within that hierarchy.
The language Spartacus employs throughout the hour to the citizens of the town highlights this confluence. When Ennius expresses thanks to Spartacus for prematurely ending the stoning of the slave, he says that he’s not for excess violence absent cause. “Nor I…absent cause,” replies Spartacus. There’s a pregnant pause between the second and third words, and a myriad of meanings layered within the final three syllables. It’s the mark of Liam McIntyre’s growth within the role of Spartacus, but it’s ALSO a mark of how Spartacus is learning the duplicitous language of the Roman elite. When he gazes at the corpse of the girl he previously saw playing ball in the street, the weight of the loss actually does affect him. He spares the lives of those remaining, but that doesn’t seem to sit well with his followers. At what point does justice become self-serving? It’s a question asked throughout history, and will be asked throughout the rest of the season.
Back at The House of Crassus, we met another famous historical figure tonight in the form of Julius Caesar. History purists probably looked at this visual combination of Thor and Kurt Cobain and frowned furiously. Not just because of his look (though come on, that’s probably part of it), but also his place in this particular story. DeKnight has admitted in the past that the introduction of Caesar is stretching it, in terms of historical veracity, but the paucity of information about the man at this time made it too juicy an opportunity to pass up. So Caesar is in, and complaining about it isn’t going to matter much in the long haul. His cock will rage on along with the rest of the inhabitants of Spartacus, so it’s up to us to not suddenly turn this into a referendum on plausibility and see what he brings to the table.
In “Wolves”, Caesar’s presence is the spark that illuminates several key relationships within the Crassus household. We got hints of certain dynamics last week, but allowing this unshaven, entitled phallus strutting around the abode cleared a few things up that were previously obscured. Sure, the Caesar/Tiberius conflict will inform a lot of big decisions down the road (that’s not a spoiler, just a telegraph signaled by tonight’s hour), but there was plenty to digest in the present time as well. Crassus loves his son, but wishes him more of a warrior. He respects his Tertulla, but both know Crassus is really in love with his slave Kora. Kora is also a key lynchpin between father and son, acting as wife/mother to them both. (I don’t detect any romantic rivalry between father and son here, but I’ll get into that in the “Stray Observations” below.)
There’s little in the dynamics of Lucretia/Ilithyia at this stage of the game between the two women of the Crassus household thus far, but maybe that’s for the best. We’ve been there and done that within the world of Spartacus, and while there’s plenty of drama to be mined from both women (as well as Laeta), said drama need not be mined from the same sources as before. Kora calling Crassus by his first name is a good example of this: it was transgressive, and thrilling, and clearly excited Crassus beyond measure. If last week was about building up Crassus as a strategist, this week was about rounding him out as a flesh-and-blood man. He’s bold and cunning, but not immune from the excessive appetites that consume all those around him.
But again, 90% of tonight served as prologue for what’s to come. Taking a breather to establish or illuminate character dynamics is one thing. Taking the (admittedly necessary) steps to introduce characters and plotlines is another. “Wolves at the Gate” wasn’t an either/or situation, but there was a constant war between the two on display that often left bloody marks upon the hour itself. With Spartacus deeply ensconced in the city, and Crassus’ army ready to march, the season can finally begin in earnest. Let the bloody times ensue.
- Many of you wondered aloud in the comments last week if Tiberius and Sabinius are lovers. My guess is “probably”, but my attitude is “who cares” at this point. It’s not vital to the story at present moment, and while it may inform things later, the show has established a deep bond between the two that will inform actions later. That’s fine for the time being.
- That town’s spear throwers really couldn’t throw spears for shit. They were like Imperial Stormtroopers in ancient Italy.
- Every shot of “Random Hot Shackled Slave Girl” reads as “she will be important down the line”.
- The title of the episode comes from Crassus telling Caesar he needs a wolf at his side in battle. Tiberius overhearing that line seems like a signal that those words will come back to bite someone at some point.
- "Years abroad led you to strange pleasures." Let us never speak of whatever the hell that woman was doing with that knife while servicing Caesar. Agreed?
- New rule: every episode has to feature a slo-mo scene of Spartacus tossing up someone for Gannicus to slash down. These guys would hold the WWE Tag Team belts for fifty years, I’m telling you.
- "I prefer fancy sword and expected position." That’s how Caesar throws a tantrum. It was…kind of adorable? Definitely NOT adorkable, though. There’s no room in the world of Spartacus for someone to ask their iPhone: “Siri, is this man the bringer of rain?”