Well, say this for Spartacus: When this show gives its characters the axe, it gives them the literal goddamn axe. Brutal, cathartic, shocking, and nearly top-to-bottom thrilling, the Vengeance season finale “Wrath Of The Gods” pays off some story lines that have been percolating since the series première, stages some fairly amazing battle sequences, and says goodbye to some of its seminal characters in ways we won’t soon forget. It’s hard to think this show can get much bigger, but while it cleared the roster of seemingly half of its characters tonight, the stage is set for all out war when the show returns to Starz in the sadly distant future.
But let’s put aside thought of that season (which I wager will be subtitled Hugs And Kittens) aside for now. Let’s focus on the here and now, which sees several long-running narratives reach the end of the road only to reveal new and more complex paths ahead. We should start with our titular hero, who loses his closest companion in the early moments thanks to a less-than-brave attempt by Nemetes to flee from their high, protected, but barren perch upon Vesuvius. Spartacus saves the asses of Nemetes, Ludo, and Saxa, but Mira receives a lethal blow during the ensuing retreat. It’s not like this show is one to shy away from killing characters, but those in recent weeks haven’t carried quite the sting of this one. Seppia’s death last week may have been more brutal, and Varinius’ death more fiery, but Mira’s demise signals that this episode is not going to fuck around. Before we even have time to settle into the episode’s rhythms, we loose a key member of the resistance and a key member of the show as whole. I loved Katrina Law’s work this season, and while her death will help facilitate the next stage of Spartacus’ journey, she will be missed all the same.
While Spartacus grieves in angry silence, those down below plot their post-battle life plans. Ashur envisions a glorious life ahead of him in the wake of Spartacus’ imminent defeat. He even goes so far as to offer his Brotherhood of Badass Mutherfuckers a place inside his impending House of Ashur. In his mind, the transformation into Batiatus himself is almost complete. While he’s always talked about himself in the third person, his use of it in recent episodes has taken on a grander tone, almost as if he’s been psychologically distancing himself from his years as a slave and projecting himself into the future as a lanista. Just like Glaber, he prematurely tastes victory, unaware of how close defeat is at hand.
Said defeat comes from the lips of Ilithyia, anxious to keep Lucretia at her side when she returns to Rome with husband and child in tow. She uses Seppius’ bracelet to spin a tale of Ashur’s betrayal, hoping to free Lucretia from the bonds of promised marriage. But neither the “serpent” nor the “oracle” holds much worth to Glaber, since both know his secrets. So while Ilithyia may have freed Lucretia from a life married to Ashur, she also now finds herself in charge of killing the one woman in the world she now considers a friend. I’m telling you, The Real Housewives Of Ancient Rome must have been one helluva reality show back in the day.
Ashur falls almost instantly from grace, losing both the favor of Glaber and the loyalty of the brotherhood in the wake of Ilithyia’s tall tale. (The multitude of reactions that wash over Nick Tarabay’s face before he spits out “You fucking cunts!” represents a masterclass of acting.) I could quibble about how dense Ashur is about the reason for Glaber’s sudden turn, but I want to gloss over that and just get to him climbing Vesuvius to deliver Glaber’s message to Spartacus and his hungry, weary band of rebels. It’s a bravura sequence, one in which it appears the serpent will once again escape death when Naevia takes Crixus’ place to attempt to end Ashur’s life. Because, come on, this is Spartacus, but this show isn’t going to kill Ashur. He’s Ashur! And we’ve seen characters in recent television history do despicable things that call for their immediate death, only to have the show wimp out and find an out for that character at the last minute. (I’m looking at you, Sons Of Anarchy.)
So the duel unfolds, with us watching at home as helpless as Crixus upon the mountain. Ashur easily parries any attempt Naevia makes to exact the revenge for which she’s been training all season. As the fight unfolds, and the music grows somber, we understand what’s about to happen: We know Ashur will live, Naevia will die, and both Spartacus and Crixus will glumly sing “My cock limps along” to the tune of some deep cut off of The Cure’s Disintegration album during Hugs And Kittens. But then, at a point of opportunity, Naevia makes a strategic groin cut, slits Ashur’s throat, and chops his head off in three concussive blows. Ashur assures her moments before his death that this won’t cure all her problems. “No. It will not,” she concurs. “But it is a fucking start.” Considering how much of a weak link her character was in the immediate aftermath of the mines, it was thrilling to see her achieve some catharsis after a season-long journey through psychological hell. Crixus holds her, and promises to soon teach her how to cleave a man’s head from his body in one stroke. It’s somehow the most romantic thing ever. Spartacus, everyone.
Speaking of romance, we should probably talk about Lucretia, eh? When I interviewed Lucy Lawless before the season started, she promised me that the final episode would feature something that would recontextualize the entire season. It’s fair to say that Lawless was onto something, because, my God, that was one horror show of a final sequence for her character. If you look back over the entire season, you can now see how knowledge of Ilithyia’s child signaled to this damaged, essentially insane woman that the gods were giving her a chance to have the one thing thought lost to her: a family. So much of Vengeance has dealt with the ramifications of acts done in the present rolling through into the afterlife. In the unintended offspring of Ilithyia and Spartacus, Lucretia saw a chance to give her deceased husband the son she always wanted to provide for him. And holy hell, does she deliver, via a swan dive off a freakin’ cliff after cutting the baby out from Ilithyia’s unwilling stomach. If you had that ending in your office pool, then you and I need to invest in the stock market together. In summary: Lucretia is dead, Ilithyia is dead, and the newborn infant is dead. The ludus is no more.
And yet, the show rages on! I’ve held off on discussing the actual climatic battle, because while it offers a grand scope and plenty of great action, it lacks (by design) the more intimate emotional moments of the Ashur/Naevia and Lucretia/Ilithyia scenes. Again, that’s not to fault anything about the sequence. But there’s little to really say about it without literally recapping the blow-for-blow action, save for two moments. The first comes with Oenomaus’ death at the hands of The Egyptian while saving Gannicus’ life. Poor Oenomaus: His goose was effectively cooked when The Egyptian partially blinded him last week. And if you know anything about The Joss Whedon Graduate Program Of Pain from which Spartacus creator Steven DeKnight graduated, then you knew that if Oenomaus were to perish, it would be so while defending the man who once slept with his wife. Oenomaus’ death is sad, but also gives closure to Gannicus while simultaneously affirming his allegiance to Spartacus and his cause.
As for the titular hero himself, he ended one major part of his character’s journey through the murder of Glaber inside Lucius’ stronghold. That journey started with the rough, wild boy he was before he met Sura (whose face flashed before his eyes as he killed Glaber), carried through his time in slavery, and culminated with his journey toward being a leader of men this season. If Spartacus has felt at times adrift this season, it’s by design. Vengeance charted the course of a man who had to learn to think outside of himself in order to lead by example. That example came not only through mere deed, but the moral purpose of that deed. The last few weeks have seen Spartacus come into his own in terms of understanding how to inspire and align people of disparate backgrounds, ethnicities, and agendas. And it’s seen Spartacus as a whole reach ever grander heights in terms of ambitious, scope, and emotional power.
There are huge challenges facing the show in the wake of tonight’s finale. Lucretia, Glaber, Ilithyia, Ashur, and Oenomaus are all dead. These were important pieces of the puzzle, sacrificed in the name of the story this show wants to tell. The diminished ranks will soon be filled by new players, some of which will be familiar to those of you with even a cursory knowledge of Roman history. We don’t know how much longer this show will actually run. But we do know that there’s little waste in the telling of it. This is bloody good television on almost every conceivable level, and while it’s a shame so many can’t get past their preconceptions about it, it’s an even greater shame that the rest of us will have to wait so long to see the remaining characters return to put us through the wringer once again.
- Be sure to check out my in-depth interview with showrunner Steven DeKnight about Vengeance.
- In addition to that, I spoke further with DeKnight specifically about all the deaths in this finale, and what it means for the show going forth.
- Gannicus and Saxa are going to make some angry, deadly babies in the near future.
- I realize I’m already well past hyperbole when talking about this show, but the Lucretia/Ilithyia scene just before the latter’s water breaks felt a lot like a key scene between Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale in the third season of The Wire. Both of these characters feel deeply for one another, and on some level both regret what’s about to happen, even if they are unaware of the other’s intentions.
- Seriously, who else is ready to rewatch every Lucretia scene this season right now?
- Maybe I’m just being selfish, but the idea of Spartacus: Afterlife with all the deceased characters hanging out as promised would be phenomenal.
- Spartacus, Crixus, Agron, and Gannicus broke the world’s record for “most fireballs fired by four men.” That was a bit silly. But still: FIREBALLS!
- Speaking of Agron, who else is shocked both he and Nasir will both live to see season three? For the majority of the season, I have been watching both of them the way John Cusack watched Crispin Glover’s character in Hot Tub Time Machine.
- “Your child? You are but a vessel carrying a gift from the gods to the House of Batiatus. Now, then… let us see it unwrapped.” Good. God.
- Gratitude to all of you who came and read these reviews all season. See you in the afterlife. And by “the afterlife,” I mean right back here next season.