Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Spartacus: "Beneath The Mask"

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"Every choice you make shapes your fate, Quintus."

Those are the words spoken by Titus near the end of tonight’s episode, although they don’t quite grasp the full weight of the examination of “destiny” versus “fate” that lies at the heart of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. The first episode suffered from what I called prequelitis, a condition in which events set before established events often lack consequence and therefore real stakes. In other words, it’s hard to worry about what’s going to happen when, by and large, we already know the answer. Events have a way of turning not into drama but mere trivia.
Arena has masterfully sidestepped most of the issues that come with lengthy backstories, through a combination of new characters with which the audience has no history and a way of revealing origins to established scenarios that somehow still surprise. (For example: Barca’s birds actually belonging to Auctus gives completely new context to his relationship with Pietros.) Despite being a prequel, “Beneath the Mask” nevertheless featured some unbearable tension, especially in its last half-hour. If the first thirty minutes were merely preparation for the party, then the latter half was the banquet from hell.
How such a party even came into existence demonstrated the unintended ways in which compromises within The House of Batiatus ripple into tidal waves of epic shit. But how can one accurately pinpoint the start of this wave? Does it go back to employing Ashur to beat up Vettius? The beatdown on Quintus himself? The purchase of Crixus? Does it extend back perhaps to the engagement of Quintus/Lucretia? Or do we start our timeline with Titus denying Quintus’ request to join the armed forces? So many shows often ask the question, “Where do we go from here?” Spartacus seems more interested in the question, “How the hell did we get here?”
Titus can see more clearly than his son and daughter-in-law just how easily simple decisions turn into far-reaching blowbacks. "You set this in motion and claim innocence?" he screams at Lucretia in the wake of Gaia’s semi-shocking, semi-expected death tonight at the hands of Tullius. (Dead? Sure. In episode four? Not so much.) It’s innocence that she claims, so much as a complete lack of forethought. Both she and Quintus have grand ambitions but no road map as to how to reach that destination. They envision the process to involve a few short steps, one they seek to take through shortcuts and compromise. They can’t grasp 1.) that the game is long, hard, and multifaceted, and 2.) that winning may not even be an option, with stalemate perhaps the best possible outcome. In short, Lucretia would be a HORRIBLE chess player.
As such, a one-time compromise with Varis turns into a never-ending series of lurid parties. Know all those movies in which the criminal is lured back in for one last job? Well, in Spartacus, it’s one last full-blown orgy. Slight difference, same concept. The pair keep deluding themselves into thinking that each one will be the last, but if Spartacus has shown anything, it’s that the indulgence of one’s baser nature only leads to more hunger on their part. More hunger leads to both more demand from consumers and less options for the providers.
Thus is the push/pull of the decisions made in this prequel: Quintus and Lucretia are ever striving to move forward but constantly find themselves ever more backed into a corner. In order to reach loftier ambitions, they have to make increasing compromises. Quintus might hate the small scope of his father, but Titus also never had a guest brained by a rival, either. The tragedy (among many) of tonight lies in just how close the father/son relationship was to being repaired. Had Titus returned to a seemingly undisturbed house, free of dewigged corpses, perhaps he and Quintus could have enjoyed their remaining days together, which in turn might have led Quintus to continue to believe Thracian slaves were more trouble than they were worth, and, well… you get the picture.
To think of “fate” in the show is to think of a map with many branching paths. Gods of the Arena shows a full range of possibilities for these characters to pursue, only to close off an increasing number of paths along the way. Some of these paths are closed due to their intrinsic natures, but what makes Gods of the Arena more than just a rote exercise in filling in the blanks is in showing just how much certain people see a more appealing path, only to have it shut off from them either due to unintended consequence or simple lack of autonomy over their own lives. It’s not that these characters were only ever destined to be in the place they are come Blood and Sand; it’s that they are simply the sum total of the events of their lives, events they both enact and find acted upon them.
A great example of this lies in the sudden romance of Gannicus and Melitta, one that probably had seeds planted long before the start of this series but is only given a chance to flourish thanks to the decisions of their masters. I can’t say I thought very much of Gannicus at the outset of the series, but Jupiter’s beard that kiss between him and Melitta was every bit as epically romantic as the one between Crixus and Naevia. This will end in ways impossibly painful, both for themselves and Oenomaus but still stands as one of those great “what if” questions that the series loves to pose. It’s not enough simply to shut off possibility before it can take root in the mind. No, the show demonstrates how cruelly life can present possibility and then crush it right before your eyes.
Luckily, it’s not all impossibly tragic consequences laid out tonight. Crixus’ talk with Barca might have been one of his finest moments on the show, not only for the reveal about the birds mentioned earlier, but also showing 1.) more of his backstory, and 2.) seeds of the leadership that will be prevalent in Blood and Sand. Melitta saving Naevia from Diona’s dead gaze also showed compassion in a house lacking generally lacking in such. And Oenomaus’ first steps towards becoming the Doctore from the first season were thrilling, even if they mean that Gannicus is going to suffer under the whip at some point over the final two episodes.
But in general, this was a dark hour, one in which our heroes (if you can even call them that) find themselves in more danger than ever. The masks of the party have also been worn by Quintus and Lucretia, albeit metaphorically, throughout the season. Tonight found those masks ripped off, revealing the small faces underneath. They have only each other upon which to rely at this point, with Titus hoping to sever the bond between them. Well, we all know how this will turn out, in the abstract. But since Gods of the Arena has been so deft at surprising us along the way to our known destination, I’m excited to see just how these two unite over the final hours of this short season.
Stray observations:

  • Gaia’s death will no doubt set the stage for the Lucretia we know and love (well, relatively speaking) in Blood and Sand. I wondered about her natural hair in this prequel, and now we can surmise that both Lucretia’s affair with Crixus and her endless series of colorful wigs are actions which, in her mind, honor the memory of her former best friend.
  • Ashur didn’t mind taking more credit for his gladiatorial debut than he should have but also didn’t mind selling his partner down the river during the party as punishment for stealing his glory. As per usual, Ashur rules all.
  • "He does not drink; he does not fuck. Why does he remain?" Apparently, Tullius was the Adam Ant of Capua. He don’t drink, he don’t smoke. What do he do?
  • Speaking of Tullius, loved his fight with Gannicus, which spoke more to the psychologies of the characters than their skill sets. Tullius fashions himself a bruiser but only in controlled circumstances. And for all his brashness, Gannicus doesn’t mind looking bad and then laughing it off in private company later. And then, you know, smooching it off.
  • "Disappointment can only be borne of expectation." Titus is talking here about his relationship between himself and Quintus, but also tidily explains my personal relationship to Glee.
  • "This house is pale shadow, absence your light." Ah, Solonius. I’m guessing your friend figures out your real allegiance soon enough, but don’t worry, this will all work out in the end. Cough.
  • If fingers were cut off a fan’s hand in a football game today, ESPN’s Outside the Lines would run 300 consecutive episodes about it.
  • No real clarification this week on my “Lucretia is poisoning Titus” theory. She did offer him more wine during a coughing fit, but this hour did a lot to show that her real desire to kill him may just be starting. So maybe I’ll be right, and I just jumped the gun on when she started.