“Melodrama” gets a bad rap when it comes to the medium of television. The very word seems toxic, as if describing something below the concerns and interests of intelligent viewers. But melodrama is like anything else: when handled properly, it can be a powerful tool in the arsenal of any show. Indeed, some of the great all-time shows have melodrama baked into their DNAs, even if fans of those shows try to gloss over that element in their overall analysis. So to call tonight’s Spartacus: Vegenace episode “Empty Hands” an excellent example of melodrama done well isn’t to slight the show by any means.
If anything, melodrama is on the rise in the medium. The popularity of shows such as Revenge and Downton Abbey aren’t indicative of a new trend, but rather reflect the resurgence of something that’s always drawn in viewers. The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan recently compared Downton with Spartacus, and she didn’t do so for page views. She did so because she keyed in on several aspects of both programs that share similar sensibilities. Sure, you’re not going to see the Dowager Countess preside over an orgy populated by members of the help staff. (Although, you’re totally welcome for that image.) But both programs accomplish the singular defining characteristic of melodrama: the exaggeration of plot and character in order to engage people on an emotional level.
Melodrama fails when it fails to press those emotional buttons in an effective manner. Cheap melodrama has all the signifiers of the real deal, but either fail to create compelling characters or take drastic shortcuts that strain credulity. But starting around the middle of Blood and Sand, Spartacus started to demonstrate a deft hand at creating three-dimensional characters that had clearly defined goals based on personal desires. Rather than simply have dudes in loin cloths fighting it out without context, the show established an upstairs/downstairs world fraught with obstacles that needed to be overcome through a combination of cunning, compromise, and often self-sacrifice. Watching what these people were willing to do turned into the primary reason to tune in each week. And hey, if some blood and/or other body fluids were copiously spilled in the pursuit of said goals? All the better.
In this respect, everything inside the House of Batiatus tonight was fucking gold. Vengeance has suffered slightly at times in the early goings through the introduction of a new host of Romans to the narrative mix. But by the time they all arrived at the celebration inside Lucretia’s restored home, all had established goals that could be manipulated within those horrid, hollow walls. While the show might have the name Spartacus at the front of each newly titled season, it’s really an ensemble show, and “Empty Hands” really put a large swath of the cast into the foreground.
Every line of dialogue spoken by Glaber, Ilithya, Lucretia, Albinius, Varinius, and others inside that house conceals a dual purpose. On one level, they convey what that person wants whomever is listening to hear. When Glaber praises Varinius for providing the distraction of games to appease the masses, or offering him the chance to kill a slave in order to seek revenge on the slaughter from “Kill Them All,” what he’s really doing is trying to establish dominance over his rival. If the words were read back inside a courtroom, nothing would sound amiss. But that only highlights the difference between what is said and what is meant at all times. It’s not dialogue that’s clever for the sake of being clever: it’s dialogue that highlights the ways in which coded messages can be distributed to those that possess the key to understanding its true intent.
A line spoken by Spartacus tonight applies to his situation but also that inside the House of Batiatus: “They shall learn that a wounded animal may yet bear teeth.” Everything inside that party is a power struggle on some level. What’s fantastic is just how unaware all parties are of the larger board upon which they have been placed. Glaber thinks that he’s gained an ally in Seppius, but unaware that Varinius is fingerbanging Glaber’s wife under his very nose. Ilithya thinks that she’s finally gained the upper hand on Lucretia, who is content to let Ilithya feel that way so long as it serves her ultimate endgame. (Lucretia is definitely on top of the situation, and by "situation," I mean "Albinus.") But while these are all games of power, they are based in fully articulated desires. Everything in Spartacus is turned up to 11, were one to invoke imagery from This is Spinal Tap. But everything on display feels identifiable: these are human emotions cranked up to the nth degree in order to make us feel their pain, desire, success, and failure.
Would that the other half of tonight’s narrative had lived up to the promise of that party. There’s definitely a structural need for Spartacus to be broken down to the point of almost completely breaking in the aftermath of the mines. But each time tonight’s episode went into the gloom of that forest, I felt myself longing to return to Capua. Each iteration played out almost identically: the Romans ambush our weary freedom fighters, Spartacus’ numbers slightly dwindle, and everyone looks at Naevia in pity/disgust. Lather, rinse, repeat. There are certainly some good character beats baked into these scenes, especially as Liscus constantly prods Spartacus to think about the nobleness of his approach in light of its practical results. Also, Mira’s increasingly brutal nature makes her place alongside Spartacus seem different enough to remove her from Sura’s shadow. But too much of this material felt like filler, as if the show inserted these scenes out of obligation rather than narrative need.
Could you have an episode of Spartacus without Spartacus? I think tonight demonstrates that you could. That’s not a slam in the slightest on anything happening in that particular part of the fictional world right now. If anything, it’s praise for how well-balanced things are overall. A few weeks ago, the last thing in the world I would have wished for was an hour in which Glaber saw more screen time that Spartacus. And yet, here I am, a month later, wishing I had experienced exactly that. Had the show’s melodramatic flair not turned Glaber into a person unto himself instead of a mandatory villain to stand against Spartacus, such a personal transformation would not have occurred.
Perhaps Oenomaus says/sneers it best to Crixus inside the ludus’ cells: “Love. You fall to ruin for love.” Everyone on this show has the capacity to do so. To see someone fight for an ideal is fine. To see that person fight for the love, or memory, of another is something else entirely. But only because we understand why they would gladly risk ruin for the love of another does Spartacus work as a whole. Tonight’s episode was a slight step down from last week’s edition, but still had the show’s best aspects on display.
- I’ve moved past the point in which it’s odd to see Liam McIntyre and Cynthia Addai Robinson in the roles of Spartacus and Naevia, respectively. But it’s hard not to imagine the old actors when characters such as Varro and Theokoles get mentioned.
- When I spoke to Lucy Lawless a few weeks before the premiere, she mentioned that she would be getting a new love interest this season. I can safely say that I did not accurately predict whom she meant.
- The gutting of the captured slave during the party was sufficiently gruesome, but also done in the service of character. Having Ilithya prove her worth over Seppia via the brutal gutting of an already sliced-and-diced man ain’t something you’ll see Emily Thorne do anytime soon.
- It was a nice touch to have Nasir honored to be branded with fire. It speaks to the reverence with which gladiators were treated in the times.
- I am unclear if tonight’s episode is the first to namedrop Marcus Licinius Crassus or not. But that name certainly stood out during Ilithya’s conversation/negotiation/public sexification with Varinius.
- My favorite line of the year so far comes from Glaber, when describing how his alliance with Seppius would have deviated from the one the latter has with Varinius “I would have done so as well, absent attempt to fuck your sister.”
- “You and I have unfinished affairs. And I will see them draw to a close.”
- “It seems the gods favor less mature schemes.”
- “This evening has proved most advantageous.”