After its promising second installment, Spartacus: Blood and Sand wavers with “Legends,” as a handful of clumsy elements distract from an otherwise thoughtful episode. As in “Sacramentum Gladiatorum,” Spartacus’ emotional journey bookends “Legends,” as he learns a bit of humility and recalibrates his expectations. Andy Whitfield continues to impress in the role, excelling at not only the physical moments, but the dramatic and, in his scenes with Jai Courtney’s Varro, the comedic as well. Their friendship deepens as the two open up about their motivations and their love for their wives, Sura and Aurelia. Spartacus’ pairing with the cheery Varro brings out needed humor in the character. On another show, Spartacus would be a beacon of angst and tortured brooding; here, he’s measured, his inner turmoil felt but not luxuriated in.
That’s true for several of the characters, particularly in this episode, Crixus. Upon first glance, some viewers might find Manu Bennett’s stilted scene with Lucy Lawless’ Lucretia indicative of an underwhelming performance, but this is actually a fantastic choice by Bennett and director Grady Hall. Crixus is revealed in this episode to be a victim of serial rape by Lucretia—of course he shuts down when interacting with her. Crixus’ hesitancy to enter Lucretia’s chamber and resignation when he does so, along with Bennett’s blank face and matter of fact, practiced delivery in this scene, speaks volumes, particularly when contrasted with the exchange that immediately precedes it, Crixus’ adorably awkward interaction with Lesley-Ann Brandt’s Naevia. Both Crixus and, later, Varro (and presumably his fellow victim) have learned to compartmentalize their assault so that they can continue to function and, given their roles as gladiators, survive. Naevia, in contrast, flinches at Lucretia’s exposing of her breasts. This is a new and humiliating experience for her, though Lucretia doesn’t seem to notice. In an episode with this much nudity, little if any is intended to titillate—one need look no further than the shocked or deadened eyes of those exposed. Spartacus notes but does not underline these characters’ trauma, passing judgment on the Romans surrounding them who allow or encourage it but reminding viewers that for the slaves and gladiators, this is a potentially daily occurrence.
Lucretia’s monstrous treatment of Crixus and the other slaves is once again counterpointed by her loving interactions with her husband. The two are incredibly supportive of each other, talking through their woes and scheming, but also smiling and enjoying each other’s company. It’s amazing the difference a sense of humor can have on a character’s likability and Lucretia and Batiatus’ clever turns of phrase and colorful expressions, and appreciation of their spouse’s, go a long way toward humanizing them. The series is still tweaking its voice, but its unique syntax is starting to emerge, adding to the tone and bringing the dialogue into the same heightened world as the action and visuals. Other than the crowd at the Vulcanalia, the effects look good, matching with the show’s established painterly aesthetic, and the use of cave painting-style art to transition from dialogue to visualizations of the varying legends told of the arena is a lovely touch.
Unfortunately, along with the episode’s strengths are several weaknesses. There’s a lot of retreading of exposition from several different characters, particularly Lucretia, Batiatus, Doctore, and Spartacus. The episode is structured around three different tales of the arena, which are told to varying effect. The first, Barca’s backstory, is the weakest. The sequence improves dramatically after cutting to the fight, but its introduction is hampered by obvious scoring and an eye-roll inducing cut to Barca stroking his face with his bird. Theokoles’ legend doesn’t fare much better, with no known figure to ground the visuals, but Ashur’s telling of Crixus’ victory over Decimus and Tiberius is effective and believably builds up Crixus. Between these three stories and the training sequences, this episode is overly reliant on montages, causing its pacing to suffer.
Finally, the climactic Primus battle may be entertaining and feature strong stunt choreography, but the close-ups of Crixus and Spartacus are only somewhat successful. When the camera holds on their faces these shots are effective, bringing the audience inside the characters’ minds, but whenever they pull further back and Spartacus and Crixus’ shoulders come into view, these inserts lose focus and feel silly, taking away from the energy of the fight. Also distracting are the close-ups of the crowd. The episode has no interest in these people as individuals and neither do the characters, so singling out certain spectators and even giving some of them dialogue is bizarre.
Despite these problems, “Legends” still manages to be an engaging, introspective hour of television and an impressive third installment for Spartacus. The denouement of the episode, which shows Spartacus licking his wounds and finally starting to understand just how long of a road lay ahead of him, is as much for the viewers’ benefit as his. If the series can build on the confidence of these early episodes though, that road promises to be a truly memorable one.
Syfy Slice-And-Dice: The original runtime of the episode is 55 minutes, so quite a bit had to be cut out for Syfy’s version, despite it running over its hour slot by five minutes. There are a few notable chunks of dialogue excised, but most of the cuts are reaction shots and moments with non-lead or supporting characters. Doctore’s speeches are trimmed, a sizable chunk of Batiatus and Lucretia’s first conversation is removed, and several Varro and Spartacus moments are reedited. Their scene in the hole is substantially truncated, giving it much less camaraderie, and theirs is the relationship so far that has been most impacted by the Syfy reedit. Crixus’ scenes with Naevia and Lucretia have sections cut out and, as with episode two, nudity has been cut around and certain swears have been dubbed (“cock” becomes “rod,” but “asshole” stays in). The fight scenes remain virtually unchanged.
- The opening depiction of Spartacus preparing for training is lovely and is accompanied by a beautiful piece of scoring, matching mournful strings with the looming drums of battle and, as he holds Sura’s cloth, a simple guitar line that is overtaken by horns and a returning drumbeat as Spartacus covers the fabric with his armor and picks up his sword. It’s thoughtful, character-based scoring from composer Joseph LoDuca. A few other moments don’t fare as well, particularly the score’s later over reliance on vocals, but that first scene is very well done, supporting Whitfield’s subdued performance.
- It’s a tiny detail, but the inclusion of what looks like a cockroach on the rock behind Spartacus when he and Varro are in the hole is absolutely delightful. As if standing waist high in waste weren’t enough, the show reminds us they’re likely surrounded by bugs too.
- It’s foolish to make assumptions about characters that are still being introduced, but it seems odd that the gladiators can apparently read, given the way they fight over Ashur’s list. Maybe they all come from educationally progressive backgrounds.
- Spartacus’ surrender comes refreshingly quickly. All it takes a look down at Sura’s cloth and his hand goes up. It would be easy for the show to wring drama out of that moment, but it would be a character betrayal. For Spartacus, there is no choice—there is only one option that can save Sura, and it’s survival; when weighed against his wife, Spartacus’ pride means nothing to him.