“What would you have me do?” asks Gannicus at the midpoint of tonight’s series finale of Spartacus. “The impossible,” replies the Thracian. Well, Spartacus itself would know impossible, since nearly everything about the show as a whole reeks of it. Better than we could have hoped, more emotional than we could have predicted, and more representative of what’s good about television than almost all of its contemporary peers, this is a series that might not have the lasting power of its titular hero. But it’s one that will echo for decades to come as viewers come to discover this show they simply can’t believe no one told them about.
So let’s talk about the impossible as a way to try and sum up “Victory,” the epic capper of an epic series. Let’s talk about the show’s less-than-stellar pilot, titled “The Red Serpent,” which held the seeds to greatness but itself was something of a mess. (All those involved with the show would agree with this statement, so this isn’t exactly a controversial assessment to make.) Shows often get one chance to make an impression upon viewers, and those tuning in to that pilot saw the show at its worst and often did not return. Spartacus is hardly the first show to have its first episode be its worst, but the elements that make up the best of the show work against it when misapplied. Here’s a show in which everything—the dialogue, the violence, the sex, the overall attitudes of its inhabitants—are turned up to 11, and it’s all too easy to turn into a Spartacus-centric Spinal Tap when things aren’t calibrated correctly.
But rather than fly off the rails into ever greater heights of eccentricity and lunacy, executive producers Steven DeKnight and Rob Tapert found a way to do more with less, stripping the show down to its barest essentials and turning the show’s shortcomings into strengths. It couldn’t create elaborate sets. It couldn’t fly its casts to far-flung reaches of the known world to film on location. It couldn’t traffic in realistic effects. So rather than try to hide these flaws, Spartacus went and turned them into the very core of its aesthetics. Small bursts of fake blood looked semi-silly. But geysers of blood, sprayed upon people for whom the very act of breathing was a celebration as well as defiance against death? That was something that spoke to the passion onscreen. Spartacus is a show in which mere existence isn’t enough. People need to eat, drink, fuck, and love in order to get out of bed in the morning, and will die in the defense of the right to live life according to the virtues they feel make it worth living in the first place.
“Victory” demonstrates how the very act of trying to achieve these goals is, in many ways, more important than actually achieving them. Those that fall often overstep their bounds and fall to ruin. But those that die with arms outstretched or hearts open wide tend to find solace even in the face of death. “Do not shed tear,” says Spartacus to the few who remain at the end of this series. “There is no greater victory than to fall from this world a free man.” What constitutes “freedom” in this show is a slippery thing, however. Ostensibly, the Romans that have set upon Spartacus from the outset are free. But Batiatus, Lucretia, Glaber, Ilithyia, Crassus, Tiberius, and Caesar are in many ways no more free than the slaves beneath their heels. Everyone answers to someone in Spartacus, which makes the very act of trying to achieve one’s own desires its own particular form of rebellion.
That rebellion doesn’t necessarily have to translate into personal triumph so much as the possibility that others might live as one envisions. While talking with Gannicus, Spartacus offers up another definition of victory. “Life is what defines it. Not the death of Romans, nor ours, nor those that follow us into battle. But the life of Sibyl. Or Laeta. The mother and her child. So many others. They are all Sura, and I would see them live.” Spartacus (and Spartacus) kicked off with revenge as its impetus for action. By the end, both turn toward affecting transformation through example. The shift turns things from being focused inward towards being focused outward. But the only way to achieve that is to turn the Thracian himself into a living, breathing metaphor, a Rosetta Stone by which all who gaze upon him or think about him find what they themselves cherish above all else. Believing in Spartacus is to be Spartacus.
That’s what makes the introduction to tonight’s episode so thrilling. Not only is it a great nod to the 1960 cinematic telling of the Spartacus legend, but it also suggests the way in which the name is more important than the man. All season (and series) long, Spartacus has been a show populated by those obsessed with legacy. Their acts can’t simply occur. They must be remembered. Sometimes that means staging an epic fight in an arena. Sometimes it’s populating a ludus with the busts of prior lineage. Sometimes it’s in winning a war no one else has won. In the case of Spartacus, winning the war against Rome is almost beside the point by end of the war. War in and of itself is futile and fleeting. But instilling hopes for living free among the few left standing after Crassus crushes the remaining forces? That has a ripple effect that extends toward all who see brand upon arm on the other side of the mountain pass. Agron correctly notes that Spartacus served as temporary inspiration for those that served under him, but the very idea of “Spartacus” is one that cannot be killed.
Still, the absolute genius, the evil fucking genius, of “Victory” is that DeKnight and company make us think that maybe, just maybe, history won’t unfold before our eyes. A sense of dread and hope co-exist throughout the hour, as history and fiction merge into a single point at which anything is possible. Surely, the show wouldn’t go Inglorious Basterds on us now. Right? And yet, right off the bat during the series’ climatic battle, Spartacus shows incredible guile and trickery. And yet, look at the horde of Rome. Trickery can only delay the inevitable. And yet, there’s Gannicus, leading the cavalry onto this show’s Pellenor Fields, flinging spears past the ears of Crassus and Caesar. And yet, one by one Spartacus’ primary soldiers fall to superior numbers. And yet, there goes Spartacus, knocking Crassus off his horse. And yet, Caesar distracts Gannicus long enough for the legions to surround him. And yet, there goes Spartacus up the hill to confront Crassus one-on-one. And yet, even though he’s badly wounded, and even though it seems like Crassus’ rope-a-dope technique learned in the season première will finally end a wounded Spartacus and complete the inevitable circle of history, Spartacus blocks the damn move with a counter that not even Crassus could expect.
Who else needs a fucking cigarette?
I watched this finale several times before writing this review, and each time I realized that I was forgetting to breathe. Notice that everything I mention above doesn’t deal with the scope of the battle (which is huge), not anything about its overall ebb and flow (which is flawless), nor the sheer headache that staging such a battle must have been on this show’s relatively shoestring budget. What makes all of this work is that each one of the deaths in tonight’s bloodbath hurts. And they hurt because Spartacus has made us care about a tremendous number of people who meet their end. We knew in the back of our minds that this end would come. But “Victory” specializes in using that knowledge against us, by constantly showing us glimmers of hope that maybe Gannicus survives, or maybe Lugo fights to see another day, or Saxa finds herself on the other side of the mountains with The Egyptian’s daggers still on her waist, or maybe, just maybe, Spartacus himself defies death and lives despite Crassus’ “confirmation” of his death to Rome.
But none of that happened, and in the end, Spartacus ends up exactly how Sura predicted in the series’ pilot: under a red serpent. We saw a similar serpent during Spartacus’ first battle in the arena. His victory there led many to forget about this particular prophecy. And yet, in the end, seeing the serpent on Agron’s shield in tonight’s finale didn’t give Spartacus pause, but rather purpose. Many “great and unfortunate things” befell him after failing to heed her warning. But “great and unfortunate things” also befall every man and woman on this show. The use of War Of The Damned as a subtitle for this final season demonstrates how indiscriminately pain can be distributed across all sides of battle. Laeta loses her husband and position, but also wakes up from a semi-dream in which she tolerated owning slaves. Crassus manages to secure position within a triumvirate that will secure his place in history, but at the expense of the painful present in which the love of his life is crucified alongside others on the Appian Way. Agron loses every member of the Brotherhood, but manages to live to be the mouthpiece for Spartacus alongside Nasir. Gannicus finally comes around to Spartacus’ cause in time to be crucified, but gazes upon Oenomaus and greets death with a glorious bellow.
The tragedy of Spartacus lies in how often it demonstrated how close so many came to happiness, only to have it taken from them through a series of circumstances often of their own making. Or maybe, had one or two things been different, a life of love and peace could have been in the cards. There are a world of differences between a couple like Batiatus and Lucretia and Gannicus and Melitta. But those differences lay on the surface. Spartacus treated both couples with equal empathy, which is one of the reasons why this show will last as long as it will. The extreme violence and copious nudity didn’t detract from these relationships so much as augment them. Quite often, characters on this show were never more themselves than when engaging in one of those two activities.
But the beauty of Spartacus is in eloquently and effectively laying out the motivations for those acts in intimate, dialogue-driven scenes that I’d put against anything on television in the past decade. Varro’s death only works after a half-season of his bond with Spartacus. Lucretia’s swan dive only works if we understand why she thinks doing so is the ultimate romantic act. Naevia’s defeat of Ashur only works after the show delivers two years of near-misses that makes the moment of triumph itself so cathartic. This is the impossible thing that Spartacus did over and over and over again. But it shouldn’t be impossible, since making the audience care about the fate of its characters is Television 101. Yet so many shows fail to achieve this basic goal that it seems all the more revelatory when a show most write off as softcore porn does it on a nearly weekly basis.
- Also impossible? Trying to sum up all Spartacus has achieved. Even in covering the show on a weekly basis since Gods Of The Arena, it’s felt like too huge a job. For every word I have written, 15 more could be added. But maybe I should take heart in the show’s ultimate message and think that the attempt to do this show justice is more important than actually achieving it.Of all the shows I’ve had the privilege to cover here, none have been more fun to write, nor more instructive about what it is I love about covering this medium. So I’d like to thank everyone for reading, commenting, and sharing this show with me. I am Spartacus. You are Spartacus. We are all Spartacus. Gratitude for the time spent together discussing this fantastic show.