The good news about starting so badly is you rarely have any place to go but up. And “Sacramentum Gladiatorum” is certainly a step up from the pilot. For one, thing, we get all the sex out of the way in the first ten minutes, and then it’s nothing but plot (and some exposition).
It’s still not the best of what the show can be. There are some pacing issues, where it feels like the show is simultaneously treading water and yet also racing ahead. In large part, this is because the show is still putting all its important pieces on the board. Crixus finally gets a speaking role in this episode, but while we see Lesley-Ann Brandt’s Naevia hovering around or fluffing Lucretia for sex with Batiatus, she says nothing at all. We’re introduced to Nick E. Tarabay’s Ashur, Jai Courtney’s Varro, Peter Mensah’s Doctore, and Antonio Te Maioha’s Barca, as well as a fair amount of character background—the wheeler-dealer Ashur and “the Undefeated Gaul” Crixus dislike each other and Varro is a Roman with a lot of debt who’s sold himself into slavery.
The central dilemma of the episode is Spartacus becoming a gladiator to the House of Batiatus, but it’s also resolved by the episode’s end, so it feels like the show just needed to get it done and move on. So that’s very much what it does, as quickly as possible. At the same time, the episode is padded out with a flashback from the last episode that’s basically a highlight reel of blood spurts from the climactic four against one arena fight that ended the pilot, and a long bit where Varro tells the other slaves the rough shape of the plot in the most expositiony exposition scene I’ve ever seen—they train, then they get to the “final test” and if they survive, they become gladiators.
We’re also still not quite past the juvenile bits. The proper gladiators, as opposed to the slaves that Batiatus bought and Spartacus, are a bro-ey fraternity of warriors, led by Crixus and Barca, who talk in reverent and boasting tones about “the sands” and call themselves gods and Titans. There’s hazing—Barca dumps Spartacus and Varro’s food on the ground before they can eat it, for instance, and they stand around laughing when the trainees get hurt. They even get the Batiatus “B” branded on their forearms.
We also get a little bit of the slave and domina/us relationship. Gladiators live downstairs in brutal conditions, the villa is for Lucretia’s slaves and the Romans, like this is an Ancient Roman Julian Fellowes show. Doctore is able to move almost freely between the two, but it’s clear he’s subservient (and wildly loyal) to Batiatus. Crixus has drunk the “you are my titans” Kool-Aid Batiatus has fed him deeply, and there’s a charged stare between him and Lucretia.
Debt runs through the episode. Beyond Varro literally selling himself into slavery to dispose of it, the House of Batiatus can’t even pay its grain bill or fill its pool with water, and Batiatus is racking up interest by deferring payment. In addition, Spartacus is loath to take on additional debts, such as allying himself to Ashur to defeat Crixus in his final test. Batiatus also has a plan for his debt—securing Glaber’s patronage, but the Roman legatus only arrives long enough to twirl his mustache in front of Spartacus (he’s had Sura raped and sold into slavery) and for Illythia to get some cutting remarks in about the wine (Not her preferred vintage? “Water, then,” she sniffs) and Lucretia’s lack of children before they both disappear for the rest of the episode. Viva Bianca is pitch-perfect here. Illythia walks out onto the balcony of the ludus to see the gladiators working below and her eyes light up like a kid in a candy store. You can see her thoughts percolating through her head.
Another show, having established Crixus as “undefeated” in the first few minutes of the episode, might’ve hesitated to then immediately put him into a battle with Spartacus where one or the other would have to lose, developing it over a few episodes to a climactic battle. But because the show really needs Spartacus to be a full-bore gladiator, it throws them right in. In fact, there are two Spartacus v. Crixus bouts. The first, purely for exhibition, is probably the better constructed. Spartacus is roundly defeated, and his last desperate move, tossing his sword through the air, which he used multiple times in the pilot, fails when Crixus blocks it easily (the ricochet even kills one of the new slaves). Given his battle prowess in the first episode, it’s a nice little comedown for Spartacus, and serves to show the viewer that Crixus et. al. are better fighters. But because Spartacus defeats Crixus in the second bout, not only is that undercut but so is the Undefeated Gaul’s reputation.
Despite his Crixus duels, the episode is really centered around Spartacus’ (understandable) reluctance to be a slave and fight for Batiatus. He’s turned around fairly quickly by Varro explaining you can make money to buy your freedom, and then by Glaber’s visit, which Batiatus admirably leaps on to first discover why Spartacus is upset, and then turn that rage into profit, asking how many men he’d kill to get Sura back—Spartacus answers he’d kill them all, as Sura commanded him to do before he marched off to war in the pilot, so Batiatus tells him to kill them in the arena, and that he’ll help find Sura.
Still, it means Spartacus nearly kills Crixus when he has him on his back in the sand during the final test, and it’s clear from his look when Spartacus holds off killing his champion that while he desperately needs his investment in Spartacus to pay off, he knows very well he may have just tried to chain a rabid dog.
The episode is front loaded with sex in the first ten minutes, including two sex scenes. The first is a dream with Spartacus and Sura, but the second is Batiatus and Lucretia. It’s kind of nice to see—this show is loaded with fit actors in their 20s and 30s, so the middle aged John Hannah and Lucy Lawless are a pleasant little contrast in more normal bodies. That said, their scene is decidedly unsexy—they talk shop while slaves get them aroused, and then they do it standing up (the clumsiest way to sex) before we get a fade to black.
This is also the first episode where we get some full-frontal nudity from the men, although it’s no orgy at a party, it’s basically the equivalent of being in a gym locker room. All in all, a pretty chaste episode:
- Man butt: 2
- Lady butt: 1
- Frontal nudity (men): 2
- Frontal nudity (women): 5
- “Your will; my hands.” Doctore tells it to Batiatus when he orders him to bring Spartacus to heel, then Batiatus spits it back mockingly at him when the meeting with Glaber goes bad and Spartacus turns another fighter to a bloody pulp in rage. John Hannah really does a good job with this characterization of a changeable man driven by his most recent slight. It’s clear why he’s in debt, and it’s not a stroke of bad luck. It’s also a nice little demonstration of the show’s self-awareness. It’s a cool line when Peter Mensah says it, but the fact you can grunt out a manly few syllables doesn’t mean you’re actually going to get it done.
- Batiatus: “Not every venture ends in climax.” Lucretia: “A fact known well to every woman.”