Three episodes in and I’m vacillating on what exactly I loved about this show. Again, these early episodes are notorious for being sub-par, but there are hints of the show that it’s trying to be, and will eventually become. As it is, it feels like the show is trying to keep too many balls up in the air and just keeps dropping them.
Case in point, I count four main plots in this episode, plus at least an equal number developing. The central story is Batiatus arranging for 20 men to fight at the Vulcanalia, and who will fight in the primus against Crixus. Batiatus needs this to go smoothly for his piling debt (he and Lucretia complain about their lack of wine). There’s tension as Spartacus angles and schemes for the primus, despite being a brand new gladiator. Then there’s a plot about Lucretia trying to draw and keep Illythia’s attention, in the continuing quest to secure Glaber’s patronage (Craig Parker doesn’t show up this episode—”the Senate is his mistress,” Illythia says). And then, finally, there’s Crixus infatuation with Naevia, which finally gives Lesley-Ann Brandt a speaking role.
And even with all that, there’s still time for no less than three flashbacks to legendary fights Crixus “the Undefeated Gaul”, Barca “the Beast of Carthage,” and the unseen Theokoles “the Shadow of Death.”
Plus, we learn that Lucretia is having sex with Crixus on the down low.
Fuck, I’m exhausted. How did we have time for all this?
The two plots that really matter are Spartacus’ and Crixus’. The show hasn’t asked us to empathize with Crixus before, he’s served only as Spartacus’ antagonist, but his awkward flirting with Naevia is rather endearing—”How long have you been with domina?” he asks, only to discover Naevia’s served in the ludus her whole life, and “It’s no easy task to sever a man’s head” not going over as well as he’d hoped. He gets Ashur to secure a necklace for him to give Naevia, only to lose it when Spartacus bum-rushes him at the pre-game party for the Vulcanalia, and then has to scramble to get it back and keep it hidden. The desperation in Manu Bennett’s eyes as Crixus pushes the gift through a gate at Naevia, begging her to take it, is palpable, even if he’s also giving off some pretty strong “nice guy” vibes at this point.
Spartacus, meanwhile, is focused on fighting his way out of servitude. This makes him rather unobedient, and in his first interaction with an impatient Batiatus, his repeated entreaties for the dominus to find his wife are met with a sharp reminder to mind his place.
I should note that the show does a rather great job of showing what a slave’s place in this world is: Lucretia uses Naevia as a human mannequin when buying jewelry, and when we first see Batiatus in this episode, a slave is holding his robe up as he pees. When Batiatus finishes, he goes to, apparently, pat the man on the back, and then you realize he’s wiping his hands. Last but not least is the pre-game party, where the gladiators are literally pieces of meat to be examined—Batiatus encourages them to look and touch. They’re even used as light entertainment—Lucretia makes Varro have sex with another slave for Illythia’s amusement, while other crowd members bet on how long he’ll last. None of this is commented on in the least, but given that the show has a (somewhat earned) reputation for being porn and gore, it’s a subtle bit of storytelling that stands in contrast to all the titillating nudity of earlier episodes—again, the sex scene is decidedly unsexy for anyone without a humiliation kink.
Spartacus doesn’t seem to understand a slave’s proper place. He gets that he has to say the words of obedience, but despite having been reprimanded a number of times (and choked out by Doctore’s whip), he won’t learn. It gets him what he wants, until it doesn’t—he gets the primus with Crixus thanks to the crowd’s joy at watching him and Crixus brawl at the party, but Crixus hands his ass to him in the arena. It’s a good fight—it’s clear that Crixus is just toying with him throughout until he knocks Spartacus off his feet, pulls his helmet off, and asks the crowd if he should begin, midway through the match. And then the fight really begins.
One of the things I greatly admire about Whitfield’s performance in the first season is Spartacus’ cockiness. He keeps falling further into peril through his actions through these first few episodes, but he’s never chastised. When Doctore instructs the new gladiators on how to surrender (put two fingers up in the air), he boasts that he doesn’t need instruction because he’ll never do it. He (and Varro, standing nearby) are immediately sent to the Hole—a waist high pit of refuse—as punishment. And yet he’s still telling people that Crixus is overrated and Barca “is but tall” immediately after.
It all serves to make the act of surrender at the end of the episode’s climactic fight all the more meaningful. Whitfield conveys the anguish at Spartacus needing to submit, after an episode full of taking the initiative, to Batiatus’ mercy, who has unreasonably vouched for him so far. And he gets it, much to everyone but Batiatus’ disappointment. The episode ends Spartacus vowing to train harder, but Doctore says it’s too late for that. They’ve constantly said that people who fail get sold to the mines. Is that what’ll happen next? Let’s find out (it’s not).
This is the most restrained episode by far. The sole sex scene is Varro and a nameless slave, which is not played for eroticism, except for Illythia to fawn over and Lucretia to sell the idea of gladiators as sex gods (ironic, then, that the gladiator in question is a Roman citizen down on his luck). Varro prays for his wife to forgive him in the middle of it. Elsewhere in the episode, Lucy Lawless shows up with an open robe before her encounter with Crixus, but we fade to black before we see how/if he dealt with Lucretia’s impractical nipple chain.
- Man butt: 0
- Lady butt: 0
- Frontal nudity (men): 0
- Frontal nudity (women): 4
- I think this is the first episode we’re shown (and someone mentions) that the ludus is literally on a cliff’s edge. HOW YA LIKE THAT SYMBOLISM?
- It’s also the first episode in which it’s confirmed that Lucretia wears wigs, which was a relatively common feature in ancient civilizations (hair leads to parasites). Batiatus comments on “this one” when she’s changed her hair color to blonde, we see actual mannequins wearing others in her room when Crixus shows up, and then, to drive it home, she just whips it off at one point.
- Jesus, Crixus, don’t randomly reach through a gate and touch a woman’s shoulder when she’s down in a dark basement by herself. Where’d you learn that move? Jurassic Park?
- Varro says that Barca’s legend was formed in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Carthage, when he fought his father, Mago, to the death as part of the Roman sack of the city. This doesn’t make (historical) sense. Spartacus’ Third Servile War occurred in 73BC, and the Third Punic War ended in 146BC, during which Carthage was destroyed by the Romans (later rebuilt by Julius Caesar, which is after the Servile War) and Barca is obviously not 90 years old. The names, too, are clearly lifted from a real person: Mago Barca, the younger brother of the famous Hannibal Barca.
- How do gladiators get clean? Sweat toothpicks! I think there’s an actual historical name for this tool that I can’t be bothered to research, but it’s basically a giant dentist pick they scrape along their skin.
- Illythia Putdown of the Week: (on Lucretia’s necklace) “That reminds me of a piece I had—when emerald was still in fashion.”