In my notes, there’s a line that says, “this is a good episode.” Then later I underlined it.
Then I put a star next to it.
Now, maybe this is a charitable reading based on just the low lows of the last episode, since the fundamentals of Spartacus: Blood and Sand hasn’t really changed. There’s still nudity and gorrific violence, but everything in this episode seems to fire on all cylinders, and it no longer feels like John Hannah and Lucy Lawless are carrying the rest of the cast on their shoulders (not that everyone else is phoning it in, just that Hannah and Lawless are clearly the standouts).
Even the plot feels tighter, even though we’re still juggling what seems like too many balls (and adding a few). But we advance a lot of them in meaningful ways, and nearly everyone gets some character development here. Funny how plot works that way—you can have more of it if things happen to move it along.
The central storyline is that the drought is really bad, y’all. To appease the gods and get rain, the magistrate has arranged a new series of games, and Solonius has gotten Theokoles “the Shadow of Death” out of retirement to fight in the primus, and of course they’ll need Crixus to fight him, but to make it interesting, they also want Spartacus.
I’ve been complaining about how early and often Spartacus and Crixus fought in this season, given how much emphasis the show puts on their rivalry—not that I expect this show to be into the concept of teasing—but this is a wonderful little inversion of that. As teammates, they’ll have to work together, rather than try to kill each other—this does not go well. Doctore warns them to “fight as one, or die as two,” and they eventually get it, but Ashur warns Spartacus that he walks with a limp because he trusted Crixus in the arena.
While they initially seem to quickly defeat Theokoles, the albino giant rises back to his feet and all thought of coordination goes out the window leading to Crixus’ severe wounding. Still, even with his guts literally hanging out, he manages to remember a bit of the training, launching Spartacus off his shield and then blinding Theokoles with the reflection off his helmet so Spartacus can deliver the coup de grâce. It’s a nice touch: Crixus might be a vain, glory-seeking asshole, but he still doesn’t want to die.
And he’s finally got more to live for. This episode has a flashy climactic battle, but it lives in its small moments, such as when Spartacus challenges Crixus on whether there was anything outside of the arena that he lived for, maybe before he came to the House of Batiatus. And while Crixus doesn’t answer, he’s immediately taken to Lucretia by Naevia, his reason for living. It’s a good little plotline: in exchange for letting Illythia privately ogle Crixus and Spartacus, Lucretia gets a special session with a fertility priestess, who gives her a prayer candle and direction to “copulate within the hour.” Batiatus is out, and Lucretia immediately calls for Crixus.
And then the unexpected happens—Crixus asks not to, on the old saw that sex before a fight is draining. It’s a little beautiful dilemma for Lucretia. She spends most of the episode trying to get Crixus out of the fight, even attempting to get Illythia to intervene with her father, and now it’s too late to prevent that. But it’s now presented as the choice between having a child and avoiding Crixus’ possible death, and she, to her own sorrow, chooses the latter. We’re not knocked over the head with this, either. Lucretia looks crestfallen, sends him out, and the camera follows Crixus out of the room, Lucretia turned away from him, sobbing in the background.
And Crixus’ love life is getting more complicated. Immediately upon leaving Lucretia, he and Naevia finally have sex; Crixus explaining that sex before a fight “gives hope, in the arms of the right woman.” What a twist of the knife! He’s also got Illythia lusting openly after him, which means when he turns and salutes the officials’ box in the fight with Theokoles, all three women—Illythia, Lucretia, and Naevia—believe he’s looking at them (only one is right, of course, and it’s not the two white girls). This is actually a redo of a similar shot from an earlier episode, but it’s given a lot more weight here because we’re further along in the plot.
Yet, even with a two against one giant fight and the expression of true love, I think the standout work here is done in the Batiatus storyline. Having survived his near assassination, he’s out for revenge, dispatching Ashur and Barca to track down who bought the slaves who attacked him. It’s an escalating path of brutality for our lanista, one that doesn’t quite feel completely earned (we’ve never seen Batiatus beat a man nearly to death before) but Hannah makes work as he turns completely heel. His would-be assassin is Ovidius, the magistrate’s cousin, and Batiatus’ creditor, but the man who steered the plot turns out to be Solonius. Batiatus extracts this confession from Ovidius over the body of Ovidius’ dead wife, and the threat of killing Ovidius’ son, promising not to harm Ovidius if he confesses. Then he has Barca kill Ovidius, burn his house down, and kill the child as well. Someone else might’ve played this like Snidely Whiplash, but Batiatus doesn’t seem overjoyed at getting his revenge, he seems like a small, petty man, lashing out disproportionately at the slight because it is his nature. He seems a bit like Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men, killing ruthlessly because of the requirement.
And we begin to see the shape of Batiatus’ thinking here—he claims to Ovidius he’s fulfilled his side of the bargain, since it’s his slave, not him, that will kill the creditor. Spartacus asked a couple of episodes back why he should put his trust in a different Roman, given Glaber’s betrayal. He’s relied on trusting Batiatus’ honor to get him through that. But given the rules-lawyering on display here, it’s worth questioning whether that honor means anything at all.
But for now, Crixus is stretchered off the sands, and it’s Spartacus who killed Theokoles and made the rains fall (it’s over the top, and yet feels quite earned in the show). Batiatus has every reason to appease his new champion. We’ll see how long it lasts.
As I’ve said above, this episode is really more about love, so the only sex scene we have is Crixus and Naevia falling out of frame as they have sex in the cellar. It’s not a great place to conceal it, honestly, given how worried Naevia has been about Lucretia noticing Crixus’ affections. I can’t tell why the show fades some scenes to black and then lingers on others. We’ve seen romantic sex on this show—the very first episode features Sura and Spartacus twice—so it’s not like they’re going purely for titillation. I think they probably just get cut for time.
- Man butt: 2 (unless you count each appearance of Manu Bennett’s naked butt separately, in which case, 5)
- Lady butt: 0
- Frontal nudity (men): 1
- Frontal nudity (women): 5 (I’ve been including all of Batiatus’ slaves with the thin strips of transparent gauze around their chests for these, just FYI)
- Pietros worries about Barca going out at night as Bataitus’ enforcer. It’s a sweet moment, and Barca gets uncomfortable with it, snaps at him, then immediately makes amends by kissing him goodbye. We don’t know a whole ton about these men compared to our leads or side characters like Varro and Ashur, but it’s a nice, closely observed moment. It’s undercut slightly by another gladiator (the same one Spartacus smashed in the face to get his fight with Crixus in the third episode, I think) eyeing Pietros up after Barca leaves. Guess the brotherhood of gladiators doesn’t go too far.
- Winged penis candle! When’s the last time a member of the clergy gave you something like that for your fertility issues?
- Spartacus and Varro have a nice little chat the night before the primus. But where these chats are usually Varro providing exposition for ours and Spartacus’ benefit, this is just two friends, one of whom seems likely to die, talking. Varro pledges to help find Sura before Spartacus can even ask. They’re such good buddies, y’all. Why isn’t Jai Courtney this good an actor in other things?
- Theokoles gets back up, after being slashed in the chest and throws Crixus’ arena boast from the third episode back in his face: “Capua! Shall I begin?”
- Crixus’ flirting to Naevia was right: it’s not easy to sever a man’s head. Spartacus needs two swords to get the job done.
- Illythia Putdown of the Week: Priestess: “Then it is not the seed, it is the vessel.” Illythia: (gleefully) “Do you mean there’s something wrong with her?”