Friends, ‘Cados, Countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Varro, not praise him.
Jai Courtney has not gone on to a lot of terrible success. He’s had a string of high profile box office bombs, all of which he performed the most wooden, rote, roles in. The last thing I can recall seeing him in and liking him was Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later, and Amy Poehler was doing most of the work.
But as Varro, he truly excels. While he spends most of the show serving as Spartacus’ (and the viewer’s) guide through the Ancient Roman world, he also develops into Spartacus’ best friend, and particularly in this episode, the camaraderie is strong. It’s the closeness of their relationship, his willingness to absolve Spartacus of fault for killing him, that heightens the pathos as we watch both of the two men struggle to understand and accept the situation that has led their friendship to causing their permanent separation.
And he’s just getting over a real hump here. He’s given up gambling and drinking, he’s earning glory in the arena, and his wife and child have been found and brought to the villa. He’s planning to retire to Sicily once he’s paid off his debt, and he even wants Spartacus to come along. Not that Spartacus seems all that willing—he’s just living in the moment as a gladiator, enjoying his time with Varro. Ultimately, it’s their playful sparring in these high spirits that draws Illythia’s attention and sets in motion her revenge plot.
Which she does in the squickish way possible: seducing a teenager. Technically, this is the Ancient Roman quinceanera, so Numerius is a “man,” but the show clearly plays him as a child and it’s just a real lowering in modern eyes (let alone that the show has already established that cheating on your spouse is a morally contemptible act in Ancient Rome).
As with all things to do with Batiatus and Lucretia, it’s one of their plots that unravels and allows another to climb inside and undo it—namely that they’ll throw the kid the greatest quinceanera Capua has ever seen, he’ll love it, and the father, the Magistrate, will endorse Batiatus for political office. Plus, he’ll do it in front of Solonius’ fat face, a fact which Batiatus cannot help but relish and ensure by inviting Solonius personally.
While at the beginning of this episode Illythia seems quite traumatized by the murder she’s committed (even to the end of the show, she’s hallucinating Licinia’s ruined corpse and blood on the floor), she manages to summon up enough of her venom to arrive at Numerius’ party as though nothing had changed and to conspire to ruin Spartacus’ joy by sleeping with the Magistrate’s son and then convincing him to replace Crixus with Varro.
If it seems a little crazy that Illythia might opt against the chance Crixus just outright killing Spartacus, preferring instead to have Spartacus kill his own friend, well, she’s not alone. When setting up the exhibition match itself, Batiatus asks Spartacus not to embarrass the former champion. Even Naevia’s a little unsure.
Almost alone in confidence of his abilities is Crixus himself. He’s sure he’ll win. And he’s sure that, once he wins, he’ll get to kill Spartacus, because the crowd will demand the loser die.
And he’s right, in a way. The “crowd,” Numerius, does demand blood. But it’s Varro’s, and it’s Spartacus that does the killing.
There’s a lot in that moment, as Spartacus comprehends what he’s been asked to do. Earlier in the episode, he and Batiatus stayed up nearly all night gaming and drinking, as colleagues, only for Lucretia to chew out Batiatus and suggest that Spartacus overstepped his role as slave. And then shortly after, Spartacus assaulted a guard for roughing up Mira (the key Naevia stole subplot from the last episode is slowly working its way up to the main plot), and Batiatus had some of that notion of Spartacus’ unquestioning loyalty washed away. His hesitation to kill Varro reinforces this. Spartacus, the man, rather than Spartacus, the gladiator, still exists, despite his claims to the contrary.
For someone like Crixus who, as he tells Naevia, is nothing if he’s not the champion, an order like this would hardly be much of a lift. But for Spartacus, it’s a betrayal—not only was he led to believe this was an exhibition match, it was supposed to be against someone he hated, not someone he loved. You can see the anguish on Andy Whitfield’s face.
And where the show might have, as in earlier episodes, dipped into letting us see the various calculations and imaginations, such as in “Delicate Things,” instead it lets us just sit with the moment, watching as Spartacus hesitates, letting Whitfield communicate every thought and calculation on facial expression alone. As the guards draw their swords and close in, he becomes even more like a cornered dog, ready to lash out through another’s action. Only Varro manages to keep his head in the moment, even helping Spartacus a little bit of the way by impaling himself on Spartacus’ sword.
And Spartacus is not the only person who finds their glorious victory turned to ash. Batiatus’ scheme to engage the Magistrate’s favor by appeasing his son, even in asking for the death of a gladiator, all comes to nothing when the magistrate curtly declines, noting that Batiatus is too low for public office. And to add injury to insult, Solonius is there to witness it all. It’s a lovely twist of the knife in Batiatus, but it’s also a twist of the knife in the viewers—everything we’ve just seen, the death we just watched, was meant to gain Batiatus this brass ring. And now it’s all been pointless cruelty.
There’s a very brief Crixus/Naevia interlude as she uses that ol’ missing key to facilitate their rendezvous. It’s not particularly anything the show hasn’t done before (Naevia appears to be doing all the work), but there’s an emotional need to the encounter that heightens it a little bit. It also allows Ashur to peep on them. This guy is always lurking!
Thank the gods we only get an Illythia reveal, rather than have to endure any sex scene with Numerius. The actor could’ve been 18 at time of shooting, for all I know, but he looks 14.
- Man butt: 1
- Lady butt: 1
- Frontal nudity (men): 0
- Frontal nudity (women): 8
- There’s a really nice moment when Naevia smiles at Crixus to see that Varro has been chosen over him, and Crixus offers the weakest smile in return. He really wanted that fight. I complained earlier in the season that the show was always in a rush to match the two up, but I’m glad that they’re putting this fight to the death off.
- Varro’s loss in the exhibition match is telegraphed during their training, when Spartacus warns him to watch his flank.
- Duro is still garbage at fighting, but he wins respect from the other gladiators by getting his ass handed to him by Crixus over and over but not giving up. Even Agron misjudged the right strategy. Extra bonus that in doing so, Duro prevents Crixus from having a pre-match bout with Spartacus.
- Varro has a brief moment when he’s reunited with his wife, who killed her rapist, then fled her home, but is still pregnant with the child of that rape. He doesn’t do anything victim-blamey like “forgive” her, he just acknowledges that he loves her, he’ll love her child, and he hates the rapist. Reminds me a lot of the scene in Rob Roy where Liam Neeson tells Jessica Lange, “it’s not the child that needs killing.”
- Illythia Putdown of the Week: From Batiatus, to Solonius, who missed the magistrate: “As the evening wears, I am sure he will find the time to visit with the less significant guests.”