Spartacus: Gods of the Arena: Episode 02: Missio

You could be forgiven, based on the marketing, that Spartacus was a show exclusively about how badass gladiators were. And I’m sure many people did write it off as such. Which is a shame, because it means they missed episodes like “Missio” where the show placed the inherent truth of gladiators under a microscope: that these are chattel slaves, whose lives are possibly even more expendable than labor slaves. It’s easy to overlook, sometimes, that the show is not merely a sex and gore-soaked melodrama, but focuses on the leaders of one of the largest slave revolts in recorded history and what drove them to that path.

And “Missio,” the name taken from the sign of surrender a gladiator makes, is an episode all about the borders of being a slave and how far you are allowed to move within that space. In the third episode of Blood and Sand, Spartacus’ use of missio was a metaphor for his acceptance of having become a slave. Here, missio is a metaphor for accepting the horrors of slavery.

The episode begins where “Past Transgressions” left off, with Batiatus stumbling to his feet in the market after his beating and being pissed on by Tullius and Vettius, only to awaken a week later, somewhat recovered and hungry for revenge. And he creates a fairly simple revenge plot: out maneuver Tullius by disabling Vettius, intercept Tullius’ benefactor (Quintulus Varis, coincidentally a friend of Gaia’s), and secure a place in Varis’ games. Which is exactly what plays out. The cost to his own household? Well, two slaves killed, and three traumatized. But no matter, because as Batiatus reminds Doctore, no matter how high you’ve risen in authority, everyone in the ludus is still a slave.

The show’s done a well-executed Batiatus revenge plot before, usually with a half dozen unrelated plots going at the same time. But here, because the miniseries is both only six episodes long and because we know how it ends—the status quo at the beginning of Blood and SandGods is allowed to tell a much tighter, directed, story, in which the only things happening are Batiatus’ plot and the fallout of that plot. We have one brief scene of Tullius leaving Vettius to deal with Varis, and a handful of scenes dealing with Crixus’ training, but other than that, it’s strictly schemes and collateral damage.

And the damage is huge. Doctore, chafing from Batiatus’ impulsive decision to send one recruit to the mines for flashing missio, then using that recruit as well as Barca, Ashur and Dagan as the muscle in his scheme against Vettius (the doomed recruit misleads Vettius claiming to be Varis’ household, then has his throat cut after they’re done beating up and pissing on Vettius), erupts at the misuse of Gannicus as a sex object for Varis, as well as giving Ashur and Dagan their brands without any trial of combat. Batiatus sacks him in retaliation, telling him to do everything he’s said, then give his doctore duties to Oenomaus. Instead, he goes out in a blaze of glory when Oenomaus prevents him from (probably) beating Ashur to death with the brand—in suitable Ashur fashion, he pushes his luck by asking if he gets to recite the gladiator’s oath as well. Instead, Doctore opts to fight a deeply confused Oenomaus to the death.

Meanwhile, upstairs, a wine and opium’d up Varis doesn’t have any energy for doing anything with Gannicus beyond groping him, so instead he demands Gannicus and Melitta have sex for his amusement. “Is she not a slave?” asks Varis when Lucretia makes noises of objections. “She is,” says Batiatus. Melitta goes, on a mere whim of someone who isn’t even her master, from observing Gannicus’ humiliation to being forced to participate it (and her own humiliation).

This isn’t new territory for the show, by any means—Varro and a nameless slave were forced to do much the same thing early in Blood and Sand—but here this forced rape, where both characters are unwilling participants (at least initially), is examined in all its uncomfortable detail in a way that wasn’t. The way the show plays it, it would almost be more palatable if Gannicus were required to have sex with Varis, because at least the pain would be confined to him. Instead, he has to inflict pain and suffering on his friend, who is also the wife of his best friend. It’s humiliating (Varis is jerking himself under his tunic while watching), discomforting, and a layer of guilt is added when Melitta begins to respond (her climax is intercut with Oenomaus’ nearly being driven off the cliff by Doctore). 

The point of the total control over these people’s lives and bodies their masters possess is underscored when it’s clear Batiatus knows what he’s done, threatening Gannicus and Melitta into silence, unless they’d like to see their relationships with Oenomaus ruined. He then grants Oenomaus’ request to have Melitta visit him early that same night, giving her no time to recover from her ordeal, leading to a heartbreaking scene where a shaken Oenomaus confesses his shame to Melitta, but she can’t return the sentiment, except to tell him “we do what we must in this house.”

Stray Observations

  • Peter Mensah is a big, fit guy with a rumbly voice and angular features that often appear to conceal his thoughts except a vague suspicion and for most of the first season he was asked to just be angry and fight people. But you can hear Oenomaus break when telling Melitta, “I have done a terrible thing.” In the comments on the last season, some folks said that he should be in more things, and I agree. Standout acting in this episode. He even has to play confused betrayal while running around the ludus doing a fight scene.
  • CW: Sexual assault
    Spoiler

    On a serious note, it’s not uncommon at all for victims of sexual assault to have normal reactions to the physical part of it, so Melitta’s pleasure (and Gannicus’) is in keeping with what we know to be true of such assaults, and not the betrayal everyone in the show interprets it to be. However, given the stigmas and misconceptions around this response that still exist to this day, I’m not going to fault the writers too much for using it as a basis for the Gannicus/Melitta/Oenomaus love-triangle they’re building. It’s not like Ancient Roman sex ed existed, let alone for slaves. And nobody’s helping Melitta or Gannicus unpack their trauma. I’m just sitting here in my 21st century bubble going, “that doesn’t mean anything! You’ve undergone understandable stressful trauma, had a normal emotional and physical response! There’s nothing to be ashamed of, this is the House of Batiatus’ fault, not yours!”

    [collapse]
    • Side note: fuck this society. I’m glad Spartacus is going to kill most of these people.
  • Episode director Rick Jacobson (a stalwart of Robert Tapert’s other series, including Xena) gets some neat artistry in this episode. It opens with Batiatus’ beating being replayed in silhouette on a white background, and then the back half is full of back and forth cuts between upstairs and downstairs, notably Gannicus and Melitta having sex while Oenomaus and Doctore fight below, and then again at the end when the slaves being to process their respective traumas while Batiatus, Lucretia, and Gaia have a threesome.
    • Fuck. This. So. Ci. Et. Y.
  • I don’t know how I feel about Crixus just wanting to be an arena champion from the start. He gets Gannicus aside to ask how to become one, and Gannicus tells him the super-helpful “never lose” advice (dramatic irony alert, for the Undefeated Gaul). But it’s single-minded in a way that conforms with the Crixus of Blood and Sand’s early going, instead of him reaching that point.
  • Ashur and Crixus throw their food away when Ashur notes that the branded gladiators have pissed in the porridge, but Dagan seems happy to just continue eating.
  • Varis requests bare steel for a demo fight, also a throwback to similar circumstances in Blood and Sand! As is getting the champion upstairs for the Romans’ sexual amusement.
  • Maybe Batiatus reaches for violence too quickly here? I think this is one place where the pacing hurts a little. Blood and Sand’s Batiatus needed some runway to build a violent revenge plot, here it’s the very first thing he does after his above board schemes are derailed by Tullius. 
  • PS: I know the featured image isn’t from Gods, but in the intervening months, Amazon now prevents me from taking screenshots, so we’re stuck with what I can find on the web and the 13 screenshots I made from Blood and Sand. At least there’ll be lots of Andy Whitfield!