Spartacus: War of the Damned "Blood Brothers" Review: The Art of War

By Andy Daglas

Mar 02, 2013

Spartacus: War of the Damned Episode 5: "Blood Brothers"

One of the most egregious cheats in fiction is to insist upon the intelligence of your protagonist (or antagonist) and then pit them against an adversary who’s clearly quite stupid, or who makes obvious mistakes. It’s a sin Spartacus has largely avoided in its three-plus seasons, and an episode like “Blood Brothers” is evidence of how richly rewarding a show can be when it challenges its characters, its writers, and its audience to keep raising their games. Neither faction in the current standoff between rebels and Romans has been exploiting narratively convenient stupidity in the other. Both commanders are smart... but inevitably, one will come out a little bit smarter when the music stops. 

Strategic savvy as much as gladiatorial prowess has elevated Spartacus to the head of this rebellion. The Champion of Capua was a towering figure, but we’ve seen Crixus and Gannicus prove his equal (or near enough so) on the battlefield. Spartacus has inspired thousands of followers, but inspiration alone can’t wrangle the logistics of setting those thousands to purpose. His will is a large factor, allowing him to exude complete control even during moments like the one in this episode where a formidable foe like Crixus commanded both the high ground and the passions of a near-mutinous crowd. But the rebellion has gotten this far because it’s led by a keen mind. Spartacus, like many a great leader of ragtag bands in the annals of TV history, loves it when a plan comes together. 

This week’s plan was to salve his peoples’ wounds while inflicting fresh ones on his enemies in the process. On paper, releasing Sinuessa’s Roman survivors—after first feeding Laeta a few plausible lies—solved three problems. It removed the wedge between Spartacus and his less merciful brethren, it avoided needless bloodshed, and it passed key disinformation to the other side. Before healing his army’s internal strife, Spartacus would turn it to their advantage by letting Crassus think them so weakened. Then throw in a feinted threat against the Sicilian supply lines, sprinkle a few handy decoy corpses to keep Sinuessa appearing populated, top it all off with Crixus and Spartacus catching the Roman camp off-guard with dual assaults, and voila! 

As a plot, and as a piece of narrative plotting, it was pretty damn crafty. Yet Spartacus isn’t the only one capable of tactical jujitsu. And he couldn’t have planned for the wild card that allowed Crassus to go the rebels one better at leveraging a perceived weakness into a strength. With Caesar acting as spy and bagman, the Romans were able to exploit the true weakness in the rebel army’s solidarity: their mercenary pirate allies. Suddenly it was Spartacus’s forces, not Crassus’s that were divided and vulnerable. 

That opportunistic style befits a trained capitalist like Crassus, even if patience looked like cowardice to the unimaginative likes of Metellus. (And even if Crassus must have been tempted to strike prematurely, given the specter of a triumphant Pompey returning to Roman soil and threatening to steal his thunder.) Throwing a few legions at the city gates, as the senator preferred, would have been folly. Instead, as he did in his gladiatorial sparring against Hilarus in the season premiere, Crassus studied his opponent’s M.O., waited for him to lunge, then turned on his exposed flank.

It’s that meticulous gamesmanship, the show’s skill at building moves and counter-moves, that earns the resulting chaotic set-pieces. Exhilarating battles—like this week’s simultaneous port ambush and city siege—are rarely spasms of sudden violence for violence’s sake, but the culmination of carefully escalated tension and stakes. Episodes like “Blood Brothers” have the brains to back up their brawn, which is why Spartacus has consistently played on a higher level than it often gets credit for. 

And like its chief adversaries, the series itself gets plenty of mileage from thwarting the expectations of viewers. After spending two-and-half episodes setting up an irrevocable fissure between Spartacus and Crixus (playing off our knowledge of history, to boot), the show reversed course in a way that both surprised and still felt organic to the characters. Crixus may have no love for “secrets and schemes,” but it’s not likely he’ll again doubt his leader’s commitment to the cause. In the teeth of true betrayal, their brotherhood was reaffirmed in the most fitting way possible: through the ramming of swords through their enemies. 

Even more jarring, after starting out as a classic midseason piece-shifting episode, “Blood Brothers” instead knocked over the entire board. I’ve mentioned before how much I love the breakneck clip at which Spartacus burns through plot, and it’s episodes like this one—especially in its climax, and especially especially its final shot—that drive home how satisfying that approach can be when executed well. Five hours yet remain in this telling of the Spartacus saga, but there’s no doubt we’re already rushing headlong toward the endgame. 


– Great touch when Spartacus said he recalled the look on Crixus’s face from their pre-buddy-buddy days at Casa Batiatus. A slight undercurrent of that tension has never totally vanished since Season 1, but the show waited until the perfect moment to call attention to it. 

– The caravan ambush, serenely paced and blocked with almost Wes-Andersonian symmetrical precision, felt like a lighthearted throwback to the simpler days of the rebellion. A small band of warriors against hopelessly outmatched fodder, slaughter as dance. It was a nice dose of pep after last week’s relentless turmoil, inasmuch as a dozen or so dudes getting eviscerated can be peppy.

– Another display of power begetting cruelty, as a brooding and diminished Tiberius could only reassert himself by denying the humanity of the one person attempting to show him compassion. Raping Kore was his way to both regain his sense of superiority and vicariously take revenge on his father.

– As only smarts can outmatch smarts, so too can badassery only outmatch badassery. In this case, Donar’s valiant single-handed defense of the gate was trumped by Caesar firebombing the sucker with some buckets of pitch and a well-flung torch.

– R.I.P., Nemetes. You died as you lived: Like a massive tool.

– “He came from humble beginnings, and now even the Senate trembles before him. I find no greater cause for admiration.”

– “The night is young and so are the whores. Linger, and see both properly aged.”

– “It is a mad fucking plan—the sort I most favor.”

– “You come to aid at most fortunate moment.” “As you have often done.”

– “Now would be time to run.”

Body Count: I saw 52 on-screen, bringing us to 234 at the halfway point of the season.

What did you think of the episode? I trust voice on matters of importance.
  • Comments (88)
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  • efonsecajr Staff Sep 12, 2013

    Mead, Greed, Seed, Bleed

  • mori1bund Aug 23, 2013

    Really? No-ony here caught Nemetes' "The dice is cast"-speech to Cesar shortly before Cesar killed him?
    "The dice is cast!" ("Alea iacta est!") is one of the two most famous quotes by Cesar.

  • Jimz Mar 04, 2013

    It's happened. I am officially becoming aware that this incredibly fantastic show,the language of which and the action scenes and acting and everything else about it is pure music and art,is coming to an end. I thoroughly enjoy it,but that makes me sad.

  • ElRob Mar 04, 2013

    Alas we Canadians (at least in my part of The Great White North) have to wait until Sunday nights to watch Spartacus, so much that I would write has already been written here, and likely better.

    In brief, two lingering questions for me: 1. Is Heracleo truly dead? He was thoroughly smote upside his treacherous head, true, but the death blow was not nearly as conclusive or graphic as that of most Spartacus supporting villains (see Solonius, Ashur, or even Nemetes- none of those mofos could have survived) as he fell in the water,

    and 2. Castus was left behind in the city, so does this forebode some renewal of the Agron/Nasir conflict?, perhaps resolved by the threesome that some of the show's more homo-squeamish followers would least like to see.

  • ElRob Mar 04, 2013

    PS As many posting here seem to have a legitimate interest in what the historical record has to say about the slave rebellion, I recommend the book "The Spartacus War" by Barry S. Strauss. It is a very readable modern history that draws on the very limited historical record (a scant few mentions in Latin texts, all composed by Roman or Greek elites unlikely to sympathize with the rebellious slaves) as well as the author's knowledge of the local geopgraphy and archaeology to speculate on what may have really been going on.

  • labada Mar 04, 2013

    This series has yet to move away from the depiction of Spartacus and crew as a ragtag group of a few hundred or thousand, when in fact Spartacus had amassed a huge army counting more than 120,000, and for two years he went around defeating one Roman commander after the next, and it wasn't until near the end of this two year period that Crassus came into the picture.

    Crixus was killed after he took 30,000 men south with him near Mount Garganus while Spartacus fought and marched his way north, intent on crossing the Alps to freedom rather than onto Rome. At the Alps, his men declined to follow him up into the snow and cold, and he ended up following them back south of Rome. It was here that Crassus took over for the Romans and trapped Spartacus.

    The story of how Spartacus was able to amass such a huge army, to march such long distances and to seize one victory after the next against the Romans trying to stop him over such a long period, is a more compelling story than the totally off depiction of a small ragtag crew hanging around a coastal town the whole time.

  • Jimz Mar 04, 2013

    Yeah,I agree with what ElRob said. Plus,showing us a smaller group always produces stronger impact and allows for a more significant empathy toward specific characters.When it comes to producing tv products.
    And another thing..since you seem to be well versed in history,at least of this period..a question,if I may. Wasn't Pompey coming back from Spain and in whose army young Caesar was as well at the time the one who brought desperately needed help and reinforcements to Crassus,ultimately bringing the defeat over Spartacus? Looking purely from Roman perspective here.
    I simply ask,because I'm really not sure...I just have glimpses of memory about hearing that in one of the classes.

  • labada Mar 05, 2013

    Crassus and his legions didn't come into the picture until spring of 71 BC, the year after the events in this series supposedly happened, late 73 and early 72 BC, and after Spartacus and Crixus had been terrorizing southern Italy with their sacking and looting and amassing a huge army of freed slaves.

    After Gellius' army killed Crixus along with two-thirds of his 30,000 strong army, Gellius moved north towards Spartacus, who was on his way with 120,000 followers towards the Alps. According to Appian, Spartacus first mowed down Lentulus' legions blocking his way to the north, then turned and conquered Gellius. Spartacus continued to defeat every Roman army that tried to stand in his path to the Alps.

    The desire of his followers to not escape over the Alps after all and to march onto Rome is what brought Spartacus back toward the southwestern coast of Italy to regroup and gain refreshments from Sicily. This is where Crassus dug a trench the entire width of the peninsula and blocked Spartacus' move. Nevertheless, Spartacus did manage to break through but was at last defeated.

    Crassus with his army of 40-50,000 had already defeated Spartacus in 71 BC when Pompey came upon what was left of Spartacus' followers, captured 5,000 of them and claimed to be instrumental in the victory, which pissed Crassus off. Historians suggested that Crassus revived the practice of decimation as shown in the previous episode but, again, this would not have happened until 71.

    It appears that this series is skipping over the dramatic story of Spartacus' insurmountable forces hewing through one Roman army after the next on his way north, and has gotten bogged down in Sinuessa, a seaport that is not prominent in the historical account, and that the producers are choosing to condense the whole two-plus year story into one year. They do have historians on board, so it's not as if they don't know what the historical accounts are.

    I don't know what the expense might be to depict a 120,000 strong army, though I know that with CGI the series has depicted much larger throngs in the arena than we have yet seen marching or forming in battle.

  • Jimz Mar 05, 2013

    Awesome! Thank you. And Wow!!! This historic depiction of events is even wilder than what's shown in the series!

  • ElRob Mar 04, 2013

    This is a fair enough criticism, though I'm sure the writers/producers would cite budgetary and time constraints as the main reason against the show having a "cast of thousands."

  • adamndirtyape Mar 04, 2013

    This series is one of the best I've ever seen, and I wish I could share it with my wife, but she just can't handle the graphic violence. She's always been squeamish about blood. That's a pity, because she is missing out on a great story.

  • Jimz Mar 04, 2013

    The exact same story here. I've tried and tried and nope...

  • reda482 Mar 03, 2013

    I only hate one thing about Spartacus .
    the sex without any reason

  • Jimz Mar 04, 2013

    Does one need a reason to engage in sex? Only natutral and realistic as this show always has been. :)

  • IlgtYld Mar 03, 2013

    I just wish this story will end differently. Like Spartacus kicking Roman asses, Caesar dies etc. Simply just surprise us! I believe different ending, story line would just fit perfectly to this amazing show!

  • cartergblanco Mar 05, 2013

    The series has already been shot and is complete. The trailer for Season 3 already shows Caesar crucifying someone important, probably Spartacus or at least someone major. The Rebels must and will fall - For the Glory of Rome.

  • IlgtYld Mar 06, 2013

    Argghh! The glory must be for the slaves! (:

  • heartzkidnapper Mar 03, 2013

    Romans hidden on the boat , Agron sliding down of the rope , Crixus jumped at the right moment , great sex scene , brutal rape scene , awesome hands on blood scene , door on fire and one hell of cliffhanger!!! ......Of course , AWESOME episode!

  • yamachamama Mar 03, 2013

    I too loved the Agron rope jump. That entire scene leading into their fight against Caesar was done from Saxa screaming "Romans!", to the Agron and Donar with their matter-of-fact "time to kick some ass" faces, that scene was perfect.

    It's impressive how Agrons character went from rather annoying to super badass.

  • heartzkidnapper Mar 04, 2013

    YA!!!.Now , Agron is an important and cool character :D

  • 1x24 Mar 03, 2013

    Yeah Agron is amazing :D I like to think I am a good judge of character! My favourite ones have been Spartacus, Onomaeus, Gannicus and Agron. They all give me joy. RIP Onomaeus. I wonder if Agron isn't next to die of the lot. Sigh.

  • AkiraHideyo Mar 03, 2013

    The only complaint I have is at the end when Caesar could have had so easily be killed with 3 of the slave warriors's blades at his throat and yet they all blah blah blah like pussies looking awe at the burning down gate and we all know how it ends. Boring.

    There's nothing really ever bad about this premium Rolls Royce of a series but once in a while, really zombie illogic.

  • 1x24 Mar 03, 2013

    This was my most annoying moment in the episode: Caesar's throat was not ripped to shreds. Urgh.

    But then we already know that Gaius Julius Caesar will not die in this series. He still has politics to do in Rome. Urgh.

  • yutg25 Mar 03, 2013

    True I kept wanting willing those guys to slit his throat but I don't know the sight of that gate breaking had me dumbstruck for a few seconds. Also I'm reminded of Lugo's declaration about sea monsters maybe at that point a monster knocking on the gates for them must be terrifying.

  • Knoxera Mar 03, 2013

    I completely agree with the illogical ending. Caesar, a spy and enemy Roman who cost them the city, is worn beneath their feet and surrounded... but they just stand there in terror because the gate's being rammed and then wait around for a bit. It was very manufactured BS for the sake of the impressive shot - Caesar, sword in hand, telling them to run, with Rome about to flood in at his back. Yeah, awesome. But stupid in the context of the actual situation, where they clearly had the time and capability to be done with him and then retreat in haste.

    This, in my view, was a case of the dumb writer-bending the review didn't think the episode contained.

  • Jimz Mar 04, 2013

    Absolutely!! We know Caesar has to survive,but this was simply a dumb way to achieve his survival. Probably the single worst moment this season.

  • ElRob Mar 04, 2013

    I agree that the gate bursting scene was cheesy, but far cheesier to my mind was that Caesar stabbed Spartacus with a puny knife when he has a full sized sword at hand. What gives there? Still, there was so much good stuff going on that I still give this episode an "A" overall.

  • 1x24 Mar 04, 2013

    LOL I wondered about the puny knife too. Smh

  • yutg25 Mar 06, 2013

    haha I was expecting him to do that to Crixus to REALLY end him. But what you say makes sense he could've stabbed Spartacus in the Head. Hey maybe it supposed to have some historical significance to Ceasar himself didn't Brutus stab him with a puny knife in the back when he was killed.

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