Spartacus: War of the Damned "Wolves at the Gate" Review: We Killed This City

By Andy Daglas

Feb 02, 2013

Spartacus: War of the Damned Episode 2: "Wolves at the Gate"

Last week, commenter @theopratt raised the issue of how we define “good guys” and “bad guys” on this show, considering that virtually every character has a great deal of blood on their hands. It’s difficult to fairly apply our own moral schematics to this setting; few of us can relate to life in a 2,000-year-old civilization, or a state of war, or a circumstance in which the most fundamental survival needs are perpetually at risk. But as both a depiction of that setting which implicitly comments on our own time, and as a piece of culture created for 21st century Western audiences, it’s worth our contemplating those knotty ethical questions.

“Wolves at the Gate” showed those questions to be very much on the minds of the show’s creative team as well. Until now, the rebels have primarily killed soldiers or slave owners, active enforcers of their prior oppression. @theopratt pointed out that in the Vengeance episode “Libertus,” the rebels killed hundreds or thousands of spectators in the destruction of the Capua arena, ordinary Romans who were likely too poor to be slave owners—but you could argue that, as enthusiastic supporters of a bloodsport that dehumanized and slaughtered countless slaves, they too were complicit in the unjust system against which the rebels have declared war.

Many of the denizens of Sinuessa en Valle have probably taken in a gladiatorial tournament or two in their time. Certainly a throng of them didn’t hesitate to exact bloody retribution against a captured slave early in the episode. But then there’s Laeta, who acknowledged that maybe a revolting slave isn’t a monster simply for rising up against a lifetime of cruelty. And there’s her husband, Ennius, a city father who condemned the “frenzy” of the stoning crowd and praised the square-jawed stranger who cut the spectacle mercifully short. If Spartacus’s followers aren’t the soulless horde the Roman authorities make them out to be, maybe the Romans aren’t quite so monolithically evil either.

Still, the Sparty Gang needs a city. And that city needs to be taken by force. And when thousands of hungry, desperate, enraged warriors are turned loose upon an off-guard and helpless populace, those shades of gray don’t matter. Blind carnage is the only possible result.

To his credit, Spartacus recognized this—though too late to save untold scores of innocents, including a mother and a child he’d seen frolicking several hours prior. He ordered a stop to the bloodbath, and mercy for all survivors. And yet when the city’s precious grain stores were threatened by Ennius, our hero also didn’t hesitate to ram a spear through the man’s uvula, even at a moment when Laeta’s attempts at peaceful negotiation seemed to be paying off.

A necessary evil? Perhaps. How justified would Spartacus have been in leaving his own thousands of people to die from exposure or starvation? But the lesser of two evils is still an evil, and “Wolves at the Gate” didn’t shy away from treating it as such. This was no moment of unambiguous triumph for a man who set out to fight on behalf of ordinary, oppressed people. Crassus spoke at the end of the episode about the sacrifices demanded in war. Will victory come down to which side is willing to bear greater sacrifices, not just with regard to human life but to principles?

This dark descent is especially jarring at the climax of what was, until that moment, a relatively peaceful installment. “Wolves at the Gate” kicked off as a good old-fashioned caper episode. Spartacus, Gannicus, and Crixus slipped into Sinuessa incognito—trading on the name of Diotimos’s former dominus in the process. There they rustled up Gannicus’s old blacksmith buddy to forge them new steel, to replace the weapons surrendered at the gate.

This plan sparked plenty of fun moments, like Spartacus conniving his way past the gatekeepers, and Gannicus manipulating his reluctant contact into compliance—twice. For the first half of the episode, the rebels relied on charisma and quick wit to maneuver through their enemies, rather than brandishing swords and bigger swords.

It was a welcome reminder that Spartacus (and Spartacus) boasts skill at more than just violence. “Wolves at the Gate” got a lot of mileage out of the show’s unique, florid dialogue rhythms, one of the pleasures often overshadowed by its reputation for blood and boobs. Indeed, that restraint helped make the chaos of Sinuessa’s siege all the more harrowing.

Patience foreshadowing menace was the tone of the episode’s second half as well. Julius Caesar was introduced with all fitting sturm und drang, but his meeting with Crassus only hinted at the grand ambitions to come (and not only those within the scope of this series). It was a marriage of convenience. The Senate needs Crassus’s coin but doesn’t much care for the man (due to his nouveau riche background, he claimed... though I loved his knowing grin at Caesar’s insinuation that there was more to the story). Meanwhile, Caesar’s storied lineage carries credibility, but he lacks the resources to capitalize on it.

The dichotomy of “name absent wealth” meeting “wealth absent name” was stark. So, too, were their temperamental differences. Where Crassus has been methodical, Caesar was immediately characterized as a firebrand; he was referred to as some manner of “beast” several times, and Todd Lasance certainly plays him with a leonine air, all strutting and appetite. War of the Damned wants to serve up an unorthodox portrayal of one of history’s most portrayed figures, a smart decision that could go either way in execution. In the show's attempt to separate its Caesar from the Shakespearean mold, Lasance and the writers could end up overloading him with too many stock “TV-sociopath” traits (he’s already a hothead, a hedonist, and apparently a sexual masochist). However, if they thread the needle, Lasance could carry on Spartacus’s tradition of rich, balls-out villain hamminess.

Though we also need to talk about his grunge look, guys. I am 85 percent sure that when this Caesar isn’t out conquering the Gauls he plays bass in a Sonic Youth cover band.

Notae Aliae

– The title everyone kept using for Ennius (as best I can tell) was “aedile.” According to my research, this was a local office in the Roman Republic responsible for managing public order and infrastructure, like the city’s granaries. Now you know—and knowing is half the battle!

– Six Degrees of the Whedonverse: Laeta is played by Anna Hutchison, who played Jules in The Cabin in the Woods, which was co-written by Joss Whedon. Joss’s brother and frequent collaborator Jed Whedon is a writer on Spartacus, and showrunner Steven DeKnight spent years on the writing teams of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

– Did the fellas going undercover and traipsing through enemy territory remind anyone of the early Season 3 episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, when the Aang Gang posed as Fire Nation citizens? Just me then?

– “I require no lesson in my fucking heritage.”

– “Imagine what could be wrested from highest perch were Crassus and Caesar to align themselves.”

– Spartacus on the rebellion: “Let us pray, then, for the proper end to it.”

– “I would not see more blood spilled absent cause.” “Nor I. Absent cause.” These Sinuessians just cannot stop setting Spartacus up for loaded, ironic rejoinders.

– “You aide Spartacus?” “No. I stand the man himself.”

– Funnest kill of the week: Diotimos playing fungo, with a guard as his baseball and a battle-axe as his bat.

– Thanks to everyone for the kind words and great discussion on last week’s review. I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say about this season!

Body Count: I counted 36 for the episode, but the fatalities became very tough to keep track during the siege sequence (and of course this doesn’t include the likely dozens or hundreds of citizens who met the gods off-screen). On that measure, 124 for the season!

What did you think of the episode? How does this incarnation of Caesar stack up so far? Turn keyboard toward purpose and grace forum with comment.

  • Comments (73)
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  • efonsecajr Staff Sep 07, 2013

    Had to watch the first episode of this season twice before it felt like Spartacus. That and reading your reviews are making this show an absolute pleasure to watch.

    Everyone involved in creating this show along with the actors have taken this series to that other level. Though I will never forget Andi Whitfield (RIP), Liam has definitely made his version of the great Spartacus a pleasure to watch.

  • emmairis Feb 04, 2013

    Ok Andy, you rock, but please, don't you ever ever EVER compare Spartacus and Avatar again!!!

  • noelrk Staff Feb 07, 2013

    Man. This idea is going to do wonders for my crack fanfics...

  • emmairis Feb 07, 2013

    oh pleeeeaaze! a cartoon and an x-rated show??? stop it you guys!!! lol

  • AndyDaglas Staff Feb 05, 2013

    Thanks - and I don't expect the show to lend itself to too many more parallels, unless Crixus adopts a flying bison.

  • emmairis Feb 04, 2013

    I'm italian and in high school I studied both Greek and Latin including their literatures and cultures, not only the languages, so ask away for any historical confirmation. Your research on aediles Andy was very accurate by the way.

  • ElRob Feb 04, 2013

    Oh, one more thing: I did a quick spot check on the episodes that Jesse Warn has directed, and they have all been outstanding, up to and including the awesomefest that was "Kill Them All". Definitely the standout director on the series, here's hoping he helms the finale.

  • ElRob Feb 04, 2013

    Hi Andy, just wanted to thank you for this excellent review. I've always felt my local news media here in Canada has given Spartacus short shrift and I was greatly heartened to see a well-crafted piece assessing the show on its merits, which after 2 and a half, kind of, seasons I believe to be considerable.

    As for blond and bearded young Caesar, I feel Todd Lasance's portrayal was a refreshing change from the "cold fish" political operator we have seen all too often, most typified in Ciaran Hinds' take on the role in "Rome", which I felt was by far the weakest link of that series. By all accounts JC was a lusty and unconventional fellow, so why not let him go a little over the top? After all, nearly 30 years separate the events of Spartacus from his bloody end on Pompey's porch...which is why, naturally, a spin-off series could hold such great appeal, though it would be hard for the show's core audience to switch allegiances from the oppressed hordes of Spartacus to the political wheelings and dealings of the Republic's corrupt elites.

    Keep up the good work, I'll be reading again next week!

  • heartzkidnapper Feb 03, 2013

    Now , i know why Caesar looks familiar to me . The Cabin in the woods , The avengers... all done by Joss Whedon . His Bro working in Spartacus so he brings someone looks like THOR!

  • Darkflame2006 Feb 03, 2013

    As much as i throughly enjoyed this episode, Spartacus really has to stop his army from killing the innocents.

    I know the episode tried to make the people look like savages before hand with the throwing of the rocks at the slave but what's Spartacus's big plan exactly?

    Kill not just every roman solider but also every roman citizen and leave only the slaves?

    That's a lot of killing and not very honorable, you could say they killed everyone to make sure the citizens couldn't go and tell the roman legions that Spartacus has taken the city but this will be found out soon enough anyway.

    Killing the young girl and her mother was completely unnecessary also but i think that was the point of this episode, to show Spartacus how savage his army really are.

    This episode is the first episode to show Spartacus army in a bad light, at least for me at whilst i am still behind Spartacus's noble cause of freedom, he better address this issue in the next episode.

  • damasta414 Feb 06, 2013

    "Kill not just every roman solider but also every roman citizen and leave only the slaves?"
    You seem surprised the last words spoken in the first season and the name of the last episode was "Kill them all".

  • flyinglizard007 Feb 04, 2013

    I would have hated it if Spartacus ordered his men to avoid killing innocents, it would have shown poor war leadership skills, and it would have made him look too much like a nice guy.

  • Paul_of_Dune Feb 03, 2013

    I agree, they made Spartacus' army look very savage in this episode, perhaps allowing us to side somewhat with Crassus as the series progresses. Did anyone notice that the last episode is called "Victory"? But we all know Spartacus looses, so victory for whom? Obviously the Romans, but if Spartacus is the "good guy", then shouldn't the episode be called "Defeat"?. Just an observation though, despite the fact that Spartacus will loose and die, I'll be on his side no matter what.

  • Darkflame2006 Feb 04, 2013

    Spartacus so far has done no wrong in my eyes, just his army.

    Whilst it would of been ideal for Spartacus to have not killed that woman's husband, he was right, he couldn't take the risk, he needed that food to feed his people.

    I guess in Spartacus's mind, one man's death is a small price to pay to feed 1000's, it was a tough call though as technically the man was merely protecting his property from what he would of viewed as thieves and murderers.

    In regards to the final episode, i can merely speculate that Spartacus will die but not before Crassus regrets achieving it.

    Crassus has already been shown in a positive light compared to all the previous roman's on the show, he may love his roman empire (but with the exception of cheating on his dreadful wife), he's been portrayed as a pretty decent guy so far and i believe he has been written like this on purpose.

    I'm guessing he will be the guy who finally brings down Spartacus, if it was any other Roman soldier, it would cause too much upset to the viewers to know Spartacus and his army died in vein at the hands of arrogant Roman's.

    One thing's for sure, i can't wait to see how this season unfolds! :)

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  • smithinjapan Feb 03, 2013

    Kudos on keeping the count of on-screen kills. Must require a lot of re-watching certain parts (a show worth re-watching in many respects).

    Anyway, I was interrupted a lot while watching this episode, so I missed a bit, but on the whole I didn't like it as much as others. True, the character development (especially given the introduction of Caesar) is necessary, but I still felt this one lacking in intensity compared to other episodes. Even the taking of the city, despite a couple of tense moments, didn't keep me quite as glued to the screen.

    Still, I wouldn't chain it up and throw stones at it -- it was a good episode, as are they all, and the gritty colours and scenery were as excellent as always. Also, with all of what I said above, I think they are already doing an amazing job of building to what is sure to be an incredible peak by the season's (and series'?) end.

  • CrazyAsian1080 Feb 03, 2013

    You know what would be kind of interesting. An entire episode from the perspective of a normal Roman family. Maybe one that is preparing to defend itself from Spartacus' attack on their city.

  • AnaPeradenic Feb 03, 2013

    all I can say about this latest depiction of Ceasar is - HOT!
    that's good enough for me, and I hope this season keeps up with the humor and blood-thirst of the earlier ones.

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