Spartacus: War of the Damned's Premiere: Crassus Course

By Andy Daglas

Jan 26, 2013

Spartacus: War of the Damned Episode 1: "Enemies of Rome"

The final season of the Spartacus franchise faces its share of challenges. For one thing, the 29 episodes it’s produced thus far—comprising two seasons and one "prequel" miniseries—have told a largely complete story. The primary conflicts set up in the pilot were resolved at the end of last season: Spartacus has achieved his personal vendetta against Glaber. The last remnants of the House of Batiatus have been wiped out. The rebel army has gelled into a cohesive unit, having assimilated or vanquished those former slaves who began the series entrenched in the status quo.

Consequently, Blood and Sand, the half-season prequel Gods of the Arena, and Vengeance felt like a full arc which culminated in the Season 2 finale, “Wrath of the Gods.” Spartacus’s story thus far has been bookended by twin destructions: That of his old community at the hands of his enemies, and that of his enemies at the hands of his new community.

War of the Damned not only has to extend the story past that seemingly natural, triumphant endpoint, it must also do so while negotiating the pitfall faced by most historical fiction: The outcome is not in doubt. And it’s not a happy one. Spoiler alert for the first century B.C.: Spartacus and his band of merry men and women did not fell the Roman Republic. It’s possible the series could decide to wrap up before their ultimate annihilation, preserving some sense of symbolic hope, but that would violate the ethos of a show that has been unflinchingly fatalistic from the start.

As if those obstacles weren’t enough, Spartacus has to fill some gaps in the ranks. Last season saw the demise of three of the show’s best characters: the profoundly badass Oenomaus, the viciously sleazy Ashur, and the overflowing aqueduct of batshit crazy that was Lucretia.

To that end, much of tonight's War of the Damned premiere, “Enemies of Rome,” was devoted to introducing the new key player, Marcus Crassus. Strapped for both cash and manpower, the Senate had no choice but to call upon one of the Republic’s richest men to finance further rebellion-quashing. But Crassus is no mere bottomless checkbook. He has designs on martial, as well as aristocratic, glory. One of the episode’s primary jobs was to establish Crassus's bona fides as a Big Bad, and it pulled that off with aplomb.

At every turn, Crassus demonstrated why he’s cut out to be a different, and more formidable, adversary than either Batiatus or Glaber: He lacks their hubris. Batiatus was too oblivious to notice the threat Spartacus and his crew posed. Glaber was too arrogant to believe that threat could have legs. Crassus, by contrast, refuses to underestimate any opponent, or to assume that a free Roman is inherently superior to a slave. Indeed, his ruthless power play against Cossinius and Furius leveraged the fact that Spartacus would easily make mincemeat of these two jumped-up commanders.

Spartacus has always explored power, how it’s acquired and abused, and how those without it suffer and strive to obtain some small measure of it. “Enemies of Rome” set up the final season to put another spin on that theme, examining the perceptions of power. Most of the Romans we’ve met believe power stems from status, birth, or a uniform. That perception often proves to be a weakness—one that Crassus, like Spartacus, rejects for himself while exploiting in others.

But perceptions of power still have weight, as Spartacus is learning now that he commands more of it than ever. He’s a natural military commander, but he’s no longer leading just a military unit. The ragtag band has mushroomed into a full-fledged community—”Only a city can hold us now,” he observed at the end of the episode—and that position carries responsibilities he wasn’t prepared for. Many of the former slaves view Spartacus as, essentially, their king. He may not have asked for that role and he may not want it, but what choice does he have?

A chance encounter with a dissatisfied subject drove the point home; the citizens of Spartacopolis need food and shelter, and they expect Spartacus to provide it. On top of that, Gannicus alluded to shades of resentment in the ranks toward their de facto general/consul, a natural tension that happens whenever hierarchies emerge in movements founded on egalitarian ideals. These are logical, organic concerns, and they establish nifty new story engines that should keep War of the Damned from feeling like a rehash of Vengeance while moving us toward the endpoint—however bleak that may wind up being.

Notae Aliae

– The battle scenes on this show have always been impressive, but the opening melee was a phenomenal technical achievement, corralling hundreds of people and conveying mass chaos and one-on-one carnage alike with a visual style both kinetic and grounded. Must give proper credit to director Mark Beesley, stunt coordinators Clint Elvy and Steve McQuillan, fight coordinators Andrew Stehlin and Ryan Carey, and the entire behind-the-scenes team.

– Speaking of power, the quixotic truth of Spartacus’s quest was suggested by that first sequence. In the midst of one of the series’ most ferocious battles, the focus shifted several times to shots of Cossinius and Furius atop their horses, barely perturbed by the bloodshed they oversaw. Soldiers and rebels slaughtered one another, but the power structure (in this instance, at least) remained unscathed.

– Another ingenious case of the rebels using perception against their enemies: Seemingly helpless Naevia luring the centurions into an ambush, before shivving one dude and clean lopping off another’s head.

– “Did you expect freedom to come absent cost?”

– “I stand equal by sword, but you have me by fucking spear.” PHRASING, Gannicus.

– “You ask me to kill you?” “I command you to try.”

– Crassus laid out his M.O. in no uncertain terms: “Knowledge and purpose: the only counter to greater skill.” Willingness to bare-hand a sword blade helps, too.

Body Count: 88 for the episode (plus one horse), 88 for the season so far. I’m going to attempt to keep a running tally of confirmed on-screen kills, which I fully expect will test the limits of my counting ability by, like, week three.

What'd you think of the premiere?

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  • efonsecajr Staff Sep 07, 2013

    Excellent review. "A man's greatest enemy is doubt" - Crassus

  • Lars900 Jan 31, 2013

    Wow I expected to hate Crassus, the first enemy of Spartacus I like, I hated the others but Crassus is really smart, doesn't underestimates his enemy, even risk his live to test if he's up for the big task and he equals Spartacus and his men equal to the Romas and sometimes even above. Wow I really like him even though I know (and everyone who knows a bit history) what he's going to do to Spartacus' army and Spartacus (or not? no one knows for sure what happened to Spartacus). Great start of the third season.

  • AliKhan3 Jan 30, 2013

    Nice review Andy !!!

  • AkiraHideyo Jan 30, 2013

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE Spartacus! Simply brilliant in every way. A real WINNER! No BS, just REAL and pure entertainment.

  • CrazyAsian1080 Jan 29, 2013

    "I am about to partake on this dangerous mission which might result in death. I shall take the best fighters and obvious leaders with me..."

    I get the reasoning, if you are going to go on a suicide mission you might as well give yourself the best odds of succeeding. Still, not as bad as Star Trek TOS where the entire chain of command left on away missions.

    Liam McIntyre has also grown on me. Andy Whitfield was better in the arena, but McIntyre makes a convincing commander or a rag tag band of rebels. Also, charging in on a horse was pretty bad ass. Also, finally an antagonist that isn't a complete tool. Though I imagine his son will fill that roll.

  • Togana Jan 29, 2013

    Awesome and extremely insightful review. I know that I was on the edge of my seat watching this week's episode. Crassus is no doubt a formidable adversary for Spartacus and his crew. I can't wait to see what's going to happen this season... even though I know if they tell it like History remembers it...... Well, we'll get to that bridge yadda, yadda.

  • Flatlegz Jan 28, 2013

    Fantastic episode! Thanks for the great review, Andy.

  • loldude1 Jan 28, 2013

    Adding my voice to the rest, I found this first episode re-invigorating to the series. I'd almost completely lost interest in season 3 (Season 2 if just counting Spartacus timeline). I love that they didn't bring back the same old Roman nemesis guy married to Illythia. He was stale in the extreme, and frankly, Crassius is more convincing/appealing.

    I will miss Lucretia, but even her storyline was feeling stale and forced. She didn't have any real purpose, other than to be herself and do manipulative things.

    Here is to the rebooted Spartacus!

  • Whedonrules Jan 28, 2013

    Fantastic season opener. Crassus sets up to be the most dangerous enemy because he has wealth coupled with wisdom. Introducing new characters and completely setting up their interpersonal relationships -- done without a lot of unnecessary exposition is a staple of this show from the get go. I hope that Steven DeKnight and this crew get another opportunity to create great television. This show is going to be sorely missed.

    Saxa must be the best girl to have in the whole battallion. Saxa and Gannacus is a great pairing.

  • monicaconso Jan 28, 2013

    I have started watching this series with this episode, at my brother's urging. I completely agree that it works mostly as many mini-series because I had no problem in watching without having seen the other two. What probably is important is instead the level of care for the characters. After seeing this episode, I can't wait for Crassus (and Caesar, yay!) to destroy Spartacus and the others because the ex-slaves seem bathed in unintentional hubris while my brother wouldn't mind not seeing the historical end play out.

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