Spartacus Series Finale Review: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

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Spartacus: War of the Damned Episode 10: "Victory"

When history tells us the protagonists of our story are doomed, will the adaptation accept or elide that reality? Steven DeKnight and the Spartacus creative team addressed the central question of their series finale—albeit obliquely—right in the title. No matter the outcome of the war, or the fates of individual warriors, “Victory” promised a decisive end.

Defining victory, though, left plenty of room for interpretation. The show’s “live free or die” ethos has long made it clear that death is not synonymous with losing, nor is mere survival an automatic win. By his own measure, the protagonist of this story did succeed. Because of the struggle he inspired, everyone who died on that battlefield, every refugee intercepted by Pompey, every lucky soul who traversed the mountain pass, was able to die a free man or woman.

“Victory” worked well not only as a rewarding finale to a remarkably rich series, but also as a cohesive episode of television. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a self-contained episode, but for the coda of an entirely serialized show, it stands well on its own as one story, rather than merely a piece of a story.

This is mainly due to the way the plot essentially mirrored our titular hero’s series-long character arc, with all its visual and expository callbacks to the pilot effectively condensing the backstory and underlining how vital it still remains, so many months and years of ceaseless struggle later. Yet it also made clear how both the character and the show took that inciting injustice and drew a purpose from it that was larger than revenge. In the last in a long line of stirring speeches, Spartacus inspired his people not with talk of blood vendettas or personal glory, but of freedom, an ideal both grand and simple.

It was summed up just as well in his long-awaited tête-à-tête with his Roman opposite number, a dialogue that skirted perilously close to “we’re not so different, you and I” territory, but kept from teetering all the way in thanks to Spartacus’s visceral rejection of the parallel. Crassus has always understood his opponent’s mind strategically, but he’s never been able to fully grasp the man ideologically. The one principle they agree on—”There is no justice. Not in this world”—is the one that makes the freedom the rebels are fighting to preserve so invaluable. If there is no justice, nor security, nor guarantee or even hope of success, then nothing is more precious than for a person to retain as much control as possible over his or her own life.


The consequence of the leaders’ clash isn’t so clear-cut, though. Within the context of this narrative, Spartacus was triumphant in death, while Crassus was in many ways a beaten man. He’d hoped to end the Bringer of Rain by his own hand, an honor deprived him by a rescue detachment he was visibly pained to see arrive. His grand designs on the power and glory of saving the Republic were usurped in the blink of an eye by Pompey; he pragmatically hitched his star to the grandstanding general and alluded to the Triumvirate they and Caesar will soon form, but he’ll stand as the least-remembered of that trio.

In the process, he sacrificed his closest loved ones—first emotionally and then corporeally—on the altar of an iron code. The matter-of-fact reveal of Kore withering on the cross was the biggest gut-punch of the episode for me, and Crassus’s ironic rationalization of her punishment was salt in the wound, if I may mix my injury metaphors. No wonder he came right out and declared that he’s focused on the future because his past and present have been abysmally tainted.

On the battlefield, most of the main rebels met the gods in worthy, if grisly, fashion, usually managing to take out a couple more enemies even after suffering mortal wounds. Naevia’s was the grimmest, drawn out after being hobbled in a way that recalled her climactic duel with Ashur last season. She was in conspicuous isolation when she expired, the absence of Crixus looming large.

Lugo’s last moments definitely earned a gold star in badassery, deep-sixing a couple of soldiers while burning to death so badly that he made Harvey Dent look like a Neutrogena model. You died as you lived, Lugo: pulverizing dudes with a big honkin’ hammer while cursing in a proto-Germanic tongue.

Saxa’s demise, on the other hand, felt more rushed, though oddly fitting; it was one last reminder that her character, and her relationship with Gannicus, were too thinly developed. She had a couple of fine moments this season, but returning to her ex-lover’s arms only in death would’ve had a greater impact if the show hadn't shrugged her off in favor of the Gannicus-Sybil romance for much of the year. I’ll miss her—I just wish I’d miss her more.

As for Gannicus himself, it makes perfect sense that he would find a reason to exult in even the most excruciating end. His death wish finished its evolution from one rooted in guilt to one with nobler purpose. His satisfaction could’ve found no better expression than the vision of Oenomaus’s approving look (and kudos on bringing back Peter Mensah, even if only as a momentary silent delusion), followed by the cheers which have rung in his ears so many times returning to commemorate a truly worthy achievement.


I don’t mean to dwell on mortality in this review. One of the best decisions the writers made was to allow Agron and Nasir to walk off into the sunset together, at least one couple surviving intact. Contentment can be as dramatically fulfilling as tragedy, even if it means Agron will have to grudgingly figure out how to live as a shepherd now. (There’s your spinoff!)

Plus, as expected, “Victory,” boasted plenty of fantastic set pieces. The opening montage brought the heat immediately, at last unleashing the famous battle cry we’ve been waiting to hear from each of our heroes. The main combat was chock full of ingenious trickeration, with its booby traps and cavalry sneak attacks and siege engine fusillades aimed straight at the camera, mowing down soldiers in the extreme foreground. The visuals were characteristically lush and gorgeous; the show’s distinctive neoclassical-infused aesthetic isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but for my money has always been one of its unique driving strengths. Several shots in “Victory” will stand among the finest the show’s ever done.

But TV shows have “lifespans” in a way that more contained stories, like films, or ongoing narratives designed to never end, like superhero comics, don’t. And a series finale is tantamount to a show’s death (the odd Kickstarted movie extension aside). Few shows, like few people, are afforded the privilege of going out on their own terms.

I realize this may be a grim way of looking at things, but think about it. From here on out, we’ll spend as much time in the company of Agron and Nasir and Laeta as we will with Naevia, Crixus, or Spartacus. Whether or not a character draws their last breath in a finale, when the series ends, so do they. It’s lovely to imagine Eric Taylor coaching one high school football team after another in perpetuity, or Lindsay Weir chasing the Dead until the heavens fall, but the fact remains. We all come to an endpoint. What matters is what we did along the way.

Whether or not an afterlife awaited Spartacus, to reunite him with his wife and restore his original identity, his certainty of this future belied a well-earned earthly contentment. Though only half the refugees made it to whatever fate lay beyond the Alps, they constituted thousands more lives than would've had the chance without Spartacus and his rebellion. The dire fates of some can spare others, like Laeta and Sybil, from worse.

This is as near to a happy ending as anyone could reasonably expect from a series whose various subtitles have included the words “blood,” “vengeance,” and “damned.” Even a bleak, fatalistic show can find a break in the clouds. And its hero can be laid to rest beneath a cairn paying proper homage, adorned with the red serpent shield. It may've been crafted for Agron, but its herald belonged strictly to the Thracian whose true name we’ll never know—a weapon forged of devotion to restore power to a man violently stripped of it, an instrument of death, an instrument of protection, capable of great and unfortunate things.


NOTAE ALIAE

Spartacus’s signature end-credits tapestry offered the perfect vehicle for a clip show/roll call of pretty much every character who's played a part in every incarnation of the series. I have no doubt that lump set upon many a throat when Andy Whitfield sprang forth as the only apropos final image. 

– It’s impossible to overstate the perfection of the “are you shitting me?” look Gannicus threw when Spartacus handed over his sword to go pow-wow with Crassus. 

– “I hold faith in a man like no other.” 

– “It is heavy burden, to gaze at war’s end and weigh bitter cost of it.” 

– “What would you have me do?” “The impossible.” 

– Ever since Gannicus and Caesar’s tryout/sparring during the latter’s spying days, we knew the rematch of the seconds-in-command was coming. (“I have longed to meet you in true contest.” “I have longed to see your head parted from fucking neck.”) Yet not for nothing did it require an entire armored phalanx to actually bring the Celt down.

– “Would that you had been born a Roman and stood beside me.” “I bless the fates that it was not so.”

– “Give me a sword.” 

– Agron’s eulogy: “One day Rome shall fade and crumble. Yet you shall always be remembered in the hearts of those that yearn for freedom.” 

– Shut up, I’m not crying. You’re crying. 

Body Count: Aw, guys. I don’t even know. 76? 760? Eleventy thousand? By any measure, it puts us well north of 500 for the season. According to my unofficial calculations, that makes this the second-deadliest final season in TV history, surpassed only by the infamous climax of Small Wonder


What did you think of the finale? Gratitude to all for reading, and for honored comments left upon forum.

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