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.