Most likely, when you’re reading this, it’s the weekend. So why not take a few minutes to call your parents, or grab coffee with a good friend, just to remind yourself that there is goodness and light in the world. Because that episode? That was grim.
Don’t get me wrong, Spartacus has never been the sunniest series on the dial, even when things have gone reasonably well for Our Heroes. But no matter how dire the circumstances, the protagonists—and the audience—have always remained buoyed by a safety net of brotherhood, or hope, or the righteousness of the cause. That net has been rapidly fraying this season. Now, with a suddenness that was bracing even by this show’s standard for rapid story movement, the ropes have been severed completely.
Of course they had help from Caesar, whose initial role in Crassus’s grand plan was unveiled this week. It’s a nifty ploy on Crassus’s part, but an even niftier one on the part of the show's writers: Take the character destined to become one of the most famous individuals in world history and use him for covert ops. The man whose cognomen came to mean “emperor” in Latin, German (kaiser), and Russian (czar); the man whose clan name would be affixed not only to a brand-new month but to an entire calendar; in "Decimation," found advantage in his current anonymity.
He arrived in Sinuessa—now widely known as a refuge for huddled masses yearning to breathe free—with appropriate swashbuckling pique. Gaius the Actor would fit in perfectly with the Spartacus repertory, chewing on every morsel of his made-up backstory with the shiteating conceit of a kid who knows he’s getting away with something. He matched swords with Gannicus (competently enough to be useful, not so skillfully as to tip his hand) and quickly sized up the nakedly resentful Nemetes as the weak link in RebelCo’s upper-middle-management. It was great, shifty fun, and of a piece with the cocksure commander we’ve seen so far.
But then the episode took a turn, as did the character, when his initiation rite put him face-to-face with the hidden horrors of occupied Sinuessa. Fabia’s condition, and the unspoken traumas visited upon her over several weeks, was truly stomach-churning. Caesar was rightly appalled, but his reaction was no less unexpected. It added new shades of empathy and fragility for a character previously defined almost exclusively by arrogance and an easy propensity for violence.
We’ve discussed how one of the themes of War of the Damned has been the shifting lines between hero and villain, and this was clearest expression of that theme so far. In that moment, Caesar wasn’t merely a military maestro out to quash a foe and accrue glory; he grasped the righteousness of his cause and abhorred the monstrosity of his opponents. And who could disagree? It’s likely no coincidence that the scene echoed Spartacus’s own behavior while incognito in "Wolves at the Gate," when he too granted a doomed stranger a merciful death, then had to spin his actions to reinforce, rather than blow, his cover story.
That spin was tactically smart, riling up already inflamed passions (“I set her free—as I would all Romans still held by Spartacus!”). Yet Caesar didn’t so much sow the seeds of dissent as he did slather the seedlings with Miracle-Gro. Resentment and rage have been simmering in all corners of the rebel base, held in tenuous check only by the adamant force of Spartacus’s will. The middle acts of “Decimation” piled one formidably tense moment on top of another, a series of deceptions and manipulations in which the next words out of someone’s mouth, the next decision made, threatened to bring disaster on one party or another. Conversations—between Caesar and Nemetes, between Nemetes and Crixus, between Naevia and Gannicus—were as ruthlessly choreographed as any gladiatorial combat, and with equally high stakes.
But the incident that incited the chaos sprang from shy, superfluous Sybil, in a reversal that surprised me perhaps more than it ought have. Initially, I suspected her stumbling upon Laeta and the missing POWs might prompt a wary alliance, or at least a future C-story where Sybil agonizes over her unwanted secret. Rather than draw that secret out for an episode or two to manufacture tension, Spartacus, in characteristically fleet fashion, pivoted on it right away and had her spill the beans.
And with that, the whole shebang came crashing down. Spartacus’s detente with Laeta imploded, the truth of Attius’s innocence ignited Gannicus’s fury toward Naevia, and Crixus—hand-picked as Spartacus’s second-in-command at the start of the episode, with dramatic irony that was all but lampshaded—led the massacre of just about every remaining Roman in town.
The ensuing fissures open up new—and perhaps final, arcs—for the major players, and new notes in particular for Dustin Clare and Manu Bennett to play. Gannicus, practically against his will, is morphing from guilt-ridden hedonist to melancholy moral authority. Crixus, so long dependant on being part of a solid brotherhood, may be driven to lead a breakaway faction even at the cost of the rebellion itself—and the agony of that dawning realization is palpable.
The riot in Sinuessa, fueled by unrestrained emotion, was conspicuously cross-cut with a far more regimented brand of bloodshed, imposed by the draconian punishment which gave the episode its title. As punishment for Tiberius's troops deserting the battlefield—and as warning to all legions against future cowardice—Crassus revived an archaic mode of discipline. Accounts argue that the historical Crassus’s decimation did spur his army’s morale in the long run. Yet here it doomed at least one blameless party, Sabinus.
In another parallel between a Roman and our Thracian, Tiberius was forced to take part in the brutal execution of his closest confidant (as Spartacus was obliged to slay Varro in the Blood and Sand episode "Party Favors." Sabinus’s death didn’t carry nearly the same emotional weight, of course, partly because we don’t care as much about Tiberius as we did about Varro and partly because Tiberius and Sabinus's relationship wasn’t that deeply developed in these four episodes. But it did set the character rather sharply onto a new course, one more interesting than a standard quest for his father’s approval. Tiberius got his wish to be treated as a soldier and a man, not as an aristocrat’s mollycoddled whelp. In the process, he’s finding the martial ideals of honor and glory prove as illusory as the rebellious ones of freedom and equality.
On both sides, even when violence may sometimes serve just ends, it inevitably spawns new injustices of its own. Whether rebel-on-rebel, rebel-on-Roman, or Roman-on-Roman, the violence unleashed in the episode’s final act was bleak, brutal, and unsparing. No longer portrayed as brave or empowering, it’s simply the only way anyone in this universe knows how to deal with their problems. “We are men of blood and battle,” Crixus admonished early on, “and the streets grow restless with idle purpose.”
Spartacus is not just a violent show. Violence has been a vital part of its DNA since the beginning. It’s intrinsic to the show’s entire narrative, aesthetic, and thematic structure. It has been depicted as both depraved and noble, as the instrument of subjugation and as the lever of escape. How, when, by whom, and against whom violence is used has in large part helped characterize both the heroes and the villains.
By that standard, no one stood particularly well-acquitted this week. Much of “Decimation” felt like a rebuke to every cheer that ever greeted a .GIF-worthy dismemberment. Having implicated the audience in relishing its stylized gore, Spartacus in its final season is confronting the full consequences of a “kill them all” mentality.
– Both Spartacus and Crassus have now lost the loyalty of a top lieutenant. These guys really ought to commiserate over a jug of vino sometime.
– Caesar undercover nicely paid off two subtle, curious groundwork details laid earlier this season: The strange, precise mutilation to which he subjected his nether-regions in the premiere (to cover for an absent slave brand), and his offhand explanation in “Men of Honor” that Crassus would not let him trim his locks. See? His appearance isn’t just for Thor-eseque sexiness—it’s for strategic Thor-esque sexiness!
– Caesar tells Nemetes he’s “had the displeasure” of Cilicians’ company. At least this part of his story is true; the real Caesar was briefly the prisoner of Cilician pirates in 75 B.C. (four years before the events of this season).
– Once again I loved Spartacus and Laeta’s brief interaction, especially where she laid out exactly why Crassus poses a legitimate threat. I admire the show’s willingness to yank the rug out from under these two a lot sooner than I expected, although part of me still wants to see them blow off these ingrates and run away to the Alps.
– Likely Sybil thought that ratting out the refugees would prove her worth, not least to her crush Gannicus. Little could she know that he, lone among all Spartacus’s followers, would have preferred to avoid the very outcome she triggered. Womp-womp.
– Agron’s still nursing a grudge against Castus, the Cilician who put the moves on Nasir. I’m not too thrilled with this sort of one-note soapiness expanding into a multi-episode arc just to give Agron something to do.
– As commenters have pointed out, the historic Crixus and a group of followers are recorded as splintering from Spartacus toward the end of the Third Servile War. It’s uncertain whether this action was due to strategic or factional concerns, but it seems the writers have chosen to follow the latter interpretation.
– “The most fearsome weapons yet exposed.”
– “A position not commanded from upon back.” PHRASING, Tiberius!
– “Return to drink and whores or part from this world.” Naevia shares some good advice for any situation, really.
– “We are not Romans. Nor shall we become them by acts of unnecessary cruelty.”
– “Your lesson well learned. Imperator.”
– Body Count: I counted 16, likely dozens more off-screen, including the four other victims of the decimation. On the on-screen basis, 182 for the season.