In some ways, Spartacus is one of the lucky ones. He has avenged his capture and the murder of his wife, slain his largest personal demon. He has attained at least some measure of closure, and that allows him the luxury of seeing beyond a mere thirst for revenge. Vengeance still fuels him, but at this point so too does a sense of justice (arguably, an anachronistic one). If he can free the slaves by killing every Roman, he’ll do that. But if he can free the slaves by killing some Romans and leaving others alive, he’ll do that, too.
Not everyone in his coterie has that same perspective, Naevia chief among them. She’s known nothing but a life of servitude; the initial overthrow of the House of Batiatus cast her not into a hardscrabble freedom but into even more savage oppression. Her experiences have wounded her too deeply for her to ever look upon a Roman with anything but disgust, forget about empathy. And her experiences are probably more representative of most of the rebels’ than Spartacus’s are.
Naevia won’t extend the benefit of the doubt to anyone—not patently harmless Ulpianus, if there’s a chance he might be reaching for a sword rather than a loaf; and not nominal ally Attius, if there’s a chance he’s harboring some escaped POWs. As she explained, she’s seen outward decency warp into shadowed monstrosity. To her, kindness is a facade, and trust is just another weakness that can get you killed.
When and where to lay trust was a quandary on many minds in “Men of Honor.” Spartacus had a chance to strike a deal with Mediterranean pirates that may be lucrative or lethal. Laeta haltingly realized that neither her late husband nor her new captor is who she’d thought. Even Tiberius, a legion commander de jure if not de facto, was dubious about the reliability of those serving under him, given the vastness of Caesar’s shadow.
The extent to which trust—and people’s capacity to trust—can be salvaged will have a tremendous impact on the outcome of these dire circumstances. That’s why Spartacus recognized that he’ll need Laeta’s help to ensure Sinuessa’s prisoners are treated with a modicum of humanity. It’s why she reluctantly agreed (though, as he pointed out, she was “absent choice”). Even if neither can trust the other’s honor, each knows that their goals are, for the time being, partially aligned. Mutual self-interest isn’t the sturdiest foundation for trust, but in most human interaction, it is a necessary if not sufficient one.
The exchanges in which they hammered out this thorny detente were, like all of Spartacus and Laeta’s scenes together so far, fantastic—slyly paced and charged with the right mix of attraction and trepidation. The show is clearly building toward some sort of star-crossed romance between the two, which has the potential to be a fascinating expression of the season’s thematic exploration of the gray areas between warring sides. Considering that, on the day they met, Spartacus skewered her husband’s head like a chunk of broiled pineapple, keeping that relationship plausible is going to require a lot groundwork. The chemistry between Liam McIntyre and Anna Hutchison is going a long way toward that goal.
Also helping out this week was the arrival of Heracleo and his merry band of brigands. Their parlay with Spartacus rather neatly addressed problems both textual (keeping Sinuessa adequately fed) and metatextual (driving the first wedge between Laeta and her memory of Ennius, allowing the aforementioned inevitable romance some room to take root). Perhaps that stone killed those two birds a tad too neatly, but that sort of expediency is bound to happen sometimes in a show which cranks out plot as quickly as Spartacus does. I can forgive the bluntness of the plot stroke when the character dynamic it advances is so compelling—and when it triggers so many rousing B-story shenanigans.
Everything around Heracleo and his gang was a hoot, from the boggled look on Spartacus’s face when the pirate leader embraced him (a splendid bit of physical comedy by McIntyre), to the bacchanalia celebrating the new alliance, to the rip-roaring intervention of their flaming, legionnaire-squashing offshore artillery. After all, nothing forges newfound trust like a common enemy... and a few well-timed fireballs.
Amid all the acrimony, “Men of Honor” squeezed plenty of such fun into the margins. A good half-dozen lines made me laugh out loud (turn eyes towards notae aliae for choice sample). And the festivities inspired sensuality to spare for viewers of any orientation (why hello, Saxa and Sybil! And good day to you, Agron and Nasir!). I hope these scurvy dogs stick around. They can be Spartacus’s wacky, troublemaking neighbors, popping in from time to time to lighten the mood with their ribaldry. Heracleo can be the Larry Dallas of the Tyrrhenian coast.
One last digression, spinning off this episode’s dose of rough-and-tumble sex and violence. Spartacus has seldom gotten credit for regularly portraying male homosexual romances as progressively as any show around. Two guys getting into a knock-down drag-out after one hits on the other’s significant other is one of the most well-worn tropes of masculinity in pop culture, but it's much rarer for that trope to be applied to a gay couple, as it was here, showing that masculinity and homosexuality are far from incompatible. Agron and Nasir’s relationship, though a minor aspect of the series, is depicted with as much passion and nuance as any heterosexual love. The distance of Spartacus’s historical setting provides a little cover, since the show isn’t challenging contemporary mores quite so directly, but it’s still commendable.
– Brief screen time for Caesar this week, but true to form he made the most of it—cleaving a guy’s skull in twain and big-timing Tiberius without breaking a sweat.
– Speaking of ol’ Gaius, commenters last week described his scruffy look as resembling a surfer or a Thor stand-in. Mummius’s comparison? “Wooly fucking goat.”
– Naevia: “Men such as him hold the greatest [threat]. True intent shrouded behind mask of kind and gentle face.” How much of this sentiment might be foreshadowing the arc for the so-far honorable Crassus?
– Why do we think Gannicus came down with the yips when Saxa invited Sibyl to display her... um... gratitude? There was clearly a note of self-loathing when he warned her to stay away from him and from men like him, but what incited it? Guilt over Melitta resurfacing, weariness at years of hedonism taking its toll, or something else?
– Sabinus lunging to Tiberius’s rescue was depicted as downright heroic—an unusual tone for a Roman character. It’s telling that, in the midst of a large combat sequence, the show took a moment to present an act of valor by one of the “bad guys.”
– “Spartacus is of the underworld, able to spurt himself through wood and stone.” PHRASING, random injured functionary dude!
– “What threat does he hold, pissing on us from the fucking sea?” “You would be surprised by the reach of my stream, boy.”
– “You would entreat Poseidon to shun robes and present ass.”
– “I once drained six cups and found myself in heated argument with imaginary cat.”
– “My cock is magic!” “Then see it vanish from sight.”
– Body Count: 42, though again, keeping an accurate tally got pretty dicey once the great balls of fire started shaking nerves and rattling brains. That brings the season count to 166.