Spartacus traffics in death. Spartacus piles up corpses the way Sex and the City piled up puns. In 37 episodes, it’s logged more kills than Full House logged studio-audience “awws” in eight years. It’s the kind of show that lends itself to keeping a body count tally that crosses double digits week in and week out, yet still only reflects a fraction of the true scale of death conveyed by the story. Any show that kills off a major character faces plenty of challenges, but Spartacus’s nature makes it even trickier—and more imperative—to imbue individual demises with proper weight.
Telling a story rooted in historical fact is equally challenging, for similar reasons: Lending dramatic weight to events we know are coming carries an extra degree of difficulty. And with only three episodes remaining in this series, and the historical outcome of the Third Servile War far from in question, we had to expect that several, if not most, of our favorite characters would be meeting the gods soon enough.
All of this should be prologue enough to deter any spoiler-phobes who have somehow arrived here before having watched “Separate Paths,” so now we may pour a pair out for Crixus and Agron. After leading a ragtag army of warriors who had once been chattel to the doorstep of Europe’s most powerful city, they fell in appropriately somber, gut-wrenching fashion.
The episode reckoned with the challenges I mentioned above by leaning into them, telegraphing Crixus’s impending doom almost from the word go. Much of the hour served as a send-off to the Undefeated Gaul, from the return of his gladiatorial sobriquet to his fiery oratory rallying the troops for the final assault; from he and Naevia reaffirming the depths of their romance to the three separate farewells he exchanged with Spartacus. All those moments invoked touchstones from the show’s history, recounting moments of glory and loss with the sentimental pangs of a series gearing up to say goodbye. Fittingly, Crixus’s battle cry cited inspiration from Oenomaus, the only character so far whose death has meant as much to the rebel soul as this one.
It wasn't only Crixus who received the heroic valedictory; Agron and Naevia (who’s not officially dead yet, but as good as) were right alongside him for a sweeping, operatic sequence dramatizing their violent exploits across the Italian peninsula. Director TJ Scott pulled out all the stylistic stops in a montage charged with the same reckless abandon as its subjects. If at times it went a bit over the top (even by Spartacus’s standards), well, damn if these badasses haven’t earned it.
Yet when it came down to the final moment, the episode wisely played it small and personal. A tight shot on Crixus’s face as he bid Naevia a silent goodbye, a look of something approaching peace settling over him before the blade fell. It was, quite possibly, the closest to serenity the Gaul has ever managed. The soundtrack dropped out, the background vanished. None of the show’s trademark gore greeted Crixus’s beheading; he scarcely even shared the frame with his executioner. This was a moment between lovers: The last we saw of Crixus was as a glint in Naevia’s eye.
The build-up, economically evoking Crixus’s full character arc in the span of the episode, generated exactly the right payoff: a stew of grief and pride and satisfaction at a story well-told. The last minute of “Separate Paths” was exactly the sort of punch in the gut great television can deliver.
Not for nothing was it Tiberius who swung the blade on both Agron and Crixus, as it’s clear by now that Spartacus's writers really wants us to concentrate our hatred on him. As if determined to ensure that both Crassus and possible spinoff subject Caesar retain a measure of audience sympathy, the show has made Tiberius the repository for the Roman side’s slimiest sins. Throughout the episode he was playing on a level of dickery that would make Joffrey Baratheon applaud, conniving to leverage every advantage possible from the disarray he inadvertently helped trigger.
That disarray found its strongest expression at the top. Contorted by the pain of personal and professional losses, Crassus’s considerable ambition and ego had driven him to the breaking point. (Among targets of said breaking: his troops’ morale, Metellus’s face bones.) As his future fellow triumvir pointed out, his sense of control has been one of Crassus’s most valued assets. At a moment of crisis, that asset deserted him.
Kore shoulders no small part of the blame for that. Although Caesar uncovered her true motive for escaping—a revelation that could wipe out all the favor Tiberius has gained with the imperator—he set office politics aside for fear of compounding Crassus’s dangerous discord. Caesar was the only one thinking practically throughout, the angel on Crassus’s shoulder trying to drum some sense into him. And what thanks does he get? Finding himself victim of Tiberius’s humiliating yet untraceable wrath, in a scene that was flabbergasting both for the brutality of the power shift it represented and for the fact that, well, that’s about the last thing you’d ever expect to happen to Julius Fucking Caesar.
Still, Crassus recognized that the glory of taking down the Bringer of Rain would be awfully Pyrrhic if he let Rome be overrun in the process. Which, for the time being, left Spartacus’s contingent free to flee... after one last, critical mission: storming a villa to stage a going-away party! After driving so many wedges between Spartacus and Crixus, it was a bold, heartening move for War of the Damned to ground their ultimate schism in a place of kinship and mutual respect. They revolted for the freedom to choose their own paths, and thus so it was only natural that those paths would someday diverge. That the crossroads was one of priorities rather than strict ideology made the fateful moment bittersweet, while still preserving the brotherhood that has formed the emotional foundation of the series.
It also provided an opportunity to take the temperatures of the main characters as the end nears. Crixus and Naevia, of course, were still fueled by the lust for vengeance; since their respective fights began, they each knew the only end for their journeys would come battling Romans. Agron, whose ironclad loyalty to Spartacus has been his defining trait, nevertheless can’t fathom turning his sword into ploughshares. Gannicus demonstrated again why his has been the show’s most dynamic arc; the man who once fought blind to purpose or principle now opted for protecting another over the kamikaze charge.
But the biggest reveal belonged to Spartacus, who admitted that two years of ceaseless battle and the responsibility of defending so many helpless souls have taken their toll. He’s achieved his personal vendetta, brought down both the man who enslaved him and the man who facilitated both that enslavement and his wife’s murder. He’s also watched thousands die ugly, and thousands more suffer from deprivation every day.
However noble Crixus’s desire to secure the deaths of his enemies might be, no less so is Spartacus’s goal of preserving the lives of his allies. Whether the latter will have more success than the former did is the pressing question for the final two episodes.
– Pretty perfect that Spartacus and Laeta had to throw off the sparks of one more verbal sparring session before finally consummating things. Like every great romantic comedy pairing, their attraction is rooted in mutual intelligence and snappy repartee. Repartee about owning human beings as property, in this case, but repartee nonetheless!
– Equally perfect: “You yet stand Roman—a thing I can never hold to heart.” “It is not your heart I am after this night.” Nanciscere id, puella!
– If Sybil has tempered Gannicus’s hedonism, he’s inspired her to cut loose a little in return. Their boozy flirtation recalled a goody two-shoes high schooler trying on a new attitude at her first frat party. Though I guess that would make Saxa the spurned sorority mean girl.
– Please, no jokes about Caesar getting his salad tossed. Security is prepared to escort you off the premises.
– Lest we might think Agron’s loyalty had wavered, he reiterated it in what he deemed a pretty distasteful way by helping Laeta assemble her shelter. “It baffles fucking sense, yet he appears to carry affection toward you.”
– Kore: Not great at staying inconspicuous, but at least able to prove her value to the group as a midwife.
– Flaming bowling balls of death? Flaming bowling balls of death! #flamingbowlingballsofdeath
– “No ground held is certain in times of war.”
– “Look at the cock on this one! Dangling as if from Jupiter himself.”
– “We built their mighty republic, with our hands and our blood and our lives. And we can see it fall, at equal cost. You opened my eyes to this, Spartacus, do not ask me now to close them.” Crixus’s speechifying this week was truly worthy of Jeff Winger.
– “Has he at last gone fucking mad?”
– “Things were simpler between us when the bond stood only as hate.”
– Spartacus and Agron’s parting kicked up a little dust, too. “Gratitude, standing by my words even when you did not believe in them.” “I believed in the man. And always shall.”
– “And reason you’re not upon horse?” Womp womp.
– “I would not have you so easily from this world, Gaius.”
– Body Count: 67 clear-cut kills, hundreds (thousands?) more impossible to count, putting this metric at 437, in striking distance of the Roman numeral D.
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