The story of Spartacus’s rebellion has survived in the collective Western consciousness for over two millennia because it’s one of the great true-life revenge tales on record. Revenge is a potent story generator because it provides the sort of thrill most people will only ever experience vicariously. From the Third Servile War to The Count of Monte Cristo to the Batman mythos to Django Unchained, revenge fantasies let us channel our human desire for violence into situations where we can still preserve a moral self-conception—where evil is done only to those who have it coming.
Yet it’s fitting that a second season subtitled Vengeance would be followed by a third season clearly marking both heroes and villains as condemned. War of the Damned has often considered the limitations and the costs of vengeance. At the end of “The Dead and the Dying,” Naevia surrendered her shot at retribution for the greater good. Kore, lacking a warrior’s resolve, did not. Her freedom within the rebel camp put Kore in a position to claim revenge against her former tormentor, but that revenge cost her that freedom.
Tiberius’s eagerly anticipated offing aside, not too much happened to advance the larger narrative in the series’ penultimate installment. Sandwiched between the momentous coda for Crixus and next week’s series finale, “The Dead and the Dying” focused primarily on moving the characters into position, both physically and psychologically, for the final clash. Even that one noteworthy plot development was something we all knew was coming. Tiberius, at this point, was Mr. Boddy: the only mystery remaining was who would kill him, where, and with what. (Ms. Kore, with the Dagger, in the rebel camp equivalent of the Hall.)
The execution of his execution, though, was significant for how it advanced several character arcs. By agreeing to hand over Tiberius in exchange for 500 rebel prisoners, Naevia placed a higher value on the lives of her allies over the death of her enemy—a choice she hasn’t always made in the past. However, by giving into her rage, Kore became a true tragic figure. Having already been stripped not only of her status, but also of bonds to both of the men she'd considered downright familial, she threw away her most valuable remaining asset: her chance to live and die a free woman. It wasn’t to the loving arms of Marcus that she returned, but to the cold rule of a dominus. Practically alone among the slaves we’ve met in this series (and barring a turnaround next week), she has ended up worse than she began.
Crassus, too, has lost his most treasured relationships, both to betrayals known and unknown. The war has been gradually chipping away at his vaunted composure, and with his son’s murder, he has a personal stake in the conflict that negates much hope of regaining that clinical detachment. Like every one of his opponents (and, presumably, like many of his soldiers), he’s got a vendetta now.
All this was triggered by the discovery that Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus is rapidly approaching. The arrival of Rome’s most heralded general is bad news for both sides—he threatens to trap the rebels between two insurmountable armies, and in the process he threatens to undermine the glory and position Crassus has so meticulously worked to reap from this war.
But with crisis came opportunity for some. Spartacus relished the chance to deploy a little belated counter-espionage right out of the imperator’s own playbook. After butchering Pompey’s recon squad and lifting their credentials, the rebels conjured up a fake messenger to lure Crassus out of camp. Recognizing the impostor immediately, Caesar’s swift power play in response was somewhat harder to swallow. Allowing an entire group of soldiers to walk blindly into a trap set by the enemy, just to untraceably rid himself of Tiberius, ushered in a new level of ruthlessness from a guy who’s proved to be a generally forward-thinking commander thus far.
Those twin machinations lead to the episode’s exhilarating, evocative set-piece, a recreation of the gladiatorial games that, like last week’s eulogy to Crixus, conspicuously brought the series’ past front and center. This was the first episode since “Libertus” where arena combat drove the brunt of the action, and at times it had a vibe similar to a clip show. From Spartacus toying with two opponents while barehanded to Gannicus one-upping the Champion by spanking three at a time, the revelry was tinged with a sense of wistful tribute to the series roots.
The crescendo arrived with the roll call of the fallen, every voice in the crowd heralding the name of a comrade lost. Again, it carried a whiff of the retrospective, but it also brought into appropriate relief the price the rebels have paid to come this far, and the emotional ties this deeply visceral series has forged with its audience as it girds its loins for the final showdown.
– I was pleasantly surprised to see Naevia and Agron back this week, even if Agron had to gut out a damn crucifixion. Many of you had mentioned they appeared in the promo for this episode, but the press screeners don’t include the “next-time-on...” segments so I wasn’t aware of their survival 'til I popped this one in.
– Tiberius’s death was pretty tame by Spartacus standards, but the build-up to it was pretty gratifying since it was one humiliation after another. Kore stopping by to taunt him in irons was hilariously dickish, if only because he was dense enough to fall for it. Even more poetic was Naevia, a former body slave, battering away whatever self-worth Tiberius still possessed in the arena.
– The recitation of names from the crowd reminded me of another stab-happy show that busts out the big emotional guns every now and then, The Vampire Diaries, which staged a similar tear-jerking scene early this season in “Memorial.”
– “I wish for him all that he deserves.”
– “I had hoped to embrace the imperator himself. Yet fate delivers me a shadow of the name Crassus.”
– “I would see them give honor to the dead in advance of joining their ranks.”
– “Gladiators seek to best all. It’s the only way to survive in the arena.”
– Remember, kids: Always bring your glove to the arena. You never know when you might take home a souvenir severed head that’s been flung into the crowd.
– “The way it fit hand, I thought it forged for woman—or sickly child.” BURN.
– “He would offer Jupiter’s throne in return for festering disease that sprung from noble loins.”
– “I held your life in my hands. Live each moment knowing that one day soon, I shall reclaim it.”
– “I have balanced fucking scale.”
– Body Count: 22, in a light week with no major combat engagements. With one episode to go the season total stands at 459.
What did you think of the episode? Did Crixus’s funeral bring dust to eye?