Last week, commenter @theopratt raised the issue of how we define “good guys” and “bad guys” on this show, considering that virtually every character has a great deal of blood on their hands. It’s difficult to fairly apply our own moral schematics to this setting; few of us can relate to life in a 2,000-year-old civilization, or a state of war, or a circumstance in which the most fundamental survival needs are perpetually at risk. But as both a depiction of that setting which implicitly comments on our own time, and as a piece of culture created for 21st century Western audiences, it’s worth our contemplating those knotty ethical questions.
“Wolves at the Gate” showed those questions to be very much on the minds of the show’s creative team as well. Until now, the rebels have primarily killed soldiers or slave owners, active enforcers of their prior oppression. @theopratt pointed out that in the Vengeance episode “Libertus,” the rebels killed hundreds or thousands of spectators in the destruction of the Capua arena, ordinary Romans who were likely too poor to be slave owners—but you could argue that, as enthusiastic supporters of a bloodsport that dehumanized and slaughtered countless slaves, they too were complicit in the unjust system against which the rebels have declared war.
Many of the denizens of Sinuessa en Valle have probably taken in a gladiatorial tournament or two in their time. Certainly a throng of them didn’t hesitate to exact bloody retribution against a captured slave early in the episode. But then there’s Laeta, who acknowledged that maybe a revolting slave isn’t a monster simply for rising up against a lifetime of cruelty. And there’s her husband, Ennius, a city father who condemned the “frenzy” of the stoning crowd and praised the square-jawed stranger who cut the spectacle mercifully short. If Spartacus’s followers aren’t the soulless horde the Roman authorities make them out to be, maybe the Romans aren’t quite so monolithically evil either.
Still, the Sparty Gang needs a city. And that city needs to be taken by force. And when thousands of hungry, desperate, enraged warriors are turned loose upon an off-guard and helpless populace, those shades of gray don’t matter. Blind carnage is the only possible result.
To his credit, Spartacus recognized this—though too late to save untold scores of innocents, including a mother and a child he’d seen frolicking several hours prior. He ordered a stop to the bloodbath, and mercy for all survivors. And yet when the city’s precious grain stores were threatened by Ennius, our hero also didn’t hesitate to ram a spear through the man’s uvula, even at a moment when Laeta’s attempts at peaceful negotiation seemed to be paying off.
A necessary evil? Perhaps. How justified would Spartacus have been in leaving his own thousands of people to die from exposure or starvation? But the lesser of two evils is still an evil, and “Wolves at the Gate” didn’t shy away from treating it as such. This was no moment of unambiguous triumph for a man who set out to fight on behalf of ordinary, oppressed people. Crassus spoke at the end of the episode about the sacrifices demanded in war. Will victory come down to which side is willing to bear greater sacrifices, not just with regard to human life but to principles?
This dark descent is especially jarring at the climax of what was, until that moment, a relatively peaceful installment. “Wolves at the Gate” kicked off as a good old-fashioned caper episode. Spartacus, Gannicus, and Crixus slipped into Sinuessa incognito—trading on the name of Diotimos’s former dominus in the process. There they rustled up Gannicus’s old blacksmith buddy to forge them new steel, to replace the weapons surrendered at the gate.
This plan sparked plenty of fun moments, like Spartacus conniving his way past the gatekeepers, and Gannicus manipulating his reluctant contact into compliance—twice. For the first half of the episode, the rebels relied on charisma and quick wit to maneuver through their enemies, rather than brandishing swords and bigger swords.
It was a welcome reminder that Spartacus (and Spartacus) boasts skill at more than just violence. “Wolves at the Gate” got a lot of mileage out of the show’s unique, florid dialogue rhythms, one of the pleasures often overshadowed by its reputation for blood and boobs. Indeed, that restraint helped make the chaos of Sinuessa’s siege all the more harrowing.
Patience foreshadowing menace was the tone of the episode’s second half as well. Julius Caesar was introduced with all fitting sturm und drang, but his meeting with Crassus only hinted at the grand ambitions to come (and not only those within the scope of this series). It was a marriage of convenience. The Senate needs Crassus’s coin but doesn’t much care for the man (due to his nouveau riche background, he claimed... though I loved his knowing grin at Caesar’s insinuation that there was more to the story). Meanwhile, Caesar’s storied lineage carries credibility, but he lacks the resources to capitalize on it.
The dichotomy of “name absent wealth” meeting “wealth absent name” was stark. So, too, were their temperamental differences. Where Crassus has been methodical, Caesar was immediately characterized as a firebrand; he was referred to as some manner of “beast” several times, and Todd Lasance certainly plays him with a leonine air, all strutting and appetite. War of the Damned wants to serve up an unorthodox portrayal of one of history’s most portrayed figures, a smart decision that could go either way in execution. In the show's attempt to separate its Caesar from the Shakespearean mold, Lasance and the writers could end up overloading him with too many stock “TV-sociopath” traits (he’s already a hothead, a hedonist, and apparently a sexual masochist). However, if they thread the needle, Lasance could carry on Spartacus’s tradition of rich, balls-out villain hamminess.
Though we also need to talk about his grunge look, guys. I am 85 percent sure that when this Caesar isn’t out conquering the Gauls he plays bass in a Sonic Youth cover band.
– The title everyone kept using for Ennius (as best I can tell) was “aedile.” According to my research, this was a local office in the Roman Republic responsible for managing public order and infrastructure, like the city’s granaries. Now you know—and knowing is half the battle!
– Six Degrees of the Whedonverse: Laeta is played by Anna Hutchison, who played Jules in The Cabin in the Woods, which was co-written by Joss Whedon. Joss’s brother and frequent collaborator Jed Whedon is a writer on Spartacus, and showrunner Steven DeKnight spent years on the writing teams of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
– Did the fellas going undercover and traipsing through enemy territory remind anyone of the early Season 3 episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, when the Aang Gang posed as Fire Nation citizens? Just me then?
– “I require no lesson in my fucking heritage.”
– “Imagine what could be wrested from highest perch were Crassus and Caesar to align themselves.”
– Spartacus on the rebellion: “Let us pray, then, for the proper end to it.”
– “I would not see more blood spilled absent cause.” “Nor I. Absent cause.” These Sinuessians just cannot stop setting Spartacus up for loaded, ironic rejoinders.
– “You aide Spartacus?” “No. I stand the man himself.”
– Funnest kill of the week: Diotimos playing fungo, with a guard as his baseball and a battle-axe as his bat.
– Thanks to everyone for the kind words and great discussion on last week’s review. I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say about this season!
– Body Count: I counted 36 for the episode, but the fatalities became very tough to keep track during the siege sequence (and of course this doesn’t include the likely dozens or hundreds of citizens who met the gods off-screen). On that measure, 124 for the season!