The final season of the Spartacus franchise faces its share of challenges. For one thing, the 29 episodes it’s produced thus far—comprising two seasons and one "prequel" miniseries—have told a largely complete story. The primary conflicts set up in the pilot were resolved at the end of last season: Spartacus has achieved his personal vendetta against Glaber. The last remnants of the House of Batiatus have been wiped out. The rebel army has gelled into a cohesive unit, having assimilated or vanquished those former slaves who began the series entrenched in the status quo.
Consequently, Blood and Sand, the half-season prequel Gods of the Arena, and Vengeance felt like a full arc which culminated in the Season 2 finale, “Wrath of the Gods.” Spartacus’s story thus far has been bookended by twin destructions: That of his old community at the hands of his enemies, and that of his enemies at the hands of his new community.
War of the Damned not only has to extend the story past that seemingly natural, triumphant endpoint, it must also do so while negotiating the pitfall faced by most historical fiction: The outcome is not in doubt. And it’s not a happy one. Spoiler alert for the first century B.C.: Spartacus and his band of merry men and women did not fell the Roman Republic. It’s possible the series could decide to wrap up before their ultimate annihilation, preserving some sense of symbolic hope, but that would violate the ethos of a show that has been unflinchingly fatalistic from the start.
As if those obstacles weren’t enough, Spartacus has to fill some gaps in the ranks. Last season saw the demise of three of the show’s best characters: the profoundly badass Oenomaus, the viciously sleazy Ashur, and the overflowing aqueduct of batshit crazy that was Lucretia.
To that end, much of tonight's War of the Damned premiere, “Enemies of Rome,” was devoted to introducing the new key player, Marcus Crassus. Strapped for both cash and manpower, the Senate had no choice but to call upon one of the Republic’s richest men to finance further rebellion-quashing. But Crassus is no mere bottomless checkbook. He has designs on martial, as well as aristocratic, glory. One of the episode’s primary jobs was to establish Crassus's bona fides as a Big Bad, and it pulled that off with aplomb.
At every turn, Crassus demonstrated why he’s cut out to be a different, and more formidable, adversary than either Batiatus or Glaber: He lacks their hubris. Batiatus was too oblivious to notice the threat Spartacus and his crew posed. Glaber was too arrogant to believe that threat could have legs. Crassus, by contrast, refuses to underestimate any opponent, or to assume that a free Roman is inherently superior to a slave. Indeed, his ruthless power play against Cossinius and Furius leveraged the fact that Spartacus would easily make mincemeat of these two jumped-up commanders.
Spartacus has always explored power, how it’s acquired and abused, and how those without it suffer and strive to obtain some small measure of it. “Enemies of Rome” set up the final season to put another spin on that theme, examining the perceptions of power. Most of the Romans we’ve met believe power stems from status, birth, or a uniform. That perception often proves to be a weakness—one that Crassus, like Spartacus, rejects for himself while exploiting in others.
But perceptions of power still have weight, as Spartacus is learning now that he commands more of it than ever. He’s a natural military commander, but he’s no longer leading just a military unit. The ragtag band has mushroomed into a full-fledged community—”Only a city can hold us now,” he observed at the end of the episode—and that position carries responsibilities he wasn’t prepared for. Many of the former slaves view Spartacus as, essentially, their king. He may not have asked for that role and he may not want it, but what choice does he have?
A chance encounter with a dissatisfied subject drove the point home; the citizens of Spartacopolis need food and shelter, and they expect Spartacus to provide it. On top of that, Gannicus alluded to shades of resentment in the ranks toward their de facto general/consul, a natural tension that happens whenever hierarchies emerge in movements founded on egalitarian ideals. These are logical, organic concerns, and they establish nifty new story engines that should keep War of the Damned from feeling like a rehash of Vengeance while moving us toward the endpoint—however bleak that may wind up being.
– The battle scenes on this show have always been impressive, but the opening melee was a phenomenal technical achievement, corralling hundreds of people and conveying mass chaos and one-on-one carnage alike with a visual style both kinetic and grounded. Must give proper credit to director Mark Beesley, stunt coordinators Clint Elvy and Steve McQuillan, fight coordinators Andrew Stehlin and Ryan Carey, and the entire behind-the-scenes team.
– Speaking of power, the quixotic truth of Spartacus’s quest was suggested by that first sequence. In the midst of one of the series’ most ferocious battles, the focus shifted several times to shots of Cossinius and Furius atop their horses, barely perturbed by the bloodshed they oversaw. Soldiers and rebels slaughtered one another, but the power structure (in this instance, at least) remained unscathed.
– Another ingenious case of the rebels using perception against their enemies: Seemingly helpless Naevia luring the centurions into an ambush, before shivving one dude and clean lopping off another’s head.
– “Did you expect freedom to come absent cost?”
– “I stand equal by sword, but you have me by fucking spear.” PHRASING, Gannicus.
– “You ask me to kill you?” “I command you to try.”
– Crassus laid out his M.O. in no uncertain terms: “Knowledge and purpose: the only counter to greater skill.” Willingness to bare-hand a sword blade helps, too.
– Body Count: 88 for the episode (plus one horse), 88 for the season so far. I’m going to attempt to keep a running tally of confirmed on-screen kills, which I fully expect will test the limits of my counting ability by, like, week three.