Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review: Spartacus: Gods of the Arena "Beneath the Mask"

Non Spoiler Review:
Beneath the Mask finds another powerful Roman passing through Capua, prompting a renewed scheme to win his favor and a spot in the opening games—this time under the nose of Titus. It's an interesting parallel with Missio, given the similar plot and ultimately bad things that ensue (even worse this time around!). Tragedy hits very close to home for Lucretia, whom we also learn can throw a really good party.

Another densely packed Spartacus that makes you feel you got your money's worth. Pretty much all the storylines got a share of the spotlight. In addition to the primary Batiatus plot, we get Doctore's struggle for his men's respect, Barca coming to terms with Auctus' death and rapprochement with Crixus, more on the Melitta/Doctore/Gannicus triangle, Titus and Batiatus' father/son travails, Ashur and Dagan's first combat, more of Solonius' subtle treachery, emotionally scarred Diona (now in animal costume) name just a few. Phew!

Gannicus and Melitta's story does get a tad predictable and soap operish, so I'm not sure how I feel about that, but I'll reserve judgement for its conclusion. The Celt remains the wild card, as he's been doing very little for a couple of episodes now, except brooding and towing the line for Batiatus. Here we see him pushed to the limits of his own personal honor and he seems about ready to snap.

This week brought a welcome focus on Lucretia. Her marriage is about to be put to the test, and we learn some things about their relationship that, coupled with the dramatic events this episode, are going to chart Lucretia's course for years to come.

Beneath the Mask was easily the raunchiest Spartacus yet that pushed all the boundaries—the most full frontal nudity I've seen on episodic television, and a full blown orgy. There are sufficient decapitations in the arena, including a beating heart ripped out and tossed at the camera. Along with the various dramas and tragedies unfolding within the walls of the ludus, there are some great moments of black humour—including Ashur's ongoing self-serving mistranslations for Dagan—and perhaps the most laugh out loud line of the miniseries to date, regarding Batiatus' attitude towards Thracians.

Spoilers Now!
Father and son attend the morning games, watching as a gladiator armed with net and trident defeats his opponent. Apparently this is the next big thing in gladiatorial combat, but old-school Titus thinks it's ridiculous. Hearing the crowd go wild, though, convinces him to take his son's advice, and he agrees reluctantly to train one of the men in that fighting style.

But it's also Ashur and Dagan's big day to fight. Doctore outfits blades to both men, but his pep talk amounts to a comment that they may bear the mark, but have not earned that honor. If they live, then they shall be accepted into the brotherhood, but if they die, it will prove they were worthless to begin with. As always, Ashur must translate for Dagan, but says anything but the truth to him.

Dagan makes short work of his adversary, but Ashur loses his helmet and is nearly finished, if not for his friend taking down his opponent for him. Ashur cuts the defeated man's head off and assumes credit for the defeat to the roaring crowd. 

Tullius rises to introduce Vettius' newest champions. Batiatus fumes that they are denied a spot in the opening games in the arena, and must fight again in these early scuffles, but Tullius, as ever, warns his son to be humble among those of higher station, otherwise they will never regain favor.

Lucretia and Gaia walk about the market, as Titus frowns on them attending the games, but his daughter-in-law is more than happy not to be forced to endure the old man. Gaia is musing about leaving Capua, given she needs to find a husband and gain some financial security. Her friend is upset at the notion, especially now that she has to deal with Titus. 

Gaia suddenly recognizes a Roman—Petronius. Unfortunately, he doesn't recognize her, though he is quite interested in Lucretia when introductions are made. He has heard of the House of Batiatus and the stories of the pleasures to be had in their house. Lucretia is shocked to think that their reputation has spread all the way to Rome, thanks to Varis.

Gannicus watches the other gladiators train. He hasn't been fighting these days and grows increasingly solemn given the burdens he's carrying. Titus asks to speak with him to see if this so-called champion measures up to his own expectations of what a gladiator should be. Titus explains a champion is more than his victories. When asked what Gannicus' heart beats for, he answers the honour of the House of Batiatus. But that's only because he expects it's what Titus wants to hear, and the old man isn't fooled.

The Syrians return to the ludus, with Ashur gloating of their victories in the arena. Doctore rewards them with coin, but Ashur says his friend is questioning why he received twice the amount as Ashur. Doctore is wise to his deceitful translations, and tells him to inform Dagan it's because he is twice the man as Ashur, and if they did not require him to translate, he would never have gotten sword in the first place.

Gaia grows annoyed with Petronius prattling on about the pleasures of the House of Batiatus. Lucretia is nervous that the rumours will spread to Titus. Batiatus returns and Gaia explains their meeting with this latest man of status who is interested in sampling the ludus' offerings with promises of bringing along acquaintances of equal position. With Petronius' support they could get back into the games again. Batiatus agrees, but it will require some subterfuge with his father.

Gannicus asks for a word with Melitta. She reluctantly complies, worried of arousing suspicions. But they are friends, he says, and must still speak or arouse suspicions anyway. He admits his thoughts of her still linger, despite his loyalty and friendship to Oenomaus. Always practical, Melitta advises those thoughts will  fade with time.

Later, Doctore lies with his wife and laments the disrespect the men show to him, Gannicus included. Melitta tells him he will need to show the men they must obey, even his friend. But as they have sex, her mind wanders to Gannicus.

In the morning, Gnaeus is told to begin training with the net and trident, given his swordplay is lacking. When he balks at that, Doctore whips him and demands he do as commanded. The men stop and take notice. Gannicus comments on Doctore's new attitude, but the other pairs him with Barca for the morning. Gnaeus and the others all comply.

Titus watches the training, noting Gannicus is showing fire now. After another coughing spell, Batiatus suggests his father return to the coast while Lucretia grabs more honey wine for him. His son suggests they go together to the coastal city of Neapolis to procure new recruits from the slaves. Titus considers this, and agrees. 

With his father out of the way, Batiatus instructs Lucretia to see to Petronius and his guests while he's gone, and to find Solonius' help in case they need male authority to manage a house full of guests.

Crixus visits Barca, trying to make amends by offering his pets some of his bread. Crixus speaks of his life in Gaul and losing his family in battle. Now his dream is of honouring the dead in victory. Auctus was the first life he took in battle and he will not forget him. Barca admits they were really Auctus' birds, but they're all he has left of him now, and he accepts the bread.

In Neapolis, father and son review some new offerings, but find none worth purchasing. When he's offered a Thracian slave, Batiatus jokes he would never buy one, as they are too hard to train and aggravate the Gauls.

As Lucretia and her slaves ready the villa, Naevia attempts to speak with Diona, but she is a shadow of her former self these days. Lucretia wants Melitta by her side, and not dislodged by any requests. She is still quite protective of her slaves, except for Diona, who was too new to enjoy her protection. In exchange for keeping Melitta out of the fray, Lucretia asks for something in return. Given his loyalty to the old man, she wants Doctore to swear to keep the orgy from him (otherwise other secrets of what have transpired within the walls of the villa may be revealed). Melitta agrees.

Solonius is greeted by Lucretia and Gaia, but he's not happy with all the scheming going on, despite having agreed to help out his friend. Together they greet Petronius and his party, welcoming them to what will be a spectacular orgy of the senses. Lucretia regrets Batiatus' absence as she speaks to the guests, but places everything within the walls at their leisure. Unfortunately, it's Diona and another gladiator who are the first act of the evening, adorned in animal horns.

Melitta sends Naevia to the pantry to be kept out of jeopardy. All the gladiators are standing on display, including Doctore, who is feeling this whole affair is dishonoring them. But Melitta tells him to move beyond his pride and accept what they must do this evening.

Batiatus and Titus share a drink at the Neapolis tavern and comment on his childhood. Batiatus has always obeyed his father's wishes, even abandoning a career in the military in favor of  running the ludus. For these sacrifices Titus allowed him to chose his own wife, something he now regrets.

But Titus is no fool, he says, and declares he knows why his son brought him there—to find common ground far from the disagreements of the ludus. Um, sure, Titus. Very perceptive. Titus has enjoyed their little sojourn and now wants to return home immediately rather than wait until morning, preferring his own bed. 

Back home, everything seems to be going well and the revellers are enjoying themselves, until Tullius unexpectedly crashes the party. He starts off chatting with Petronius until Solonius comes over for a private word. It's apparent he warned Tullius of what was going on, but didn't expect him to show up. Tullius warns him off or lose his favor, and Solonius slithers off.

The next stage of the night begins as Lucretia brings out masks to allow her guests to live like the gods for the evening. Tullius takes his mask of Jupiter and wants to challenge Gannicus to prove his skill, but again, not with wooden swords. Lucretia nervously agrees and calls for steel, while Doctore warns Gannicus to indulge him, but show him no insult, or it will bear unfortunate consequence for everyone. 

The two men fight among the guests, and Gannicus fairs well at first, but ultimately does as he is told and submits to Tullius under Doctore's watchful eye. Tullius begins to land several cuts and taunts the man with insults until Gannicus allows him to beat him to the floor. With sword raised above him, Gannicus makes the missio sign. Tullius is about to ignore the signal until Lucretia yells for him to stop and questions his honor for seeming to ignore the rules of the arena. Tullius backs down and continues gloating while Gannicus is taken away to the medicus.

Melitta follows, sympathetic for what he had to do, but Gannicus says he did it for his master. But that's not all. He tells her he can't ignore what he feels for her, and asks to know if she feels the same. Despite her protests to the contrary, they kiss, and she leaves.

Tullius is neither drinking nor participating, which vexes Lucretia. Gaia offers to seduce him to avoid trouble. Lucretia is grateful, but Gaia is also seeking a husband, so she does her best at seduction. Things are going well until Gaia suggests he not tell anyone of the night's festivities, and he wonders if he does it for herself or the House of Batiatus. She admits Lucretia is like a sister and Tullius eerily swears not to speak of it as long as she delivers a message to them...

The party disperses and Petronius is very happy. He will send word to discuss the opening games with Batiatus. As the house empties, Solonius muses over the evening. She thanks him for his help, but it's obvious he's got a major crush on her as he departs and Lucretia orders the villa restored to normal for the morning.

Tullius finds her alone, and tells her he once dreamt of Gaia's touch as a younger man, but her words tonight have put him in a difficult position. Lucretia is very nervous at what he might say, so he tells her Gaia holds her reply and to go to her and hear it. Lucretia finds Gaia's red wig and comes into the room to find her friend dead, her head smashed in. She screams.

Come morning, Titus is enraged as he learns what's transpired and all the treachery involved. He and Batiatus argue, but Titus is infuriated he provoked Tullius yet again—and now a Roman citizen is dead in his house. Lucretia wants vengeance, emboldened by her loss to talk back to him. Tullius' life for Gaia's. Batiatus agrees with her, but Titus absolutely refuses retribution and she'll do as she's commanded. Titus declares they will say Gaia fell to her death off the balcony from too much wine, and he orders them to see it done.

Titus takes his son aside, knowing the truth now of why he was spirited to Neapolis. He sees how his son and daughter-in-law feed off one another, and it's time she was removed. With no dowry, no name, and no heir, the marriage is a disaster for the family, and Titus vows to put him on a proper path—Batiatus will dissolve his marriage or be gone from the house with her. 

Lucretia goes out to the balcony as the sun rises and sees the guards about to throw Gaia's body off the cliff. She stops them, kisses her, and walks away as they drop her over the side. Lucretia is out for blood.

Another tense hour of machinations gone awry. It's sad to see Gaia go, but on one hand I'm a bit relieved she died the way she did, as there was always the implication she was working for her own ends to gain a husband and might have betrayed her friend. At least here she makes a noble sacrifice for Lucretia and Batiatus. And I don't doubt she will be avenged by a stronger, nastier Lucretia.

Lucretia's transition into the more conniving, savvy woman we see in season one continues as she orchestrates the party herself (with Solonius eager to please her). Again we get her sincere concern for her slaves' protection, but she's also willing to sacrifice some (like Diona) in favor of those closer to her. And just as easily will lean hard on Melitta to ensure her husband is protected from Titus. 

It's difficult not to sympathize with Lucretia given the insight we get into Titus' contempt for her and the insecurity of her situation through all these years. We know Batiatus doesn't opt to throw her out of the house, and their Macbeth/Lady Macbeth teamwork is one of the unique aspects of their relationship, so it will be intriguing to see what they do (aside from the obvious death of the elder patriarch). There's a lot of vengeance to be exacted on Tullius and Vettius, and the final falling out with Solonius, who's a little too loose-lipped with everything he's been entrusted with.

I'm a little disappointed with the Doctor/Gannicus/Melitta love triangle, as that story seems to be the low hanging fruit of all the storylines. Of course, now that I think on it, it's likely Doctore that kills Gannicus, to result in the hardened and cold man we see in season one. Secrets never stay hidden on Spartacus, so it will undoubtedly be epic when these pieces of the bigger puzzle come together. 

There was so much to like about Beneath the Mask, which managed to give everybody a little screen time and still serve up bloody battles and copious amounts of sex and nudity. Given the similar plotlines from this week and Missio, we have a lot of competing noblemen in play—Vettius, Varis and now Petronius. Considering next week is named Reckoning, it's going to be nasty.

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