Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review: Spartacus: Gods of the Arena "Reckoning"

Non Spoiler Review:
The penultimate episode of Gods of the Arena plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy, bringing to conclusion several threads of the last few weeks, and setting up a final act that should be quite a bloodbath. Fallout from Gaia's death leads Tullius to make an offer of rapprochement to Titus, but with a price (of course). Batiatus must make a decision about his marriage, and Lucretia takes action on several fronts to secure both herself and her husband, leading to disaster.

Reckoning brought a more intimate story focused nearly entirely on the Batiatus family and the ludus. It had plenty of action, as the gladiators are forced to pair up to determine ranking throughout the episode. The heartache and schemes within the villa play out as the competitions do outside. Crixus and Gannicus finally meet in combat to determine their fates, while Ashur is robbed of his hold over Dagan.

So much personal drama made for a riveting hour. The course of the miniseries has struck a good balance of delivering over-the-top action and spectacle, with more intimate and thoughtful episodes. Some events were predicted, but others did not play out entirely as expected, with some surprising relevations and absolutely horrifying results by the bittersweet end.

Spoilers Now!
Melitta's dreams betray her true feelings for Gannicus—a passionate encounter, but one that's abruptly discovered by Oenomaus and ends with a sword through Gannicus' throat and her imminent death. She wakens to Naevia summoning her to attend to her mistress.

A crestfallen Lucretia requires all of Gaia's things collected and removed. Titus has ordered all trace of her stripped from his house, including the performance of rituals and salt to cleanse whatever lingers of her memory within the walls. Melitta offers her domina some solace, and suggests they only tell Titus they performed the ceremony. Lucretia is grateful. But Melitta seems to be growing increasingly at ease with deceit.

Batiatus complains to Solonius about his present situation and impossible choice. Solonius regrets leaving so early, but the fault remains with Tullius. Behind them, the final games of the old arena are being played out (absent House Batiatus). Solonius reveals the magistrate has granted him a minor role in the upcoming opening games. One certainly more trouble than it's worth (uh huh). Batiatus takes this news well, considering, but his thoughts are more concerned with his marriage and his father's ultimatum. Solonius suggests it might be best for Lucretia to find another husband, if he intends to continue to run the ludus. The look in his eyes seems to be saying like me.

Crixus' prowess in battle is soaring since his victory, while Dagan and Ashur have had a falling out after the latter offered up Dagan (and his ass) to the Romans the night of the orgy. Dagan is starting to understand their words, and advises Ashur he will soon not need him to translate. Doctore and Titus watch them spar, commenting on Dagan's promise as a future champion.

The two old friends walk together, Titus lamenting the schemes of the earlier night, and absolving Doctore of guilt for doing as commanded by his wayward son. He decides to have a competition to weed out all the weak gladiators his son has brought to the ludus, including Gannicus, whom he does not regard as a champion until he proves himself. Those who fail will be sent to the mines.

When Titus asks Naevia if the salt has been scattered, she deceives him, as instructed, but Diona is bitter and suggests her mistress keep her own lies. Naevia cautions her to keep quiet, but Diona turns on her, telling her it's her fault she was offered up to the gladiators for sport, and their long friendship is over. 

The competition commences for several days of pairings. Gannicus stands on the sidelines, his mind on Melitta, and lacking the drive we first saw in him at the beginning. Titus reviews his men, while his son arrives and comments that his father is proceeding as if he's already made his decision to leave. Titus is steadfast, and refuses to give Lucretia any benefit of the doubt. Batiatus is given an ultimatum of two days, when the rankings are established for the gladiators. He either dissolves the marriage or he will call him father no more.

Lucretia complains to her husband that Titus has already made his decision so there's nothing more she can do to ply him, but he reveals that her fate is in his hands, and he must prove he's worthy to call him father. Batiatus is delaying for time to convince Titus of her worth, but it only leads to an argument between them. Lucretia protests she has born everything demanded of her, but Batiatus speaks too quickly that she hasn't born him a child. Oh, snap. She storms out and he regrets speaking so rashly.

Melitta is up late praying for guidance from the gods while her husband wakens and joins her. She is growing increasingly pained with the weight of secrets they've been condemned to keep within the walls, but Doctore's perspective is quite different. He has only found purpose and meaning for his life since coming to the ludus and its honorable house. Switching their usual roles, this time it's Doctore who cites their duty in serving their masters, and he suggests they pray together.

A contrite Lucretia joins her husband and father-in-law on the balcony in the morning. Titus has no patience for her or her apologies, and simply asks for his wine to be filled. Lucretia graciously complies. They watch Crixus take his turn in the competition, but Naevia announces Tullius has arrived. An enraged Batiatus and Lucretia learn Titus invited him to meet and make amends.

When the old man leaves, Lucretia tells her husband she'd do anything to give him a son. He says it's too late for such dreams, given their answer must be delivered tomorrow. Below, Crixus defeats another opponent, and Lucretia seems to get an idea as she meets his eye. She suggests they do whatever they must to rid themselves of their problem.

Tullius has brought Titus a gift of honey wine. But Titus is not going to be bribed to forget the death of a Roman woman in his house. The House of Batiatus has brought much honor to Capua over the years, and yet they were absent in the final games of the old arena. Tullius offers a presence in the new games, but he wants Gannicus in exchange. He asks him to consider.

Naevia comes upon Diona weeping. Diona apologizes for what she's said, but confesses she has no desire to continue living as a whore in the ludus, having lost all her innocence. She wishes the next man she's forced to lie with kills her.

It's Gannicus' turn to fight Barca, and barely wins, given he takes a hit while distracted by Melitta on the balcony. Doctore berates him for allowing himself to let his guard down.

Ashur, meanwhile, tells Dagan they are to fight, and he realizes he's the weaker of the two. If he falls, he will be sent to the mines. His former friend says nothing to alleviate his concerns.

The two begin battle, and Dagan is clearly the superior. On the ground, Ashur asks for some mercy, but when the other lets down his guard, Ashur delivers a blow to his groin and then puts out his eye. Dagan is dragged away, while Ashur gloats his victory.

Titus asks his son to accompany him to town to have words. They arrive at sunset in the now abandoned arena. While they're gone, Lucretia directs Melitta to bring Crixus to her. Gannicus takes the opportunity to have a chat with Melitta as she visits the gladiator quarters, and she begs him to stop pining for her. She remains ever devoted to her husband.

A confused and nervous Crixus is escorted to Lucretia's chamber, who questions him on the number of sons produced by his father and grandfather. Impressed with the tally and the legendary prowess of the Gauls, she tells him he will do as he is told, and never speak of this again. Reluctantly and repulsed by the notion, she instructs him to impregnate her (apparently she'll grow far more amenable to sex with Crixus in years to come—perhaps all he needed was a haircut). 

Meanwhile, Titus reminisces of his own childhood and falling in love with the blood and sand of the arena. His dream for his own son to share in it has never materialized, and he holds him now accountable for his actions. As he rambles on about fighting him at every turn, Batiatus looks through the debris to find a particularly suitable head-bashing size block of wood, and walks up behind his father.

His back turned, Titus declares he will always love his son no matter what his decision, and advises him of Tullius' offer, but his response will be without meaning if his son is not by his side. He beseeches him one final time to stand with his family, but Batiatus will not turn from his wife. Embittered, his father tells him he prays he finds peace in whatever life he finds.

Batiatus raises the piece of wood and walks up to Titus...and presents it as a memento of days past, then leaves the arena and his father.

Lucretia is in the baths as her husband arrives home and joins her. Both are pensive. He could not kill his father. She admits she was wrong to push him to such thoughts. He states his choice is to remain with her, and they will leave the house together the next day with just the clothes on their back. But they will have each other. Very sweet.

Doctore informs Titus that only Crixus and Gannicus remain to fight one another, but his master advises him of the imminent sale. Oenomaus attempts to speak on his friend's behalf as a deserving champion. But if he pulls out of the bargain, the house will be excluded from the games, Titus points out. Doctore advises it's a heavy price, but usually the honorable one always is. Titus opts to let the contest decide...if Gannicus falls, he will be sold.

Doctore brings the heavy news to his friend, and with that on his mind, Gannicus begins his battle with Crixus. Lucretia and Batiatus announce they're ready to leave, but Titus wants him to see the final competition, both men he is responsible for bringing into the ludus.

Crixus strikes some serious hits on Gannicus, given the latter continues to be distracted with Melitta, who manages to appear at the most inconvenient moments with wine for the spectators.

While everyone's attention is on the match, Naevia has led Diona to escape, giving her some money she's taken from Gaia's things. Diona is frightened, but Naevia tells her she fades more every day and must go to make a new life while she has a chance. Diona is grateful, and promises to see her again some day. She flees the house.

As Melitta brings Titus more water for his worsening cough, Gannicus catches sight of her again. He decides to give up at that moment, and Crixus takes him down to the ground, forcing the former champion to offer up surrender. Crixus realizes he threw the fight, but Gannicus tells him he is now champion, as it should be. He can't remain in the same house as Melitta.

Batiatus is astounded Crixus won. But then Titus begins to choke and collapses. The medicus tells him he has a fever, very dangerous for his age, and they need to procure herbs in Capua. He, Batiatus and Doctore head into town while Lucretia watches over him, with instructions by the medicus to give him a little wine to soothe the fever.

Titus refuses to have any more of Tullius' wine and wants it removed from sight, so she passes it off to Melitta, who asks for permission to see Gannicus before he is sold. Lucretia grants it, understanding she wants to say good-bye, and she takes the wine away with her.

Gannicus broods alone in his cell as Melitta comes to him, bringing him wine and two cups (uh oh) to share a final drink with her friend. Gannicus needs to be more than a friend, and he refuses the bitter wine. She pours herself a drink as he tells her he can't remain within the ludus and always in her presence. She understands his reasoning and admits the situation is for the best. Then she confesses to being weak and, by the way, her love for him (!). Then they have sex.

Lucretia sits at Titus' bedside, as he weakly comments how his son has given up everything for her. She tells him she truly loves him. Titus asks her to promise him she's not the serpent he thinks she is. Lucretia says she's not...she's far worse.

Then comes an impressive confession—Lucretia never cared what he thought of her. But considering how low Titus considered his own son, a man she loves—that could not be tolerated. And so she began poisoning his wine, intending only to mimic an illness that would force him to the coast for better health. She did it the first time to get him to leave for Sicilia, and Batiatus flourished when freed of his father's shadow. But when he returned, she began again to poison him back to the coast. But this time it was not enough. A more permanent solution was required, something more potent she added to Tullius' gift to end the old man for good. Batiatus will never forgive Tullius' treachery, and he will strike back hard against him, and Gaia shall be avenged.

Both Titus and Melitta abruptly cough up copious amounts of blood. A horrified Gannicus tries to save her, while Titus reaches out to grab Lucretia, falling from bed and crawling along the floor until he finally dies at her feet. Melitta fades in Gannicus' arms. 

Lucretia leaves the room only to find a group of slaves and Gannicus carrying Melitta's body. The wine was poisoned, he says. Lucretia is absolutely horrified when she sees it's Tullius' urn. She gathers herself together and tells Gannicus Oenomaus must never know she came to his cell. She sends him back to the ludus while the rest clean up Melitta. 

The men return to the villa to find Melitta's body laid out in the foyer, and Doctore falls to her side in shock and despair. Beyond, Batiatus sees the crowd around the bed chamber, and the look on Lucretia's face. He enters the room and looks upon his dead father.

It would be so easy for many writers to go too far with Lucretia and Batiatus' villainy and have them turn their schemes against one another. But they've kept their marriage and devotion sacrosanct. Even her fling with Crixus has its genesis in her wanting to bear her husband a son.

My only critique this week was how the tragedy of the love triangle unfolded a bit too quickly. It was certainly an inevitable conclusion, and given Gannicus was about to be sold the next day, I guess some allowance can be given for Melitta's abrupt change in disposition and willingness to cheat on her husband (foreshadowed by her idea to lie to Titus). But she seemed to indulge in her desires a bit too readily after playing coy for several episodes.

Poor Gannicus has little left to live for, having surrendered his status, losing his love and forced into multiple lies. One more episode remains to remove the final obstacles of Vettius and Tullius and set the status quo for season one. Most of the questions raised at the start are nearing resolution. The only real ones left to deal with are Solonius' final betrayal, Ashur's injury and Gannicus' fate. It remains to be seen what Diona's role in all this will be, but it would be odd if the writers just send her on her way out of the story. Like the finale, Kill Them All, The Bitter End should be suitably cathartic.

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