Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review: Spartacus: Gods of the Arena "The Bitter End"

Non Spoiler Review:
Spartacus' pseudo-season concludes with a suitably epic wrap-up. With the elder Batiatus put to the funeral pyre, his son begins plotting his final revenge against Vettius and Tullius (Godfather-style), setting in motion the various threads of good and ill that create the stage for season one. 

There's nothing lacking in this final instalment. The tearing friendship of Batiatus and Solonius receives it's fatal blow, Ashur gets his expected comeuppance, and Diona returns for a bitter encore. All things culminate in the spectacle of the Primus, and it lives up to its hype. Lots of blood and gore are to be had in a free-for-all battle to be the champion of Capua.

There were many notes to hit and a lot of expectations to live up to, and while achieving these, The Bitter End still manages to surprise. It's very likely that we will see further echoes of this prequel played out when season two finally gets to air (a quick glance on Wikipedia's reference for the Third Servile War certainly adds to speculation). 

The title is appropriate for another reason—it's at bitter end for the story of ludus. For all intents and purposes, it's likely that season two will say good-bye to the gladiator arena, focusing instead on the growing slave rebellion. These six episodes have provided an unexpected and welcome addition to the gladiator chapters of the story. The tragedy of the rise and fall of the House of Batiatus has been given a proper send off, and their schemes will be sorrily missed in whatever lies ahead.

Spoilers Now!
Titus' funeral brings several dignitaries paying respects to the honoured citizen of Capua, including the magistrate. Batiatus stands in attendance with his mourning wife. But the honour, he notes, is for his father, not him. Lucretia tries to ease his mind, but he's fixated on Tullius, who has afflicted yet another injury on his family. 

Then Vettius enters. Batiatus keeps his cool for a moment, learning Tullius is off meeting with dignitaries from Antioch. But in his absence, Vettius reminds him that a bargain was struck regarding Gannicus and he should honour it. He expects the delivery of him the next day. If Batiatus continues to delay, Tullius will withdraw offer of his men in the opening games—again.

Doctore is mourning for Melitta and Gannicus informs him they need to assemble for the funeral ceremony. He tells Doctore she was the rarest of women, and Doctore says she loved him as a brother. Gannicus accepts that bittersweet comment and joins everyone in the ludus, where Titus' funeral pyre awaits. 

The gladiators take position and begin sparring as Batiatus ignites the pyre and eulogizes his father. From the sidelines, Dagan emerges, his one eye patched, and meets Ashur's nervous gaze. Batiatus tells them all that none will be sent to the mines, regardless of standing, which prompts an eager grin from Dagan that he'll have opportunity for revenge. 

Later, Batiatus reviews his father's last transaction with Gannicus present—the bill of sale for his champion. Gannicus is resolved he must do as commanded and he will see the agreement honoured. But he has his own plan—to kill Tullius once given the chance.

Batiatus thinks it odd he would spill blood for Titus, given the old man had no love for him, but he realizes it's vengeance for Melitta. Yet if he loved her so much, why did he not fight harder with Crixus?

Gannicus vows to kill anyone close to Tullius, but Batiatus points out he will be under Vettius' care, and it could be a very long time before circumstances bring him close enough to his target, and in the meantime, he would be fighting against his own friends, and would have to win every battle in order to remain champion long enough to slay him. There is a solution, but Batiatus needs to consider all the variables in play.

A worried Solonius speaks with Lucretia, concerned about Tullius' influence over their collective fates. To take action against him now would invite grave consequences. He tells her if the situation turns badly she can always seek refuge beneath his roof. As a friend, of course.

Batiatus walks in and wants Solonius' counsel, advising him of Gannicus' plan to kill Tullius. Lucretia likes that idea. But Solonius says it's foolish. Tullius would never lower his guard among Batiatus' men. Perhaps, Solonius suggests, someone else could have poisoned the wine, like Vettius. The desire for vengeance grows increasingly alarming for him, and he reminds them Batiatus' unbridled aspirations have brought them all low, which prompts a harsh rebuke from his friend about his lack of any courage and the reason he's never been able to find a wife. Batiatus quickly apologizes and suggests they put their minds together.

As they go off together, Lucretia turns her attention to Naevia. With Melitta gone, Naevia will be her primary slave, and her back is tattooed with her domina's mark. Lucretia misses Melitta dearly, and expects equal loyalty from Naevia—always at her side, and never leave the house—as Diona chose. Lucretia understands why Diona left, but she cannot forgive. She also makes promise that no one will ever lay hands on Naevia and her maidenhood will only be given to the most worthy, as Melitta was given to Oenomaus. They are forever bound to one another.

Batiatus returns, and he and  Solonius have arrived at a decision about what to do next...

Later, Solonius goes to see Tullius, bringing him news that Batiatus is ignoring the agreement and selling Gannicus. He intends Tullius to think that Gannicus escaped like Diona, and then negotiate fresh with them. Tullius is enraged, and threatens Solonius for being part of the betrayal. He confesses they are meeting on the edge of the city and there is still time to catch them.

Barca, Batiatus, Gannicus and Oenomaus arrive at a very ambush-friendly venue. Ashur and Dagan appear, and finally Tullius and Vettius, with Solonius at their side.

Tullius advises he is growing weary of all these games, but it's apparent as the Syrians emerge from the shadows that they're facing an ambush. Swords are drawn and they engage the men.

Barca is wounded, but Gannicus and Doctore secure Tullius. Batiatus is pleased with Solonius for playing his part to perfection. He sends Barca to the medicus while Tullius is lead away.

Vettius was beaten and strung up, and Solonius has words with him in private. The young man is full of threats, but without Tullius they are meaningless. There is no evidence to implicate Solonius and Batiatus, and he suggests the prudent course for him would be to announce to the magistrate that Tullius has left for Antioch (for good). If he should attempt to raise suspicion, then Batiatus will kill him. Vettius realizes he has little choice but to agree. Then Solonius moves on to other matters...

Lucretia has a second liaison with Crixus. This time she asks for a little chit chat first, assuring him she loves her husband, and she will do anything to secure his legacy. She reminds him again to keep his silence. Then she muses that his long hair and beard make him look like an animal, and she would see it cut to make him more bearable.

Batiatus goes to the new arena with Tullius as his prisoner. The Syrians have opened up a wall in the gladiator quarters. Tullius tries to negotiate for his release and he's ready to cease his pursuit of Gannicus and keep him prominent in the games. But at this point, Batiatus simply desires to see him suffer. 

He gloats that even now Solonius is securing Vettius' cooperation in explaining his disappearance. Accepting his doom, Tullius rages at him and regrets having stayed his hand against his family. Batiatus shoves the ashes of his father down his throat, telling him his poison wine robbed him of life. But Tullies protests that he never struck against his father. He vows the gods will see to an accounting for this. And then Batiatus, Gannicus and Doctore stab him to death, sealing him into the wall of his arena.

The Primus is about to begin, and the viewing box is filled with familiar faces— the magistrate, Batiatus, Lucretia and Solonius, as well as Varis and creepy Cossutius. The magistrate grows annoyed at Tullius' tardiness, but then Vettius arrives to inform them he will be absent altogether. Vettius says that the arena was a gift to the people, and he makes preparations to follow Tullius to Antioch, retiring from the ludus for more mature pursuits.

Everyone gathered is more than a little surprised at the news, but Batiatus asks what will happen to his men. Vettius reveals that he and Solonius have already come to terms—he's transferred deed to all his gladiators to Solonius. His ludus now stands above all others in sheer numbers. Another shocker for everyone, and Batiatus is incensed. Solonius sees Vettius out, with a parting glance to his former friend. Batiatus has managed to maintain his cool, and the rest turn their attention away from Tullius and Vettius to the glories of the day.

Solonius congratulates Vettius for performing so well, and he should never return to Capua while he draws breath. Vettius angrily leaves, and then Batiatus shows up to confront his former friend. The plan was to split Vettius men, but Solonius tells him he's done what is necessary to secure his own position amid Batiatus' reckless machinations.

At every turn Batiatus moved against Tullius without considering the position it put him in. He's realized now that his old friend holds no one in esteem but himself. But he thanks him, for without Batiatus to show him the way, cowardly Solonius would never have raised nerve to betray those closest to him. He walks away, and so begins their enmity.

The magistrate announces executions before the games begin, and several prisoners are brought out before the crowd. 

Cossutius notices a familiar face among them. One of Batiatus', he comments. It's Diona. Naevia is horrified. The magistrate apologies, as she was only rounded up in the morning, and offers to let him deal with it, but Batiatus is in no mood for mercy, and says no. Let it serve as a warning to all those who would betray him, he adds with a shot to Solonius.

Solonius directs his newly acquired gladiator to perform the executions. Naevia must watch him proceed through the line of prisoners, killing each, ending at her oldest friend. They have one parting gaze where Diona gives her a nod of good-bye before she dies. Lucretia watches yet another of her slaves suffer from her schemes.

Dagan and Ashur watch the executions, the former commenting that Ashur will soon join them. Barca protests to Doctore he can still fight, but the other tells him he's too wounded and will battle again when he is able. Gannicus is to face two opponents in the match preceding the Primus. He reveals to Doctore that there are many things he would die for, but this house is no longer among them. His friend suggests he fight for her. She shall see all his victories in the afterlife. Gannicus appears inspired.

The matches begin. Crixus is sporting a new coif, and is first to fight. Ashur manages to kill his opponent, as does Gnaeus and Dagan, with Gannicus victorious, as well. But Solonius still holds twice the men as Batiatus, Varis muses, and as they enter the Primus at nightfall, it's apparent they are outnumbered. The Primus will ultimately wittle down all the combatants to two men, even if they are from the same house, and it's a battle to the death. Crixus is anxious to face Gannicus in a true battle once all the others are dispatched. Batiatus addresses his men, giving them a rallying pep talk. Only one man will be named champion of Capua and he vows it will be from his house.

Every man ultimately stands for himself. As they stand in the middle of the arena, slaves pour oil in a wide ring around them and ignite it, keeping them imprisoned within. Anyone thrown outside the flames will be removed from the Primus, and those that remain will fight to the death. 

Intense, bloody combat begins, and Batiatus' men begin to gain the advantage, but Dagan suddenly turns on Ashur to the shock and laughter of Solonius and Varis. Ashur manages to impale him. Gnaeus is knocked outside the flames and is disqualified, leaving only Ashur, Gannicus and Crixus to fight Solonius' remaining man. 

Ashur suggests to Crixus they attack Gannicus and decide who's champion between themselves. As he is about to hurl a spear at his comrade, Crixus slashes Ashur's knee and throws him through the fire out of the ring. Solonius takes great sport in watching Batiatus' men fight amongst themselves.

Crixus then takes on Gannicus' opponent, but after several charges he's wounded himself, and an emboldened Gannicus kicks him out of the ring and returns to his fight. Gannicus is taken down, injured, but finds inspiration in Doctore's eyes, and climbs to his feet. He breaks the others man's spear (something he had advised Crixus to do some episodes ago) and puts his own spear through the others' mouth and rips his jaw off. He wins.

The crowd goes mad. Through the flames he sees a satisfied and proud Doctore. Batiatus is elated. The magistrate is most impressed. Varis wants Gannicus for his own games, too, and Solonius is sickened by the loss. But he has sudden inspiration and suggests the day would be made memorable if Gannicus were granted freedom for such a victory. The magistrate thinks that's an excellent idea and would suitably commemorate the opening games. Batiatus has little choice but to agree through gritted teeth. 

The magistrate rises to announces that Gannicus is freed.

At the ludus, everyone assembles to see Gannicus off. Batiatus and Lucretia watch from the balcony, commenting how after all their work their champion is still lost to them. Batiatus had offered him coin to come and go as he pleased and fight for them, but Gannicus is haunted by what's transpired in their house, he muses. Lucretia suggests they place their stock in the Gaul.

A joyous Barca tells Gannicus he will join him in freedom one day. Gannicus takes his leave, saying goodbye to Crixus. The Gaul wants to face him again someday, and Gannicus advises him to win his own freedom and seek him out to have proper contest. Then he hands him a necklace he was given when he became champion of the house. He tells him to wear it with more honour than he has. Ashur emerges, burned, his leg in a brace and arm broken, shooting a vengeful glare at Crixus as the others celebrate.

Gannicus takes his leave of Doctore. He hands him a wooden sword with an inscription, the proof to carry with him that he nolonger stands as slave. Doctore suggests Melitta would have been proud. Gannicus tells him she loved him above all others. The thought will keep him warm, Doctore says, until he joins her in the afterlife. Gannicus says he'll meet them both there. Then the champion leaves the gates of the ludus and walks off into the hills. 

Batiatus tells Doctore to begin the day's training. Batiatus will not have Gannicus' name or Tullius' spoken of within his walls. Instead, they will look towards a brighter future. He will see this house elevated beyond his father and Solonius, he declares to his wife, and they will leave their mark on their city and one day see proper reward for what they have done.

Flash back to the gladiator revolt, and Batiatus lying at Spartacus' feet as he rallies the slaves to their just cause. Lucretia's fingers still reach out for her husband. The camera zooms in on Batiatus' dead eyes.

A very satisfying resolution. The ending was effective, reminding how brutal an end Batiatus and Lucretia (perhaps?) came to at the hands of Spartacus. Every element was wrapped up in a way that not only satisfies, but opens up possibilities for season two.

The finale avoided all the cliches that one might expect—particularly Crixus and Gannicus' final battle, and the latter dying at his hands. The Primus lived up to its hype, and Ashur's final betrayal and punishment was well worth the anticipation.

The gods never grant Batiatus a complete victory. In striving to defeat his enemies, he's turned his friend into one of his greatest adversaries, costing him his champion despite all his sacrifice. Solonius' acquisition of Vettius' ludus wasn't too hard to see coming, but not all plot points need to be surprises. What was more enjoyable was the bitter truths he spoke of his former friend, always acting in ways that brought harm to Solonius. Batiatus was a high maintenance friend, and it allowed Solonius a bit (just a bit) of sympathy.

Lucretia's devotion and subtle warnings to Naevia really bring home the sense of betrayal she felt when she learned it was her who was in love with Crixus. She still cares deeply for her slaves, with sadness in her eyes watching Diona's death, realizing she was part of it all. 

Will the wandering gladiators come across Gannicus? And if so, does that mean the truth of Melitta's death might still be revealed to Oenomaus? Ashur still survives, and he still bears a grudge against Crixus.

Just six short episodes, and the backstory to Spartacus is all the richer. What could have been haphazard storylines thrown together to cash in on the Spartacus hype has more than lived up to season one's quality. The series has proven it is more than blood and sex, given the writers managed to pull off a Spartacus mini-season absent the title character, yet delivered just as riveting a drama as its predecessor.

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