Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: Spartacus: War of the Damned "Enemies of Rome"

Non Spoiler Review:
Spartacus' army has grown by leaps and bounds, and so has his reputation, reaching kinglike proportions. Rome is forced to respond. With their losses mounting and their armies spread thin, the Senate approaches the wealthy Marcus Crassus to defeat the slave rebellion.

Enemies of Rome is a fair reintroduction of the new status quo following the big reset in last season's finale. Familiar faces among the rebels are countered by a whole new cast of Romans, most notably the powerful House of Crassus. Its patriarch makes a good first impression and (unlike Glaber) is certain to be a formidable nemesis for Spartacus.

The series is working on an epic palette with large scale battle scenes and a (CGI) cast of thousands. Considering a television budget it looks quite stunning so far, and is sure to be a spectacle as we see armies clash along the way. As the series enters its final season, the premiere gets things off to a great start.

Spoilers Now!
The Romans are engaging a formidable rebel army as Spartacus rides into battle and breaks through their ranks with his fellow former gladiators in tow. The Roman commander Cossinius calls a retreat and escapes with his tribune Furius. 

Senator Metellus (and all of Rome) can't understand how the rebels are winning. They've been loath to even consider that lowly slaves could route their armies, but Cossinius and Furius remind him they added thousands to their ranks by liberating the mines, and slaves across the Republic are believing in the legend of Spartacus. If reinforcements are not dispatched they might find them at the gates of Rome. Metallus frets they've not got the men given their forces are stretched thin elsewhere, though Cossinius suggests another who might be able to fund the initiative himself—Marcus Crassus. Metellus reluctantly agrees to return to Rome and entreat his aid.

In Rome Marcus Crassus indulges in battle with his gladiator and slave Hilarus while his son Tiberius looks on. Metallus thinks it unwise he takes counsel from a slave, then informs him of their need for reinforcement—an expensive thing in troubled times. They need 10,000 men. In return they would offer Crassus a command under Cossinius and Furius. Crassus would prefer they offer it themselves, though he surprisingly finds the terms agreeable. Metellus admits he thought me might try to extort a title but Crassus is all about honor. Tiberius is surprised at his father's choice, as well. But Spartacus must fall, Crassus tells him.

Spartacus remains cautious about celebrating their victories though Agron and Crixus see their numbers increasing and prefer to indulge in wine and women (or in Agron's case, Nasir). Gannicus later joins Spartacus to make his report of the earlier battle. Spartacus wants him to take his rightful place to stand as a leader with him and Crixus. Gannicus doesn't see himself as one. He asks who Spartacus will turn his wrath upon once they've laid waste to the Republic given the men who killed his wife are gone. Gannicus confides he once loved a woman while a slave to Batiatus, and he had his vengeance as Spartacus did. He confesses that the woman was Oenomaus' wife. Despite his freedom, he was still shackled until Oenomaus freed him with his forgiveness. Spartacus says no one is left to give him such words. He couldn't save his wife, but he can fight to see a day when they will be free. 

As Crassus makes his preparations, his wife Tertulla wants him to give Tiberius a position in the army. Marcus reminds her he hasn't earned a place yet, and lacks a strategic mind. She goes on to warn her son not to give his father cause to further doubt him. 

Agron oversees the training of the new slaves who have joined them. Spartacus notices some starving men and follows them to a tent where one of the new arrivals has killed a horse and is using it to feed the people. Spartacus goes unrecognized and reminds him a horse is a valuable asset. The other explains it was wounded, and without a plan to clothe and feed the people they have to take matters into their own hands. Spartacus notices the children flocking to the remains of the horse he casts away. As one of his soldiers comes up and exposes his identity, Spartacus tells the shocked man he has freedom to speak his heart. The soldier advises him Romans have been spotted on the trail.

A group of soldiers come upon Naevia who question her presence so close to the rebel encampment. But it's a trap, and she springs the ambush upon them. They're successful in killing them and find a message that reveals 10,000 men led by Crassus are on their way.

They debate their next move, and Spartacus suggests they attack Cossinius and Furius before the advantage is lost and they're forced to fight multiple armies. The message reveals they've taken rest at a villa, though they don't know the exact location. Spartacus makes a strategic guess where it must be and suggests a few men might penetrate their defences without notice. Agron, meanwhile, has another task with their army.

Crassus continues to hone his skills in sparring with his slave despite Tiberius criticizing his choice. Crassus respects Spartacus' military success and when Tiberius laughs at the notion of giving a slave any due he orders his son to test himself against Hilarus. The boy is bested easily and Crassus sees a lesson sorrily needed. 

Returning to his own training Crassus knows Hilarus is holding back, so orders him to try to kill his master so he can truly be tested in battle. Hilarus points out if he's victorious it will mean his death for killing his dominus, equally so if he falls at his sword. Crassus puts his mind to ease and instructs his son Hilarus is to be rewarded with his freedom if he succeeds in striking him down. Doubt is a man's true enemy, and he wants it removed. The two battle, and Crassus is nearly defeated, but is patient. He grabs Hilarus' sword by the blade and kills him with it. As Hilarus dies Crassus assures him his service will be remembered, and promises to honour him with a monument.

Cossinius is alerted the rebel army is gathering in the north, so decides to engage them before Crassus arrives. As the bulk of their army departs the villa, Spartacus, Gannicus and Crixus watch until most of the men have left. They attack as Cossinius and Furius prepare to rejoin their army. They make short work of the smaller force remaining at the villa, and Cossinius offers to accept his terms of surrender. Spartacus has none and decapitates both Cossinius and Furius, leaving their heads on pikes to demoralize the Roman army.

Crassus is advised of their deaths with the news that their men are scattering already. Metellus suggests that his message passed too close to the rebel encampment and was stolen by the slaves. Regardless, sole command of the army is now Crassus', as well as the title of imperator. Tiberius realizes his father planned it all. His father explains he knew Spartacus would act as he did because it's what he would have done.

In the rebel camp, Spartacus' mind is on another matter. Winter will be upon them with hunger and cold, as well as Crassus. They need supplies and shelter. They need a city to hold them. 

The Verdict:
War of the Damned looks to be a suitably epic conclusion, bringing us a formidable (and dangerously honorable) adversary in Marcus Crassus. There appears to be the usual family politics at play, as well, with Tiberius' story likely to grow more prominent. Crassus' wife is a dead ringer for Ilythia—distractingly so. I wonder if this was intentional.

Spartacus must cope with his own growing legend and it seems there are already doubts spreading among the people, including Naevia (Of note—we see she has learned to cleave a head from shoulders—a call back to last season's finale).

While we get to see the familiar character moments of Agron, Nasir, Crixus and Naevia, I'm sure others like Saxa and Nemetes will move to the forefront to fill the absence of the likes of Oenomaus and Mira. It's on the Roman side of things where absences are really felt—namely Lucretia and Ilithyia. For the first time we get inside the household of true Roman power rather than the more provincial goings on in Capua. It's too early to tell, but I'm optimistic the House of Crassus can deliver because Lucy Lawless was one of the pillars of the series.

As always, Spartacus' plans come off without much difficulty, and how fortunate Cossinius and Furius chose to remain behind with their guards while the army departed. Hopefully Roman ineptitude is at an end with the much more strategic Crassus on the way.

Proving the series is more than sex and blood, the best scene of all was the one between Spartacus and Gannicus, where the latter gives voice to the obvious—that Spartacus' revenge should be quelled, and without anyone left to break his chains, what end will satisfy him?

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