Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review: Spartacus: War of the Damned "Decimation"

Non Spoiler Review:
Crassus implements an ancient military tradition to still cowardice in his ranks and bring his son into line. Food remains an issue in Sinuessa en Valle, upsetting the already tense situation between the rebels and their captive Romans. A surprise arrival in the city sees opportunity in festering the discord. 

A very dark episode, Decimation left me feeling unsettled. While it wasn't as strong as some of the others and suffered from some questionable actions that seemed out of character, the series continues a strong run as it reaches its midway point. The focus has been on the rebels now that they're sitting within the walls of their city, but are they quickly becoming decadent like their former masters?

Among the disturbing and violent acts we get better insight into Crassus and Caesar to further blend the greys of this already morally ambiguous situation between Romans and slaves. There continues to be a rising sense of dread that leaves me wondering if the writers might have Spartacus ultimately brought down from within.

Spoilers Now!
Heracleo has been unable to procure grain, which is frustrating Spartacus. The city is getting hungry and fights are breaking out over scraps. Crixus wants to strike against Crassus now while they have opportunity. Laeta continues to lend care for her own Roman citizens and Spartacus refuses to break his word to her. Outside the gates more slaves arrive and Agron tries to maintain order by securing weapons and ensuring no Roman spies are sneaking in with them.

One slave brings news that Crassus' army is a day's march away. That's immediately interrupted by an attack by several men that Spartacus and Crixus manage to dispatch with the help of an eager new arrival who violently kills the last of the attackers—Caesar. Spartacus is thankful, but asks to see the brand of his dominus. Caesar claims his master put it close to his crotch, and reveals the mark on his upper thigh. Spartacus seems satisfied, and orders the heads of the dead put on the wall as warning.

Crixus isn't alone in tiring of the Roman prisoners. Nemetes beats one who is trying to get information about his missing sister. Nemetes is equally angered that Spartacus will not let anyone keep coin once they arrive in the city. Caesar sees an opportunity to befriend him.

At Crassus' camp, Tiberius' wound is mended and he's finally visited by his father. Crassus advises him Caesar is off on mission among the rebels, the reason he remained unshorn so he would fit in. Tiberius is impressed with the plan. 

Spartacus remains suspicious of the attack, thinking Crassus is changing his strategies to combat them. He wants to expose any Romans in their midst and orders Crixus to observe them. Crixus maintains his desire to attack, but Spartacus will wait behind the safety of their walls instead. Gannicus muses it's too bad Attius is dead and can't make them more weapons, further aggravating the Gaul. That prompts a discussion on what plan would be followed should Spartacus be killed. After they leave, Agron assures Spartacus he will follow his course.

Gannicus tests the fighting skill of the immigrants and calls forth Caesar (naming himself Lisiscus), who puts up a fair fight, showing he's versed in using steal, despite claiming to be a herder of animals. But ultimately he is bested by Gannicus. 

Spartacus goes to consult with Laeta in the stables, telling her that Marcus Crassus is the man sent by Rome. She knows of him and explains he will never stop until he defeats him. Their previous business with him concerned only grain, though she conveys a story of how Crassus once falsified a message in order to achieve desired results. Spartacus realizes he received such a message himself, one that allowed Crassus to assume command of the army.

Crassus quizzes his son on what it means to be his word and will. The first battle of his campaign was won by Spartacus as a result of Tiberius' rash action. Tiberius defends his choice as an opportunity that needed to be seized but apologizes for disobeying. Crassus concludes Tiberius' men fled because they feared the enemy more than his commanders, something that must be corrected. He has chosen the punishment of decimation. Later on, Crassus enjoys Kore's company in the camp. She uses the chance to try to get Crassus to reconcile with his son.

Sabinus is horrified that Crassus is enacting an ancient punishment—one that leaves it to the men to draw one out of ten who will be put to death. Tiberius wants Sabinus spared, but his friend knows that would weaken Tiberius' position further, and insists on drawing his lot with the other soldiers.

Caesar chats with Nemetes at a brothel, getting the indication that he has no love for Spartacus. Nemetes resents that the Romans have been spared within the walls, and all their coin has been used to bargain with the Cilicians. Caesar offers him his coin towards their continued friendship and future opportunities.

Crixus finds Nemetes and tells him to reveal what he's discovered about Caesar. Nemetes believes he has no love for Rome but will engage a final test to ensure his loyalty. After Crixus leaves, Nemetes returns to Caesar's table and takes him to a cell where they've been holding the Roman man's sister, Fabia. She has been bound, raped and tortured, and Caesar asks how Spartacus has allowed such a thing. Nemetes laughs that they've kept her hidden from his knowledge. He orders Caesar to prove he is no friend to Rome, to use her, then mark her with his knife. 

Caesar is left with her. Horrified, he tells her he's a Roman like her, explains who he really is and that the legions are coming to see the rebels all suffer. She asks him to free her by killing her. Caesar vows her name will not be forgotten, kisses her and ends her suffering as she wishes. He returns to Nemetes with her body, explaining he set her free, as he would set free all the Romans held by Spartacus. Nemetes is pleased he truly stands with them. 

Spartacus and Agron meet with Heracleo, and the pirate echoes the suggestion they stop feeding the Romans in order to preserve their food stores. But Spartacus has a new idea to amend their agreement and fill his ships with more promising cargo. 

Crassus addresses Tiberius' troops who broke rank. Those who survive the decimation will be banished to the follower's camp until Crassus deems them worthy again. Tiberius steps forward to ask Crassus to spare Sabinus, only to be warned by his father that he's his commander, and instead orders him to join his men himself. Tiberius takes his place among the soldiers he led, and all of them draw their stones. Tiberius is relieved he picked well, but Sabinus is not so fortunate. The victims are dragged out.

Sabinus asks Tiberius to do as he's commanded, so the men are beaten to death by the other soldiers while Tiberius weeps and finally joins in, delivering the death blow to his friend. When they're dead, Tiberius tells his father his lesson is well-learned.

Laeta drops a bag of bread on the street and is seen by Sybil. Laeta recognizes her and begs her not to tell anyone of it. But Sybil goes immediately to Gannicus. Laeta brings the bread to her friends in the cellar, encouraging them that Crassus is growing closer. Gannicus, Saxa and Sybil arrive to catch her with her hidden charges. Laeta is furious with Sybil's betrayal. Gannicus lays eyes on Ulpianus in the cellar, the one Attius was said to have freed. Enraged at Naevia's lie, he orders the Romans to be taken to Spartacus at once.

Nemetes brings Fabia outside to her distraught brother and Crixus demands to know who it is. Nemetes claims she tried to kill him and Lisiscus saved his life. They raise the crowd into a frenzy against the Roman prisoners and Naevia declares they should all be killed.

Gannicus appears and challenges her, revealing the Romans are with Laeta, and are even now being carried to Spartacus. Naevia dismisses him that Attius deserved his fate because he was a Roman. Gannicus strikes at her and Crixus intervenes to battle him. Nemetes pulls Gannicus off Crixus before he can strangle him, but he's thrown back to the Roman slave who manages to throw his chains around his neck. Caesar hurls his knife and kills the prisoner to save Nemetes, while Naevia knocks out Gannicus with a rock. Naevia claims he left her no choice, and Nemetes agrees. Caesar declares to the crowd they shouldn't be risking their lives for Romans. Crixus tells his men to take Roman blood as payment for all their suffering and see the city truly theirs. The Roman prisoners are massacred in the streets as Caesar watches. 

Nasir alerts Spartacus and Agron that Crixus is killing the prisoners. Meanwhile, Saxa has kept Laeta and her friends safe to get them to Spartacus, but they encounter a mob led by Nemetes. She fights them off but Ulpianus is killed. Crixus drags Laeta off and looks to Naevia as he prepares to kill her. Spartacus pulls him off her, draws his sword against him, and demands he regain his senses. Naevia declares Laeta hid the Romans, something Gannicus confirms as he arrives, but also informing them Attius held no part in the matter.

Spartacus turns to Laeta, questioning if this is how she repays his mercy. She saw no mercy, she replies. She had tried to save a handful from their cruelty. Crixus demands he take her life and see them become as one again. Spartacus will not see them become what they fight against. Crixus questions his state of mind, but Spartacus admits he does too, if only in placing his faith in Crixus. Spartacus warns the crowd that further attempt against his will means they join those who they struck down. 

Naevia tells Crixus they owe Spartacus much, but she now doubts his path. He agrees it might be time to forge their own path. Caesar is pleased.

The Verdict:
Decimation relied heaving on the familiar Spartacus trope—coincidence and opportunity that characters are in the right place at the right time to receive information. Coupled with a rather erratic pace, it was one of the weaker plotted episodes this season. It left me thinking that Sinuessa consists of a market square and a few city blocks, all within throwing distance of the main gates.

The episode still works, and serves up one of the most disturbing chapters I can remember. Not for its violence (which certainly had its moments), but the deaths of (presumable) innocents. Caesar and Crassus are both compassionate men as we can see here, but both allow an incredible amount of suffering to occur for their long term goals. It provides a troublesome contrast to Crixus and Naevia, who are simply lashing out for revenge, compared to the higher goals (at least for the Republic) of defeating the rebels and restoring their social order. It makes for an interesting debate.

As for other developments, the arrival of Caesar brought some explanations for his scruffy demeanor and the purpose of the slave and her knife a few episodes back. He was extremely successful in just the short time he was among the enemy. We're left wondering what daring scheme Spartacus has hatched with his Cilician allies.

However Crixus' character is not making sense to me. I can dismiss a lot given his love for Naevia, but he's clearly lost all perspective of the brotherhood he shared with Gannicus and Spartacus. He brushed off Gannicus' evidence that Naevia lied without any apparent conflict over it. I just can't see Crixus doing that, unless freedom has made him revert completely to his pre-gladiator self.

Sadly, I can no longer stomach Naevia. She's too much the mad dog to survive much longer, and perhaps that's the point of her character—the symbol of the one damaged too much by the Romans that she is beyond repair.

Perhaps the point is that the slaves aren't that different from their Roman masters at all. Given enough lust for money and power they will turn upon one another just as easy as the Roman upper classes scheme for position. It's certain that major characters will start dropping off as we reach the midpoint of the season. Of course the money is on which of the big four will go first. Storywise, it would seem most fitting for Gannicus and Crixus to have their long awaited rematch promised since Gods of the Arena.

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