Monday, February 4, 2013

Review: Spartacus: War of the Damned "Wolves at the Gate"

Non Spoiler Review:
Spartacus sets his sights on the harbour city of Sinuessa en Valle to house his people, leading to an undercover mission to scout out its strengths. But he gets his eyes opened to the struggles of controlling the blood lust of his ever growing army. Meanwhile, Crassus enlists an ally in none other than the brash and youthful Julius Caesar while making final preparations to launch his army south.

Despite last season's massacre, the cast is filling out rather quickly, especially with addition of the bombastic Brad Pitt Tod Lasance as Julius Caesar. He is definitely not what we've grown to expect of Caesar's portrayals in film and TV (most recently Rome), but we get him here as a very young soldier with plenty of battle experience, a family name, and much less acumen in the ways of politics.

While Wolves at the Gate juggled plenty of plot development, it did bring up some new themes of what separates the slaves from their Roman masters, both in how Spartacus deals with taking his new refuge, as well as the the interactions of the Crassus family and their own slaves. It's a grey area that is sure to get more ambiguous as power shifts between the two factions.

Spoilers Now!
As training continues, Spartacus summons Diotimos (the butcher) who has been sparring with Naevia.  Spartacus and Crixus conspire to move the army so as to tire out Crassus' on their long march after them. Diotimos is a former resident of Sinuessa en Valle, a city that would answer all their needs given its fortified location on the sea. Spartacus needs to know their defenses so they can take it for themselves. Diotimos explains all weapons must be checked at the gates as per the orders of the city leader, Ennius. However, Gannicus has encountered a Roman blacksmith named Attius who lives there too. He is Roman only in name and can be bribed with enough coin. Diotimos adds that his former master Laurus is also a powerful man if they need to name drop when they get there.

Spartacus, Crixus and Gannicus arrive at Sinuessa en Valle, but risk discovery by their slave tattoos when Spartacus refuses to remove his arm brace. As they are about to be escorted out by soldiers, Spartacus mentions Laurus' name, which gains them entry.

The city's leader Ennius is overseeing the punishment of rebellious slaves. His wife Laeta suggests he show them kindness to promote loyalty rather than treat them like dogs. The slave is stoned in the square under the watch of Laurus. Spartacus refuses to stand idle despite Crixus and Gannicus warning him against acting. The imprisoned slave starts shouting out his name as he's beaten to death, with the last stone hurled from Spartacus to put him out of his misery. Both Ennius and Laurus take notice of him.

In Rome, Crassus is advised the Senate is anxious for his troops to begin their march. Tiberius and Sabinus have procured supplies, but that doesn't seem to earn Tiberius any more respect from his father. Crassus reviews the weapons he's negotiated, but is called away by the arrival of a special guest—Julius Caesar.

Young Caesar raises a ruckus for being kept waiting until Crassus arrives. Tertulla has no use for him. His victories abroad and insolence in his campaign against Mithridates are well known. He is a member of the renowned Julian clan, however he stands in considerable debt and made enemies of powerful men. Crassus notes he possesses name absent wealth. Caesar points out Crassus possesses wealth absent name. Crassus agrees. Opportunity presents itself to seize laurels and greater glories—starting with bringing an end to the slave rebellion and the death of Spartacus.

Gannicus goes to see Attius with Crixus and Spartacus in tow. He offers him a profitable opportunity if he helps them fashion swords. Though the threat of the slave rebellion has led to a prohibition against forging weapons, Spartacus only needs two swords. Attius agrees, and Gannicus lingers while Spartacus sends Crixus to inform Agron of the situation. Spartacus goes wandering to check out the grain stores. On the way he encounters a woman and her daughter, advising her they keep together in the near future. Then he runs into Laeta at the granary.

She informs him Crassus has already purchased much of their grain for the army. Spartacus explains he wants some for his growing number of slaves but she warns him the city is not a place for slaves to be treated well these days. Ennius joins them, and recognizes Spartacus as the man from the stoning. He thanks him for ending it prematurely and preventing the crowd growing more towards frenzy.

Caesar enjoys a bath, but Kore arrives to tell him Crassus has ordered he keep his beard for now, for his own reasons. Caesar takes the opportunity to make a pass at her, thinking her dominus has sent her for him. She reminds him he has a wife but he kisses her and suggests he would be reminded of her in her touch. Crassus enters and orders her to leave. He explains she wasn't sent there for his pleasure. Caesar apologizes, realizing the slave has meaning for him. 

Tertulla rudely chastises Kore for her appearance inviting Caesar's desire. Crying, she runs into Tiberius and Sabinus, who demands to know why she's upset. They find out Gaius Julius Caesar is there. Tiberius insists on confronting him about the episode.

Meanwhile, Caesar wonders how a gladiator has bested their legions. Crassus explains Spartacus had supposedly fought with Glaber in the auxiliary. Caesar concludes that Spartacus believes he knows what proper Roman soldiers will do—something to be turned to advantage. Crassus agrees. He needs a wolf at his side.

In his wanderings, Spartacus is stopped by Laurus, who recognizes him from the square, as well. He's also heard he spoke his name at the gate and wants to know why he's in the city. Laeta arrives and informs him he trades with her husband. Laurus apologizes but warns him off the streets by nightfall. Laeta explains her husband has initiated a curfew until the rebellion is over. 

As night falls the people hurry off the streets as the gates are closed. Spartacus fills in Gannicus. Attius has their two swords prepared, but Spartacus now needs additional help, something he coaxes with a bag of coin. Attius realizes they're moving to take the city and need to have the gates raised in the night without raising alarm. He has little choice but to aid them, as Gannicus explains his craft is already in their hand and would expose him. 

Tertulla surprises Crassus with news she will be joining him on his campaign. She's also bringing Publius and the two will stay in the followers camp with the slaves (given they aren't allowed in the army camp). Crassus appreciates the desire, but worries for their safety. She wonders if that is the sole reason. Tiberius interrupts that the army can march at first light, but he wants to know what title he will hold. Crassus will advise him of that in the morning, and leaves both his wife and son to make preparations. Tiberius tells his mother that Crassus favors another now. She agrees, and knows exactly how he feels.

Crassus goes to see Kore, apologizing for putting her in Caesar's way. She speaks up for Tiberius and his need for some position in his father's eyes. He wants her to come with him and she can stay in the follower's camp, but he wants to ask her as a man, not as her dominus. She's quite happy to accept the invitation and addresses him as Marcus. 

Attius goes to the gates to warn the soldiers Spartacus is there, leading them away to the storeroom where the weapons are held. He locks many inside and he and Gannicus and Spartacus fight the rest. Gannicus sends Attius away and moves to release the gate as the other soldiers free themselves. Outside Crixus and Agron await with the army in the hills. The gate is finally opened and the rebel army pours in.

There's mayhem in the streets with many citizens struck down. Diotimos returns to the home of his dominus to free his compatriots but is struck down by Laurus. Gannicus kills him and saves the rest, leaving Naevia to tell the dying Diotimos his former master is dead. 

Laeta searches for her husband before coming face to face with Spartacus and learns his true identity. He takes her through the streets filled with dead where he encounters the murdered mother and daughter he had met earlier. The rebels lead out a group of Roman prisoners, about to massacre them, but Spartacus stays their hands and orders them chained. The others balk at his decision, wanting revenge on their former masters. Crixus runs up warning that the grain is about to be set afire by Ennius. Spartacus warns Laeta if she doesn't help even he won't be able to calm his people's wrath.

Ennius is locked behind the gates of the granaries with some soldiers and warns them off otherwise he will torch it all. Spartacus arrives with his wife. She tells her husband to stop the death and open the gates for her, but Ennius won't bow to slaves. If he does this all his people will die, she says. Crixus and Gannicus sneak in from a back way and attack his soldiers. While he's distracted, Spartacus hurls a spear through Ennius' mouth. Crixus catches the falling torch before it hits the pitch.

Laeta is furious and horrified. He would have opened the gates, she says. But Spartacus could not put his faith in that. Spartacus addresses his people they have had their fill of blood. No Roman will suffer further harm. The city is theirs. Spartacus tells Laeta that the Romans have done as much to him, but he still carries the full weight of her loss. He has her placed in chains with the rest of the prisoners.

Tiberius goes to confront Caesar and finds him with a slave in the midst of an odd ritual where she appears to be cutting him with a knife. Caesar informs him he will be under his command.

Outside, Crassus addresses both Tiberius and Caesar. He tells his son he stands as both his word and his will. Tiberius is to ride with Caesar and men of his choosing to find what's left of Cossinius' soldiers and learn of Spartacus' movements. Tiberius is pleased and leaves, but Caesar is furious Crassus filled him with promise to have him bow to a boy. Crassus warns him to treat his son with respect. He's spread coin towards Caesar's election as military tribune, a position Tiberius is too young to receive. He counsels Caesar to be patient for greater glories. They go outside to address the army as they are about to march south to find Spartacus. 

The Verdict:
Wolves at the Gate delivers a morally ambiguous story as Spartacus is forced to look at what separates his rebels from the Romans. While he put the needs of his army ahead of the good citizens of Sinuessa en Valle, his soldiers commit just as many atrocities as the Roman legions, and this is the first time (since destroying the Capua arena) where citizens have been directly involved in the fray. Governing an army camp is one thing, but now there's a mix of Romans locked up with them behind the city walls.

On the Roman home front, there's plenty of drama in the House of Crassus. Marcus' relationship with his wife and slave is made quite clear now. How long will that divided loyalty fester before it rears its head? Kore and Crassus both are likely to see their love tested once the army encounters the rebellion. Tertulla, however, hasn't grown on me yet, as she seems very similar to Ilithyia. I'm sure we'll get to see more depth as the series progresses. As for Tiberius, I'm unsure of what his father might be planning for him. Tiberius is a character made up for the show, so there's the possibility his blood will be spilled.

The introduction of Caesar is the big development, and he does make quite an impact. He's certainly cast against type, and appears to share plenty of sexual eccentricities—I can't figure out exactly what the slave was doing with the knife, though my first thought was circumcision, and now I'm wondering if it might be some kind of blood letting for an ailment. Caesar was believed to have been epileptic, so it could be medicinal in motivation. I'm excited to see what they do with the character, as this early period of Caesar's life isn't well known.

I'm curious at Crassus' plans for Caesar, beyond elevating his position (if that is truly the case). He wants a wolf, which may explain why he wants Caesar to keep his beard. But he appears to be using both him and his sons as pawns—not unexpected, given how he manipulated Cossinius last week.

Laeta looks like she'll be around awhile. Is she now going to become the conscience and confidante for Spartacus? He's got his work cut out for him given how he murdered her husband. I really hope they don't become lovers at this point, as that just feels too cliché, unless she were scheming to kill him out of revenge. I also noticed Laurus' female slave was giving Gannicus the eye when he rescued them.

Wolves at the Gate felt plot heavy in places but overall a good entry that accomplished a lot. There were a couple of short but quite effective large army shots that continue to convey the grander scale of the events this season. Again we get the three man army of Spartacus, Gannicus and Crixus making short work of a host of soldiers. 

I know it's quite early to start making predictions, but I'm assuming the writers are going to give us a couple of survivors among the rebels by the time it's all over, and I'm guessing that will either be Agron and Nasir, or (more unlikely) Crixus and Naevia. But we'll see how prescient I am as the story progresses.

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