Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Review: Spartacus: War of the Damned "The Dead and the Dying"

Non Spoiler Review:
The Dead and the Dying delivers revelation of Crixus' fall to Spartacus and his army, brought by a surprising messenger. Troubled with their future path, Spartacus opts for a brazen scheme against Crassus and celebration of his fallen friend. Caesar conspires against Tiberius while attempting to solidify his future ambition, as Crassus's own position is threatened by the return of Pompey.

This penultimate episode was one of the most memorable of the series to date (though I've been writing that a lot lately). Crixus' death received suitable recognition and the results provide ample emotional catharsis for both the characters and the audience. The end hangs heavy over this week, but The Dead and the Dying serves up one last shared moment of brotherhood for the former gladiators and their slave army. 

Yet so much happens beyond Crixus' funeral. Characters receive some redemption, and others their just desserts. Ultimately it was a very satisfying way to carry the audience forward to the final episode, which is certainly going bring an even more epic emotional wallop.
Spoilers Now!
A band of Roman soldiers making camp are attacked by Spartacus' forces. He strips them of weapons and supplies but finds they bear the mark of the dolphin and the eagle—the seal of Pompey—thanks to Laeta who recognizes it. If Pompey has returned to the Republic so will his legions, and that weighs heavy on Spartacus. Nasir then alerts them a rider approaches. Garbed in the cloak of a legion, they realize it's no Roman, but Naevia bearing Crixus' head.

Gannicus and Spartacus tend to her but she wishes only for death. Gannicus asks if his end was as he dreamed, but he was robbed of glory, Naevia recounts. The days after they parted were filled with victory and they drew sight of Rome before Crassus arrived to snatch it from them. It was Tiberius who killed Crixus while he was engaged with Caesar. Nasir asks of Agron and sees his fate in her eyes. There was only one reason Crassus spared her—to taunt Spartacus with visions of his end.

Gannicus warns him that he's being goaded into foolish action, but Spartacus agrees and won't be turned from their purpose. They can't be caught between two armies.

At Crassus' camp none of their captured prisoners have proved valuable with information. Tiberius advises his father a whore in the follower's camp was beaten and killed. Caesar overhears, as that was the woman he was seeking for several days (to support Kore's accusations against Tiberius). Crassus won't have the camp fall to chaos. He's then alerted envoys from Pompey's forces have arrived to meet with him.

They convey Pompey offers support in the campaign against Spartacus. Crassus greets the offer with surprise. Pompey requests a meeting, but Crassus won't risk a journey to that camp or break from his own pursuit of Spartacus. So Pompey offers neutral ground, something Crassus will consider. 

Tiberius warns his father Pompey will try to snatch victory from them. Caesar agrees, but refusing Pompey's offer could be considered an insult and he is popular in the Senate. He suggests Crassus should send Tiberius in his place while Crassus continues to engage the enemy. Crassus is doubtful about sending his son, but Caesar thinks sending one so young would cause Pompey to lower his guard. That convinces him, so he will pause their advance until Tiberius returns. Crassus has grown quite proud of his son, and Caesar agrees, wishing him all he deserves.

Naevia comes upon Kore, having learned she was the slave of Crassus. She admits she was once close to him before she fled. Naevia wonders why she didn't kill him. If he had fallen that night Crixus would be alive. Kore protests she can't be held responsible for her choices, but Naevia disagrees and believes they must all take advantage of the moment to balance the scale.

Tiberius and his men reach Pompey's encampment. He's looked upon with suspicion by the soldiers but is brought in to see the famous general. Inside the tent is Spartacus, who had hoped to find Crassus and not his shadow. Realizing it was all a trap for his father, Tiberius runs for his horse but is brought down. Spartacus takes the blade that killed Crixus, and the other soldiers are taken alive with plans to give honor to the dead

Caesar manages to find a friend of the whore who was murdered. He knows who killed her and would see him to slaughter as well. She would give all to see it happen, too. Caesar is pleased in his new ally and has sex with her.

Tiberius and the Romans are brought back to the rebel camp. Kore lays eyes upon him. Spartacus tells his people their blood will serve higher purpose—games to honor the fallen and give comfort to those left. He gives Naevia Tiberius' sword to take his life and pay final tribute to the undefeated Gaul. Naevia admits there was a time when he turned from Spartacus and she moved him towards it. Spartacus holds no grudges and tells her to embrace the present. 

A defiant Agron lives, a prisoner in Crassus' camp and still hurling insults. Caesar recognizes him from his time in the city so Crassus orders him crucified to stand warning to all who refuse to talk. Agron is nailed the cross as Caesar taunts him, just as Crassus is advised an envoy from Pompey has arrived. Surprised, he wants to know where his son is, but the soldier knows nothing of his son or any others sent in his place. Other messengers were dispatched, but not to him. Crassus begins to realize he's been the victim of a ruse, and the man concedes that some of their men failed to report in.

Crassus is incensed Spartacus has duped him, and declares Caesar should have known given he was in Sinuessa. Caesar points out that Crassus avoided being snared in the plot, but the other man doesn't want to hear his son might have fallen. Caesar is surprised he believes him alive. Crassus will not stand idle. He wants a few men to overtake them and insists Caesar lead the mission. Caesar reminds him he'd be going to his death, but Crassus still holds something Spartacus desires. Nevertheless, he would mourn his passing if it did come to that.

The rebels clear out a cliff side to hold their games while the Romans remain imprisoned. Tiberius tells them not to raise weapons when called upon to provide them amusement. Kore arrives to comment on the irony he is now in chains like the ones that forced her from the arms of his father. He pleads with her to let him go and he would see her returned to his father. Kore didn't dare to hope he might still love her. She thanks him for that comforting thought and promises to return at nightfall—when it's his time to die. Something she longs to see.

Gannicus, Spartacus, Naevia, Saxa and Nasir march into the arena to the cheers of their people in the stands. Spartacus addresses them, speaking how Rome forced him to be a gladiator, and tonight they return the favor. They honor the dead with Roman blood.

The first man is brought out to confront Spartacus. The Roman refuses to fight and tosses his sword to the sand. Spartacus slits his throat and tells them they either fight or fall where they stand. He orders two more brought out. Gannicus comments to Sybil that these are but dim reflection of the glory of the games, and admits to stand upon the sands again gave him a clear purpose. Spartacus puts down his swords and fights them hand to hand, putting on a great show before defeating them.

Next is Gannicus' turn, who faces three while Spartacus sits with Laeta. She is impressed with the spectacle and confesses that while the blood might repulse her, the Romans no longer stand as her people given she's been cast from the Republic. She revels in its meaning.

Gannicus defeats his challengers. The remaining Romans face down the others, including Saxa and Lugo until it comes to Nasir to avenge Agron. Then Gannicus calls Spartacus away as they have a visitor—Caesar has arrived in camp, offering 500 of his men freed in exchange for Tiberius. Caesar is beaten up but confesses he has no desire to see Tiberius returned. He tells Spartacus he can take his life but it will end those of the prisoners. 

Tiberius is brought out to face Naevia. He demands she return his sword and calls her a slave. She suggests it was forged for a woman. He charges but she ultimately succeeds in bringing him down. She is about to sever his head when Spartacus stays her hand. 

He addresses the crowd with Crassus' offer—Tiberius' life in exchange for 500 of them taken in battle. Naevia declares it's a Roman lie. Spartacus believes it's genuine but lays the choice to the one most wronged by Tiberius. Naevia brings the blade to his throat but instead punches him in the face. She tells him to live each moment as one day soon she'll reclaim his life.

Tiberius is led chained to Caesar, who is pleased to see him brought low. Tiberius accuses him of knowing of the scheme in the first place. The other muses the journey back is fraught with peril, one where he will be taught lessons of who towers above him. Suddenly Kore leaps out of the crowd and stabs Tiberius as Caesar and Spartacus both rush to stop her. He falls to the ground and dies at her feet. Spartacus is furious and warns her 500 will die for this. Kore tells him Crassus will still honor their trade if he gives him something his heart desires.

A disconsolate Crassus receives his son's body as Caesar explains a rebel slave struck him down as they attempted to withdraw—a man, scarred by his master. Crassus is enraged he still held to the bargain by freeing their prisoners, but Caesar explains an opportunity presented itself, and Kore enters. Crassus is stunned and offers him gratitude. Caesar now stands as his word and his will. He orders the men prepared to march towards Spartacus. Caesar leaves them alone. Kore raises her eyes to him and he kisses her. She calls him Marcus, but he corrects her. From this day forth she shall address him as dominus.

The rebels receive their 500 wounded. Nasir searches the crowd and is at first disappointed, until he sees Spartacus with the wounded Agron, who remains alive. Nasir is joyed the gods returned him. They gather again for Crixus' funeral. Spartacus warns that the shadow of Rome is upon them, but they will seek their destiny together. Naevia lights the pyre and they call out the names of all that have fallen. He promises they will live free or join their brothers in death. 

The Verdict:
The Dead and the Dying was a beautiful episode, satisfying in so many respects. With the ominous cloud of massive death hanging over next week, Crixus received a suitable send off, Naevia was redeemed as a character, Tiberius met his fate at those he abused, Spartacus pulled the wool over Crassus' eyes (likely one last time), and viewers were treated to a final, glorious return to the arena.

Spartacus' ploy certainly required everything to go just right and not anyone in Crassus' camp to notice anything out of the ordinary with Pompey's envoys. How I'll miss Spartacus' extraordinary coincidences and brilliantly executed strategems! Both Tiberius' horror at being captured, and his father's outrage at falling for the scheme was well worth it. I'm wondering if we'll get to see the actual Pompey next week?

Julius Caesar's ascent is now assured with the boy's death. I'm not clear if he was aware of the ruse at the beginning or not, though there's evidence for that given he urged Tiberius to go. Later on his scene with the whore seemed unnecessary, as there's no need for him to seek extra help in disposing of Tiberius now. So I'm wondering if anything was to be taken from that aside from being a token sex scene inserted into this episode.

I applaud the writers for succeeding in a difficult task—making me like Naevia again. Her character arc was a struggle to watch, but I'm left very happy with how she's turned out. She and Spartacus had a much needed scene of closure for the animosity she sowed between him and Crixus.

Watching Spartacus and Gannicus return to their gladiatorial combat and showboat for their people one last time was a treat, providing us an emotional release and break from a season of war and death. I was pretty surprised (and elated) that Agron managed to survive not once, but twice (hopefully the rebel camp has a good medicus). I guess my initial theory of who survives the ending is still intact, which means that Gannicus could now be back up on the chopping block (and certainly Castus). I still see Agron and Nasir leading a few surviving refugees to freedom at the end, with Sybil and Laeta among them, perhaps with distraction provided by Spartacus. We'll see.

It's going to be so difficult to end the series on a high note in the concluding moments, beyond the idea that Spartacus' name lives on through history. It will be a bittersweet night to watch such a beloved series brought to epic conclusion.

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