Thursday, April 18, 2013

Review: Spartacus: War of the Damned "Victory"

Non Spoiler Review:
Victory brings to end one of the most dynamic and underrated series on television. As the tide of inevitable conclusion grows, a reflective Spartacus comes to terms with what will be the final battle of the rebellion. But he still has some schemes to employ and relies on Gannicus to be his right hand. Crassus mourns for his son and searches for answers as he prepares to meet his nemesis.

Without a doubt, this series finale lived up to all my expectations and delivered such a satisfying and emotional conclusion I was anxious to rewatch it again immediately after. Technically it was a stunning ending, with aerial views of the perfect Roman ranks versus the haphazard rebel lines, and it seemed especially well lit under the bright sun, a contrast to earlier battles. The battle scenes were easily the best we've seen, and on such a scale they should serve as lesson for other historical series attempting as much in the future.

Victory was the culmination of four seasons of story and felt like finishing the last chapter of a novel. I couldn't imagine a more perfect ending for the series that did not come at the expense of believability or the characters. For loyal fans of Spartacus, there won't be a dry eye to be had in the final half.

Spoilers Now!
The rebel forces raid the countryside, with Spartacus' men freeing slaves and terrorizing their masters, each proclaiming I am Spartacus to spread the message that to live they must set their slaves free. Crassus believes its all a strategy to confuse Pompey, who has now joined the fight. Caesar warns him they will be blamed, not Pompey, if Spartacus escapes beyond the mountains. Crassus plans to to engage him before their army grows again.

Spartacus and Gannicus prepare their next scheme. Agron joins them, but they see he cannot grip a sword given his wounds. Spartacus tells his friend he will still serve purpose—by seeing those who cannot fight over the mountains. Gannicus will remain and would give his life to those more deserving, but would not see himself dead on a cross. They will soon face Rome's legions, and Spartacus assures Naevia they will return the favor of all they've inflicted on them. Agron tells Nasir he can't flee to the mountains with the rest. He needs to be on the plain of battle. Nasir assures him he will be at his side. 

Gannicus says his good-byes to Sybil, who will be going over the mountains with the others, including Laeta and the recent mother and newborn. Sybil doesn't want to leave him behind. He explains to her he's realized that she was the one sent by the gods to save him. 

Crassus trains hard with his men to hone his skills for the coming battle. Kore is brought to him in chains and she looks upon Tiberius' death mask. Crassus needs her to tell him the name of the slave who killed his son. She conveys virtually the same lie as Caesar did. Caesar arrives to alert him Spartacus' men have been spotted to the north. Kore asks Crassus why he has not asked why she left him. No answer would change what has already been done, he says.

Spartacus has his final words with Laeta, who wants to wait for him at the foot of the mountains. He warns her not to put her life in jeopardy in hope he still lives. He thanks her for the comfort her words and presence have given him. Agron announces his intention that he and Nasir will stand with him. He has found a way to fight, thanks to Nasir who has outfitted a shield (bearing a red serpent) with two swords cut through it. Spartacus is saddened, as he does not want to watch all his brothers fall. Agron is the last who stood with him against Batiatus, but he's honored he will be at his side. 

Spartacus addresses the freed slaves and declares they will purchase needed time with their blood for them to reach safety He tells them to live free. The woman who gave birth gives her thanks to him and everyone says their farewells. Castus rides up to inform him the Roman scouts have spotted them. Spartacus orders the refugees to leave immediately. Laeta gives him a final kiss. 

As both armies face one another on the plain, a single rider approaches and Spartacus throws a spear at the foot of his horse. The man bears a message that Crassus wants to meet with him. Caesar and Crassus greet Spartacus, Gannicus Agron, Nasir and Naevia. Both men leave their swords and ask to be left alone. Each side reluctantly backs away to allow them to speak in private.

Crassus tells him he must surely know he cannot win. Spartacus brings up Crixus' death, but Crassus reminds him his friend died in battle, unlike his son. Spartacus unwittingly reveals that he had wronged the woman who killed him, and Crassus realizes the truth. Spartacus muses that whatever happens to their cause it's because they chose their fate, not the Romans. Better to fall by the sword than by the whip of a master. Crassus asks if he would willingly withdraw from the Republic if he should win. Spartacus does not believe there is any justice, and Crassus agrees. They clasp hands, but Spartacus warns him when next they meet he'll kill him. Crassus corrects him that he's going to try. That's all a free man can do, Spartacus replies, and leaves him.

Crassus tries to control his anger as he returns to his tent with Caesar warning him he can't trust what Spartacus told him. Crassus strikes him and demands to know who killed Tiberius. Spartacus spoke of a woman moved by vengeance. Kore is brought in and confesses she killed his son. Crassus is dumbfounded and moves to cut her throat. Caesar reveals Tiberius forced himself on her, one of many acts that led to his fate. Kore confirms it is all true. It was the only way he could strike back at his father. She had wanted to tell him in camp but he had not allowed her, and Caesar did not want to cause him further pain. Crassus orders him out.

Crassus believes the son is the reflection of the father, and he breaks Tiberius' death mask. Kore assures him he's a good man who does what he must. Crassus apologizes for all she suffered and kisses her. It will end when Spartacus falls, he tells her, and they embrace.

Spartacus sits in his tent contemplating the battle, his eyes lingering on the map of Thracia. Gannicus joins him. The odds are not in their favor, they agree, but he realizes he can define victory in the freedom of Laeta, Sybil and the others. He asks Gannicus to help him lead in order to assure their safety. He needs him to do the impossible this time.

Come morning the armies face off. A much calmer Crassus is thankful for Caesar's loyal service. He realizes Spartacus is no fool despite the odds against him. Crassus wants no mercy shown to the wounded, but instead they will be made an example of.

Crassus fires his catapults and ballista as Spartacus charges. Then he orders an abrupt halt and they stay their ground as the Romans advance—right into a trench that opens up in front of them. The rebels fire a volley of arrows as the legion attempts to reform. Ladders that have been hidden beneath the sand are pulled out and Spartacus and his men throw them across the trench to rush right into the midst of the Romans. 

Enraged at being caught unawares, Crassus orders the catapults fired, even though his own men are among the rebels. Lugo is hit and burned alive as he fights to the death. Caesar is horrified that Romans are dying under their own assault, even though they are winning. But Gannicus arrives with a force from behind them, seizing control of the ballista and firing on the Romans. Crassus refuses to withdraw but orders an advance instead.

Castus falls in battle and dies in Nasir's arms. In the melee Crassus spies Spartacus and charges him on horseback. Spartacus rushes at him and knocks him off his horse. The soldiers drag Crassus to safety as Spartacus struggles to make his way through the crowd.

Gannicus and Saxa set the line of Romans on fire with pitch, but Caesar marches through to face him. Gannicus sees Saxa fall and he catches her. She has again found herself in his arms, she says, and dies. In a rage, Gannicus finds Naevia as she attempts to bring down Caesar, but watches as she is wounded and Caesar takes Tiberius' sword, running her through the shoulder. Naevia falls. Gannicus is surrounded by soldiers with Caesar facing him in the middle and they proceed to bring him down to his knees. Caesar orders his men to stand down, then strikes Gannicus.

Crassus is pulled off the field to a hill overlooking the battle, and his men urge him not to place himself in further risk. But Spartacus has followed and rushes towards him, fighting his way through the wall of soldiers. Crassus watches each fall until he's face to face with his enemy. 

The two men battle, both exhausted. Spartacus finally disarms him but Crassus grabs his sword by the blade (as he did with his slave) and moves to stab him. Spartacus catches it with his hands and head butts him. Spartacus moves to kill him, but is impaled by a spear flung by more soldiers climbing the hill. Two more spears take Spartacus to his knees and Crassus orders his men to hold. Crassus stares at the mortally wounded man and laments that he had not been born a Roman and stood beside him.

Spartacus sees his wife's garter on the sand in front of him. Crassus raises his sword to deliver the death blow, but Agron abruptly appears on horseback and knocks him over the cliff to the bottom of the hill. Nasir follows behind and they kill the remaining soldiers and rush to Spartacus' aid rather than go after Crassus. Spartacus asks for his sword and looks down on the field of battle. Caesar and his men arrive at the foot of the hill to help Crassus, and charge back up, only to find Spartacus gone. Caesar is incensed he got away again, despite that the Romans have won the battle. 

Crassus orders any survivors to be crucified on the Appian Way as a warning to all slaves. Gannicus is among them, and is nailed to a cross. Crassus and Caesar watch as he's hoisted up. "An ignoble end for a legend of the arena," Caesar muses. Kore is crucified along with him and Crassus sadly explains she was known to be of the rebellion. He had forgiven reason, but had to do what he must.

Pompey arrives with Senator Metallus and greets his old friend. He had routed the rebel army attempting to gain the mountain, he explains, and Metallus takes pleasure in informing Crassus that Pompey has been named victor in the war against Spartacus. Crassus takes the news stoically and silences Caesar's rage. He honors Rome and offers him congratulations. Pompey suggests they share dinner when he returns. As they leave, Crassus comforts Caesar in the knowledge they will form a powerful triumvirate with Pompey. It's only in the days to come they will find solace as memory fades. 

Dying, Gannicus sees Oenomaus standing in front of him and smiles. And the screams of the suffering turn to cheers as he finds himself in the arena staring at the adoring crowds once more. He roars. 

Spartacus awakens among Laeta and Sybil, Agron and Nasir. They've gained the mountains and Laeta had waited for him. Agron informs him Pompey set upon them and many were lost. Laeta urges them to move before they're discovered. Spartacus asks them to leave him. He would rest awhile and cannot follow them.

As he lays dying, he tells them Spartacus is not his real name. He shall finally hear it again from his loving wife. But they should not shed a tear. There is no greater victory than to fall from this world a free man. 

The clouds overtake the sun and he dies as the rain falls. Agron declares that Rome shall fade and crumble, but he shall always be remembered in the hearts of all who yearn for freedom. The survivors set off over the mountains, as Agron and Nasir look back over Spartacus' grave, marked with the red serpent shield.

The Verdict:
What can I say other than this was the most fulfilling ending to a series I've seen in a long while. I could find nothing at fault (given we're already accustomed to Spartacus' extraordinary machinations on the battlefield). So I'll jump right into the conclusion of storylines and character fates.

It is difficult to end the series when it's known the villains will live on, so Crassus had to lose things that meant a great deal to him. He learned the truth of his son, he doomed his love to her death, and his precious victory was taken by his enemy. He took no lessons from the consequences that arose from his treatment of his son, Kore or Laeta. So a suitable conclusion, and we can imagine that a similar pattern will lead to his end, as history shows he's killed in battle. Unfortunately, that did not help Kore, who had one of the most tragic endings of all.

As for Caesar, he wasn't really a villain, managing to hold on to some honor throughout the season and be a dutiful soldier, so his character remains untarnished if Starz should choose to give him his own series. I think the actor fared quite well in the role and could likely carry his own story should the writing measure up to Spartacus.

Lugo, Saxa, Castus and Naevia's deaths came fast and furious, but each had their moment, allowing the bigger players their more grander exits. For Gannicus this was a surprise for me, though his comment that he would not see himself crucified was foreboding enough. Despite the torturous end, he went out in the defiant style he always conveyed in the character, with a smile on his face at seeing Oenomaus in the after life, and the one true joy of his existence—the arena. While a very poignant moment, it left me with a smile on my face, too.

The first meeting as well as the final battle between Spartacus and Crassus lived up to every expectation, including the heart-stopping fake out where Crassus grabbed the sword, recalling his earlier tactic. As always, the writers didn't go for the obvious and Spartacus lived on to nearly make the death blow before being brought down in a hail of spears, which is far more fitting, as it robbed Crassus of his victory. Ever loyal Agron riding to the rescue brought a a very satisfying end to Spartacus, who could die in peace among his companions, fitting nicely into the vague fate left by history.

The final scene summed up all the emotional impact of this well-crafted novel for television, concluding with the famous red serpent that Spartacus' wife foretold would be his fate. It was apt that Agron delivered the final prophecy as Spartacus passed on, the last survivor of the gladiators.

The survivors were well-chosen. While Sybil's character never amounted to much, she did affect Gannicus and sending her over the mountains with Laeta, the one whom Rome abandoned, and the new mother and child represented the hope of freedom they were all fighting for. Finally, Agron and Nasir deserved a happy ending, especially after the angst of Agron's suffering the last few weeks. It was a fitting final scene as the skies opened up for the death of the bringer of rain.

And I have to mention the final credits, which was a beautiful tribute in itself. Apparently every speaking character got a space in the last montage, right down to Andy Whitfield's "I am Spartacus!" leaving us wondering how these last two chapters would have been had he lived on in the role.

I'll miss Spartacus, but I'm happy I have three and half seasons to revisit in the future. It's an amazing, almost Shakespearean epic, taking us from the rise of the House of Batiatus, to facing off legions on the battlefield, and a host of memorable characters right down to the most minor appearances. The finale was immensely enjoyable and delivered a catharsis the likes of which I only experienced with the ends of Six Feet Under, Lost and Battlestar Galactica.

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