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Somehow when recapping Spartacus last week, I forgot to mention the final scene, which probably had the most actual significance going forward to the political maneuverings that do a lot of the plot’s heavy lifting. Batiatus had been trying to curry favor with Tullius, a noble in charge of the upcoming gladiatorial games. But when his best fighter, Gannicus, bests that of Vettius, a rival lanista (is this enough Roman words yet?), Tullius offers to buy him from Batiatus. He refuses at first, and the response is not kind – Tullius has Batiatus captured and severely beaten as Vettius watches with him, before pissing on his face and telling him that if he doesn’t sell him Gannicus, he will never get to compete in the games.
Last night’s episode picked up a short time later, when some of Batiatus’ physical wounds have faded but the damage to his pride not at all lessened. He still refuses to sell, and Tullius adds insult to injury by having his friend Solonius (who viewers of the show will remember as no longer Batiatus’ friend a few years later) deliver another message imploring him to reconsider. When Batiatius hears that a wealthy and influential man known as Varis will be coming to town, he concocts a plan with his wife and her friend that will give him an upper hand in the situation.
The first step is having a few of the recruits, including Ashur and one who has been sentenced to work in the mines, intercept and brutally beat Vettius before he can meet with Varis as planned and show him around Capua. In reward for their efforts, the condemned one gets a sword in the throat and Ashur and the other Syrian get their marks, without proving themselves in the standard way. Then Lucretia and Gaia use their wiles to bring Varis back to the ludus, where Crixus does surprisingly well in a duel against Gannicus, demonstrating the school’s talent, before the latter is ordered to have sex with Oenomaus’ wife Melitta in front of the rich people. This and other treats manage to fully charm Varis, and he declares that Gannicus will fight in the primus at the games. So the plan works.
Except for the way that it completely destroys everyone in Batiatus’ house except for him. The negative consequences of everything he does to keep Gannicus and maintain a spot in the games have a big ripple effect, hurting many of those around him, those who will eventually betray and overthrow him. A recruit who did nothing except surrender in a practice duel is dead, and two others get their marks without really earning them in the eyes of the other gladiators, making them permanent outsiders. Gannicus and Melitta are both clearly devastated by having to betray his friend and her husband for the amusement of others. And after the Doctore continually questions Batiatus for doing things differently than his father, he gets stripped of his title, which forces him to lash out at the other slaves, attack his replacement (Oenomaus, obviously), and ultimately get killed for it.
Batiatus is too busy getting wrapped up in worrying about living up to his legacy and bedding Lucretia and Gaia at the same time (oh yeah, that happened) to care about the harm he’s doing to his subjects. It’s a frequent theme in the series, and they’re really getting better at portraying these sorts of things – the emotional damage life in the era could cause in addition to the more visible kind. The couple action scenes here were pretty good, exciting and bloody. But the episode succeeded because the human story was strong, and the action and sex were only used to enhance it instead of distracting you from it. Because it’s a prequel, it’s hard for certain moments to work the way they’re intended. There’s no tension in the scene where Gaia allows Crixus to live after Gannicus gets him pinned, because we know he will be alive in a few years. Sometimes it’s obvious where things are only happening as a way to move characters towards their starting points in the first season. But if they still manage to make it more about the people’s lives instead of just the events in them, the show can end up being a pretty solid success.