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I’ve been reading quite a bit on the internet about how dark and depressing the latest Spartacus episode is. And it’s true; “Decimation” is really a downer. I had to take a long video game break after watching it before I could write this review for fear of a pretty depressing bit of journalism. But stepping away made me realize how necessary the grim overcast was. As a result, I’m going to go out on a limb and disagree with those who didn’t like the episode. In fact, I think it’s kind of genius.
We’re about halfway into the season by now, and for nearly the entire time Spartacus’ band of merry men has been slowly deteriorating, morally and mentally. Two weeks ago I talked about how Naevia’s character has gone from badass to deranged, and if this episode is any indication, Psycho Naevia is here to stay. And of course if Naevia loses it, Crixus is bound to lose it too. He certainly does lose it, along with like, half the ex-slaves. After almost bludgeoning Gannicus to death they set about brutally killing all the Roman captives. Whereas bloody revenge scenes are typically cathartic in Spartacus, this feels much different. These Romans are slaughtered in their weakest state, and the scene with the young blonde Roman woman is absolutely disgusting. But like I said, this has been a long time coming. And this particularly brand of rebellion against the well-meaning Spartacus is meticulously calculated and absolutely necessary.
Here’s a little spoiler ripped straight from the history books: Spartacus is going to lose. In case you didn’t know, Spartacus was a real person, and the events are kinda-sorta real. And the real Spartacus was eventually defeated by none other than Marcus Crassus. Read the Wikipedia article if you don’t believe me. So of course they need to show how Spartacus’ rebellion is starting to crumble (they only have five or six more episodes to do it, after all). Spartacus and his troops until this point are a Cinderella story simply because of their spirit, skill, and common goal. Take away two of those and you’re left with a pretty vulnerable man. Spartacus is no longer a god, but a human being whose leadership is being tested to its breaking point.
What history doesn’t talk about, however, is Julius Caesar’s involvement in all of this. Although no one really knows what Caesar was doing around this time, it’s safe to say he probably wasn’t one of the key players in this war. And yet here he is, driving this entire episode forward. It’s Caesar who infiltrates the rebel camp disguised as a former slave and stirs Spartacus’ followers into a killing frenzy. Although the morale of the camp was shaky to begin with, Caesar is the one who kicks the legs out and watches it crumble. And you know what? I don’t mind that they’re fudging history, because it’s damn compelling. Even more compelling, though, is the insight we’re given into Caesar’s character. Until this point we’ve seen his brashness and selfishness, but in this episode we’re treated to a softer side. The aforementioned moment with the blonde Roman was really touching; he even cried a little. It’s such a huge contrast to his harsh exterior that I actually like him now. Much more, in fact, than any of the ex-slaves. And perhaps that’s the point; the writers are slowly turning our sympathies from the rebels to the Romans.
More proof of this lies in the side-plot with Tiberius and his friend. Tiberius’ army’s retreat brings out Crassus’ wrath, and he orders a decimation of the troop. (A decimation is where they randomly select ten or so members of a group and publicly kill them as an example. It was a common practice in earlier days.) Crassus’ hardness to his son’s pain over this is striking, and we feel strongly for Tiberius, especially when his friend is chosen for the decimation. But it looks like the experience changed him and taught both he and Crassus what can happen when sympathy isn’t shown. Some may like Tiberius and Caesar, and dislike Naevia, Crixus, and the other ex-slaves. This is…unexpected, but incredibly necessary.
It’ll be interesting to see where this goes. We’ve got half a season to watch Spartacus fall, and probably to also watch Caesar rise to victory. Remember how necessary this episode is to the entire season when you watch it, because, damn, is it depressing.