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In a war-based show like “Spartacus,” especially ones based far in the past, it’s easy to paint a black-and-white portrait, portraying one side as the “heroes” and the other as the “villains.” It happens all the time in movies like “300,” and it even happened quite a bit in the earlier seasons of “Spartacus.” But as Crassus himself says in this episode, what happens in a war when each man thinks his path is righteous? “Spoils of War” dares to make us ponder on this, showing us both the good and evil inside all men (and women). And it seems that Sinuessa en Valle itself represents that duality of human nature.
Probably the best example of this delicate balance is Crassus. In this episode we’re treated to another showing of his genuine tenderness and love for Kore, this time manifesting itself in her removal from the slave camp to travel with him. And of course, we see his pride and affection for Tiberius. He was tough on his son in the previous episode, but it’s incredibly clear that the imperator loves his flesh and blood. But once within the walls of Sinuessa, Crassus performs horrible tasks, like selling Laeta to the pirate Heracleo. He is vicious and unforgiving, and above all, dangerously cunning, but Crassus also feels the same familial love we all do. Is he the horrific villain to Spartacus’ noble hero, or is he a good man threatened by a bloodthirsty rebel, willing to do what it takes to protect his family and empire? It’s hard to say.
And what about the monster Crassus accidentally creates out of his son? Tiberius is quite probably the closest thing to a villain “Spartacus” currently has. We had to watch the horror of his rape of Kore and his utter coldness to every living human around him, but we also have to remember he wasn’t always like this. Intense, yes, and a little too ambitious, but the old Tiberius wasn’t an evil man. He was a foolish boy hardened when he was forced to murder his best friend. Do we blame him or his father for his actions, including his threatening of Kore once within Sinuessa’s walls? He hates his father for what he’s done, but he also once loved him. In the last episode Tiberius seemed every bit the villain, and in many ways he still does, but I think once in Sinuessa we also see a glimpse of the pain and deadness in his heart.
We thought we saw the last of Heracleo, but he virtually comes back from the dead and returns to Sinuessa to claim his reward, including Laeta. And this exchange is truly confusing. Heracleo brands Laeta with his initial and basically takes her as a slave, which is, for lack of a better word, uncool. My gut reaction was disgust and outrage. But what’s really strange is that he might actually have feelings for her. After he brands her he says “the worst is over” in a tone we really haven’t heard from the greedy pirate before. Is he cruel and domineering, or just incredibly misguided about relationships? Is he a creep? Why am I asking so many questions? This episode has so many ambiguities it can make your head spin. I guess we’ll never know if his intentions were dark or just misguided, since Laeta rams a fire poker into his throat.
What does seem clear, however, is that Caesar is, oddly enough, not supposed to be a bad guy. He’s the number-two enemy of Spartacus and his gang, yes, but he does so with a sense that he’s preventing the deaths of anymore innocent Romans. He feels remorse for the Romans he had to kill while incognito, and he shows genuine kindness to Laeta, probably the only real kindness she’s seen for quite a few episodes. He cheats on his wife left and right (but honestly, who doesn’t in this show?) but he tries to make amends with Tiberius. And after his battle with a rebel captive (the one who killed himself rather than be killed by a Roman) it seems that he feels something almost like guilt at the suffering he’s caused. Almost.
What’s really impressive is that all of this occurs within Sinuessa’s walls in the space of one episode. The men who are traditionally supposed to be villains are shown in a light that makes us doubt our original convictions. They’re real men rather than caricatures, and that’s what makes this show compelling. There are no good guys and bad guys anymore. The battle over Rome is now anyone’s game.