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What has always been quite a striking feature of Spartacus until this point has been how clearly defined the lines were between good and evil. Though every character has his or her fair share of both creating and experiencing misery, it was usually pretty easy to categorize them into “good guys” and “bad guys.” For example, Spartacus and the other gladiators: good guys. Glaber, Batiatus, and the other Romans: bad guys. “Wolves at the Gate” seeks to destroy this dynamic by throwing a metaphorical wrench into the mix: Romans who are not necessarily evil. This creates an internal crisis for Spartacus that turns the entire episode into one big question: who decides these arbitrary lines between good and evil?
As you may remember from the season premiere, Spartacus made the bold statement that his army no longer needed a camp; they needed a city. He now backs up his words with action, hatching a plan to take over the entire city of Sinuessa en Valle. But due to strict laws against weapons and a strongly enforced closed gate at night, Spartacus and Gannicus are forced to spend the entire day within the city’s walls, waiting until nightfall to attack the guards and open the gate.
Now here’s where things get interesting. Spartacus hasn’t spent an extended period of time within Roman walls since his rebellion in Capua. But now that he’s forced to, he ends up meeting a number of Roman citizens who fall short of his monstrous vision of all Romans. There are the obvious “good” Romans, like the blacksmith friend of Gannicus who forges them swords and aids in their attack. And we have plenty of “bad” Romans, like the brutal slave-owner who has his slave stoned in the street. But more striking is the sight of those Romans who reside somewhere in the middle.
Spartacus meets Romans too poor to own slaves, for example. Yes, there were plenty of those in Capua, and he murdered many of them when he took down the gladiator arena. But one could argue that as willing spectators of the games they were perpetuating his slavery. But the little girl and her mother Spartacus runs into in the streets of Sinuessa en Valle aren’t willing participants in anything; they’re simply living their live as Romans. Yet, after Spartacus’ troops ravage the city, these two innocents lay among the dead. What does that make Spartacus and his followers? Are they really all that “good” anymore? It seems Spartacus may be doubting himself.
The show even goes one step further, presenting us with a member of the upper echelons of the city who falls into this moral gray area. Laeta, the wife of the aedile, is likely a slave-owner, making her evil by default. Yet she makes the bold statement that a mistreated slave can’t be faulted for wanting to revolt, and there doesn’t seem to be a malicious bone in her body. So where does she fit into this equation? Spartacus isn’t sure, either; he lets her and a handful of other Romans live. The old Spartacus wouldn’t have thought twice about slitting her throat with the others.
It’s a fascinating evolution in Spartacus as a character; since his is the point-of-view we’re given, until now we’ve seen everything in his very black-and-white sense of justice. But now, as his own worldview evolves, so does our own perception of the characters presented to us. It’s a mark of incredible writing.
Even those who plot to take Spartacus down are given a healthy dose of moral complication. In the season premiere Crassus was presented as a dangerous but worthy enemy, capable of incredible cunning. But now we see his softer side in his treatment of both his son and his lover. When Crassus enlists the aid of Caesar (yes, that Caesar) to help him take Spartacus down, he gets more than he bargains for. Caesar is crude, mean, and lecherous, and ends up pushing himself on the slave Kore. Crassus and his son Tiberius both come to her rescue, proving the value they put on their slaves.
Remember, Crassus was also the one who held his ex-gladiator slave in the highest regard. The tenderness he shows to Kore in the aftermath, and even his insistence that she address him as a man rather than a master, shows a side to Crassus that wasn’t present at all in Spartacus’ previous enemies. And Crassus also values family above all else, making Tiberius his right-hand-man instead of Caesar (a political move as well, but he didn’t have to do it). By the end of the episode I ended up actually liking Crassus.
What does all this mean for the season? My hope is that is presents us with more characters who don’t fall into this duality of good versus evil. It was refreshing to see a blood-and-gore show like Spartacus present a philosophical debate about human nature, and I welcome more intelligence like it.