Note: The following review contains spoilers for the entire first season of Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
The final episode of Spartacus: Blood and Sand‘s first season, fittingly entitled “Kill Them All,” is an opera of blood, a symphony of gore, a crescendo of carnage. For a good half hour after watching this grisly magnum opus, I was practically shellshocked. Even now, hours later, I remain stunned, “They actually went there, didn’t they?” one of my only coherent thoughts about the episode.
A few weeks back, I received a comment on one of my previous Spartacus reviews with information about the historical Spartacus, including the fact that he successfully staged a slave uprising, initially against the House of Batiatus. Though I don’t like to do this, I deleted the comment, because I didn’t want anyone unaware of the history to be spoiled, if he or she would have preferred to let the story unfold on screen. In response to this comment now I would like to say, though, that I actually was aware of the history, but at the same time, a large part of me has grown used to certain conventions of television storytelling, and my assumption remained that the writers wouldn’t want to get to Spartacus’ rebellion against his masters this early in the series. Just the fact that an enormous portion of the show’s cast of characters would have to die in order to accomplish this dissuaded me from thinking it would actually happen. But then I learned the title of the episode and considered just how many deaths of crucial characters had occurred over the relatively short twelve episode span of the series’ life up to that point and I realized that this was inevitable from the beginning. Unlike practically every other show in television history, Spartacus has no formula. Its plot is constantly moving and its cast evolving. I can think of no other series that would have the guts to eliminate so many people in one prolonged battle sequence.
Furthermore, many of these characters are the sort of characters who just don’t tend to be killed in series such as this. I would have thought that Lucy Lawless’ husband being one of the executive producers would have given Lucretia some life insurance–not to mention the fact that she is such a marvelously entertaining, scenery-chewing vamp–but no. In fact, she and John Hannah are the two most recognizable actors on the series, and they’re both gone now. It is a testament to the series’ commitment to placing story first that the writers don’t try to manipulate manners in which beloved villains, characters, and/or actors can survive the slaughter. Lucretia meets her end in a particularly brutal manner, with Crixus’ sword through the uterus currently housing what was to be their future child. The young Numerius is stabbed ferociously and repeatedly by a practically animalistic Aurelia, finally avenging Varro’s murder.
The episode is shocking not only due to the violence and the fact that no one is safe, not even a child–then again, that “child” ordered a man’s death for his own amusement–but due to who survives the bloodshed. Who, at the start of the season, would have thought Illythia, who initially seemed to be bubbleheaded and frothy, would be the one to spell the doom for the House of Batiatus and all of the nobles unlucky enough to be trapped inside by her? Another unlikely survivor is the tenacious and odious Asher, who seems to have the resilience and nastiness of a cockroach.
Another truly fascinating aspect of the episode is how little pity one feels for the “innocent” people caught in the crossfire, so to speak. Whether or not every one of them was directly responsible for these particular gladiators’ plights, every single one of them is complicit in the brutality of Roman society. All of them have gathered to watch human beings–who they consider lower than animals–tear one another apart as a light evening’s entertainment, and so when Spartacus launches himself off the stage and into the audience, directing his sword at the people who have come to watch him fight to the death, it is hard not to think that they had it coming for their decadence, for their cruelty, for their casual enslavement of other people.
Over the course of its first thirteen episodes, Spartacus: Blood and Sand truly earned this climax. ”Kill Them All” is a Grand Guignol explosion of anger and near-primal rage and an awe-inspiring finale that sets a new bar for cable programming, as well as for long-form television storytelling, period. Perhaps the best way to keep a series from stagnating is to never settle into a routine in the first place.