Note: The following review contains spoilers for all aired episodes of Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Gods of the Arena, including the most recent, “Beneath the Mask.”
In last week’s episode of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, a female audience member, overzealous in her cheering, fell into the pit, and had to be swiftly pulled back out before she got hurt or killed. This brief moment was the first time it really struck me how dangerous these games could be not only for the participants but for the watchers. It’s absolutely incredible not only how socially acceptable these events are, but that it seems to be implicit in the social contract that in attending these games, you might get hurt yourself. Once a fight starts, it isn’t stopped, even when a bystander might be in peril. At the start of the fourth episode, “Beneath the Mask,” this is followed up on by an unfortunate male on-looker in the front row of the arena who has the tips of his fingers sliced off by one of the gladiator’s tridents, mid-battle. Both of these events set the stage for the events of this, the darkest episode of the prequel series to date, and can be seen as a dark comment on the relationship between Spartacus viewers and the writers. Any time you feel either safe and removed from the events on screen (after all, it’s a visually stylized series set in ancient Rome) or that you can predict where the plot might be going, Spartacus will unexpectedly stab at you, in the most shocking ways and stun you silent with the often disturbing power of its storytelling prowess.
It most often accomplishes this by almost completely subverting expectation. Now, of course, the most deadly and disturbing reveal of this episode is the climactic and brutal murder of Gaia, but even before we deal with that momentous event, there are numerous other cases in “Beneath the Mask” that either twist the plot trajectory we might have been expecting or reveal how what we thought to be true from past evidence, might not have been at all. A prime example of this is Ashur, the crippled, conniving gladiator who manipulated events throughout the first season. If you believe how he represented himself in Blood and Sand, he was once a great gladiator who lost his position upon being seriously injured, thus forcing him to a lowly state. As this episode makes very clear, however, he was never the great warrior he claimed to have been. We already knew that he was let into the Brotherhood by rather unconventional means, but here we learn, additionally, that the only reason he was allowed in at all was because he could help translate his much more talented friend’s language. In the arena, though Ashur tries to take credit for the battle, all he did was aim the finishing blows on an enemy who was truly beaten by his friend’s strength, not his own. And at the party, he takes revenge on this hapless friend–who naturally can’t help being better at fighting than him–in the basest and most petty of manners. In other words, Ashur was always a lowdown snake. Though we don’t yet know how he becomes crippled, we now know that his evil predates his bodily woes and that he was never who we assumed he had been, nor someone whom we should have pitied, as we might have in Season 1.
Another twist from what we thought we knew in Blood and Sand is something that has been set up in the past few episodes, namely Oenomaus and the uneasy manner with which he is currently acclimating to his new role of Doctore. Who ever would have expected, from the previous season, that there ever would have been a time when Doctore was unsure of himself and how he should assert his authority in his position? Meanwhile, causing him even more unrest is the fact that he doesn’t know why his old best friend, Gannicus, is starting to act so coldly towards him. He seems to expect that it’s the effect of his new shift in status, not realizing the truth of the matter–that Gannicus had had sex with his wife, Melitta, at Varrus’ behest. This episode, though, adds yet another unexpected twist. I had wondered before what event might lead to Melitta and Gannicus’ “disappearance” from Blood and Sand, figuring that even if Oenomaus were to learn of what they did, he could not blame them too harshly, since they were only doing what was commanded of them by their masters. What wasn’t clear last week, however, was that one of the major reasons Gannicus and Melitta were avoiding each other wasn’t only due to guilt over betraying Oneomaus against their will but guilt about actually starting to feel attraction for one another since then; attraction which leads to their surreptitiously kissing this week. Now, if he discovers this, it would be more than justifiable grounds for him to kill both of them (as Melitta herself says), in the context of the time period and society in which this is set, and would explain the stern, hard-hearted Doctore who we know from Blood and Sand. I could definitely see him snapping, and killing them both in a fit of jealousy and rage.
This leads us directly to the death of Gaia, which in a series full of shocking scenes, is undoubtedly one of the most shocking and gutwrenching this creative team has ever brought us. From the start, I had thought that Gaia would be ultimately responsible for Lucretia becoming the conniving, grand political maneuveress we know and love to hate in Blood and Sand. I had expected, however, that it would have been the result of Gaia’s hedonistic, corrupting influence, her ultimately betraying Lucretia and Quintus for her own political ends, or some combination of the above. Never in a million years did I ever foresee her being brutally murdered by the sociopathic Tullius, as a message to the House of Batiatus, and it is because the writers so brilliantly misdirected us. Gaia always seemed so confident, so decadent, so cunning that it simply didn’t seem possible that she could ever be undone by any man nor that she didn’t have some sort of agenda that would ultimately undo her relationship with Lucretia and Batiatus. This turn of events doesn’t necessarily preclude that from having been the case, but at the same time, there seem to be more genuine displays of love between Lucretia and Gaia here than ever before, indicating that, although she may have been willing to sell her out if it furthered her ends, Gaia has true, deep affection for Lucretia and that her behavior and persona were something of a red herring to keep us distracted from her true purpose in the narrative–to be the person whose death shatters Lucretia’s innocence and turns her into the woman from Blood and Sand.
What Tullius does to Gaia is absolutely sickening, but I don’t know if anything less could have twisted Lucretia so deeply. Tangentially, Tullius’ unmitigated evil also puts Quintus’ first season actions into perspective. Last year, one might have classified Quintus as pure evil, as well. After all, he did such awful things as ordering the death of Spartacus’ wife, and that of the young boy at Barca’s hands. There is a difference between him and Tullius, however, and that is that Quintus does what he feels he must do to secure power and climb up the social ladder, a life philosophy to which he was largely driven by Tullius’ behavior. He learned he had to do unspeakable things to get what he wanted. Tullius, on the other hand, doesn’t only order these awful things, but does them with his own hands, and furthermore, seems to delight in doing them. These aren’t necessary evils to him but rather seem to be his own justification for his completely, gleefully psychopathic behavior. He is unhinged and dangerous in a way we haven’t seen on this series from any other character, with perhaps the exception of Ashur, though again he works through subtle manipulation, for the most part, not by beating men half to death and pissing on them, or murdering and scalping women.
Returning to Lucretia, Lucy Lawless is absolutely breathtaking and heartbreaking in her final scenes in the episode. She makes us feel deeply for Lucretia and understand her in a way that makes her first season actions much more relatable. In Blood and Sand, she was a joy to behold but mostly heartless, despite the few flashes of humanity and passion she displayed in her love for Crixus (speaking of which, the lovely scene between Barca and him this week goes a long way towards showing how their friendship will develop). Now we finally know that it is because the woman she loved (she seems to have loved her at least as much as she loves Quintus) was horrifically murdered by a man who was trying to make a statement to her husband of all people. Perhaps she blames Quintus to a degree. Perhaps this is what will place a barrier between them. Lawless depicts her as being so tormented and wracked with pain at the moment, I nearly expected her to lunge at Titus and tear him to pieces right then and there, which also leads me to wonder whether she will kill him, after all (not to mention whether she has been slowly poisoning him this whole time with the honeyed wine) and whether that will be what poisons Quintus and her relationship, since as much as he claims to hate his father, he also seems very loyal to him in other ways, truly craving his approval. I had expected that Gaia was Lucretia’s mentor, the person whom she modeled herself after in Blood and Sand. I just never expected that she would have been inspired to do so out of a sense of mourning and rage for her murder, and in such a way that could lay the seeds for discord between Quintus and her, as well.
Brilliantly done, Spartacus writers. I can only imagine what sort of operatic carnage will rain down upon our characters in the final two episodes of this insanely epic miniseries.