Spartacus: War Of The Damned episode 2 review: Wolves At The Gate

Review James Hunt
3 Feb 2013 - 21:56

This week's Spartacus presents the lead's moral ambiguity and prepares the ground for future episodes. Here's James' review...

This review contains spoilers.

3.2 Wolves at the Gate

After a strong opener, this episode was a little more by-the-numbers. At least as far as Spartacus goes. That still meant it was densely-plotted, with strong characterisation and fantastic action, but in the words of Peggy Lee – is that all there is?

Don't get me wrong, there was a lot to like, but much of this episode seemed to be heading towards the flatly inevitable conclusion. Did we ever think Spartacus and his rebels wouldn't take the town of Sinuessa? When he promises something in one episode, we know by now that it'll happen in the next, and that made this plot thread pretty much drama-free, leaving the court of Crassus to pick up the slack in that department.

One thing that was interesting about the invasion of Sinuessa, to be fair, was the extent to which Spartacus and his rebels have become the monsters the Romans fear. Scenes of Spartacus walking through the town, meeting its inhabitants and taking their measure were compelling purely because we knew what was to come – and when we see the citizens he encountered slain under his directive, we're forced to wonder whether their freedom is actually worth such brutality.

He tries to be good, of course, and his commands to stop the killing once they'd succeeded certainly try to paint him as the bigger man – but let's face it, no-one who orders the slaughter of women and children for the crimes of their society is objectively in the right, and the show doesn't shy away from presenting us with both sides of the equation and letting us draw our own conclusions.

Meanwhile, Crassus does what Romans do best: administration. To be honest, the power struggle Tiberius went through was fairly weak, compared to the Shakespearean manipulations we saw in the previous seasons, and the introduction of Julius Caesar did little to improve the situation. Historically speaking, Caesar and Crassus' alliance will, in time, lead to Caesar becoming the ruler of the wider Roman Empire long after Spartacus' rebellion has been crushed. I'm unclear whether Caesar is being introduced at a historically accurate point, but his characterisation in this series as a mash-up of Tyler Durden and Kurt Cobain makes him a little too cartoonish, especially set against the more complex and nuanced Crassus. And we can only guess at what was supposed to be going on with that slave girl and that knife and all that blood, but frankly, I'd rather not think about it too much.

As for subtext, one thread worth grabbing onto is that of the similarities between Spartacus and Crassus. We saw some of this last episode, but in this one both find themselves trying to satisfy various lieutenants while also pursuing a wider cause a little less dispassionately than they probably should be. Another thread harks back to last episode, where Gannicus asked Spartacus where all this would end – not, apparently, with the killing of innocent Romans (such that they exist).

But in the end, Wolves at the Gate was an episode that put most of its effort into setting up the series' ongoing subplots – Crassus' relationships with his family and employees, Spartacus' relationships with his deputies (and victims), the introduction of new characters, the clearing away at least of one old one – and all that focus on subplot really showed in the episode's weak main plot.

Still, experience tells us it'll pay off in the end, and for all the inevitability of this episode's conclusion, it was still a fun battle to watch even if you didn't quite feel it as hard as in other episodes. So a good episode, though not a great one, but it was weak for the right reason: setting up future greatness. As problems go, we can live with that.

Read James' review of the previous episode, Enemies of Rome, here.

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