This review contains spoilers.
This week, the horizon came into view for this series of Spartacus: Vengeance, and there was certainly no doubt about the show’s willingness to acknowledge the impending conclusion. Major character deaths, huge plot developments – if I didn’t know better, I’d almost have thought that this episode was the finale itself!
It’s impossible to go any further without mentioning this episode’s really big moment, though, and that’s the murder of Seppia. Who saw that coming? Personally, I was expecting Seppia and Lucretia to get their wires crossed and for the former to kill Ilithyia as “revenge” against Glaber, but clearly that was not to be. For a moment, I actually believed she might kill Glaber and get away with it (historical record be damned) – but the truth was far more unexpected.
In fact, if there’s anything that exemplifies Spartacus more in a single image than Glaber and Ilithyia having sex, while soaked in Seppia’s blood, as her corpse bobs nonchalantly nearby, I haven’t seen it. The episode title – Monsters – couldn’t have been more apt. What’s more, it finally makes Ilithyia and Glaber into something other than the bargain basement Batiatus and Lucretia. The latter pair were self-interested and ruthless, but usually fair and generally quite subtle in their schemes. By comparison, Glaber and Ilithyia are borderline insane – powerful enough to do whatever they want and get away with it, and finally revelling in that freedom.
Spartacus’ concerns are far more pedestrian at the start of the episode as he attempts to unite his disparate followers by holding his own games. There’s no doubt that the chance to see characters squaring off is a welcome one, and much of the original series was based around increasingly ludicrous fights, but there’s the sense that this was all a little too facile. Characters hate one another, have a bit of a scrap, and everyone’s pals afterwards. Even where rivalries cut deep, as with Gannicus and Oenomaus, a tag-team match somehow cures their ills. It’s a narrative beat that needed to happen, but if this is the end of the group’s internal feuds (and I concede it may not be), then it was far from earned.
Of course, the episode’s ending does suggest bigger concerns may dominate their thinking in the immediate future, as the group is driven up Vesuvius and beseiged by Glaber’s forces. History buffs (or Wikipedia readers) will recognise this as a genuine occurrance during the Third Servile War, and it’s a fun reminder that however fictionalised Spartacus is, it’s based in fact, if only superficially.
Still, it’s fiction that Spartacus does best, and the final battle sequence was gripping stuff which felt like it could end at any moment – but didn’t. Being kept on the edge of a possible cliffhanger for so long was a rush not seen since… well, episode 5, I suppose. And it felt all the more surprising because the longer it went on, the bigger the stakes became. Varinius cops a fireball in the face. Oenomaus loses an eye. These are the sort of things that remind us that no-one in Spartacus is messing around, and virtually anyone could die at any moment.
Disappointingly, this season is due to end with next week’s tenth and final episode, but that suggests we’re far from out of the woods yet. I don’t expect everyone to live through the next hour of Spartacus, and characters such as Naevia, Mira and Nasir should probably watch out – they’re important enough that it’ll hurt if (or rather, when) they die, but not so important the show can’t do without them. Ashur, too, is long overdue a comeuppance, but whether it happens next episode or next season is – one assumes – up to Lucretia. Is she ready to fight back?