Spartacus: War Of The Damned episode 1 review: Enemies Of Rome

Spartacus returns for its final season with a brutal, complex antagonist. Here's James' review of the War of the Damned opener...

This review contains spoilers.

3.1 Enemies of Rome

Returning for its final season, Spartacus has learnt a strong lesson from last year’s opener: slow and steady might win the race, but it’s more fun to burn up the tyres. Leaping ahead some time, we find Spartacus, Crixus, Gannicus and Agron now more successful than ever, leading a literal army of slaves and growing ever-more confident in their righteousness. A fact illustrated by the opening battle sequence, which mostly involves Romans getting their faces smashed in with their own Eagle emblems. Nice job.

With pretty much every bad guy we ever knew getting killed at the end of last season, Spartacus: War of the Damned clearly has a lot of ground to cover with regards to setting up an antagonist. It’s with great interest, then, that we observe the careful and deliberate building of Crassus. Last season, Glaber took weeks to become interesting. Here, Crassus goes from faceless to formidable in the space of one episode.

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As well as being a family man, with a pair of sons on the cusp of adulthood (whose nascent rivalry is sure to come into play sooner rather than later…) Crassus is also wily, fanatical, principled and skilled – the dark mirror of Spartacus. He puts his life on the line just to test himself, and when he kills his slave, he gives him a goodbye worthy of the closest family members. Crassus is complex, yet focussed, which sets him apart from both Batiatus and Glaber, both of whom were petty and emotional, and ultimately vulnerable to manipulation.

Before Spartacus can face Crassus, though, he has to kill off two more immediate threats: local generals Cossinius and Furius. It’s a sign of the show’s slicker-than-ever storytelling that these two men, who we’ve barely seen, stand as a credible threat even as Spartacus takes his best men to kill them. In the end, the fight is something of a victory lap, the twist being that Crassus had engineered their deaths at the cost of a clutch of his own men. Brutal. Absolutely brutal.

However, this episode isn’t just about fighting. There’s also the matter of what Spartacus has become since we last saw him. He’s now the leader of a far greater force than he ever planned, and with that comes certain problems – a particularly excellent scene sees one rebel complain about his leader without realising that he was speaking to him. Another shows Gannicus musing over the nature of vengeance and forgiveness, warning Spartacus that one is far less important than the other, especially when there’s only one person who can forgive Spartacus: himself.

But with Spartacus planning to fight all of Rome, if he must, it doesn’t take a genius to know where this is going. It’s a matter of historical record that Spartacus’ rebellion must fail, so the only question is at what price? Records can be fudged, after all, but for me, the big question is whether Spartacus: War of the Damned will end with Spartacus ultimately welcoming a hero’s death, or disappearing into the shadows, finally free from his lust for vengeance. Conversations like he had with Gannicus set both the characters and audience wondering where indeed this will all end.

Still, the real job of this episode was to get us excited for the story to come, and by setting up Crassus so expertly, it succeeded in doing so. Spartacus himself is sharper than ever – it’s only right that he faces a foe worthy of his time. The episode ends with Spartacus promising to get his army a city to live in, so the stakes are certainly high – let’s see how Crassus plans to meet them.

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