This review contains spoilers.
The problem with final episodes is that you only get one shot. Screw it up and you risk the entire legacy of a program. Get it right and you can cement it as a classic. Spartacus, for the most part, got it right.
If anything was wrong with the final episode, it was that it lacked twists. There were no fake-outs, no diversions from history, no surprises: just the grimly inevitable slaughter, beautifully finessed though it was.
But what it lacked in twists, Victory made up for in sheer weight of drama. And that it had in spades. Caesar and Kore telling Crassus the awful truth about his recently dead son. Crassus and Spartacus agreeing to meet, unarmed, and trying to strike a deal. Agron fighting with shattered hands, Gannicus finally assuming the mantle of general, and of course, an extended fight scene with the invention and style to rival any other in the series. It might not have been a particularly adventurous ending, but it was certainly a crowd-pleaser. It’s what former gladiators would have wanted.
What struck me most about this finale was the utter lack of glamour to most of the deaths. Last week I predicted self-sacrifices and fatalistic surrenders for many of the minor characters. What happened was a succession of senseless, matter-of-fact executions. When death came for Naevia, it wasn’t because she wanted it. When Castus fell, it was in front of Agron and Nasir, but not for them. Kore, Saxa, Lugo, even Gannicus. They may have gone down fighting, but it wasn’t glorious or righteous. They were simply overwhelmed. It wasn’t all depressing – Gannicus’ death was accompanied by visions of an afterlife spent in the arena with Oenomaus at his side, finally returned to the simple, glorious role he missed so much.
But what of Spartacus himself? After proving himself Crassus’ better in single combat (and how else could that have gone?) he ended up dying not at the hand of any main character, but on the spears of several faceless legionaries who arrived, unexpectedly, aiding their master just in time to save his life. It was the perfect end for Spartacus, and a metaphor for his entire campaign: one where personal victories frequently emerged from sheer force of will, but where the movement itself was always doomed to defeat by the sheer numbers and organisation of Rome. It wasn’t a personal failure that left him vulnerable to defeat, just the practical inability to fight everyone at once.
And in the end, it was Agron who delivered the inevitable speech reminding us that even if Spartacus dies, his story will live on (and let’s face it, that’s the real “victory” of the title). As for the eponymous hero, not only did he avoid ending the series with the classic declaration of his name (nonetheless fantastically invoked in the opening scenes) but he actively renounced it on his deathbed, reminding us that he once had a different name (one now forgotten by history) and looked forward to hearing it again in the afterlife. A wonderful moment of selfish human desire for a man otherwise consumed by his ideals.
Speaking of which: it was interesting to watch Crassus find himself in the rare position of having won, but lost everything as a result. His son dead, his lover executed, and his political career stolen from under him by his rival Pompey, who takes the credit for ending the rebellion. It was actually Caesar who got the best line of the episode when he accused Crassus of constantly planning for the future but never seizing the opportunities of the present. If we can’t see a sword in his heart, at least we get the comfort of knowing that ultimately, he’s neither as strong nor as smart as he believes.
So, how does one eulogise a series like Spartacus? For a start, it was full of contradictions: Gratuitous yet philosophical. Exploitative yet egalitarian. Epic yet personal. Like its characters, it was perhaps most comfortable when confined to the arena, but when the time came to grow beyond those walls it seized the opportunity and looked back only in occasional reflection. It didn’t always work, but when it did it turned out moments that sit amongst the best on TV. For a series that started out looking like sub-grindhouse schlock, that’s not a bad legacy to leave.