Four Torches (Out of Five)
Warning: This review contains minor spoilers for the “Missio” episode of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.
I’d gotten so accustomed to the insane, boundary-pushing shenanigans of the Spartacus series last year that I forgot there’s simply no other show on television like it. Period. Sure, shows have attempted to push the boundaries of violence and sex before, but have you ever seen things like decapitations, eviscerations, dismemberment, alongside open gay sex, public masturbation, and orgies handled so … well, nonchalantly?
Spartacus continues to be a show like no other, and I have no doubt that in the coming years we’ll see shows attempt to emulate it, but fall short, as mimics often do.
Anyway, onto this particular episode. While the first episode was understandably heavy on exposition — a season premiere requires a fair amount of world-building, after all — we’re back on track with an action-packed episode. After the sick beat-down Batiatus received last week, he was itching to get his revenge on his two assailants. After this episode, one is down with one to go.
An intriguing new character arrived this season: Gaia, an old friend (and a very close one at that) of Lucretia’s. In the first episode she seemed more like an older version of a naughty schoolgirl, but after the ingeniously crafted character of Ilithyia last season, I had my eye on her, and sure enough, she revealed herself to be a web of ice-cold calculations under the beguiling smile and flighty facade.
The plot centers around a scheme by Batiatus to convince, through whatever means necessary, a wealthy patron named Varras to showcase Batiatus’ gladiators in his upcoming games, rather than his rivals’. Part of this scheme includes sending a gang of his new recruits — Ashur, the villainous scoundrel from Season 1 among them — to take out his rival, while Lucretia and Gaia are dispatched to seduce Varras into retreating from the sun to Batiatus’ villa. Lucretia, far from the willful femme fatale she becomes later on, is a bundle of nerves, while Gaia tells her to relax, and takes the lead.
Prequels are hard to pull off, because we know how the story ends, but one thing Spartacus is doing absolutely right is showing us virtually every character in a new way. Sure, we know what becomes of them, but this way, we enjoy the ride a whole lot more.
Once they succeed in luring Varras to the villa, the three of them work him over until he’s ready to choose one of Batiatus’ gladiators. The natural choice is Gannicus, the current champion, who impresses Varras with his defeat over Crixus, who will one day be the champion himself, of course.
And in a twist that only the writers of Spartacus would come up with, Batiatus then brings Gannicus to the chambers, clad only in a white tunic, and casually offers Varras an opportunity to have sex with him. Varras is certainly titillated, but drunk and under the influence of opium, would rather just watch Gannicus have sex with a nearby slave, who happens to be the wife of Gannicus’ friend.
Gaia, mind you, is interested in becoming Varras’ wife, social climber that she is, and yet she’s not put off in the slightest as Varras toys with having sex with a man, finally contenting himself to masturbate in everyone’s presence as Gannicus fornicates before his eyes.
To say this show is unique doesn’t even begin to do it justice. I’m pretty sure I never saw a scene like that in Two and a Half Men.
If there is a flaw in the series, it’s one of sad origin: without Andy Whitfield to anchor the show as a lead character, there’s a slightly meandering sense to the story, as though this is all subplot and we’ll eventually get to the A-story. Sure, Batiatus and Lucretia are delicious villains, but there’s a reason villains are seldom the protagonists, and while Gannicus is wonderfully cocky and full of hubris, the show doesn’t quite rest on his shoulders.
That having been said, I eagerly await the next installment.