Sunday, March 10, 2013

Spartacus goes meta

Spartacus: War of the Damned, Episode 6 - "Spoils of War"

I've reached a point where I feel comfortable calling Spartacus one of my favorite series of all time. But while I've repeatedly explained the many facets of the show's greatness – its pacing, its structure, its depth, its character development, its sheer visceral awesomeness – one thing I've never really called it is clever. Smart, yes, even verging on brilliant in the way it's throwing out all the rules governing TV pacing with a devilish grin on its face. But not clever in the way of a brilliant Harmon-era Community or golden-era Simpsons episode, or some of the more ambitious hours of Buffy or Fringe. Spartacus is for the most part content to be straightforward meat-and-potatoes action-adventure TV storytelling honed to perfection.

But in "Spoils of War," the sixth episode of War of the Damned and fifth-to-last of the series, Spartacus has finally put out a fiendishly clever episode worthy of Steven DeKnight's Buffy roots. Though it never comes right out and announces its meta-ness (there's no Jeff Winger declaring "We're doing a bottle episode!"), make no mistake, this is Spartacus's meta episode, in the way it takes us on a whirlwind backwards tour through the entire series, right back to the beginning.

Rome trembles at the full series spoilers up through "Spoils of War" ahead.

The episode kicks off with a big war scene between the forces of Spartacus and Marcus Crassus, initially reflecting the norm and new status quo of Spartacus: War of the Damned. But as the rebels realize Crassus's overwhelming advantage and begin to retreat from Sinuessa en Valle, the effect of their desperate scramble to get away and regroup, taking the form of alternating chasing and battling, begins to feel very much like Spartacus: Vengeance (especially the episode "Empty Hands," but really the entire season). And Crassus's army driving the rebels to trap themselves upon an impassable mountain is, of course, how Vengeance ended with Glaber and Vesuvius.

Then we're left with a mostly Spartacus-less episode, instead focusing on Gannicus – we're in the season before Vengeance (going by airing order), Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.

But the Gods of the Arena comparisons don't stop with the hour's Gannicus centrism. In fact, thematically, Gods looms more strongly over "Spoils of War" than any other season. The brutal, objectifying treatment of Laeta, a Roman woman recently left without her husband, keenly reminds of the treatment in that season of widowed Gaia by Tullius. And in the threatening behavior of Tiberius towards Kore, this episode examines the abuse of slaves by their masters in a way Spartacus perhaps hasn't tackled so directly since the Diona subplot of Gods of the Arena, and before that with Naevia in Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

Speaking of Blood and Sand, after we stop for some gladiatorial combat between Donar and Caesar (a reversal of Solonius's execution ad gladium in Blood and Sand, with the slave being the one executed this time), Gannicus and Sibyl and Laeta escape Sinuessa and arrive at a snowbound war camp consisting of tents and starving warriors huddled around meager campfires. This setting should seem familiar to Spartacus faithful – Gannicus has led us back into the first act of the much maligned pilot of Spartacus, "The Red Serpent." (!!) Like the dream layers crumbling in Inception, we've fallen through War of the DamnedVengeance, Gods of the Arena and Blood and Sand and landed all the way back at the beginning.

Now, if we take this just a little further back (though there's only about ten minutes further back to go from the snowy war camp of "The Red Serpent"), what's next? Spartacus living a quiet, unknown life with one he loves. And perhaps, if DeKnight and company wanna Inglourious this thing up a little, that could be how the show ends. Spartacus and Laeta, sitting in a blood-soaked tree?

Kudos to DeKnight and company for sneaking such a clever, self-reflective metanarrative into yet another rousing, blood-pumping, endlessly entertaining hour of Spartacus. Arguably the best episode of a season that's already shaping up to be the TV masterpiece of 2013.

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