Sunday, April 14, 2013

Spartacus delivers one of the greatest series finales of all time

Spartacus: War of the Damned, Episode 10 - "Victory"

From day one, Spartacus defied the rules.

We all know the rules of television, even if we don't know we know them. For example, we know that arcs move slowly, with maybe one major change of status quo per season (having two means people will call you "fast-paced"). Spartacus said "That's okay, we'd like our show to move with ferocity and purpose and cataclysmically shatter the status quo about every two or three episodes," and did just that.

We know an "epic" battle by TV standards means about twenty guys on each side (or maybe fifty in the case of Game of Thrones' $12 million extravaganza "Blackwater"). Spartacus decided that wasn't good enough and that they'd like battles that rival those in Lord of the Rings or Braveheart and that, defying finances, logic and maybe even simple physics, they'd like to do them on a shoestring budget with more than one a season, and so it was.

We all know there's supposed to be a couple major character deaths in a TV season at most. Spartacus decided it would like to slaughter over half the cast every season, and slaughter they did.

We all know that a successful show – much less the highest-rated on an entire network, which Spartacus was – is supposed to run on and on until it's squeezed bone-dry and the fire in its belly is but embers. Spartacus decided three main seasons was just right (plus the prequel miniseries Gods of the Arena), because they'd like every season to be completely different from the others and for each to tell a whole and satisfying story with a thunderous climax that leaves you wanting more.

Spartacus excelled above where it was expected and frankly where it was allowed to from day one. Stuck on a third-tier premium cable channel, it said "Fuck it, this is an opportunity!" and became that channel's highest-rated show and flagship property. It attempted and powerfully pulled off a grand, sweeping war epic on a small budget with little star power. It never got 1% the respect it demanded, its passion and energy and sheer, intense visceral pleasure baffling TV critics used to thinking of cable dramas as being something dry and grim and antiheroic.

Where other shows added to or, in the ballsiest cases, bent the unwritten but unmistakably felt and omnipresent TV Drama Rulebook, Spartacus took that damn rulebook and fed it into a shredder.

Where other shows were content to tell stories, Spartacus seared a legend across our TV screens.

So perhaps the only course left for a show that lived to break the rules – a show that lived to shatter expectations and deliver one crazy "HOLY SHIT!" twist after another after another – to break the rules one final time was by breaking its own rules and choosing to more or less align with history in its final hour. For a show that constantly went directions I couldn't have predicted, it's interesting that Spartacus pretty much ends how I figured it would since the beginning of War of the Damned, if not since the beginning of the series.

And this predictable – even predestined – hour was one of the most stirring, marvelous, thrilling, emotional, heart-pounding and heartrending episodes of television I've ever witnessed and easily one of the two or three best series finales in television history.

In this sense it reminds me of Friday Night Lights' "Always," the best series finale ever (and perhaps the only one I've seen that trumps "Victory"), which put an abrupt halt to the plot-heavy nature of the episodes leading into it and let pure, stirring emotion carry it home. Twists are awesome, and Spartacus had dozens, but "Victory" cements the idea that a truly great series finale doesn't need a mind-bending twist and perhaps even actively shouldn't have one. When you reach the end of a terrific story, what counts isn't exploding expectations, but taking it home. And Spartacus took it home masterfully, bloodily and beautifully.

If you have yet to lay eyes upon entirety of Spartacus, regain sense and tread no further!

Now, before I launch into orgasmic praise for more or less every facet of War of the Damned and "Victory," let me just briefly point out my issues with this season and finale: The Sibyl character never really worked. Saxa was always ten times as cool and compelling (both as a love interest for Gannicus and character in general), the arc of someone from Sinuessa en Valle joining the rebels was pulled off much more interestingly with Laeta and, as we see in Gannicus' final vision, his relationship with Oenomaus was always his most important anyway. Also, I kind of wish there'd been a secondary villain – someone akin to the Egyptian from Vengeance, perhaps – so there'd been an established bad guy to get killed in this episode.

Other than that? I can't think of ten episodes of television this decade I've found as thrilling or satisfying.

And on every level, too, which is crazy. The emotion was here, and it was deeply powerful. It tied a perfect thematic bow on everything the series has said about the struggle for freedom. And the action? I mean, holy shit, right? When I wrote about Fringe's (very good, but certainly not on Spartacus' level) series finale a few months back, I wrote that it "didn't miraculously leverage its modest budget into something resembling a summer blockbuster spectacular." Spartacus, meanwhile, did leverage its even modest-er budget into something that didn't just resemble a summer blockbuster spectacular but made most supposed summer blockbuster spectaculars I've seen in the last half-decade look like dull, sleepy, unambitious bullshit.

When Gannicus appeared, leading half of Spartacus' army to pin Crassus from behind? I don't know about you, but I found that about as stirring as Gandalf and Eomer appearing at the end of The Two Towers. The soft dirt spike trap Spartacus goaded Crassus' front line into? Didn't see it coming, and girlish giggles of delight spontaneously exploded from my throat as I clapped my hands like a fucking spaz. When Spartacus' guys threw the ladders up lengthwise across their spike trap onto Crassus' troops' shields and started sprinting up and across them? Suddenly, "Blackwater" started to have a strong retroactive resemblance to Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

But Spartacus has always been among the most nakedly emotional, raw-nerve shows on television – another thing that makes it immensely alien in the modern cable landscape, where cold emotional detachment rules and is praised to high heaven (a TV critic tendency which makes me roll my fucking eyes into the back of my skull, by the way, but that's a rant for another day) – and so, fittingly, it was not the amazing large-scale battling that gripped me most intensely, but the personal moments. The deaths of Naevia and Saxa made my heart hurt, and the fiery, "FUCK YOUR MOTHERS!"-bellowing death of Lugo make me cackle like no show this side of Bob's Burgers has in months.

And the battle of Spartacus and Crassus? Forget television – has there been a fight even on the big screen this emotionally intense, draining, brilliantly choreographed and impeccably shot, with such utterly perfect ebb and flow, in the last few years? I liked Batman vs. Bane as much as the next guy, but Spartacus vs. Crassus certainly made that look like it had been planned and shot by idiot children. The Shanghai tower fight from Skyfall was gorgeous, but didn't have choreography or emotion like this.

The way my heart was hammering in my chest like I was having a cardiovascular fucking episode when Spartacus grabbed the blade during Crassus' "unblockable" attack (which, by the way, so, so perfectly set up by War of the Damned's premiere) is the kind of physical, visceral emotional reaction to a piece of media that I basically spend years at a time searching for. My completely reflexive vocal response to that might be just about the closest I've come to being a Big Fan-style sports nut roaring unashamedly as his team connects with a last-second hail mary pass.

But Inglourious Basterds this shit the writers and producers of Spartacus did not (or at least not much), and the show ended as I suppose it always had to, with Spartacus – whatever his never-given true name may have been – dead, but not before one of the most heartrending, stirringly scored and weirdly beautiful death scenes I've seen onscreen in a long, long time (which made for a strong contrast with Crixus' sudden, bloody and upsetting end two episodes back).

That's the real trick of Spartacus and what made it a work of true art and genius: The way it balanced the epic and the intimate, the political and the personal, the colossal and the tiny, with true panache, shaming virtually everything else in television history in both regards while never giving up one in pursuit of the other. It wrote its action and adventure like it was writing Game of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica; it wrote its interpersonal scenes like it was writing Parenthood or Mad MenSpartacus is a show that had its cake and ate it too, then probably made a few more even fancier cakes while it was busy eating that first cake, and ate all of them as well.

Spartacus was great because of the scene where Spartacus runs up the hill and kills like twenty of Crassus' dudes, but also because of the wordless scene where he gazes sadly and longingly at Thracia on his map. Spartacus was great because of the scene where Spartacus and Gannicus discuss their differing philosophical approaches to the war in a tent on the eve of battle, but also because Lugo slew a few final Romans with a giant-ass hammer while on fire and shouting "FUCK YOUR MOTHERS!" Spartacus was great because of its final battle's ladders and trebuchets and clashing armies and extreme gore and cavalry charge, but also because of Spartacus' whisper of "Spartacus... that is not my name." in the last moments of his life while Agron fights back tears.

The big stuff, the small stuff. This episode, this season and this show in general showed absolute mastery of both and everything in between. Whether it's a declaration of love or charged sex scene, the aftermath of a revealed secret, a treacherous backstabbing, a personal or political discussion, an intense one-on-one fight scene in the arena or on the battlefield or an epic battle that, with a couple million bucks, makes $200 million Hollywood blockbusters look like pigshit, Spartacus goes full-bore and holds nothing back. That's just brilliant television.

This finale's title, "Victory," is one to puzzle and debate over. Who does the victory belong to? Is it, taking the most literal approach, Marcus Crassus and Julius Caesar? Both have suffered this season – Crassus the death of his son at the hands of his true love, Caesar his rape at the hands of Tiberius – but they do indeed stand technically victorious on the field of battle thanks to the blunt and straightforward method of throwing countless tens of thousands of men into the meat grinder of Spartacus' army until that fire was finally stamped out. Victory for which Crassus didn't even receive credit, the glory instead snatched up by Pompey.

Or could the victory belong to Agron, Nasir, Laeta and all the rest of the slaves who made it to the other side of the Third Servile War alive, intact, and on the safe side of the mountains? Seeing as Agron is just one episode removed from being nailed to a cross, I'd say the fact that he's alive – the only participant in the uprising against the House of Batiatus to make it out the far side of the war – and with copious homosex left ahead of him constitutes one hell of a win.

But I, dull and simple fuck I am, must conclude the victory belongs to none other than the show's title character, Spartacus. Yes, the war's loser. He may have lost, his army may have been smashed, and he may have died on account of spear wounds to the back from completely anonymous Romans who were killed by Nasir immediately after (a choice I like very much, by the way, as it robs the glory of killing Spartacus from any single man), but he was always the better man and the one who fought for freedom and what was right.

If I may be forgiven for tying this back to Friday Night Lights once again (I tie basically everything in TV and movies and life in general back to Friday Night Lights, so in this one instance Spartacus isn't special), I'd like to quote Coach Eric Taylor: "I said you need to strive to be better than anyone else. I didn't say you needed to be better than everyone else. But you gotta try. That's what character is. It's in the trying."

Spartacus, in its ultrabloody ultranaked swords-and-sandals fashion, is essentially saying the same thing as Coach. Spartacus didn't have the better army than Crassus. (Better in tactics, maybe, but an army wielding swords and spears can never truly be a "better" fighting unit than another five times its size.) But he strived. For Sura he strived. For Mira and Laeta. For Varro and Crixus and Oenomaus. He, many times over the course of the series, accepted that his death was not only the preferable alternative to his enslavement, but that his own death was preferable to the enslavement of others. That's character. That's greatness.

Marcus Crassus won, but Spartacus was the better man. Julius Caesar won, but Gannicus was the better man. And rather than making this feel futile and depressing, as other, bleaker shows might have, Spartacus makes it feel stirring and hopeful and magnificent.

Ok, sorry, look, I know I've already mentioned this, but I have to one more time: Spartacus blocking Crassus' sword with his bare hands? I've had few orgasms during sex as satisfying as that moment.

Also amazingly satisfying is that, despite so many characters including the show's protagonist/title character dying in the finale of a show that in dialogue referenced the "afterlife" several hundred times throughout its run, Spartacus declined to go the route of the overrated Gladiator and embrace the idiocy of showing us Spartacus or any other character in an actual, literal afterlife. Characters died and then they were dead and we saw other people's reactions to them being dead and that was it. Why yes, I am still pissed about the ending of Lost, why do you ask?

The end credits, which show us stills of virtually every major character in every season set to an original composition used nowhere else in the series, was a genius way to cap things off (and it was amusing to note that about 90% of the featured characters were killed off). And that shot of Andy Whitfield roaring "I AM SPARTACUS!!!!!"? Stick that shit in the dictionary as an example next to "perfection." Pretty amazing that Spartacus can earn a more intense emotional reaction in its fucking end credits than most TV shows ever accomplish in their collective runs.

All that's left is for me to extend a sincere thank you to Steven DeKnight and everyone else who worked on Spartacus, who injected television with life and fire and ferocity that has elevated and justified the entire medium to me. DeKnight's proven himself a bold, brilliant visual storyteller, and I can't wait to follow his career from here on out. Almost as much as I can't wait to spend the coming years shouting "I told you so!" at people who tell me they've just discovered this amazing underground show called Spartacus and for the show to take its place in TV history as a mandatory-viewing classic.


  1. Oh wow, lovely review of the finale and I have to agree, Spartacus is a show which defied everything and became a legend on our tv screens. There is nothing like it. Very few shows can deliver as gut wrenching and satisfying episodes as this show has, and it has never once failed to entertain it's audience. The finale was bound to be nothing less than pure epic.

    However, I do respectfully disagree regarding your opinion on Sibyl, especially if it being made in contrast to Saxa. As far as I saw, both are secondary characters and it is unfortunate that on the rebel side, the most layered females had been just 2: Naevia & Mira. We don't really get to spend much time with most of them, but it may be due to the circumstances they were in (also their deaths early on). I do think considering Saxa as a more worthy character based on her being such a bad ass (which she is) is overly simplistic. Sibyl's strength is shown in her faith, optimism & resilience to see good in others. Even attempts to fight back Laurus and Heracleo but fails because of her lack of skill. So she's courageous & endearing in her own way. People also like her because she's a realistic character, she does not just pick up a sword & magically turn into a warrior. She represents the victims Spartacus is so eager to save. And given Gannicus' character, he's always been attracted to the innocents and it's no surprise that the people he is truly close to are so different than him. So it was made obvious early on that he would eventually fall for Sibyl. She is an adored character and I think her story line with Gannicus was a simple, yet effective way to turn Gannicus into a lovable hero. Needless to say, we can't expect an epic romance like Crixus & Naevia but the Gannicus-Sibyl story line served its purpose pretty smoothly in my opinion.

    My personal complaint from the last season would actually be the lack of character interactions on the rebel side. It's a striking contrast to Vengeance where we got to explore a lot of different characters and spent time with them, but unfortunately in the last season, we barely have any intimate conversations or opportunities to connect with the rebels. I have to admit, I was looking forward to Saxa's character development this season, but despite having been in a season earlier on, the audience never gets the opportunity to get to know her and to connect with her. Also, I feel the Castus story line was a little off, maybe because we know how desperately in love Agron-Nasir already are? What was the point? It was a miss for me.

    Lastly, I would thank steven deknight for introducing such epic characters like Crassus and Caesar to the final installment. Even Heracleo left a great impression on me.

    1. First off, thanks for reading and thanks for your compliments and thanks for leaving a thoughtful and expansive and passionate comment, the best kind for a blogger to receive.

      However, I'm afraid - having just done a full marathon of all 39 episodes of Spartacus last month - I still can't really agree with your thoughts on Sibyl. And yes, comparing her to Saxa as Gannicus' love interest plays a part in that, I can't deny. But so does comparing her to Laeta as we track the journey of a Sinuessa en Valle native, and even comparing her to Oenomaus as the relationship Gannicus holds most important in his heart.

      I can't speak for anyone else of course, and if she is beloved in the fandom (I don't participate in many active internet fandoms so I honestly don't know) then more power to them and her. But for me, personally, she could be flat-out deleted from War of the Damned and it would have virtually zero impact on my enjoyment of it.

      Your thoughts on War of the Damned's lessened character interaction is interesting and not something I'd really considered. If it's the case, I wonder if a little of screentime that would have otherwise been devoted to characterization fell victim to plot mechanics since they only had 1 seasons of 10 episodes and tons of story left to get through.

      I would have to say that, in terms of character dynamics, none of Spartacus probably beats Blood and Sand and Gods of the Arena, for the extremely simple and straightforward reason that everyone being stuck in Batiatus' ludus together literally FORCES character interaction. The writers had a lot of fresh opportunities when the show left the ludus and more still when they left Capua, but it did arguably make them work harder to have everyone interact.

      And yeah, the Castus story didn't quite work either... but he never actually ended up breaking Agron and Nasir up, so in the end I was fine just kind of giving it a shrug and being ok with it. He got to participate in a couple cool fight scenes, which is better than nothin'.

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  3. I could very well write a massive reply to this due to how much I loved this show.

    I have only just now watched it after it being recommended to me for so long. I saw clips of the stylised violence and thought "not for me". but I was so wrong. Its particular style of violence (400 in nature) was only a small part of the show and its multitude of layers and complexity, and drifted from it in time anyway to something a bit more realistic.
    I thought that it would lack... maturity: I judged it by its proverbial book cover.

    I have to admit that I agree with almost 100% of your review of Spartacus. Even your thoughts on the Sybil character. I think that the characters of Sybil and Castus would have been used better and fleshed out had the series run longer. However Castus did at least serve to show Agron's jealously and in result his fierce love for Nasir.

    I also have to echo how Spartacus wonderfully puts big Hollywood productions to shame with its final episode. I didn't giggle like a school girl at the hidden trench but jumped off my chair and roared like an idiot :). Very unlike me.
    I never thought such and epic battle would be possible outside of a 100+ million dollar movie production. It truly does stand as a rival to Lord of the Rings in that regard. The emotional depth was brilliant and heartbreaking. Very pleased that its importance was not ignored. The very end had me sitting, crying like emotional wreak. And - like you - I am so pleased that no "afterlife" or allegories of it were used to soften the brutality of the events that characters throughout the series suffered and the impact that it has on the viewer.

    The only place I disagree with you on is your desire for a bad guy to kill. I think the ending with Spartacus and Crassus is perfect. We don't need another bad guy to kill just so that we can feel catharsis. I like how we are left without it. It keeps the "bad guy" focus on Crassus. A "bad guy" we understand - even like - but still hate due to his many faults. I like that level of depth.

    Spartacus is one of the best television productions I have ever seen and I have never seen and ending to a TV series that was as amazing (or epic!) or that moved me as much as this. The final battle... the brutal but emotionally impactful deaths of so many of the main characters... Spartacus' last words... when the life drained from his eyes... So brilliantly well done.

    I was a fool to ignore it while it was airing.

  4. Spartacus left us with the one great truth we cannot avoid.

    In the end, you lose. Money, power, corporate interests will ultimately overwhelm you, crush you and destroy the hopes and dreams you foolishly hold to.

    And you're left, like Naevia, or Gannicus ultimately alone and sacrificed for a useless cause that was never realistic.

    The series serves as an amazing allegory for our own cultural situation. Spartacus and his rebellion serve no other purpose than to elevate those that hunt them down and ultimately dispose of them. The handful of his followers who do escape represent a ridiculously small percentage of the people he lead to their deaths while they followed a foolhardy dream of rebellion and freedom. And what was the realization of their dream? Starvation, death from the elements? Death from wounds? What was the value of the freedom they gained? Was it as wondrous as the rotted horse meat the children scrapped for in the refugee camps?

    No, Spartacus met no glorious end, earned to great and honored death. He was merely stabbed in the back by a nameless soldier ordered by a Roman General. A Roman General who throughout the series had time and again out maneuvered Spartacus.

    It was a most disappointing series and a very painful period in history. I would have it differently, certainly. I take no pleasure in the review. Please don't misinterpret my summary here. I only point out with complete clarity the utter bleak and dismal inevitability of the slave rebellion defeat.

    Essentially what the series depicted was a glamorized account of Spartacus running away while the Romans chased him down and eventually slaughtered all who followed him. Painful, but true.

    What is a crime is injecting characters and writing into the story to make such a painful and intractable event in history so personal and difficult for viewers. Why make us care so much about characters only to slaughter them so meaninglessly. Ultimately, it's cruel. We can take no hope from Spartacus doomed rebellion. We can take no comfort from Naevia and Crixus' love. We can take no pride in Gannicus' stand against Caesar. We can feel nothing but horror and pity at Kore's death.

    No, this series was meant from the beginning to be painful and inflammatory. Well played sir. Well played. But let's not pretend there was any hope or positivism to be gleaned from the finale or any other part of the program.