(SPOILER: they do not play patty-cake.)
For SPARTACUS, an episode of emo and minor machinations bookended by castrations *is* toned down. And it's not a bad sort of toned down, but it does make for a mildly disconcerting experience. I'm so used to watching SPARTACUS as a series that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever that I get mildly boggled when it does a story focusing on its characters' feelings and motivations as if they're supposed to be human beings. It's like it's trying to be a *real show,* or something. Sometimes this adds depth to the pulp, but a lot of the time it doesn't really work, because when you start to think about these characters as real people you feel a strong desire to grab them and shake them very very hard.
"Mark of the Brotherhood" skips quickly over some time from our last episode. As Crixus struggles to recover from the brutal injuries he suffered at the hands of Theocles, Spartacus rises (in a montage that features him sliding under a guy and cutting said guy's nuts off) to become the people's beloved champion. This gives him a new prominence in the ludus, meaning he's usurping Crixus's role in more ways than one. He uses his power for good in some ways -- minimizing hazing, helping Varro recover some gambling losses -- but this is tough for Crixus to deal with, especially because Batiatus is thinking about cutting his losses and selling the big mopey Gaul who's slow to come off the injured list. Even worse, Batiatus buys a new bunch of gladiator trainees -- and it's not Crixus they're looking up to.
Meanwhile, seeking to strengthen their alliance with Ilythia's politically powerful family, Lucretia and Batiatus do something glorious and horrifying: in a move akin to asking the pyromaniac kid down the street if he'd like an army surplus flamethrower, they give Ilythia a gladiator-in-training of her own from among the new recruits. …you know this isn't going to end well, don't you? And you also know which one she'll pick: the one with the horsecock.
No, really, she picks the one with the horsecock:
This strapping fellow's name is Sergovax, and Ilythia's thrilled to death to have him. But when Ilythia invites some noble ladies over to the ludus for a cocktail party, they clamor to see a *real* gladiator -- namely, Spartacus, whose defiant backtalk leaves the nobles titillated and Ilythia enraged. She promptly orders Sergovax to kill Spartacus. This is where the show's effort at realism goes off the rails a bit: any normal person in Sergovax's place would say, "Er, Domina, all respect, you pay my bills, but Batiatus *prints* 'em, and, um, Spartacus is kinda his meal ticket, while I am young mister dogshit and you do want me to live to become a gladiator, right?" (A *smart* person would say, "Yes, Domina," and make a beeline for Doctore and Batiatus to tattle, because some problems are way above your pay grade.) But Sergovax says, "Yes, ma'am" and tries to kill Spartacus when doing so gains him nothing and risks him everything. It's a dumb move that undercuts the rest of the episode's attempts to portray human interactions with more believability than we've seen to date on the show. Also, for Sergovax it works out as well as you'd expect given that 1) Crixus is looking for a dramatic way to prove he's worth keeping and that 2) the show is not called SERGOVAX: BLOOD AND SAND.
(By which I mean, it works out with crucifixion and Sergovax becoming castratee #2.)
"Mark of the Brotherhood" is, in some ways, a bit of filler. Its primary function is to fill enough time to get Crixus up and something resembling mobile again, which it fulfills by means of a gladiator montage at the beginning that shows Spartacus hacking his way through a number of challengers. It's a clever melding of reset button and status change -- Crixus will recover completely, but it takes him a number of episodes and even longer in show time, so even when he recovers it doesn't feel that his injury was completely without effect because we've spent several episodes seeing the effects of it on him. It shows Spartacus as gladiator champion, which is cool, not because he's powerful but because he's using that power in his interactions with the other gladiators. So that's good.
Mostly, though, the show is dedicated to further woobifying Crixus. My live-tweets:
HEY GUESS WHAT TIME IT IS -- #Spartacus time! 10:00 PM Mar 12th via web
Episode 8: "Mark of the Brotherhood." OUCH THE UNKINDEST CUT in a #Spartacus fantasy sequence. Or maybe -- oh, he's flashbacking. 10:02 PM Mar 12th via web
SHOW. "Wanna see #Spartacus as an active, powerful gladiator?" ME. "Yeah!" SHOW. "Yeah, we're skipping forward past that." ME. "Fuuuu." 10:05 PM Mar 12th via web
Hey, Manu Bennett is naked again! What're the odds? #Spartacus 10:07 PM Mar 12th via web
[New gladiators arrive] It is kind of neat to be seeing this scene from the POV of #Spartacus as established gladiator. 10:09 PM Mar 12th via web
New gladiator day at Batiatus's house! (Like the way Ilythia reacts when Doctore cracks his whip.) #Spartacus 10:11 PM Mar 12th via web
OH GOOD GOD THEY'RE GIVING ILYTHIA A GLADIATOR. This can only end badly. #Spartacus 10:11 PM Mar 12th via web
And once again, we have peen. I suspect this is the scene where the [prosthetic penis nicknamed] Kirk Douglas comes in. #Spartacus 10:13 PM Mar 12th via web
I love these scenes where Ilythia and Lucretia are playing each other. #Spartacus 10:14 PM Mar 12th via web
Also: they said Varro's name! Twice in a row! And they keep saying the name of the new guy, Segovax! This is a good thing. #Spartacus 10:15 PM Mar 12th via web
#Spartacus is now watching Varro fuck and glaring at him. Oh dear. 10:19 PM Mar 12th via web
#SPARTACUS "How'd you like a new sympathetic character?" ME. "Sure!" SHOW. "Okay!" ME. "Hey, I like this --" SHOW. "Dead now." ME. "Fuuu." 10:21 PM Mar 12th via web
Aww, Crixus is getting emo! Talk of being sold will do that to a guy. #Spartacus 10:24 PM Mar 12th via web
Aww, Crixus! Man, I'm surprised how much I want him to come back and kick some #Spartacus butt here. 10:26 PM Mar 12th via web
BTW, did I mention GLADIATOR TRAINING SEQUENCE? #Spartacus 10:27 PM Mar 12th via web
Ashur gets a plot of his own! Because he moves outside the ludus, he can interact with characters above him. Good stuff. #Spartacus 10:30 PM Mar 12th via web
Intense manpain scene between #Spartacus and Crixus. They're not even looking at each other. Fanbait. 10:30 PM Mar 12th via web
"We all love each other and have orgies under the new moon!" #Spartacus #actualspartacusdialogue 10:32 PM Mar 12th via web
UHOH. Faux pas. Lucretia let slip that Ilythia's slave is not yet a Gladiator. #Spartacus 10:33 PM Mar 12th via web
Another scene with powerful Roman women groping a male slave. In this case, #Spartacus (surprise!). 10:36 PM Mar 12th via web
oh, man, this slumber party did not go well at all. #spartacus 10:37 PM Mar 12th via web
Ilythia gets a one-on-one with Segovax, her own almost-gladiator. It's JUST LIKE HER FANTASIES. #spartacus 10:40 PM Mar 12th via web
"I've never seen Damascus. Do you think I'll like it?" Awww, *Crixus.* #spartacus 10:41 PM Mar 12th via web
Man, they have said Varro's name more this episode than all the other episodes to date so far. #spartacus 10:44 PM Mar 12th via web
Well, *that's* one way to make an impression, Crixus. #spartacus 10:45 PM Mar 12th via web
GLADIATOR THREESOME WRESTLING #spartacus 10:47 PM Mar 12th via web
Y'know what? I have to give my show full credit for this: when they get their characters out of big trouble, they do it plausibly. 10:48 PM Mar 12th via web
Latest: Y'know what? I have to give my show full credit: when they get their characters out of big trouble, they do it plausibly. #spartacus 10:48 PM Mar 12th via web
*WHOA.* #Spartacus 10:49 PM Mar 12th via web
Well. *That* was a hell of a finish, wasn't it? #spartacus 10:50 PM Mar 12th via web
That finish, incidentally, marks the first time the show has surprised me with something they didn't do. When Sergovax was shown dickless and crucified, I thought, "Oh fuck, they're going to hand his severed horsecock to Ilythia, aren't they?" They didn't. Thanks for that brief respite, show.
The most interesting thing about this episode, other than its contribution to the continuing saga that is the woobification of Crixus -- he's wounded and having difficulty fucking his master's wife Lucretia in the style to which she is accustomed! but he's faking some of that because he loves her slave Naevia and is trying to make Lucretia lose interest! and he's trying to humiliate and haze the new gladiatorial recruits! but he is himself humiliated by Spartacus! and he can't fight as he used to, so he's going to be sold and packed off to Damascus! ("I've never seen Damascus," he says quietly on hearing the news. "D'y'think I'll like it?") Seriously, the show is hammering *hard* on the woobie formula for Crixus: it keeps showing him as a sonofabitch and often bully who is suffering greatly deep in his soft little heart. I've said it before and I'll say it again: if there is a Spartacus fandom, Crixus will be the fangirls' darling. He will be whomped again and again, only to be comforted, and he will be loved more than Spartacus will be, ever, and I will probably start rooting for his death. But until then, awwww, *Crixus.*
The other interesting item in this episode is its continuation of the show's big trend: killing people. I've mentioned before that SPARTACUS reminds me of Robert E. Howard's Sailor Steve Costigan stories. If you haven't read those, they're exemplars of a genre that doesn't exist anymore: the fight story. (I've actually written an eight-page comic story in this format involving MMA, and am tempted to try one in prose, because I'm all for bringing 'em back.) Fight stories were big in pulp magazines, and you could even buy mags that focused on them -- basically, unsanctioned prizefighting and professional boxing were the focus, with each story focusing on the build-up to, and the description of, a fight. In the Costigan stories, Steve Costigan is a merchant sailor who has a knack for getting involved in bizarre prizefights in between voyages. They're glorious fun; half the fun is watching how well Howard sets up Costigan's unending series of ridiculously formidable opponents, convinces you they're massive and terrifying and capable, and then describes a white-knuckle fight in which Costigan emerges triumphant and having really *earned* the victory. The problem with a series like this is that the writer has to come up with a series of believably dangerous and unique opponents. Managing the opposition is a difficult task -- see my comments on the problems TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES faced, in making its heroes' showdowns with implacable Terminators exciting without making the Terminators come off looking weak. SPARTACUS is in a similar place: how do they repeatedly talk up the gladiatorial opponents and make the results interesting and (hopefully) surprising, given that we expect Spartacus to win?
Answer: they can't. Not too often, anyway. So the other way to get excitement and violence is to have it in the ludus itself. That way they don't have to build up to a big fight; stuff happens more organically, less formally. In these cases, SPARTACUS doesn't necessarily try to make the objects of violence formidable, but to make them interesting. The show doesn't try to make you believe that they're too strong to be killed; it tries to make you believe that they're too *interesting* for the writers to let them die.
There's one scene in "Mark of the Brotherhood" that demonstrates that approach rather brutally. One of the new gladiator recruits is seriously impressed by Spartacus. He has a nice monologue about how he's going to follow Spartacus, see what he does, learn everything that Spartacus can teach him, so you think, oh, this is kind of neat! How will Spartacus react to having a fanboy gladiator? -- and then, we go to the gladiator training, and the new guy isn't doing so hot, and then, as we've seen happen several times in training, he is suddenly and painfully dead.
That recruit who dies immediately after his big scene is black. I've mentioned in the past that SPARTACUS has a strong black viewership (if you follow the #Spartacus tag on Twitter, you will see that a hell of a lot of the people live-tweeting their responses to SPARTACUS episodes are black; I haven't counted the numbers, but it's a pretty big portion), and if you were following the #Spartacus tag at that point, you saw this:
That tells you something, doesn't it?
The odd thing is that SPARTACUS is probably doing better at its guest role diversity than a lot of shows do. But at this point, it's clear: this series is a meat grinder. It's kind of like SUPERNATURAL in that way, and I realize saying that is opening a can of worms; I haven't watch the show in years, but when I was watching it I respected SPN's Kripke for his willingness to kill his darlings. He'll create strong characters, make you care about them, and then -- often, even if fans love them -- he'll kill them. Ask black and feminist fans of SPN how they feel about that sometime, if you want an earful. But I prefer the flaws of that heavier hand to Joss Whedon's Buffyverse approach, which is to give the fans a character they really dig and then *to run that character into the fucking ground.* (In my view, Joss Whedon's biggest mistakes had nothing to do with killing Tara, and everything to do with unkilling Angel and not killing Spike.)
SPN's Gordon Walker is a case in point. He was a great antagonist and a compelling character, and the story in which he died (horrifically) was a really excellent conclusion for his arc. I hated losing him, but I was impressed that the show had that much confidence in itself. Too often, shows cling to what's comfortable over what makes a better story; but a show that kills really good antagonists is a show that isn't resting on its laurels. It's a show that's trying to earn new ones. Give me that over Spike becoming a nutless, whining prat of a romantic hero every fucking day of the week and twice on Sunday. But when Gordon was killed, a compelling black character died, and black viewers are understandably kind of tired of that.
In an interview with AfterElton, SPARTACUS showrunner Stephen S. DeKnight was asked about the fridging of Barca and Pietros, and he gave the same answer writers always give: it's all about the characters and the story. Being gay, or black, said DeKnight, shouldn't just make a character safe or restrict the writer's options; he felt he treated Barca and Pietros like any other characters, and that characters are dying left and right, so when he felt that the story called for gruesome tragedy and death, he went there.
As it always is, DeKnight's excuse is sort of true. SPARTACUS does have an absolutely insane body count -- look at this episode; it's a quiet one, and it killed a ton of silent gladiator stuntmen and two characters with meaningful lines. Here's the thing, though: just because it's sort of true doesn't make the folks who're tired of it any less tired of it. Gay characters, for example, have increasing visibility, but they die a *lot.* I'm closing on in 35, and more gay characters have died on TV in the last four years than I've seen Jewish characters on shows I've watched *in my entire life.* It's a hell of a body count, and it's something gay viewers (and, with regard to black characters, black viewers) are tired of.
DeKnight says he plans to bring on more gay characters, and I'm sure he'll bring on more black characters, too. The question is: will any of these characters live more than a few episodes? There are prominent recurring characters walking around *now* whose sole purpose is to die horribly (Varro, I'm lookin' at you); I can't imagine that new characters in a series about violent death will fare particularly well. Which makes for an interesting problem for the writing staff.
(It's also another argument for why DeKnight should have thought twice about killing Barca and Pietros, if you think about it.)
I do like the fact that the show is willing to burn promising angles. It shows faith they'll come up with more. (Though I'd rather they do more with those angles, if only briefly, then keep burning airtime on plotlines more or less in stasis -- see the Crixus/Naevia scenes, for instance; they're good for woobifying Crixus, but what have we really learned about him and Naevia that we didn't know about them already?) And while Sergovax won't be missed, because the guy playing him wasn't that good, it's worth noting that he had a really great angle. Ilythia with a gladiator? Man, those scenes write themselves. A guy who befriends Spartacus, looks up to him, but is sekritly his enemy? Gold! But the writers have enough ongoing plotlines, so they burned him. They burned him *horribly:* they crucified him and cut his penis off.
Take a moment to imagine the audience reaction if Sergovax had been played by a black actor.
This is going to be an ongoing issue for the writing staff. SPARTACUS has a gay fanbase, which the show has actively courted and then fucked over, and it has a black fanbase, which I doubt it expected but which has materialized and is extremely enthusiastic. And like pretty much everybody else, black and gay folks like seeing people they identify with on TV. And this TV show slaughters characters left and right, often in spectacularly horrifying ways.
So far, SPARTACUS is still doing better than a lot of shows in terms of diversity of casting. But it's not as good as it could be, and it will have some unique challenges along the way, given that the way a new character survives his debut on SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND is to *not have a big scene.* I'm honestly curious to see how DeKnight and staff handle the increasing body count, and the subsequent restocking.
Also: Jupiter's cock, show, will you just *kill Varro* already? He's walking around with an "I am dead" Post-It note on his forehead, and it's disconcerting.
NEXT WEEK: more shit gets shoot/sliced.