Sunday, 24 February 2013

Spartacus War of the Damned: Wolves at the Gate



Episode 2 of Season 3 of Spartacus brings us what will presumably be the series' last major character introduction, unless they actually show Pompey later - Gaius Julius Caesar himself. With surfer hair and a goatee.

Flash Harry is called away from sparring with Naevia (who soundly beats him) because Spartacus wants to know how he can conquer Flash's home city. Flash looks slightly uncomfortable with the idea of ransacking a town that was his home and that presumably contains a number of people he's quite fond of, but he helps anyway. They keep going on and on about how winter is coming as if they’ve all been adopted by Starks, and yet still, none of them are dressed properly. Seriously, Helga is in a bikini. Italy in autumn is just not that warm.

Spartacus and Gannicus head off to the city, as Gannicus knows a Trojan Horse who might be persuaded to let them in the gates at night, since they aren't allowed to enter with weapons. Crixus comes too, presumably because he's bored and fancies a day out. Spartacus is wearing clothes! Actual, Eastern-style clothes! In fact, he's wearing a purple cloak, the sign of royalty and kingship. Ah, hubris, followed by inevitable doom. The same thing would eventually happen to Caesar. Crixus is dressed too, and even Gannicus, though he's wearing a sleeveless tunic, just to make the point that he still doesn't need clothes, and to show off his rippling muscles.

We meet the soft-hearted wife of a guy who seems to hold a lot of sway in the city, Ennius. The next few minutes are designed to show us how unpleasant he is, and how nice she is (she's a fan of the 'treat animals and slaves well and they'll work well' philosophy). We see a supporter of Spartacus (who, much to Spartacus' discomfort, keeps yelling his name) get his tongue ripped out, then be stoned to death, which Spartacus puts an end to pretty quickly by throwing a biggish rock right at the guy's head. Stoning is a new form of death for Spartacus - we hear of it a lot in New Testament stories from the Roman Middle East, less so from Italy, where runaway slaves are more often threatened with crucifixion.

The biggest problem with this series is that I'm enjoying Crassus and the actual Romans so much, I get impatient when faced with long scenes devoted to the increasingly dim-witted and emotionally numb Spartacus. But at this point, Yay! Romans. Tiberius is still useless, now sowing his inability to haggkles out a good price when shopping for swords.

Aaand... we meet Point-Break-Patrick-Swayze-Julius-Caesar! (Thanks to Hasan Niyazi from Three Pipe Problem for pointing out the resemblance). I think for brevity’s sake I’ll call him Surfer Caesar. He gets into a fight with a couple of Crassus' slaves before being introduced by name with a teeny little rock-guitar solo of sorts. Crassus' wife doesn't like him, but that's just a point in his favour. Caesar expresses affection for his own wife, but that could just be horniness.

This headstrong 20-something will eventually take over the world

Caesar here is a rebellious thug with a '90s haircut. It’s perfect. It’s also kinda funny given that he’s famous for going bald early. It’s a very different portrayal of the dictator and evil genius in youth than Rome’s Octavian, but that’s because Julius and Octavian Caesar were very different characters. Although Caesar was a brilliant general, the flaws in his politics eventually led to his assassination, whereas Octavian, barely a general at all in practical terms, ruled the world for half a century. Young Caesar as brutal, headstrong and pugilistic is perfect. Crassus introduces us to Caesar’s history and supposed legendary ancestry and sets out the basis of their alliance – Crassus’ wealth and Caesar’s name, together unstoppable. Killing Spartacus is where they'll start.

Spartacus chats with the dude’s wife about slaves, stoning, trade and whether there’s room for a bunch of his slaves within the city. It's pretty dull.

Surfer Caesar is being bathed by topless women, because we don’t get scenes in the arena any more so we have to some boobs out somewhere (unlike the over-excited spectators at the arena of earlier seasons, this is at least historically plausible). Crassus has, for reasons passing understanding, demanded that Caesar keep his ridiculously unhistorical goatee, presumably because the director has had a word about his desire to make Caesar resemble a model from Fat Face’s catalogue. Crassus' slave girl for some reason thinks that pointing out that Caesar is married will make the slightest different to whether or not he wants a shag with her, but Crassus is distinctly unimpressed when he walks in on them, partly because she’s a favourite of his and partly because, unlike Batiatus, he knows the difference between a household and a brothel.

Crassus’ deeply unpleasant wife yells at the slave girl – whose name, it seems, is Kore, which refers to a maiden and I suspect is Symbolic, so I’ll call her Maid Marian – for looking too attractive and showing off her boobs and her backside, which is nonsensical, given that as the lady of the house, she herself is in charge of clothing her slaves. When Maid Marian tells Tiberius, he gets really mad, because this woman is clearly Spartacus’ equivalent of Sookie Stackhouse, beloved of every male in the vicinity.

Spartacus encounters a cute little girl and starts to wonder about the ethics of storming cities. But then Laurus shows up to be unpleasant and reinvigorates him. Their Trojan Horse has worked out what Spartacus and Gannicus are up to and is browbeaten into helping them.

Crassus’ wife wants to come with him on campaign, which isn’t an idea Crassus is wild about, probably because she’s a gigantic pain in the bottom. (Some wives did follow their general husbands on campaign, including Germanicus’ wife, Caligula’s mother, who brought the children – which is how Caligula, growing up with the army, got the nickname, which means ‘Little Boot’). Tiberius is sulking because he thinks Crassus prefers Caesar to him. Crassus really needs to explain political alliances to that boy.

Crassus apologises to Maid Marian for leaving her with Surfer Caesar, since he already knew Caesar’s reputation. Maid Marian nags him about putting Caesar above Tiberius, but cheers up when Crassus assures her that he’s not letting his wife come with him, but he will take her. His extreme fondness for her even results in him asking her to call him ‘Marcus’. They get as far as stripping her top and snogging and then the camera cuts away – did I accidentally turn on the wrong show? Where’s the sex scene?!

Spartacus’ Trojan Horse lets them in to the city and blood and throwing torches in people’s faces commences. Also some stabbing people in the groin. This goes on for a while.

Symbolic purple cloak. Aah, sweet hubris.

Flash Harry is stabbed by his master, who gets his head sliced in half by Gannicus, which earns Gannicus the immediate and everlasting love of one of the guy’s slaves, expressed through a particularly longing look. Naevia comforts the dying Flash Harry, who promises to piss upon his master’s shadow (excellent last words there).

Surfer Caesar is getting some downstairs service from a random woman (this appears to involve a knife and some bleeding – is he a vampire? Is she a vampire?) and carries on a bit of a chat with Tiberius at the same time, though he is eventually forced to conclude that Tiberius is killing the mood and get rid of the woman.

Spartacus, having run into the soft-hearted wife of the other guy - the one that wasn't Flash Harry's master and hasn't just become shorter by half a head - takes her back to her house, where everyone appears to have been killed, including the cute little girl from earlier. Despite the fact this has been his M.O. for two years, Spartacus has a sudden attack of conscience and orders the not-dead-yet Romans to be put in chains instead of killed. Apparently the dude the soft-hearted woman is married to is threatening to set the grain on fire, which everyone needs, so Spartacus blackmails her into coming with him to stop the man. Midway through her passionate plea, Crixus and Gannicus jump down from above and kill the guy, at which point Spartacus announces a ceasefire and has the wife put in chains.

Crassus gives Tiberius a sword (this appears to be Symbolic – like a carving knife?) and sends him off to find out where Spartacus is, but orders him not to engage anyone until he turns up to back him up. I can see that going well. Surfer Caesar is unimpressed at being placed below the pipsqueak, but mollified by the promise of Crassus’ bribery getting him a position as military tribune.

Then they go out to address a whole CGI army! The music goes all imperial-Rome and we end on Crassus’ satisfied face.

A bit of a slow episode, but the introduction of Caesar just about keeps things interesting. More and more, the series is driving us towards sympathy for the Romans, and away from sympathising with Spartacus, whose ‘animals’ are behaving no better than the Romans they’re fighting. And now, having put all the living prisoners in chains, Spartacus is coming close to having slaves of his own. Meanwhile, they’re certainly working to make sure Crassus is the most likeable character, not just in this season, but probably in the whole series so far. He has romantic relationships (OK, not with his wife, but that’s not the point), he uses his brain before any other organ, he loves his son even though he can see what an annoying little pipsqueak the kid is and, of course, he’s the last word in Roman capitalism. Crassus is far closer to the assumed ideals of the audience than Spartacus and even his attitude towards his slaves is respectful.

Caesar, meanwhile, is just fun, which is great. Most films and TV shows dealing with Caesar show us a much older Caesar, already one of the two most powerful men in Rome, often even jumping past Pompey and going straight to his dictatorship. This, on the other hand is young Caesar - the Caesar who was rumoured to have been the catamite of King Nicomedes, who was kidnapped by pirates, made them love him, then had them all executed, who was an infamous womanizer, who ran away and defied the dictator Sulla rather than divorce his wife. Caesar wasn't, as far as we know, involved in putting down Spartacus' revolt, but otherwise his alliance with Crassus is accurately represented - Crassus bribed enough people for Caesar to win elections, Caesar's high social standing and Julian name got them both taken seriously (also Caesar's military expertise, but we haven't got that far yet). It seems plausible enough to me to insert Caesar into the story here, and Pompey is off in Spain and his rivalry with Crassus is not being covered (yet), so we need Caesar to give Crassus someone serious to bounce off, besides his whiny son, irritating wife and slightly cloying slave girl.

A bit slow, but still promising. Roll on episode 3...

Quotes

Spartacus' trademark use of abbreviated English to represent Latin is still going strong - they've almost forgotten what the definite article ('the') is by this point. It's a good thing no one in this series is supposed to be speaking Greek, as Greek speakers were quite keen on the definite article...

Caesar: I require no lesson in my fucking heritage! He doesn’t appreciate the use of the As You Know... trope.

Ennius: I would not see more blood spilled absent cause.
Spartacus: Nor I... absent cause.

Tiberius: I am proud reflection of my father! Caesar laughs

Laeta: You - you aid Spartacus!
Spartacus: No - I stand the man himself. That’s no fun! You’re supposed to say ‘I’m Spartacus!’

Crassus to Caesar: Stay upon path I have set and see greater glories bestowed at journey’s end. Oh, how very true...

5 comments:

  1. Surfer Caesar it is! With his name known to so many, I am sure there are some who will find his appearance disconcerting, but an interesting move by the writers.

    To show him as an "alt-crassus" really would have been boring for the sake of the show. In this sense Caesar looks and acts like someone halfway in between the manicured Romans and unruly mob represented by Spartacus & co.

    It will be interesting to see how his character responds when he is placed in a truly difficult situation.

    Thanks for your great work on these reviews Juliette, and the mention of 3PP in this post ;)

    H

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    1. Thank you for suggesting the resemblence! It really is a very point break look (and someone on Twitter tells me the actor used to be in Home and Away, so it all works out rather well!)

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  2. I'm not sure how I feel about this Caesar. Ambitious and a bit ruthless is good. But he really shouldn't be here. He was most likely in the east at the time. And all that hair is just wrong. Romans tended to wear their hair short in this period and, as you note, JC started going bald fairly young. Of course, him having this mane while young plays into his later vanity and comb-over.

    The beard is totally wrong for Caesar, though. He was always so image conscious. Beards themselves weren't unheard of among Roman men, but they were generally considered decadent and eastern. One of Cicero's speeches sneers at Clodius (I think it was) for his little chin beard. OTOH, if Caesar is freshly back from the east and playing whatever games he was playing with Nicomedes, he might still be in the habit.

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    1. Yes, the hair and beard are both completely 'wrong.' Romans wore their hair short and beards in general were associated with Greeks or the East - Hadrian had one because he loved the Greeks so much. But it gets across the half-rock, half-surfer look of someone rich and privileged who chooses to look a bit rough, as opposed to Spartacus et al, who are poor and have shaggy hair and beards because they don't have time or money for barbers. And yes, the inclusion of Caesar in the Spartacus story is totally unhistorical, but it's plausible enough I think, at least within the usual bounds of allowable deliberate deviation from history. And Caesar is so much more interesting than Pompey.

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  3. They couldn't have gotten away with a lot of what goes on in the show when Douglas did his take on Spartacus...

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