It’s hard to believe that a series which has had more than its fair share of struggles – both with the untimely passing of original series lead Andy Whitfield and the sheer amount of people who wrote Spartacus off early on, mistakenly believing it to be for purely puerile interests – actually made it as far as this program did.
But as we approached the final episodes of Spartacus: War of the Damned, the series easily illustrated how it managed to become one of the most consistently enjoyable, well-written and yet tragically underrated programs on television.
And as the series progressed toward the end – which will certainly be thought of as coming too soon – it was clear that even though the story could have been decompressed and drawn in smaller strokes, the road to ‘Victory’ had been given considerable thought by Stephen S. DeKnight and his team of writers. Which is why, even though the final hour of Spartacus would have an enormous amount of heavy lifting to do, the opening sequence (which also serves as a nice homage to another Spartacus) perfectly illustrates the message of the series and the legacy of all these characters we’ve come to know and feel something for.
Admittedly, in that opening moment when Gannicus utters the phrase “I am Spartacus,” it felt as though some trickery might be afoot. But rather than play games regarding the inevitability of their characters’ fate, the writers simply and effectively demonstrated how the name Spartacus had become something more important than a single man. The name Spartacus is something as powerful and laden with meaning as “the bringer of rain” was to Batiatus before it would become synonymous with his doom. The name Spartacus had been transformed into a symbol and a movement that could be embodied by all those thirsting to be free.
That notion is made clear one final time as Spartacus and Gannicus have a quiet discussion wherein they discover how their radically divergent paths had come to an end in pretty much the same place: willing to die so that others could live to carry on and disseminate what the name Spartacus truly meant. The Thracian sums it by saying, “Life is what defines it. Not the death of Romans, nor ours, nor those that follow us into battle. But the life of Sibyl, or Laeta. The mother and her child…They are all Sura, and I would see them live.”
That establishment of the series’ intent and sharp delivery of the message allowed ‘Victory’ to gradually become an intense and breathless wave of action that gleefully toyed with the viewers’ expectations without disrupting the purpose and meaning of the inescapable climax. From the onset, it was clear how outnumbered Spartacus was, how silly it seemed for him to take a stand against the might of Rome, and in this instance we are reminded of how Crixus fell. And still, despite the insurmountable odds and the certainty of his fate, Spartacus puts on a brilliant showing, and for a brief moment the viewer is invited to believe that history can, in this instance anyway, be rewritten.
Spartacus’ cunning and relentless drive puts the Romans momentarily on their heels – especially when Gannicus arrives, dividing the army’s attention and narrowly missing Crassus and Caesar with a barrage of Roman spears. But as soon as Lugo starts (literally) swinging a flaming hammer of death, the momentum begins to shift and familiar characters are sent off to the afterlife. Whether we knew them from the first moments of the series, during Gods of the Arena, Vengeance or even during War of the Damned, as each character falls in battle, their death lands with astonishing impact.
But ‘Victory’ doesn’t settle for simple one-and-done confrontations. Instead, it delights with moments like Spartacus knocking Crassus from his horse then, after pursuing him atop a hill and slaying several of his men, halting Crassus’ signature technique and using it against him. It was like the battle itself: a losing endeavor, but one that was filled with some incredible and unforgettable moments.
And while the battle was won for Rome, (sort of) like history would remember it, the cost was great on both sides. Crassus would have his victory, but at the expense of total glory and worse, the life of Kore. Meanwhile, Gannicus found something worth living for and wound up crucified for it, but is greeted in death by Oenomaus and the roar of the arena he was once a god in.
‘Victory’ (and the series) ends with Agron, Nasir and the other survivors, looking back on the man who had shown them to their freedom, leaving Spartacus under a red serpent – as had been foretold when the series first began.
Drawing that kind of circle back to the beginning of the series was an incredibly effective way of ending Spartacus and it helped demonstrate once more just how far the series had come since its seemingly inauspicious beginning. This is the kind of series one hopes is not soon forgotten. Looking back on Spartacus as a whole, it seems impossible that it ever will be.