It seems the popular way to direct attention to a series’ end is to jump forward in time and present the main characters with what will essentially be the conflict for which they are remembered. This was how Fringe sought to mark its final season, and now, Starz gives us something similar as Spartacus: War of the Damned sees fit to bring the network’s flagship series to its inevitable conclusion in grand style.

Of course, unlike Fringe, Spartacus has to take into consideration the fact that it is presenting a highly fictionalized account of history, not mention it is one of several iterations of the Spartacus story that have already become such a part of popular culture.

So, in bringing his series to a close, creator Steven S. DeKnight must try his hand at accommodating the high expectations of those seeking accuracy, as well as those of the established fanbase who’re on board for the sheer spectacle of it all.

And what a grand spectacle it is. War of the Damned gets off to a rousing start with the camera slowly surveying a scene filled with the bodies of fallen soldiers that soon gives way to the sight of a massive clash. No sooner has the milieu been established than the focus shifts to the utter savagery of Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) and his core group of gladiators/freed slaves, as they begin laying waste to what’s left of the Roman legion led by Cossinius (John Wraight) and Furius (Jared Turner). In typical Spartacus fashion, the clash unfolds with a series of grisly kill shots and over-the-top bludgeonings, slicings, and cleavings coating everything in buckets of crimson, with nothing more than the guttural noises and Maria Sharapova-esque grunts of the warriors to heighten the gruesome scene.

By the end of it, Spartacus adds another Roman standard to his substantial collection, but it’s a hollow victory, as the two men he had pursued, Cossinius and Furius, manage to elude him once more. It is also a lengthy and violent cold open, but it establishes so much so quickly that by the time the two high-ranking officials are nursing their wounds and complaining that Rome hasn’t supplied them with enough soldiers to quash Spartacus’ uprising, ‘Enemies of Rome’ has made it clear this is no longer an embarrassing scuffle between a mighty empire and a trifling rebellion – this is full-on war.

And with that, the premiere saves the majority of its exposition to introduce the audience to Spartacus’ newest, and most cunning antagonist, Marcus Crassus (Simon Merrells). At the behest of Cossinius and Furius, Rome turns to the wealth and might of Crassus, because it simply cannot afford to take on an ever-growing army of freed slaves, in addition to the other conflicts it is involved in at the time. Initially, despite the protests of his son Tiberius (Christian Antidormi), it looks as though Crassus is willing to put his life on the line for the good of the republic and the honor of earning respect and title – but it doesn’t take long to learn that ambition and desire for prestige fuel this adversary as wholly as they did Batiatus (John Hannah) or Gaius Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker).

The rest of the time, ‘Enemies of Rome’ establishes a dichotomy between Spartacus and Crassus, by quickly bringing us up to date on where the Thracian warrior’s mindset is. Aside from his continued proficiency on the battlefield, this is a man who (like the actor who portrays him) has changed, matured and grown into his current role. But there are problems; namely, his camp has grown so large and he so removed from certain aspects of it that when he confronts a man who is butchering a horse, the fellow unloads a string of complaints about Spartacus without knowing to whom he’s speaking. And, as an inebriated Gannicus (Dustin Clare) makes clear, Spartacus had his revenge on the people who took his wife, so the question now becomes: Who will be next to see his wrath, once Rome falls?

DeKnight poses these questions in such a way that it becomes clear he’s setting up an endgame for the series and giving his protagonists something hefty to ponder as they approach the finale. What better way to begin the final season than with your characters brooding over where it will all end?

But it’s not all contemplation and deep self-reflection; there are still plenty of the series’ more prurient aspects on display, as well as the aforementioned violence. Like it has in seasons past, however, Spartacus continues to balance those exaggerated elements with thoughtfully constructed character moments like Crixus (Manu Bennett) commending Naevia (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) on her strength and will to carry on, as well as the growing intensity of the relationship between Agron (Dan Feuerriegel) and Nasir (Pana Hema Taylor). Perhaps, though, it is the aforementioned scene between Gannicus and Spartacus that really shows how well this series understands how to make these characters feel so fleshed out and realized.

Similarly, DeKnight manages to infuse Marcus Crassus with more than just a hint of what he’s all about. In addition to being wildly ambitious (to the point of putting his life on the line to prove a point) he’s also a dedicated father to his two sons – though it seems he may be a little lacking in the husband department. But even then, as he is of means to grant them nearly anything, Crassus believes his children must earn their place. But it is during a cracking sequence near the episode’s end that we truly learn what this antagonist is made of.

Cut with scenes of Spartacus storming a villa to kill Cossinus and Furius, Crassus engages in a fight to the death with his slave, Hilarus (Richard Norton). There’s quite a lot going on here, but we soon realize that what first appears to be a comparison between the strategic and physical prowess of both men, proves to be Crassus simply playing everyone – including Spartacus. “Knowledge and patience, the only counter to greater skill,” Crassus explains after he defeats the more skilled gladiator by anticipating his moves and proving himself willing to endure anything so long as it ends with him as the victor.

Spartacus enters into its final season knowing exactly who its characters are, and, better yet, where they need to go in order to deliver the biggest impact. But what is perhaps more impressive is that in a single episode, the series has managed to present a cunning adversary who is already so well drawn that it feels as though we truly understand his perspective – even if we’re rooting against it.

This may be the beginning of the end for Spartacus, but it feels like something we’ll remember for a long time to come.

Other Items:

  • Staying true to his word, Crixus has clearly taught Naevia how to cleave a man’s head off with a single blow, proving that romance is not dead.
  • Several of the slo-mo kills in the episode were some of the best the series has given us. The alley-oop of a Roman soldier was a particular favorite.
  • The scene where Crassus holds a dying Hilarus in his arms and promises to put up a statue in his honor is not only surprisingly tender, it elevates Crassus beyond a one-note baddie and into someone whose beliefs merit further examination.

Spartacus: War of the Damned continues next Friday with ‘Wolves at the Gate’ @9pm on Starz. Check out a preview of the episode below: