It is definitely a good sign that, after his captivating introduction in the season premiere, Simon Merrells’ turn as the crafty Marcus Crassus would leave the audience wanting more. Spartacus has always had an interesting character filling the series’ need for a villain or larger antagonist – a face for everything Spartacus was fighting against, if you will – and on the surface of Spartacus: War of the Damned, Crassus certainly fits the bill.

His steely demeanor and penchant for playing his enemies against themselves certainly sets him up as the kind of man who could bring down the mighty Thracian. So, after the series took a week off to allow fans to catch up, and with Crassus nowhere to be seen during ‘Men of Honor,’ it feels like one of the most interesting characters to be seen so far this season has been gone too long. Now, in the aptly titled ‘Decimation,’ Crassus returns, but not necessarily to the delight of his son – or the men who’d failed him.

Although he’s pitted against the series’ hero, there’s something different about Crassus. Unlike those who’ve come before him, such as Batiatus and especially Glaber, describing Crassus as a villain doesn’t do the character justice – he’s more of an intimidating challenger, really (a character trait Crassus shares with Julius Ceasar) – which certainly helps to make him more exciting than if he’d simply been depicted as simply another baddie.

That’s not to say he hasn’t been uncompromising and sometimes ruthless (facets he shares with Spartacus), but those traits certainly aren’t all that comprise his character, either. In addition to his cunning and sense of respect and honor for those “beneath” him, one of the more interesting aspects of Crassus’ characterization has been the love/hate relationship he has with his son. Following Tiberius’ ill-advised assault on an exposed Spartacus, late last episode, the question of how his father would react, once news of the failed assault reached him, quickly became an issue.

For the answer, the episode navigates another of Crassus’ key relationships, peeling back another layer of his development. Kore, the slave that Crassus loves, and the woman who fills in as something of a confidant and caretaker for both he and Tiberius, has acted as a bridge for much of their father/son interaction. Here, Crassus confesses to Kore that no matter how much Tiberius aims to please, he continues to be a child to his father. In his opening up to Kore, Crassus comes to realize that his inability to see Tiberius as a man is due less to his son’s shortcomings and more because the young man had been treated as just that, the son of Marcus Crassus. However, after being forced to take part in beating Sabinus to death, Crassus may have inadvertently ensured that Tiberius no longer sees him as his father.

The scene depicting the action from which the episode gets it title (“Decimation”) is intercut with a similarly violent event at Sinuessa en Valle that brutally shows how close both sides are to resembling one another. Naturally, in keeping with the comparisons of either camp, there were similar themes of sacrifice and insubordination being pursued between Crassus’ army and the idle rebels stationed at Sinuessa en Valle.

But most importantly, after two episodes of seeing the writers push around the various pieces, we start to see some hints of how those movements have begun to pay off.

One of the biggest sources of movement comes in the form of Julius Caesar’s infiltration of Sinuessa en Valle, under the guise of being a slave. His appearance answers several questions about the character that have lingered since his arrival at the House of Crassus; namely, putting Tiberius in charge instead of Caesar; the refusal to allow him to shave; and, thankfully, the answer to what the slave girl was doing with that knife. What appeared to be questionable character decisions (and one unpleasant idiosyncrasy) were revealed to be further examples of Crassus’ meticulous planning and keen mind – making him seem even more dangerous than ever before.

While Crassus might not be called a villain in the classic sense, Spartacus’ army probably cannot be called heroic, or more to the point, justified in the classic sense now either. As much as the writers were moving things around, skillfully setting up Caesar’s infiltration, they were also intent on illustrating just how delicate a situation Spartacus has on his hands. Early on, Crixus warns that remaining idle for too long will lead to problems for the rebels beyond a need for food or shelter to last them through the winter, and here we see those warnings come to fruition.

Last episode saw Naevia take center stage as the poster child for the rage that continues to swell within the hearts of those who’d been forced into chains and suffered greatly at the hands Roman master. While her representation of it was both a little more personal (and somewhat off putting), it was clear that this group had at long last tasted revenge, and found they had an insatiable appetite for it. Add up Caesar’s incitement of the mob, Gannicus’ proof that Naevia lied about Attius, and the growing resentment toward Spartacus for keeping Roman prisoners alive, and the situation quickly devolved into disturbing display of violence against those incapable of defending themselves.

And yet, the real trouble seems to come not when Cirxus, Naevia and several others go against orders and kill the Romans that remain in the city, but when it becomes clear that there is a growing faction of Spartacus’ army he may no longer control. To make matters worse, a quick questioning of Laeta leaves Spartacus with the sneaking suspicion that he’s been playing into the hands of an increasingly dangerous adversary he’s yet to face in battle.

This is proving to be a War of the Damned indeed.

Various Items:

  • As increasingly toxic as Naevia seems to have suddenly become, there is quite the opposite happening with Gannicus. Whether he is shunning the advances of Sibyl for good cause or saving the life of a Roman prisoner whose head he’d just as soon see on a pike, Gannicus (and Dustin Clare) continues to set himself apart from the others.
  • Speaking of Gannicus: round one of Gannicus vs. Caesar goes to the former. But with a promise of a rematch, there’s a good chance that these two will put on quite a show before the series comes to an end.
  • Todd Lasance does some skillful work in an incredibly unpleasant scene involving the reveal of Fabia and her fate at the hands of Nemetes and his crew. Normally, there’d be the tendency to overplay it, but Lasance seems to keep it in check while still demonstrating himself capable of playing more than the charming braggart.

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