Every so often, a series has to give an episode up just to lay all the pieces out on the table. In 'Wolves at the Gate,' the Spartacus: War of the Damned writers use the hour to deal with a swelling cast of new characters, multiple plot threads (each with their own various motivations) and the need to funnel all of this in the direction that will see the series come to an end.
That the episode manages to still find time for some sword swinging is a feat unto itself, considering the substantial weight of the plot and series progression it is tasked with handling. But this is good; with the amount of information that's been pushed into this hour of television, it stands to reason that the remaining episodes will have the freedom to better explore who these characters are while marching toward what the audience knows will be the end.
Still, despite having to introduce a surprisingly buff and tawny Julius Caesar, played by Todd Lasance, 'Wolves at the Gate' also gives further insight into Spartacus' state of mind and how the pursuit of his quest begins to weigh heavy on his conscience. The taking of the seaside city is not only strategically important, but its aftermath illustrates the lengths the show's writers go to maintain a level of consistency with their characters.
During 'Enemies of Rome' Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) and Gannicus (Dustin Clare) shared a surprisingly sincere conversation concerning personal issues left untied and the exchange drifted toward the issue of just how far this war on Rome was going to go. Gannicus revealed that his personal issues been dealt with by the words of a dying Oenomaus. On his end, however, Spartacus has no one to "break such balming words," suggesting that, for a time, the rebel leader and man so many look up to is somewhat adrift in regard to knowing the limits of his pursuit.
Which is why the episode places Spartacus in the unpleasant role of having to take (or being directly responsible for the taking of) innocent lives. Sure, these are Romans, people who readily buy, sell and trade human lives and, as is seen in the marketplace shortly after Spartacus and his crew make their way inside the city, willingly, almost gleefully partake in the vicious and prolonged stoning of a slave who would dare speak the name "Spartacus" or whisper words of rebellion. So, yes, in terms of war, these people are the enemy, but as they fall, the loss of life weighs heavy on Spartacus nonetheless.
Prior to taking the city, Spartacus encounters a woman named Laeta, played by Anna Hutchinson of Cabin in the Woods fame, and though she is Roman and the wife of the high-ranking official, Ennius, she also appears to have some compassion toward slaves – or at least a better understanding of the human condition than some Romans – when she tells her husband, "Show an animal kindness and it will give loyalty until the heavens fall. Show it nothing but the lash, and wonder not why it bears teeth." It's not exactly a heartfelt plea for equality, but at least Laeta is advocating a more humane treatment where it appears there really is none.
There is a scene soon after Spartacus arrives in the city, where he takes stock of the city's grain stores and is confronted by Ennius, who recognizes him for having ended the stoning of the slave by delivering the deathblow. The two share the sentiment that extreme violence without cause is something to abhor – but the question of what constitutes "cause" lingers long after the encounter, and resonates even more once the night's carnage (and especially the sight of the little girl and her mother Spartacus had spoken with lying among the many casualties) reveal his army's action to be as condemnable as anything the Romans have done.
The role reversal threatens to see Spartacus become what he's trying to wipe out, but it also grants a glimpse into the thinking that exists on both sides, illustrating how similar they actually are. Spartacus spares the lives of those who didn't perish in the initial assault, and although there are grumbles amongst his army, the growing worry is not their insatiable bloodlust, but the decision to put the survivors in chains. It's a necessary precaution, but the question of "to what end?" looms large. Though they are at odds now, it seems likely that Laeta's presence in the series will be to keep Spartacus from drifting too far in the other direction.
Meanwhile, back at the house of Crassus, the dynamics of several relationships have become clearer, thanks to the arrival of Julius Caesar. In addition to officially straightening out the obvious attachment Crassus (Simon Merrells) has with his slave Kore (Jenna Lind) – which was facilitated by the Caesar assuming she was a gift from Crassus to him – it also furthers the conflict between father and son. Tiberius (Christian Antidormi) hasn't quite lived up to his father's expectations, and as established last episode, the young man lacks the understanding of the enemy (or people, really) his father has. Even so, Tiberius is appointed the role he craved, at the expense of Caesar, which does not sit well with the man.
In the end, though, this is an hour where we are introduced to one more character that will play a major role in the series (and his own, perhaps) down the line. While the depiction of Julius Caesar will probably have many calling foul, his presence adds an interesting wrinkle to the Crassus family situation – especially now that his army is set to advance toward the enemy.
- According to Crassus, Caesar is "a man of base needs." Whatever was happening with that slave girl and the knife, sure seemed to exemplify that claim.
- For whatever reason, the fact that Caesar looks like Patrick Swayze in Point Break makes his eccentricities and the fit he throws at the end of the episode so much more enjoyable than if he looked like Ciarán Hinds in Rome.
- Now that Crixus (Manu Bennett) seems to have settled into a domestic (as much as there can be one) role with Naevia (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), it seems like Spartacus has begun to rely heavily on the company of Gannicus.
Spartacus: War of the Damned continues next Friday with 'Men of Honor' @9pm on Starz. Check out a preview of the episode below: