When Spartacus got released on Netflix a few months ago, I absolutely devoured it. Seriously, I took all four seasons and was finished in just a few days. The last season I watched in basically one sitting, not finishing until close to 5am. I loved it. So much so that I pretty much immediately forced my sister to sit through my rewatch so I could have someone to obsess over it with. Sadly, she doesn’t live with me, so we were forced to marathon a few episodes at a time with weeks in between. So it took a little while to get through.
Truth be told, I think taking it a little slow the second time around was a good thing. It allowed for some breathing room, some thoughts and feelings to finish percolating. And having someone else watching with me, and someone who often has vastly different tastes when it comes to favorites (she does not share my love for Agron), gave me an opportunity to talk through some things. Particularly, we talked a lot about Season Four and how completely different it was from the rest of the series, and how absolutely necessary that was for the show to end in any kind of satisfying way while still holding on to its historical accuracy.
Season One introduced us to our key players. We met Spartacus, learned how he became a slave and a gladiator, and clearly saw the injustices he suffered. His status as the hero was clear (despite the fact that, honestly, I kind think Spartacus is a bit of a dumbass in the first season – but that’s neither here nor there). The Upstairs/Downstairs aspect of the show made it very apparent who was on the side of good and who wasn’t. The other key players of the ludus (Oenomaus, Crixus, Varro, Naevia, and eventually Mira and Agron) may have butted heads at time, but their conflict was always honorable. You could see both sides of their arguments. Crixus may have fought to keep his title as Champion, for example, but he was never a villain. And any of the slaves who did show signs of behaving that way, like when Gnaeus raped Pietros and caused him to commit suicide, they were swiftly dealt with.
No, the villains were the Romans. And their villany was very clear. Glaber didn’t just punish Spartacus for humiliating him, he punished his wife. Batiatus had Spartacus’ wife killed. Ilythia orchestrated Varro’s death at Spartacus’ hands. And Lucretia serially raped Crixus and sent his lover to the mines in a jealous rage. There was also Ashur; he wasn’t a Roman but he was never a gladiator either and he made his choice to stand against them in revenge for their not accepting him. It was always very obvious whose side we should be one.
Season Two got a little tricky. Without a Spartacus, we traveled back to see the raising of the arena and the history of Batiatus’ ludus, so the lines of good and bad got a little blurred. Batiatus and Lucretia became more protagonist-like for these six episodes, struggling against his father and other Romans such as Tullius and Vettius. And despite knowing what was to become of them and what kind of injustices they were capable of, they were such complex and likeable characters that you couldn’t help but root for them.
The show still maintained its Upstairs/Downstairs feel, what with Batiatus and Lucretia’s stories moving alongside our introduction to Gannicus, the champion gladiator who was freed before Spartacus came to the ludus. And again, the villains were clearly defined by their at times grotesque disregard for others, such as Tullius murder of Gaia and Cossutius’ (arguably the vilest character in the series’ whole run) delight at violating Diona. So while there was a little upset in that we’d gone back in time, that strong divide between the slaves who were good and the Romans who weren’t was still there.
By Season Three, we returned to Spartacus’ story. At this point the gladiators had revolted, killed their masters at the ludus, and gone on the lam. And yet still, they were very clearly positioned to be the heroes. Their cause, freedom for all, was one so obviously just that when they liberated a ship of German war prisoners, they almost instantly fell in line behind Spartacus. And their villains were all continued from previous seasons: Glaber and Ilythia and their personal vendetta against Spartacus, Lucretia and Ashur and their own personal revenges against the gladiators, and even a return of the gross Cossutius. We did gain a young brother/sister pair, Seppius and Seppia, who were both delightfully nasty (my sister described Seppia as the Lydia Bennet of ancient Rome) but fairly harmless. Their villany came more from their attitude than any actual deeds. Conspiracy and deception is not for everyone and they were handily outmatched by Glaber and Ilythia.
When it came to the gladiators themselves, they certainly weren’t above in-fighting, even now unified by a common enemy and cause, but again most conflict was understandable and painted neither side as villanous. Agron and Crixus’ animosity, for example, came from one of them wanting to save the life of the woman he loved and the other looking out for the good of the group. Neither was in the wrong and arguments can be made for both of their different perspectives (personally, I tend to side with Agron). And once Agron fell in love himself and began a relationship with Nasir, he was able to apologize to Crixus for his past actions as he now understood why Crixus would risk all for Naevia. It took some effort, but the two were eventually able to at least table their differences.
Season Three ended similarly to the previous two seasons: in triumph. Season One ended with the gladiators’ revolt and them leaving their life as slaves behind. Season Two ended with Gannicus gaining his freedom and Batiatus rising above his enemies. Season Three ended with victory at the Battle of Vesuvius and the deaths of all our villains: Ilythia and Lucretia killing each other, Ashur losing his head in a fight with Naevia, and Glaber and the Roman army’s defeat. Spartacus and his growing army, clearly the story’s heroes, stand tall while defeating all those who would enslave and oppress them.
When we get to Season Four, however, things start to take a turn. We’ve jumped two years in time and Spartacus and his follower’s image starts to tarnish. And those who oppose him – Marcus Crassus, Caesar, even Tiberius and Herocleo – become less evil villains and more simply antagonists.
It becomes clear from basically the first episode of Season Four that Spartacus’ followers have grown to unmanageable numbers. And while Spartacus may have proven himself a skilled tactitian and general, he’s not well able to govern. King Spartacus, as some of his followers spitefully call him, has no idea some people have no food to eat. He’s promised them freedom (and forced it on others) without giving them a way to live other than as starving fugitives. And now without the personal revenge he has against Batiatus and Glaber, his cause has become less focused. His end goal is unclear. Free all the slaves of Rome, sure, but what does that mean for him and his followers? What does that look like?
It’s not just Spartacus who looses some of his luster in Season Four. Crixus and Naevia’s pursuit of justice for the wrongs done to them has blossomed into an almost crazed blood lust, only to be sated when they have bathed themselves in the blood of every man, woman, and child who calls themselves Roman. Naevia murders Attius, Gannicus’ friend who provided the rebels with weapons and aided them in taking the city of Sinuessa all at the risk of his own life, simply for being a Roman. And then claimed it was because he was aiding their Roman prisoners and had attacked her, both of which were false. She and Crixus lead the charge of butchering the Romans the rebels had captured upon taking the city, and force those still living to fight, gladiator style, over a piece of bread. Nemetes takes to thieving, taking coin off those runaway slaves looking for protection and asylum, and keeps a Roman woman naked and chained in a secret corner of the city for him and other rebels to use for their pleasure. While the morality of slavery versus freedom is still clear, it’s becoming harder to root for some of these individuals.
Even the love stories that have carried over from previous seasons have lost some of their shine. Gannicus and Saxa have an arrangement based far more on pleasure and revelry than feeling, and he leaves her for Sibyl without even telling her. Crixus and Naevia (both of whom could really benefit from some therapy after the traumas they’ve both suffered) have degenerated into a pair hell-bent not on justice but on causing as much suffering as possible. And Agron and Nasir spend much of the season grappling with Agron’s jealousy and possessive nature, eventually leading to them parting ways.
As for our antagonists, as I said above, they can’t rightly be called villains. There isn’t that personal agenda that Batiatus and Glaber had. Crassus and Ceasar are perhaps not the most likable of men, but they aren’t exactly evil either. They are simply leading their army against Spartacus’ army. Marcus Crassus, in fact, shows Spartacus a good deal of respect. He sees him as a worthy opponent, a man of skill and intelligence. They meet to size each other up on the eve of their last battle and shake hands in deference to each other. Herocleo betrays Spartacus’ and his army, but not out of hatred or spite. Crassus simply pays him more. And Tiberius, probably the worst of the lot, becomes villainous only towards Kore and Ceasar, very personal and very internal conflicts. His beef with Spartacus is the same as his father’s, merely militaristic. His killing of Crixus was in fair, open combat. Add to these antagonists the characters of Attius and Laeta, two Roman citizens who are shown to be good people who aid Spartacus’ cause, and it’s clear the show’s censure of the Roman people as a whole is softening.
Both of these major tonal shifts – the tarnishing of Spartacus and his army as well as the softening of the Roman villainy – are necessary for Season Four, and indeed the series, to end in any kind of satisfying way. Historically, the rebellion failed. Spartacus and his army was defeated by Marcus Crassus. There is no other way to end the show. But it softens the blow when he is defeated by a man who showed Spartacus respect on the battlefield and in many ways saw him as an equal. It makes defeat almost necessary when the rebels have lost their moral center and have taken to vileness and villainy of their own.
Spartacus doesn’t end triumphantly. Spartacus’ army is defeated. Those who didn’t die on the battlefield are crucified along the roads of Rome. Spartacus himself bleeds out in the mountains. Their noble cause of ending slavery and setting all men free is never realized. But the ending is still…palatable, if not wholly satisfying. Spartacus is reunited with his wife in the afterlife where he will finally hear her call him by name. Oenomaus comes back to welcome his dear friend Gannicus into the afterlife. And a small parcel of their followers, led by a reuinted Agron and Nasir, cross the mountains to freedom. It’s not triumphant. It’s barely hopeful. But it’s okay. They stood for something. They tried. They went down swinging and they went out well. And in the end, that’s all you can ask for.