Episode 4 - Empty Hands
8 March 2013
Synopsis: Ilithyia suggests a celebration in the villa. Crixus, Rhaskos, Oenomaus and another gladiator are paraded before the guests. Ilithyia manoeuvres to get her father to dissolve her marriage to Glaber so she can be with Varinius. Lucretia sleeps with Senator Albinius to push him toward that end. In the forest Spartacus leads what's left of Crixus' men toward Vesuvius. They die off one by one and Nassir is badly wounded.
The Good: This was quite an achievement. It was a strong, entertaining story told across one evening but in two places. What stood out was the sheer number of characters whose motivations and manoeuvrings had to be included. Despite the large cast I still felt connected to the emotional narrative of each person and the fact that half those people were the unpleasant Roman aristocracy makes it even more impressive.
Spartacus' journey through the forest was simple but effective. His growing bond with Mira took shape nicely. She has been aiding him from the start (of the rebellion) of course but for him to see her standing side by side with him willing to die was a big moment. You could see him taken aback by her loyalty and support. The weight of Aurelia's words still sit on his shoulders. He refused to countenance abandoning anyone (Naevia, Nassir) who he feels personally responsible for. The long night of struggle and blood led sensibly to the emotional relief when Agron appeared instead of more Romans. It was a pleasant and comforting way to leave our hero after this particular trial.
I liked the brief arguments Spartacus had with Crixus' remaining allies. Their discussion over what to do with Nassir and Naevia was always sensible and the mention of Varro gave the tense discussions a nice edge. I also thought Naevia's terror was used well throughout the episode to communicate the fear going through those on the run.
The story continues to be told well that the Romans will wear the slaves down eventually but one on one a gladiator should triumph. As I suggested last week Ashur's unique position leads to genuinely unpredictable viewing. For a second I wondered if he would aid Spartacus and take his chances with the slaves but sensibly he did not. Instead he kills Marcus to avoid being killed which was wise.
Back in Capua the writers balanced the competing desires of Ilithyia, Lucretia, Seppia, Seppius, Varinius and Albinus pretty well. The use of Crixus and the other gladiators led to some nice tension when you wondered if one of them would be slain. Instead the unnamed Gaul received a horrible butchering. The swaggering cruelty of the Romans was beautifully savage. It makes it so much easier to cheer for their deaths when we see them taking such pleasure in torture. I also enjoyed the contrast presented by Seppia's sudden attack of conscience. The presence of that moment of empathy helped underline how venally ambitious Ilithyia is.
She really took centre stage here refusing to be deterred by anyone. She ignores Seppia and Glaber and almost murders Lucretia all to get a shot at a new husband and increased standing in Rome. The way she essentially offered to abort her child to move up in the world was a pretty horrendous moment.
We already know what Lucretia is capable of and her constant refrain of friendship toward Ilithyia is pretty interesting. I assume she thinks that as long as she has Lycenia's murder in her back pocket then Ilithyia will always be a pliable ally. I'm glad Ilithyia never gave in and believed the act and only relented when Lucretia dangled a carrot she couldn't ignore. We still don't know what Lucretia is after but in a sense it doesn't matter. As a Roman widow I assume her rights to property and position are essentially forfeit.
The Bad: The writers have chosen to hang on to the (physical) House of Batiatus and so are paying a price in contrivance. The parading of Oenomaus, Crixus, Rhaskos and..."another gladiator that we only just met" was the all too familiar Star Trek red shirt moment. Not only was it obvious that Varinius would request they die another day but the fact that Lucretia then got to pick one of them to fall now made the situation even more obvious. It's hardly bad television but it's so clear that Crixus and Oenomaus won't die soon that to threaten their deaths feels hollow so early in a season.
I suppose Spartacus is in a similar position so perhaps I'm foolish to suggest more could have been made of his fight in the forest. In season one his slow motion fight with Glaber's men was a very enjoyable scene. Here he stood alone with the odds stacked against him but the fight felt perfunctory and won before it started.
The Unknown: I am intrigued by all the Capuan shenanigans. I can't bring myself to feel too sorry for Glaber but he hardly deserves to be disowned by such a heinous wife. I wasn't sure why he asked Lucretia to choose which man to kill. I couldn't see an obvious benefit to him by doing this. It does seem like he is looking to pinch Seppius and his men for his cause. I don't know if Cossutius is back to do anything more than play the pervert.
Best Moment: There were a couple of moments when I began to feel the old bond for Spartacus return. One was feeling his relief at the sight of Agron of course. The other was moments before the fight with Marcus' men when he closed his eyes. It was a lovely little moment to show the stress and determination rushing through him at the same time.
The Bottom Line: I really enjoyed this. It was the first episode of the season to feel like a standalone piece. It helps that it was all set over one evening and the pace was excellent. I was genuinely impressed with the deft juggling act the writers performed in keeping the Capua story interesting while keeping Spartacus under pressure.
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