With only 10 episodes left in Steven S. DeKnight’s bold and bloody Spartacus, the series is, for once, as desperate as its title character. Whereas Spartacus could once bask in the seedy corruption that goes into the training of slaves as gladiators and then cheer on the spectacle of arena combat, the show’s third and final season, The War of the Damned, has no time to spare. Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) is no longer leading a mere handful of his fellow gladiators, but now an entire army of freed slaves. This larger scope requires some smaller storytelling sacrifices, though the tactical minutiae that elevated Spartacus from simple violence to masterful storytelling is still evident.
The development of secondary characters has been largely reduced to two-minute scraps, and these scenes heavily rely on a fan’s recollection of past seasons. Whereas previous seasons lingered on the growing romance between once-soft house-slave Nasir (Pana Hema-Taylor) and hardened veteran fighter Agron (Dan Feuerriegel), we’re only shown a brief post-coital chat between them in the first couple of episodes. And while the rehabilitation of Naevia (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) was a focal point last season, her condition is given only one brief glimpse here, when she tells her lover, Crixus (Manu Bennett), to return to her dripping with Roman blood. What these brief scenes lack in length they make up for in intensity, and longtime viewers will both understand and appreciate the shorthand that’s packed into something as simple as a glance.
More importantly, those scenes have been limited so as to better establish this season’s antagonist: Marcus Crassus (Simon Merrells). The majority of the first episode, “Enemies of Rome,” is focused on drawing parallels between Spartacus, who’s growing more Roman in his attention to details and military organization, and Crassus, who’s training with his slave-gladiators and putting his own life on the line in an attempt to out-think Spartacus. As he puts it to his anxious son, Tiberius (Christian Antidormi), “Knowledge and patience are the only counter to greater skill.” The second episode, “Wolves at the Gate,” could be referring either to Spartacus’s infiltration of a Roman city that he means to seize for his underfed and shelter-seeking army or to the introduction of Crassus’s secret weapon, a 28-year-old Julius Caesar (Todd Lasance), whose overseas experience has left him wolfish and short-tempered.
It’s true, as Gannicus (Dustin Clare) points out to Spartacus, that it’s unclear where all this fighting will lead (after all, they’ve gotten their vengeance many times over), but such charismatic and iron-willed new rivals ensure that War of the Damned has a definite end in sight. Moreover, by introducing new characters and alliances, including Crassus’s secret romance with his slave, Kore (Jenna Lind), and the attention Spartacus gives to his captured, soft-hearted noblewoman, Laeta (Anna Hutchinson), War of the Damned avoids covering familiar ground. This isn’t to say that the scheming is any less present: Crassus maneuvers himself into better command; Tiberius seeks to outshine his demanding father; Caesar is, well, Caesar. Nor does it mean that the desperation of Spartacus’s camp has lessened; if anything, it’s grown worse and more graphic, with attention given to the underfed, non-fighting slaves who scrabble for tainted horse flesh, and emphasizes the ugliness and cost of continued war. But whereas Spartacus could once simply command, “Kill them all,” he now finds himself forced to find a new path. Pretty much the only thing that hasn’t evolved for the better are the “gorified” battle sequences, in which each bloody dismemberment or impalement comes with its own digitally embellished fountain of blood.
Crassus understands that a proper Roman army will never defeat Spartacus and his guerrilla tactics, and Spartacus is beginning to learn that while vengeance can fuel an army, it cannot feed it. As the tactics of these two characters grow all but indistinguishable, it becomes clear why this final season is labeled War of the Damned, and all but guarantees that while their fighting will lead to a bitter end, it will lead viewers to the most savory of conclusions.