Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Season 1: Episode 5 – “Shadow Games”
Written by Miranda Kwok
Directed by Michael Hurst
Originally aired February 19th, 2010
Just two episodes ago, Spartacus took the time to establish what makes a legend of the arena. And while the series is not defined by any one ideal, the role of glory has certainly played a huge role thus far. When Spartacus sits with Crixus shortly before their battle with Theokoles, The Shadow of Death, Crixus is right to point out that Theokoles would bother to return to the arena for another shot at glory. Money doesn’t matter to a real gladiator; being the best and being recognized for that are the greatest rewards one can be given. It’s what Crixus strives for, as well. Knowing Spartacus’ back-story, we might think that fighting for some higher purpose, whether that be love or another thing, could be more noble. But after carefully crafting Crixus in these early episodes, both perspectives make sense even if Crixus’ is marred by a certain degree of vanity.
“I fight to honor these walls,” Crixus tells Spartacus. “You fight to leave them.” Again, we–as viewers–want Spartacus to be able to leave. He has no interest in the life of a gladiator at this point. What will redeem the injustices he’s been forced to endure comes down to gaining freedom for himself and his wife. So, he throws motivation back at Crixus: “You fight because you are a slave…like me.” While that line is meant to bring Crixus back to earth, it’s also an admission that shows how Spartacus is beginning to come to terms with his situation, however temporary. He is a slave. But, from Crixus’ standpoint, you can either let that govern how you treat each day or you can embrace it and become something more. The Shadow of Death returns to Capua to face The Undefeated Gaul. Just earning titles like these shows how glory trumps most obstacles, physical and mental, in Spartacus. It would even explain why someone like Varro would willingly subject himself to the life of a gladiator, because debt alone cannot be the sole cause. The people’s favor shifts like the wind, but gain it just for one moment and you understand that gladiators can become more than just people. They can become immortal.
Spartacus wouldn’t work, though, if that were its only point worth making. Just as Crixus’ words have meaning for Spartacus, the opposite is true. “Is there nothing else you fight for?” he asks Crixus. We know that Naevia has changed Crixus’ answer to that question, and the pause before the conversation is interrupted tells Spartacus that there is more to his rival than he probably knows. Indeed, before combat, Crixus asks Spartacus if his wife is really the thing in his life that keeps him going and admits that he, too, has something else worth fighting for. It lends an already ridiculous fight (in the sense of it being so intense and engaging that it’s hard to believe it’s happening) more weight as two opposing forces must co-exist, yin and yang, to become one entity to take down a common foe.
That existence is much more difficult to achieve than some of the relatively benign words exchanged between the two before battle would suggest. It seems like maybe–just maybe–they can do it. But after they receive the premature cheering from the crowd, Crixus’ pride gets the better of him, and he pays a hefty price. He’s humble enough to aid Spartacus so that he can get the killing blow, but if Crixus’ skull is really as thick as it seems, he has little chance of surviving in Spartacus, even though his life before the Thracian arrived would have been much easier. The silver lining? The clouds gather and water falls from the heavens, and thus The Bringer of Rain is born (that’s not really a spoiler; Spartacus gains his first title because of this fight, which could probably have been assumed, considering he killed Theokoles). As Crixus’ glory begins its descent, Spartacus’ begins its ascent, proving that a simplified approach to battling on the sands in which one fights for nothing other than glory itself won’t be enough anymore. Having something more to fight for gives you an advantage at the same time it gives you an edge, similar to how Crixus tells Naevia that, in the right hands, loving the night before a major battle can give someone confidence and a kind of security.
Spartacus and Crixus have been wild hyenas around each other, and they’ve only been together four episodes. In that amount of time, both have been developed into sympathetic characters and have generated a rivalry for the ages. With that kind of speed, one might think a development of that relationship of a greater magnitude might occur here, but DeKnight and his writing team stay away from letting the two really become buds. Even in the face of the greatest threat the arena has ever seen, it’s still painfully difficult to put differences aside. And, really, those differences are probably only going to become heightened in the aftermath of the fight, with Crixus being the kind of person who would be bitter about Spartacus receiving the glory he believes is his. That is perhaps the most impressive aspect of “Shadow Games” outside of its technical achievement (more on that below)–that it can provide a kind of payoff we expect in a traditional rivals-turned-allies story without really changing the dynamic between the two characters too much. Things may be looking up for Spartacus and The House of Batiatus (which also dispatched one of its own rivals while securing a new source of revenue with Spartacus’ fortunes), but the world of Spartacus doesn’t seem like a place that keeps conflict at bay for very long.
– Sean Colletti
Denarii for Your Thoughts:
– Seriously, though…that fight…wow. Director Michael Hurst absolutely nails every aspect of this episode. The blocking is fantastic in conversations. The close-ups (especially the early one of Batiatus as he’s praying for rain) are superb. And then the fight happens, and it’s just dumb. It’s dumb how good it is. This is probably the episode in which, if you aren’t interested in this series, it might not be for you.
– Speaking of Batiatus praying, Lucretia calls it blaspheming. Batiatus responds: “The two are narrowly separated in these trying times.”
– Batiatus’ father was apparently “a great man, none of his like to follow.” Batiatus is another character sometimes governed by pride, as evidenced in how he handles the whole Ovidius situation. Talk about potential repercussions, especially since he basically tells Solonius what he did…
– Again, it’s weirdly entertaining seeing how three different women think they’re the ones who Crixus is showing affection to when only one of them (Naevia) is correct. It actually makes for a surprisingly sad scene when Lucretia is denied intercourse. The degree of her reaction is a result of a multitude of things: still not being able to conceive, being shut down by someone she has real feelings for and who, she believes, owes her reciprocation and the thought of losing that person forever the following day. Lucy Lawless, of course, delivers gold in communicating all of that.
– Why Ilithyia is the Best Character on This Show: But even more impressive is how convincing Viva Bianca is when Ilithyia just shoves her cup out without looking to receive a refill on water. “Oh, there’s a drought and your house is in incredible debt? Meh!” But they’re still friends, right? “The very best.” I also love seeing Lucretia squirm as Ilithyia is touching Crixus. And the icing on the cake is, after the priestess of Juno says that the problem of Lucretia’s inability to conceive has to do with the vessel and not the seed, how Ilithyia says “You mean there’s something wrong with her?” I…just…can’t…The way that everything amuses Ilithyia for the wrong reasons is literally one of the most entertaining experiences in the world.
– It’s also a great episode for Peter Mensah, since Doctore gets some excellent training sequences with Spartacus and Crixus. Of course, the two can’t beat him, because Doctore is a total badass, but how he tells the story of his fight with Theokoles and how he reacts to how the fight goes down (not showing any signs of relief after the first time Theokoles falls and proudly walking away after he’s really dead) fills in his character’s story with huge brush strokes even though he’s not really the center of attention here.
– What was that about it being difficult to lob someone’s head off? Spartacus gives it three whacks until he pulls both swords in different directions.
– Other portentous things to keep in mind: “No child is unstained by the deeds of his father.” And maybe make a note of how Spartacus jumps off Crixus’ shield after he distracts Theokoles from striking the killing blow.
– Finally, the use of nudity in “Shadow Games” is amazing, showing Spartacus and Crixus at their most primal in the physical sense as they’re beating on one another, and then showing them at their most emotionally naked when they’re debating what motivates the other.