Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Season 1: Episode 4 – “The Thing in the Pit”
Written by Aaron Helbing & Todd Helbing
Directed by Jesse Warn
Originally aired February 12th, 2010
Following a somewhat disastrous outing in the arena in which he cost Batiatus the benefit of having a financial draw, Spartacus finds himself at the end of the ludus beneath his dominus’ foot. For Batiatus, it’s an unfortunate circumstance: Spartacus isn’t worth killing and he isn’t worth keeping alive. For the Thracian, his next course of action is spurred by the same motivation as every other once since his arrival in Capua: do whatever is necessary for Sura. The logical progression for both characters is to have Spartacus fight in the pits of the underworld, where rabble clashes against itself in death bouts while spectators have the chance to make money off bets. From Batiatus’ perspective, if Spartacus dies, so be it. If he lives, Batiatus can begin to pay back the increasing debt he owes to people. And while we, as an audience, don’t expect the title character to not make it out of the pits alive, the toll that the fighting has on Spartacus makes the lack of mortal danger unimportant. Varro warns Spartacus of how the pits can change a man, and they certainly change Spartacus.
It’s as early as this episode that Spartacus finds new avenues for making its main character compelling. His desire to re-unite with his wife is enough to warrant sympathy, but “The Thing in the Pit” excels at reminding us of how far away from home Spartacus really is. He has been taken prisoner and forced into slavery, creating the necessity to make fast and major changes in his life if he wants to survive. When he fails to acclimate fully, he’s punished accordingly, and what little humanity the man has held onto in his first weeks at the ludus is stripped when he’s sent to compete in the pits. “We have but a single rule,” the underworld emcee says. “Only one survives. Mongrel on mongrel, till Charon arrives.” Being called a mongrel is an apt description, and the animalization of Spartacus is used elsewhere in the episode, as when Batiatus tells Doctore that “If a beast cannot be tamed, it must be unleashed.” There is being a gladiator, which might feel just as dehumanizing, but there’s also a kind of glory in that role for the right kind of person (such as Crixus). As a contestant in the pits, no glory exists–only death, whether that’s someone’s own death or having to experience others’ deaths constantly.
Being immersed into that atmosphere slowly chips away at Spartacus, who is beginning to lose touch even when it comes to Sura. The visions of her become more difficult to bear just as it seems like she’s being contorted into a voice meant to urge on the blood frenzy he’s taking part in–something she wouldn’t be doing were she actually there with him. Similarly, Spartacus can’t quite tell who he is talking to during a conversation with Varro in which Spartacus is being visited by Sura’s avatar. Even though the wording of the dialog suggests that when Spartacus says he needs to save “you,” he’s referring to Sura, the confusion he experiences also allows for the room to recognize that Spartacus also has to save Varro, or at least what Varro represents. The two share in being recent additions to ludus, and neither is comfortably integrated to the point where he can call himself a true gladiator. The trials might be over, but that doesn’t mean every day of training is not a trial, so when Varro asks what Spartacus is trying to save him from, there’s an implicit idea that Spartacus also needs to save himself mentally and emotionally before this new life overcomes and consumes him. Being in the pits speeds up this process and the necessity to address it, to be sure, but it’s something he would have to be grappling with anyway, just as Varro must.
And just as Spartacus descends to his lowest point on every level, Crixus gains forward momentum after his affections seemingly being denied by Naevia in the previous episode. If he would have actually listened, Naevia tells him, then he would understand why she couldn’t have kept the necklace. Spartacus doesn’t pretend to think that Crixus is the sharpest sword on the sands, but he’s still able to read body language and social cues well enough to see that Naevia actually does harbor some positive feelings for him. Her response of calling him a fool after he kisses her isn’t enough to deter him from that notion, nor should it be. Naevia risks more than he is even aware of by summoning Crixus when Lucretia asked no such thing, and the smirk on his face when he returns to his cell has less to do with getting in a kiss than with realizing that his feelings aren’t unrequited. It’s another early way that Spartacus and Crixus are being set up as foils for one another, since one is brutally removed from the target of his love while the other is in the primary stages of being able to reach his own target. Now that Spartacus has resumed gladiatorial training, those parallels should become even more prominent.
– Sean Colletti
Denarii for Your Thoughts:
– The name of the guy who cuts off and wears the faces of his opponents in the pits is Ixion. What I didn’t know: Ixion was a son of Ares, which makes sense. What I did know: Ixion is a common summonable creature in the Final Fantasy series. That’s probably less relevant here…
– “You stupid, lumbering–” is all Naevia can get off before Crixus kisses her. I know we’re supposed to have issues with these kinds of things, but Spartacus, despite being incredibly forward-thinking in displays of sexuality and gender, often settles for the traditional love story, which it does exceedingly well. It may be a problematic and dated trope, but that’s sometimes just was Spartacus does to convey an idea simply.
– Speaking of sexuality, Pietros and Barca are shown in the act, and Barca and Crixus speak to one another about Barca’s relationship with Pietros. Both situations have a completely commonplace feeling to them, which both highlights the more socially acceptable society of the time and adds dimension to some of the other gladiators in the ludus. Pietros also gets to show Spartacus some kindness before being scolded by Barca.
– Varro literally stands up for Spartacus when another gladiator has a problem with the dishonored Thracian sleeping near them. Just Varro’s stance is enough to alleviate the conflict, though.