Written by Bob Suggs Monday, 07 February 2011 11:09
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Spartacus: Gods of the Arena' Episode 3 'Paterfamilias'
The superficial reputation of 'Spartacus' among those who haven't paid close attention to the show is that it's merely a toga-era soap opera drenched in sex, blood and more sex.
Sure, it has all those elements, many of which can be counted on for good, unclean fun. But there are emotional stakes to most battles and bedroom encounters. And as 'Paterfamilias' showed, sometimes sex can be used as a weapon, and those encounters, when choice is removed, can be uglier than anything seen in the arena.
The scene of Varrus' creepy friend with the dead eyes brutally assaulting one of Batiatus' virginal slaves was the key scene of the episode, which was all about the loss of power and autonomy.
During the course of 'Paterfamilias,' one character, Crixus, found a newly powerful side of himself. In the arena, he discovered that his survival skills were formidable, and thus he finally found his way into the brotherhood of warriors.
For everyone else, however, it was a time of doubt, anger and pain. To put it in business terms, the House of Batiatus is in the midst of a management shakeup. The old lion whom everyone had thought was retired arrived back on the scene, upsetting hard-won progress and generally making a mess of the new order. Batiatus lost his role as the lead manager, and for various reasons, his chief lieutenants, Doctore and Gannicus, were hardly in top form. It wasn't a recipe for business success, but somehow the House of Batiatus squeaked out a couple of wins in Capua's rickety old arena.
The management was still in flux, however. It was certainly strange to see Doctore so tentative with the gladiators; anyone who saw 'Spartacus: Blood and Sand' knows he developed into a fearsome (but fair) disciplinarian. In this episode, however, he didn't quite know where he stood. It's a familiar conundrum for anyone who's been promoted and must manage his or her former co-workers -- people in that position have to choose between being a friend and being a boss, and choosing the latter makes for an awkward transitional period.
Doctore will no doubt find his way, but Batiatus himself was in a hell of a vise in this episode. Of course the rape of the young servant was the most graphic representation of the brutal power dynamics in this society, and Batiatus is obviously a wealthy man with far more autonomy and freedom than a slave. But when his father arrived and began treating him like a child, his ability to make his own decisions was gone.
Out went Gannicus from the Primus, out went all the arrangements Batiatus had made, and Batiatus could do absolutely nothing about it. A man who thought about nothing but how to acquire power was suddenly made powerless, and that's a dangerous situation for both father and son to be in.
There was a grimness to the episode; it's one of the sadder outings of 'Spartacus' I can recall. Even Crixus' victory in the arena was tainted with the sight of Auctus' blood (sure, Auctus was something of a bully, but it's hard to see poor Barca lose another lover).
But it was that kind of week for the House of Batiatus. Unpleasant emotions coursed through all the characters: Rage, fear, pain, uncertainty, anger, humiliation. Even at its darkest, 'Spartacus' usually gives you something or someone to root for, but there was precious little of that on display. If I had to fault the generally solid episode at all, I'd have to say that the show usually mixes a healthy dose of escapism with more serious themes in a more satisfying way. But perhaps it was necessary to bring the characters this low in order to give them somewhere to go.
The scary thing is, some of these characters could go lower. Gaia, for example, thinks she can flirt her way into a marriage with Varrus, but he seems distinctly disinclined to view her as a possible wife. Nobody's position is secure in this society, and most if not all "friendships" are built on sand. At least on the sands of the arena, you know the other guy is trying to kill you. In the rest of this world, the methods used to kill and maim are much more devious.
Clearly no real friendship exists between Varrus and the House of Batiatus. Varrus and his friends are like the popular kids in high school: They view the strivers a few levels beneath them as useful up to a point, but easily disposable. Varrus and his friends will party at Batiatus villa, as long as they're being offered whatever they want in the way of sex, wine and voyeurism. The minute they don't get what they want, they're gone. The power dynamic there is pretty clear as well: As members of the lowest tiers of high society, Lucretia and Batiatus have zero juice.
My favorite aspect of the episode was Lucy Lawless' wonderful performance as Lucretia. It wasn't really about the words her character was saying -- everything important emanated from Lucretia's eyes. Her humiliation at being discovered by her father in law, her rage at being treated so rudely by him, her shame and fear when Varrus and his dead-eyed friend arrived: All of that could be glimpsed in her darting eyes and her nervous movements.
Gaia could laugh off the use of slaves in varius sexual games, but you could tell, from the rigid way Lucretia sat waiting for Varrus' friend to be finished, that she was embarrassed and ashamed by this turn of events. I was glad that director Michael Hurst shot that sequence in a way that emphasized the emotional trauma the girl was going through. This innocent girl was brutalized by two strangers and she had to listen to the pretentiouis Roman blather on about the divine and the grotesque. Surely those things did co-exist quite closely in that world, but there's no doubt that Varrus' friend was worse that grotesque. He was repugnant.
Could it be that the light was dawning in Lucretia's eyes about the true cost of what she and her husband were doing? Pimping out the staff wasn't just unseemly, as Varrus indicated, it chipped away at Lucretia's ideas about the kind of society matron and human being she wanted to be. And as it turned out, Gannicus and Melitta's forced encounter was all for nothing; the Primus was denied the champion, yet both of the slaves had to live with that weighty secret between them.
"Some acts can't be avoided when stripped of choice," Melitta told her husband. She was trying to explain away Gannicus' strained demeanor, but she could have been talking about everyone in the House of Batiatus. Barca had to accept the death of his lover, Gannicus had to accept that he wasn't in the Primus and had betrayed his best friend, the female slaves had to accept that their bodies were not their own property, Doctore had to accept that he could no longer be friends with his brothers. He had to be their leader.
Some choices are easier to accept than other. I think the point of this series isn't to show people having sex or chopping each other's bodies up. It's to show that sometimes, when people aren't given a choice, they take it by force -- with unpredictable results. Those stripped of their humanity find a way to accept a repressive system, but others, fueled by a desire to hold on to their connections, their morality and their worldview, become capable of brutal acts, as Spartacus was at the end of season 1. The bottom line is, power can't be completely controlled by the few forever (as the leaders of Egypt are finding out).
In the House of Batiatus, the only person with any real power was Batiatus' father, and once he'd tasted the glory of the arena again, the old man didn't want to leave. Well, that's just great. A grown son living with his parents always works out well.
I must credit my podcast partner Ryan McGee, who reviews 'Spartacus' for the AV Club, for this theory, which he shared in his review of the episode: Does Batiatus' father's wine contain more than just honey? Lucretia was quick to deny her husband a sip of the beverage -- is that because she'd poisoned it?
I don't know about this. Throughout the rest of the episode, Lucretia was struggling with her conscience. Some part of her knew that offering up her slave's virginity to a random stranger was wrong. Would a woman who (unlike Gaia) still had a moral conscience begin poisoning her father in law within days of his arrival at home, where he was the unquestioned ruler? Hard to say. But I think if she's not poisoning him now, either she or her husband will be thinking about doing so soon.
The daddy issue themes of the episode, I must confess, didn't feel completely fresh to me. If I had a dollar for every single time I've seen some male character's father issues play out on the TV screen, I could build my own ludus and stock it full of oiled, muscular bodies. Still, Jeffrey Thomas gave a fiesty performance as the old dude, and his delivery of the senior Batiatus' rude, sarcastic remarks was one of the more enjoyable aspects of this otherwise dark episode.
Batiatus' father realized he loved being back in the center of the gladiator action, but he failed to realize something about his son: Quintus Batiatus loves power more than anything, and having his dad around is not exactly helping him in that department.
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Spartacus: Gods of the Arena' Episode 3 'Paterfamilias' The superficial reputation of 'Spartacus' among those who haven't paid close attention to the show is that it's merely a toga-era soap...
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