Spartacus: Vengeance S01E6: “Chosen Path”

Spartacus: Vengeance pulled off an impressive feat with last week’s “Libertus,” its spectacular final scene feeling more like a season-ender than a fifth episode. Of course, a set piece like that poses something of a creative conundrum for the series, as it would be virtually impossible to top such a symphony of destruction. So instead, “Chosen Path” took a step backward from the mayhem to focus on the beating heart of the show. The theme of the episode, and really of the whole series, was stated in a scene between Spartacus and Gannicus, in which Gannicus, reluctant to align himself with the rebellion, probed Spartacus for his motives. “For love,” Spartacus offered, as if so obvious it hardly needed to be said at all. “The greatest cause of all.”

Love comes in some unexpected places in Vengeance: Just minutes into the episode, a beaming Nasir, now fully recovered from his wounds, fell into the arms of the fierce warrior Agron for a kiss even more passionate than the one they shared in “Libertus.” As series creator Steven DeKnight recently said in an interview, gay love “was part and parcel of this world and it’s part and parcel of our world now. If people want to stop watching the show because two guys kiss, well, I shrug my shoulders.” It’s amusing to me that same-sex displays of affection in fantasy and adventure series, which are de rigueur lately (it’s hard to forget the Loras and Renly chest-shaving scene in Game of Thrones) should so disgust the genres’ target demo. As much as it is about anything, Vengeance is about the binds of brotherly love, in all of its forms. To shout “NO HOMO!” and then sit back to enjoy the sight of chiseled beefcake in loincloths plunging hard objects into one another and spewing bodily fluids is to lack a certain amount of self-awareness.

But back to breederly love: The central romance of Vengeance has been that of Crixus and Naevia, her rescue from the mines having driven the action of the first three episodes. To its credit, the series does not trade in pat happy endings, and their fraught reunion has explored the devastating effects of extreme trauma on a marriage. During a moment of sexual intimacy, Naevia began to have disturbing flashbacks to her brutal, repeated rape at the hands of her captors. (That the scene came directly after another hard-to-stomach sequence, in which Ashur raped Lucretia against a wall, only served to make it all the more disturbing.) Later, Naevia acknowledged that her psychological damage is so profound, it might have been better had the two not been reunited. “All that matters is that the woman I love stands before me once again,” a shaken Crixus said, to which Naevia replied: “Does she? Or is it but faint spirit, haunting the memory of a dead body?” The scene was a tragic one, and in many ways called to mind similar scenes presently playing out in thousands of American households—as PTSD-afflicted veterans of the Iraq War return home, only to find themselves the quiet victims of what the U.S. military clinically refers to as the “reintegration process.”

If you think about it, most characters in Vengeance are motivated, in one way or another, by love—carnal, filial, familial or otherwise—or the lack of it. Robbed of it from Illythia, Glaber set out on a course for revenge that saw him kill Albinius and reclaim his wife, like a caged bird. Grieving her lost father, Illythia has submitted to Glaber’s will—for now, at least. Seppia and Seppius shared a sibling love that dared not speak its name, and, after being crushed to death under Glaber’s foot, will likely remain unspoken. Chadara, the slave girl, sought the constant sexual companionship of gladiators as a means of fitting in, but fell victim to Mira’s arrow after she betrayed the group and set off on a futile search for a place to feel loved. And finally, a mortally wounded Oenomaus came face-to-face with Gannicus, and both lost men—the true “faint spirits” of the season—finally addressed what happened between Gannicus and Melitta in her final hours. “I loved you as a brother,” Oenomaus told him. The ultimate bond, betrayed.

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