Penultimate episodes can be just as dramatic as season finale's these days, as they tend to bring various storylines to a conclusion (usually the secondary ones), so the finale can better focus its attention while dealing with some fresh, tasty aftermath. This was certainly the case for the marvelous, compulsive "Reckoning"; a beautifully-acted, gripping hour of drama from a prequel miniseries that's been far more consistent than Blood & Sand.
This week, Titus (Jeffrey Thomas) arranged for his gladiators to compete in an in-house contest to decide the champion of the House of Batiatus, with underperforming slaves facing expulsion to the mines. Ashur (Nick Tarabay) thus began to fear for his future, especially now his colossal friend Dagan (Shane Rangi) is learning how to communicate without him to interpret; Titus increased pressure on son Quintus (John Hannah) to dissolve his marriage to Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), as she's unable to bear him children; Gaia's murderer Tullius (Stephen Lovatt) returned with a peace offering of wine, proceeding to offer Titus a place in the forthcoming tournament if he'll relinquish Gannicus (Dustin Clare) to his care; Melitta (Marisa Ramirez) grew fearful of her sexual liaisons with Gannicus behind her husband's back; Naevia (Lesley-Ann Brandt) helped her violated friend Diona (Jessica Grace Smith) escape the ludus, before her optimistic spirit is extinguished forever; and infertile Lucretia decided to have sex with rising star Crixus (Manu Bennett), believing his Gaul seed will be strong enough to deliver the offspring her father-in-law craves.
There were some superb moments in "Reckoning" -- such as Quintus and his father reminiscing about their early relationship amongst the ruins of the old arena, with Titus unaware his son's deciding whether or not to bludgeon his old man to death with a stray beam of wood, to both save his marriage and secure total ownership of the ludus. Thomas has been a fantastic addition to this prequel (a contrasting example of a lanista trying to regain former glories by obsequiousness, rather than his impatient son's underhandedness), and their moment here was almost Shakespearian in its magnitude. A son on the precipice of committing patricide at a venue that meant so much to both him and his father in the past, before Titus inadvertently saved his own skin by showing his son uncharacteristic warmth and regret.
I also liked the moment when Lucretia lowered herself to having sex with a slave, considering she's spent this season disgusted with turning the House of Batiatus into a brothel. The expression of disgust on Lucretia's face as she offered herself up to the dutiful Crixus was brilliant, given extra weight because we know from Blood & Sand that her need for Crixus' "services" will grow into unquenchable desire through the prism of sinful pleasure. Crixus meanwhile became a formidable opponent in the ludus championship, eventually besting his biggest rival Gannicus in their climactic fight, but only because Gannicus knew defeat will remove him from the painful gaze of Melitta and away to Tullius' training camp. I think it's now inevitable we'll see a rematch between Crixus and Gannicus in the finale of the new arena's inaugural tournament, with Gannicus' fate not looking rosy given his absence from Blood & Sand, but hopefully the writers will find a way to make the specifics unpredictable and surprising.
Overall, "Reckoning" was yet another delicious and gripping installment of this excellent series, which has been a delight from the start. It's sidestepped most of the problems prequels have; deepened our understanding of several Blood & Sand regulars (Batiatus, Lucretia, Crixus, Doctore, Ashur), and finding fresh and interesting ways to tell big emotional stories in an environment you'd imagine would be constricting for writers. But with ther regimented focus on character, that belies the show's undoubted fondness for showing gore and nudity, the Spartacus brand has really come of age. I await next week's finale with the fanaticism of those bawdy, mesmerized crowds in Capua's old arena.
- The death of Titus could be blamed on his established sickness, but the "coincidence" of the much younger Melitta dying an identical death can't be ignored. It seems likely Batiatus will blame Tullius for both murders, as he provided the wine that Lucretia later spiked.
- Poor Dagan; blinded by Ashur and dropped from the Brotherhood. No wonder Ashur's so reviled in Blood & Sand, and I can't wait to see exactly how he becomes invalided next week.
- History lesson of the week: "subligaria" means underpants.