[Spoilers for Spartacus: Vengeance, though I feel I'm the last person on earth to see it]
We finally finished the episodes of Spartacus: Vengeance which had been clogging up the MySky for weeks. It was a very brain-candy type of show for people who like hyper-HBO levels of sex and violence in their TV, and definitely not recommended for people triggered by … well … violence, sexual assault, misogyny, gendered expletives, mistreatment of women / children / people of colour – basically your whole gamut of things people stick in their TV shows to make them “edgy”.
It’s the usual response of fans to say “well, it’s historical” – and that argument probably holds at least a little more water than it does for Game of Thrones, another series I love, but where I have to admit it’s a bit hard to cry “historical!!!” when there are dragons and face-changing assassin cults and goddamn wildfire.
What struck me, though, and what I want to talk about in this post, is the way that the writers of Spartacus, to really emphasise how good some of the good characters were, did some bizarrely progressive stuff.
They took Crixus, the big, hulking, not-particularly-sensitive Gaulish gladiator. He’d spent the early part of the season killing whoever it took to find Naevia, his lover, who’d been cast out and subjected to horrific abuse after their relationship was discovered.
So far, so standard. Big hulking man love tiny delicate lady. Big hulking man willing to sacrifice own life for tiny delicate lady.
But then they found her. They were reunited. And their first night back together, midway through sex, Naevia suddenly had severe, traumatic flashbacks to the sexual assaults she’d been subjected to. She told Crixus to stop. She said she couldn’t be touched.
Crixus … handled it. He stopped. He didn’t leave her, didn’t rebuke her, didn’t go shag another woman, all of which would have been pretty standard even in a modern setting. He stuck by her and accepted that she had drawn boundaries. He asked what he could do. She said he could teach her to defend herself so no man would ever touch her without her consent ever again.
Finally, when confronted with the treacherous bastard who had raped and betrayed her in the first place, Naevia insisted on fighting him herself. And Crixus stood back. Even when she looked near defeat, she said “No, he’s mine, and if killing him costs me my life I’ll fucking take it” and Crixus stood back and let her do her thing.
And she executed that bastard. She hacked his head off, turned to Crixus, and said “You were right, it’s hard to cleave a man’s head from his shoulders” and Crixus hugged her and said “I’ll teach you how.”
It’s just … a bit remarkable, really. A pseudo-historic show, a brutal setting, violence and blood everywhere, and how do they really establish that Crixus is a decent bloke? By having him respect his partner’s wishes, even when god knows how many people would say they were unreasonable or irrational or crazy. By having him absolutely accept that she got to draw the line on sex, she got to take charge of her own life and stop relying on him to defend her, she got to take back her autonomy and then she got to choose to be with him.
This wasn’t even a necessary part of character development. Crixus was already established as the badass gladiator, proud Gaul, dude whose woman is not to be messed with. There was no need to spend screentime on establishing that he didn’t just love Naevia as a delicate pretty lady who depended on him – but they did.
At the same time, they added to Naevia’s story – where they could have just written your generic “innocent flower ravaged by fate and forever tarnished”, they let her move on, deal with her issues in the way she chose, acknowledge that she could never be the person she was as a slave but could make her own destiny – not with Crixus just because the story demanded it, but because she chose to stay with Crixus.
It made those final episodes a hell of a lot more interesting, I can tell you.
To get all meta about this, though, this is what I want out of my media. Anti-feminists often whinge that we evil liberals want to force all movies to have a 51% female cast, and crowbar in diverse characters where they’re not “appropriate” (for some reason the example is almost always Band of Brothers or something else glorious-Euro-war based.)
It’s nonsense, of course. But I like to confront that nonsense by saying, no, actually, what I want is an interesting range of stories, with interesting characters. Some of those are going to be male-focused – and a show like Spartacus, about gladiators and Roman military might, was always going to be. But it was a much better show because they didn’t just recycle the usual storylines, the usual tropes – they shook stuff up. They gave their characters depth.
They thought about how they were going to run the Crixus/Naevia storyline once she was returned, how she would be affected by her experiences, how their relationship might change or be affected, how Crixus might take things – and didn’t choose the obvious, the boring, the bland misogynist crap that you’d get 99% of the time.
It’s still a deeply problematic show. But it had some damn fine silver linings.
Other good features of Spartacus – if you think you can tolerate the squicky stuff and are wondering if it might be worth it – include: really interesting deep relationships between women characters; women characters with agency; a very in-your-face yet casual treatment of homosexual relationships; equal treatment of full-frontal nudity, which is at least refreshing. But all of this with the warning, again: S:V is beyond Game of Thrones levels of graphic violence, blood, sex, rape, and abuse. If you find GoT problematic, S:V (and its earlier seasons) are far more so.