By sheer coincidence, last night I happened to watch the last few scenes of the final episode of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. That was, as you may recall my saying in its review, the series that really kicked the Spartacus storyline into orbit, with terrific characterizations, tight plotting and spectacular action. True, all of these things had been present before, in the initial series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, but it felt like the showmakers had hit upon the secret with Gods of the Arena and everything doubtful simply fell away.
As good as the final scenes of Gods of the Arena are, they pale in comparison to those in Spartacus: War of the Damned. As good as the show had been through three prior series, the truly excellent stuff had been saved for last, or maybe it was just the effect of being at the end, when everything we had witnessed up to that point came to a final resolution.
Those of you who know history, or who are even vaguely familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s version of the tale, know that Spartacus’ slave rebellion did not last and that his army of freed slaves was defeated. Kubrick’s Spartacus spends his last hours dying on a cross along with the rest of his remaining warriors, but the truth of the matter is that Spartacus’ body was never found. If you’re aware of this little fact, War of the Damned becomes an exercise in excruciating hope, as events march toward their preordained conclusion, that it will not turn out to be as horrible as we fear it will be.
The scope of War of the Damned is broader than anything heretofore attempted. We begin the story some time after the events of Spartacus: Vengeance and Spartacus’ war has been every bit of a success as he might have dreamed. Tens of thousands now follow him, though unfortunately the numbers of capable warriors among them are not so great. Anyone who’ll hold a spear or a sword is pressed to fight, however, and fight they shall as the Romans cast commander after commander into the fray trying to quash this uprising. In the first episode we see Spartacus nearly singlehandedly kill the two commanders currently hunting him, though they escape.
When the lead actor of Spartacus: Blood and Sand was diagnosed with cancer and then eventually died, the showmakers behind the Spartacus series were faced with a real dilemma. Stopping the show was out of the question, as they were already committed to Starz for more episodes, but continuing without Whitfield seemed nigh impossible, largely because Whitfield was so excellent in the role and therefore instantly identifiable with the character of Spartacus. A new Spartacus must be chosen.
In the end the makers of Spartacus selected Liam McIntyre for the role. McIntyre is an Australian actor whose filmography up to that point was essentially short films and the occasional TV role, so he was not a known quantity at all. The showmakers asked for the blessing of Andy Whitfield and received it, so all was well in the Spartacus universe. The big question was whether audiences would buy into the replacement and the quality of the new series, Spartacus: Vengeance, remain high. The answer? Yes and yes.
If you go back to read my reviews of Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, you know that not only do I deem these shows good television, but great television, with all that implies. Working with what is reportedly a shoestring budget, largely with unknown performers, the showmakers created something truly special: a program with thrills, titillation and excellent writing and performances. Any one of these things would make Spartacus stand out, but the combination of all four makes for especially potent viewing.
Vengeance had a lot of heavy lifting to do. Not only was there the substitution of McIntyre in the lead role to contend with, but the scope of the story broadened considerably. It was perfectly all right to confine the action to essentially two locations in the previous series — the ludus of Batiatus and the arena itself — but now that the slave rebellion sparked by Spartacus’ idealism was underway, all of the Roman Republic became the stage for action.
As I write this it’s been three days since the final episode of the last Spartacus series, Spartacus: War of the Damned, aired. I have now seen all four of the Spartacus offerings, which I clearly hadn’t done in the context of my review of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, and consequently I feel I owe that first series an apology.
I didn’t say that Blood and Sand was bad. Far from it. I said it was excellent and well worth your time to seek out and watch. However, I also said that it was smutty and gratuitously violent/sexy and reveled in its excess. And while this may be true to some extent, that description might cause people to look at the Spartacus story, told in four parts, and think it’s less worthy as a piece of entertainment. Because these shows are not just excuses for blood and boobs (and the occasional cock), but thoughtful, well-crafted explorations of plot and character. The same people who revere something like I, Claudius can look and find the same positive qualities here. It’s just the packaging that differs.
Though I watched all of Blood and Sand and eventually judged it good, it wasn’t until I watched Spartacus: Gods of the Arena that I realized this story was genuinely special. It caused me to look at Blood and Sand with fresh eyes and finally notice all the intricate storytelling going on, and to acknowledge the excellent acting. I had been engaged with Blood and Sand, but I was engrossed by Gods of the Arena. The makers of the show and all involved in its production had taken an already strong ground game and stepped it up to another level.