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Spartacus: Vengeance

(Starz; US DVD: 11 Sep 2012; UK DVD: 1 Oct 2012)

Man oh maaan, I love Spartacus. The Starz series has overcome numerous obstacles, including a weak set of opening episodes in its first season, sneering critical derision as a T&A knockoff of HBO’s Rome, and even the death of its lead actor. But somehow the show shakes off such setbcks and staggers on, much like the Roman empire it portrays. Nobody would ever confuse Spartacus with Masterpiece Theatre, and that’s just fine. What it does, it does like no other show on television.


What it does is portray excess. There is too much violence, too many blood spatters and decapitated limbs, too much sex, too much gratuitous female nudity, too much male nudity, too much sexual violence, too many slow-mo action shots, too much raucous heavy-metal crunch in the background. Too much silly, proto-Latinate dialogue: “Guard tongue lest find it ripped from fucking head!” It’s all just too ridiculous, and ridiculously wonderful: played entirely straight, with not a campy wink in sight, which is exctly how such material must be treated.


Moreover, the approach is also entirely appropriate for the subject matter. Was there ever a civilization more given to over-the-top excess than the Romans? They made intricate mosaics of sex scenes to decorate their private baths. They crucified their enemies. They arranged incredibly cruel gladitorial games and howled with glee when the combatants died. They invented orgies, for God’s sake. (Okay I’m not sure about that last one, but it sure wouldn’t surprise me.) Spartacus revels in the spectacle not just for its own sake (although that visceral thrill is there as well, and anyone who denies it isn’t being entirely honest), but also because such overstatement is perfectly suited to the aesthetic of the Roman empire portrayed in the series.


So then. Series one, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, detailed the capture of the Thracian soldier Spartacus, his incarceration and training as a gladiator and his subsequent rebellion again his Roman captors. Season two, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, was shot following the diagnosis of leading man Andy Whitfield with cancer, and rewound the clock to provide a thoroughly entertining, six-episode prequel which showed how the house of Batiatus—the gladiator school, or ludus, that bought Spartacus as a slave—had striven to rise in social position. Mixed in with these main storylines was oodles of intrigue, scheming, back-biting and back stabbing, and generally bad behavior. Oh yes and lots of sex. Oh yes and lots of hyperviolent fighting.


Due to his illness, Whitfield bowed out of the production altogether but reportedly gave his blessing for the show to continue without him. Vengeance chronicles the efforts of the now-escaped gladiators to figure out what to do with their newfound freedom, as well as their struggle to become a unified force with a single purpose. On he other side of the divide are the Roman nobles and citizens who stand to lose their way of life, maybe even their lives themselves, should Spartacus and his followers present an altervative to slavery for Rome’s countless downtrodden.


The big question, then, is this: does new Spartacus Liam McIntyre match former Spartacus Andy Whitfield as the magnetic center of the show? The short answer is: no. The more nuanced answer is that he’s nearly as good in some ways but not in others, but this matters less thn you might think, because there is so much else going on.


Without giving away spoilers to those viewers who have not yet seen Blood and Sand, I’ll just say that the fallout from that series’ bloody conclusion is what plays out across the season of Vengeance, and it does so in a (usually) satisfying way. Spartacus and his cohort is pursued by a host of Roman nobles, each intent on getting credit for putting down the rebellion. It should surprise no one that these nobles are ready to turn on one another if need be. The season as a whole marks a strong divide between the noble and the slave, or the wilderness (where Spartacus runs to) and the city (where the citizens gather). Against expectation, the nobles-in-the-city storyline is as engaging as the slaves-in-the-woods arc; in fact it is often more gripping. This is in part because of terrific writing and plotting, and in part because of the tremendous acting of Lucy Lawless, Viva Bianca and Craig Parker.


On the gladiator’s side, the perfrmances are a little one-note; there’s a lot of strutting and posing and pithy remarks, but the conflicts tend to be a little more obvious, their solutions a bit less nuanced. When Spartacus faces off with a German barbarian, he defeats him by slicing off his face. It’s that kind of show.


The DVD edition looks great, of course. There are plenty of CGI tweaks in the landscapes and skies and crowd scenes, but the show does a good job of incorporating them seamlessly. Extras include many featurettes providing behind-the-scenes glimpses of various aspects of production, including a detailed focus on the special effects that went into episode 5, “Libertus,” whose set-piece conflagration is a series highlight. There’s also a profile of Liam McIntyre, a set of bloopers, an 11-minute biography of the historical Spartacus (illustrated by clips from the series and narrated by the show’s historical advisers), and a teasingly short preview of the show’s fourth and final season, Spartacus: War of the Damned. For readers who just can’t get enough of the story, there’s even a pdf file containing the first chapter of a J.M. Clements’  novel Spartacus: Swords and Ashes.


A solid set, then, albeit one with little enough to entice a new viewer: season three of Spartacus is much like seasons one and two, only more so. For fans like me, this isn’t a problem, because seasons one and two were fantastic. Viewers who have hesitated to take the plunge are strongly advised to give Blood and Sand a shot. Bull your way through the first two or three episodes, and things start to get genuinely compelling. As for fans who are uncertain about the new Spartacus: it’s true, he’s not Andy Whitfield. But Liam McIntyre does a reasonable job, and he doesn’t bungle anything, and there’s plenty of other stuff going on to divert your attention. At this point, the story of Spartacus is much more than the story of any single man. Heck, maybe it always was.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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