Looking for Subtlety? You Won’t Find It in ‘Spartacus: War of the Damned’

[10 September 2013]

By David Maine

It’s pretty likely, at this late date, that anyone who has seen five minutes or more of Spartacus will have a strongly-formed opinion of it. Starz’s no-holds-barred depiction of an ancient Roman slave rebellion ended up being far more successful than might have seemed likely from its opening handful of shaky episodes, but “success” is in the eye of the viewer.

The fact is that this show, fueled by testosterone, copious amounts of nudity (male and female), sex (straight and gay) and violence (over-the-top and ridiculously over-the-top) will not suit everyone. In fact, I could sit down right now and make a substantial list of reasons why this show should be laugh-out-loud ridiculous more than anything else—foremost among them the silly, faux-Latinate sentence structure of the dialogue: “Lend strength to purpose, lest fucking Romans split arse with cock!” and so forth.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Spartacus masterfully succeeded in what it set out to do, which was to create a hallucinatory otherworld of violence, despair and defiance. In the process, it became like nothing else on television.

The first season, Blood and Sand, outlined the capture of the Thracian Spartacus, a commander in Rome’s outsourced border legions, who rebels against the arrogance and duplicity of his commanders and pays a heavy price. Brought to Rome in chains, he fights both to survive the hellish gladiatorial combat school (or ludus) that he is condemned to, while simultaneously fighting to locate, and liberate, his imprisoned wife. Things don’t go quite as planned, but as any student of (pop) history knows, it makes for a hell of a story.

Season 2, Gods of the Arena, backtracked a bit, following the real-world illness of star Andy Whitfield, as the producers cleverly focused on the exploits of the gladiator Gannicus, a historical figure who would later lend aid to Spartacus’s cause. Gannicus is a charismatic rock-star wiseass who also happens to be the best gladiator of his day, and the many battles in this show grow only more outrageous in this the second season.

Also prominent are the Romans themselves, portrayed by John Hannah and Lucy Lawless, whose pitch-perfect incarnations of the husband and wife in charge of the ludus deliver their characters from being simple cartoons and make them into genuine, three-dimensional people. For a six-episode stopgap, Gods of the Arena is pretty damn engaging.

After the sad death of Andy Whitfield, a new Spartacus was found in the form of Liam McIntyre, and much of Season 3, Vengeance, is spent reassuring the viewers that the new guy is up to the job. Episode 5 of that season is a turning point, both in the storyline and in McIntyre’s comfort level in his role; despite struggling to find its feet in the first half of the season, Vengeance ends strongly and delivers the viewer to the final phase of Spartacus’s glorious, doomed, violent struggle.

So here we are, two and a half seasons in and ready for the finalé. War of the Damned is the last installment of the series that we’ll ever see, in large measure because so damn many of the characters have died along the way (and no, that’s not a spoiler, given that the events depicted herein are over 2000 years old, and anyway, this show kills more characters on a weekly basis than most shows bother to introduce). Spartacus and his band of gladiators and slaves has swollen to a massive force tens of thousands strong, and are pursued by the clever and conniving Marcus Crassus (boo!) and his annoying son Tiberius (boo hiss!), along with an oddly blond Julius Caesar (uh, really?) who channels kind of slouchy Brad Pitt vibe. This trio of baddies is almost—but not quite—as interesting as previous foils Batiatus (the John Hannah character mentioned above) and Syrian ex-gladiator-turned-monstrous-scumbag Asher.

Spartacus spends much of this season holed up in the captured Roman city of Sinuessa, which lends a claustrophobic air to the proceedings as the rebels grumble and argue about strategy, with the headstrong Crixus arguing for a blunt, direct-attack approach. For a time all this bickering feels repetitive, but it eventually pays off when arch-villain Crassus and his legions finally confront our heroes in a series of increasingly pitched battles. This being Spartacus, there are plenty of skillful character moments along the way, not to mention copious amounts of gratuitous bloodshed and plenty of T&A. (If these bother you, though, it’s unlikely you made it through the first half of Season 1, never mind Season 4).

One point of criticism worth mentioning: despite the best efforts of the producers, this last season is very much a boys’ show. To a large extent it always was—it’s the men here who do most of the heavy lifting, with the women often acting merely as auxiliaries to their husbands and brothers. To a large extent, this probably reflects historical truth.

In the first seasons, though, the character of Lucretia (played by Lucy Lawless) and Ilythia (Viva Bianca) were remarkably strong, clever, conniving women who very much had their own agendas to pursue. They were interesting characters in their own right, as well as in relation to the men in their lives; their motivations and subterfuges did much to ameliorate the headstrong blood-and-guts of the arena and ludus.

This fourth season tries for the same effect with various slaves and hostages, but frankly these characters aren’t nearly as compelling as Lucretia and Ilythia, reinforcing the sense that it’s the men in this show who are really doing things. And no, the handful of warrior women running around with swords in their hands doesn’t do much to challenge this.

The DVD set of Season 4 carries an array of six featurettes ranging from four to nine minutes. The longest, “The Legend Retold”, offers a retrospective of the series as a whole, with talking-head sound bites from Andy Whitfield, series creator Steven S. DeKnight, John Hannah and many others. It’s entertaining enough, but little more than an extended advertisement for the series.

More interesting is “The Price of Being a Gladiator”, which gives a glimpse into “the Spartacus workout” undergone by the actors in preparation for their epic battle scenes. A five-minute feature looks into the special effects used in the show—given the enormous amount of effects used, could have gone on for much longer—while a seven-minute interview with Steven S. DeKnight reveals little that isn’t made plain in the series itself. These extras, total more than half an hour, are diverting enough without being particularly essential.

Viewers who enjoyed previous seasons of Spartacus will not be let down by this one. And if, by some chance, you are a fan of blood-and-guts swordfight-intense historical dramas but somehow missed the show until now, then by all means scurry forth and scoop this up pronto. Or, you could wait for the inevitable complete series box set, but why bother? The show would have us believe that Spartacus was a man of visionary thinking, a man ahead of his time. Surely his time is now.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/spartacus-war-of-the-damned/