Four years ago, I attended my very first early screening. It wasn’t a movie or a sneak peek at a trailer. It was for the first episode of the final season of Spartacus. It’s a 39-episode Starz channel series (available on Netflix) about the passion of free men, expressed theatrically with blood-soaked gladiators and Roman hedonism, created by Steven DeKnight (Pacific Rim: Maelstrom) with producers Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi. It’s also a love story and dramatic construction – surprisingly faithful to the real facts of history – of the man and myth.
The recap I composed for CineKatz was embarrassing – unadulterated fanboy gushing with minimal analysis not at all reflective of my abilities. It’s unfortunate because ever since that final season, Spartacus has gone from being a general favorite to my favorite show of all time. Not the best (The Wire takes that trophy), not perfect (Breaking Bad), not sacred (Seinfeld), not the most groundbreaking (Star Trek), and not even better than the 1960 Stanley Kubrick movie. But it is decisively my favorite show and one of the many reasons why is because it does the impossible, and then does it again, and then again, and again after that.
You need to see it to believe it, and for years I’ve been trying to figure out how to review the show in order to best enable this. The issue isn’t spoilers – given that the story takes place in the pages of history which are generally well known – so much as it is recommending the show despite its most glaring, near-destructive flaw.
That would be the pilot, a.k.a. The Red Serpent.
The pilot of Spartacus is bad. It is wall-to-wall (and I do mean this literally since the sans-physical-sets green screen is about as convincing as a Mormon in an AA meeting) garbage, with some truly incomprehensible creative decisions. It’s a good thing for Spartacus that premium networks don’t generally greenlight shows on the strength of their first episode because after I watched it for the first time, I checked out. It took me months to revisit the series; even the creator of the show hates this episode.
The second episode (Sacramentum Gladiatorum) is notably better, but the third (Legends) doesn’t impress either. Yet taken together they make up a tangible Act 1 of 6 for the first season, which I feel can be critiqued in wholesome.
So what I have written here is a skewering of my favorite show. It is full of harsh words conveyed with love. It is also full of spoilers just for those first three.
The first half of the true story of Spartacus (not his real name) goes like this. He was a man from the lands of Thrace (northeastern Greece) in the village of the Maedi Tribe. According to Plutarch, he was married to a prophetess. He was conscripted into the Roman auxiliary, and then at some point deserved it. When he was recaptured, he and his wife were sentenced to slavery, with him to become a gladiator. He was purchased by Lentulus Batiatus, a lanista (a trainer and keeper of gladiators) of Capua, initially fighting in the style of murmillo (sword and scutum (shield)). Then he broke out and began leading the biggest slave rebellion Rome had ever seen, culminating in the Third Servile War of 73 B.C.
Let’s begin with the broad strokes. With the exception of the last sentence, the previous paragraph is a summary of the entire pilot. Now, you might think that impressive in terms of economy of storytelling but in execution The Red Serpent is horribly rushed, overacted, and clumsily repetitive.
For starters there is no introduction to any character in the village; we are thrown right into the middle of a loud political dispute among a group of unnamed men and a Roman legatus (military general) who informs them that he is looking for conscripts to fight against Mithridates IV of the Black Sea. A handful of men, including Spartacus (Andy Whitfield), agree to join the Romans on the condition that they be allowed and enabled to slaughter a race of barbarians called the Getae, who have spent years raping, pillaging, and plaguing their villages.
This is all explained horribly, all with wordy dialogue and no time for anyone to truly process exactly whom has agreed to what. When they go off to war, it is clear that all they’re actually doing is fighting the Getae, not Mithridates’ Greeks, and that the auxiliary is doing all the work while getting scraps for spoils. The episode wants that to be a big deal, but the men don’t actually appear to care all that much about that even though they say that they find it frustrating.
This is as good a time as any to bring up the “acting.” If there was a coach on set at the time of their shooting The Red Serpent, he must also have been one of the extras that got an axe buried in his skull. I have seen junior high plays with better performances than that of the men playing the Thracian warrior rabble. Andy Whitfield himself is an uncanny disaster, inspiring absolutely no confidence in his ability to carry a greenlit premium series on his back (even though as the show continues he very much does). The rest of them are brash and brutish in ways that almost should’ve been a point from the Roman’s own perspective, but the real issue boils down to the fact that Spartacus and his fellow Thracian warriors in the pilot are announcing a boisterous theatricality that simply isn’t earned.
One reason why it isn’t earned is the hasty opening. The other is because the pilot looks like it was shot with the last remaining nickels and pennies scrounged up from the bottom of the budget barrel for the entire season. The overly lit green screen, the snow blizzard effects, the color palates… it all comes across as tasteless and ridiculous. And that’s to say nothing of the slow motion. There is one, at most two instances in which it works, but the number of slow motion action frames and blood splashes probably go into the dozens.
All of this keeps getting in the way of the pilot’s own efforts to find its footing. What it does quite well is to reveal the motive of Legatus Glaber to change course in a decision that leads to Spartacus’s desertion. His wife Ilithyia (Viva Bianca) sneaks into his tent with a taste of the joys he’s missing from home (and they are quite something). He explains that he, like the men in the auxiliary, stuck under orders from the Roman Command to defend a flank while other men actually get the glory of battling Mithridates. With her encouragement, he braves to defy those orders and march east; and this decision comes at precisely the same time Spartacus and his buddy have reported that the Getae are moving west toward the unprotected Thracian villages. Finally, a real conflict to drive the story… except it too is explained just as badly because when Spartacus dares to defy the command, he claims that he never actually agreed to fight Mithridates, only to battle the Getae. But if that was his only objective, what did he even need the Romans for? He’s so bent on keeping his word, he apparently never understood the meaning of it.
This is what happens when an episode moves so fast to the point of crossing its own wires. There’s enough urgency in the moment to make up for that, but that only brings up the next problem after the Thracians desert the Romans. We are hardly given a hint of exactly how much time has passed in the campaign. For all we know, they’ve been gone barely a month, but the narration doesn’t give it, so there’s only about fifteen minutes between the scene where Spartacus, after a night of lovemaking, bids his wife goodbye with the promise that nothing will keep him from returning to her, and the scene where they meet again.
That night, while on the run, they consummate their relationship on screen… again. Yes, The Red Serpent has not one, but two sex slow-motion sex scenes between the same two characters within something like a thirty-minute span. For all the hurry the episode was in, somehow it found the time for that. The second one is better but it’s impossible to appreciate because we’ve already seen their passion for one another.
After getting recaptured, and seeing his wife forcibly ripped from his arms and carried away, Spartacus wakes up in chains on the Adriatic with the other men in his company that have all been rounded up. From there the episode is functional enough: Glaber’s campaign failed due to the desertion and has thus returned to his wife in disgrace, but he has brought the Thracian traitors to be executed in the Capua Arena. The slaves are displayed at a Roman bacchanal party where we briefly meet Batiatus (John Hannah), his wife, and his rival.
But then the story trips over itself once again when the time comes for Spartacus’s execution ad gladium. They give him a sword to continue the appearance of sport and shove him out into the arena. But then, just before he’s about to battle a gladiator, three other armor-clad warriors appear and suddenly it’s four to one against him. The crowd boos but the authorities in the pulvinus (box seats where the editors of the game sit) uneasily give the order anyway. The men beat, bludgeon, and slice him until he’s down on his knees. The crowd keeps booing and then the editors of the game are utterly bewildered.
I agree, The Red Serpent. Just what the hell do you think is going on here?
You really have to see it to understand just how stupid this looks. Glaber gives one of the flimsiest explanations I’ve ever heard. “This Thracian caused Rome a great deal of distress. He must be humiliated before he is to die,” he says. Okay, but clearly the crowd doesn’t know that, otherwise they would be enjoying it. If that was the objective why not give a speech beforehand to tell the crowd of his “cowardly desertion” and all that? Why even give him a weapon if the idea is to humiliate him? And why bring out four men against him all at once right in the beginning? This entire climactic sequence needed some pacing, which The Red Serpent had no interest in.
The ending after that is fine, but seriously what a dump! The Red Serpent is by far the worst episode of the entire Spartacus series. Not just of the Blood and Sand season, but all in all. Worse, it feels like an anomaly but not in ways that contribute to its charm. The only thing in it worth missing is Ilithyia’s father, Senator Albinius, who doesn’t appear in the season again.
I have often wondered if the show would have been better served starting with the second episode, Sacramentum Gladiatorum, where Spartacus wakes up in Batiatus’s ludus (training school for gladiators). Subject to various humiliations and surrounded by strangers, it would’ve been a far better orientation for what the actual show and season would be about than the clammy mess that was The Red Serpent, and then just take the scenes or highlights from the pilot and intersperse them throughout the first half of the season in thematically appropriate moments. One reason, for example, is that when Spartacus walks into the bathing room the men make an exaggerated show of hazing him. It looks like just more horrific acting, but the episode later makes clear overall that the men themselves are doing that on purpose. That’s actually part of Sacramentum Gladiatorum’s overall charm, and it probably would’ve started the show off on better footing. But without wishing to dwell on that hypothetical version of Spartacus, what’s important is that the second episode is significantly more intriguing and better executed than its predecessor.
In the second episode, Spartacus is introduced to his new life while forced to deal with the consequences of what he did in the pilot. It makes good use of its shrunken setting, builds effectively to the final test, informs us of what’s at stake dramatically, and ends with a projection of what the general season is generally going to look like.
It’s also the first time the varying on-screen sex scenes have a point. The episode opens with Spartacus dreaming of reuniting with his wife, and it revels in the ecstasy between them from that standpoint, while Batiatus and his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) discuss business plans while using their slaves as an extra set of hands for foreplay. Even though the whole episode’s CGI effects still haven’t gotten it all quite right, the luxury of the villa is readily apparent.
Meanwhile, the ludus is boot camp crossed with prison. The yard kings are veterans like Crixus (Manu Bennett) and Barca (Antonio Te Maioha), there is a contraband smuggler named Ashur (Nick Tarabay), the overseer/drill sergeant is Doctore (Peter Mensah), and the warden is Batiatus himself. These characters are all a bit too trite and stereotypical here, but mostly it’s a show of intimidation as they break in the newcomer(s).
And by the end of it Spartacus is well broken in, which brings us to the lackluster third episode – Legends. It’s not as bad as the pilot. It lays a lot of groundwork for the arcs, digressions, and terms of character relationships that will all be important later; and it uses rich imagery to delve into the fame and glory of Capua’s champions much in the way stories of great athletes and sportsmen are given today. And its ending certainly changes enough to make the show more interesting.
As a cohesive episode, however, it just doesn’t work. It too starts rushing towards the end and leaving too many essentials dangling. The initial premise is dramatically promising – Spartacus’s insolence turns to arrogance. His impatience isolates him from the rest of the men and drives him to make some truly bad decisions that are sure to come back to bite him. And the initial execution of that premise give space for the other builds. For example, it is only during moments where other characters are advising caution to Spartacus where we see snapshots of impossible exploits in the arena that inform the reputation of certain legends. Other moments of Spartacus’s insolence allow for some good character bonding between him and his only friend Varro (Jai Courtney – in what is the only good performance he’s ever given in his career).
But as Spartacus starts gumming up the ludus and causing more trouble in his rush to the top, the episode gets messy and predictable. For one, no one in their right mind would ever think that Spartacus’s stroke of luck in his gladiator test amounted to any kind of genuine victory, and the show gives no personal reason for Spartacus to think that he can defeat Crixus – whose nicknames are “The Undefeated Gaul” and “The Champion of Capua.” Batiatus (and literally everyone else) knows that Spartacus has absolutely no chance either, so he dismisses concerns by saying that Spartacus is a mere novelty that has the public’s interest, apparently forgetting that said novelty only has value in its suspenseful continuation. He also doesn’t consider the fact that if Spartacus makes a poor showing, not only will the crowd tell Crixus to kill him (thereby destroying Batiatus’s own financial investment in him, which he earlier noted was important), but also that it will reflect poorly on his ludus and on him as a lanista.
In the moment, your mileage may vary on these glaring flaws. But they’re there and they make Legends feel like filler, especially for a show that later on demonstrates an incredible prowess at narrative, episodic efficiency. Good thing then that the next episode exists almost solely for the purpose of repudiating it. But that’s an article for another time.
Still, between the pilot, SG, and Legends, Spartacus: Blood and Sand has something of an Act I. This is where the story (and legend) of Spartacus will be given life, and the character at the center of it will not have it easy. The basic conflicts are established, creating the conditions of the world that both the character and the audience have entered, and Spartacus’s first run-in with these conditions ends in disaster, creating an opening for the next step of the story. The show overall is Shakespearian both in structure and execution (dialogue especially, sans thee, thy, and thou), but its first few episodes really should have been done better.
And given how great Spartacus turned out to be after this initial jelly-leg entanglement, I can only appropriately show my love and appreciation for it by being as critical as possible of it.
The Red Serpent: 4/10
Sacramentum Gladiatorum: 7.5/10