DISCLAIMER: This review is SPOILER-FREE.
On Tuesday, January 23, I got to do something I’ve never done before in my life. I bore witness to an official early screening premiere of one of my all-time favorite TV shows, Spartacus as it enters its third and final season, subtitled, War of the Damned.
Spartacus is a New Zealand-based television program on Starz created by producer and writer Steven S. DeKnight. Alongside him as an executive producer to the show is legendary director Sam Raimi (the director of the Evil Dead and Spiderman trilogies as well as the upcoming Oz: The Great and Powerful). It is an historical retelling of the epic Roman-era legend of Spartacus – the Thracian warrior captured and made gladiator who escaped, assembled an army, and led a rebellion that nearly destroyed the entire Roman Republic in the name of the oppressed and the enslaved.
One look at even the trailer to the series and you can’t help but equate it with Gladiator and 300. From Gladiator, you have the authentically Roman setting in meticulous detail as well as an unparalleled depth to lead character. From 300, you have shamelessly bloody action sequences that sometimes look like live-action panels of a graphic novel.
…and it is AWESOME!!!
If you have not watched the show Spartacus, you need to fix that as soon as possible. This show will entertain you like you’ve never been entertained in your life. It will give you a rich story, liberal in its imagination of the intricate details guiding the relatively familiar plot that was already carved in the stones of history, and with the most profane, obscene, yet also incredibly shrewd dialogue that will astound you in its creativity. And to top it all off, you will be presented with more blood, gore, nudity, and sex, than you could possibly imagine. It is the most R-rated thing you’ll have ever seen and any of your friends who have seen the show already will tell you I’m not exaggerating one bit.
BRIEF SYNPOSIS: (if you know the show, feel free to skip down to the Premiere part)
The first season of Spartacus is titled: Blood and Sand and aired in 2010. It begins with a humble Thracian being conscripted into the Roman Legion under the command of Gaius Claudius Glaber, an ambitious Legatus with little regard for the needs of others. Events force this Thracian to desert the army. He is recaptured by Glaber and thrown into the arena in Capua to die. After killing his executioners and stunning the crowd, he is branded with the name “Spartacus” and is then purchased to be trained as a gladiator under the House of Quintus Lentulus Batiatus – a greedy and cunning lanista seeking to advance his family name up the political echelons of Rome.
The show proceeds from there.
The acting on Spartacus is phenomenal. Andy Whitfield (Spartacus) is a revelation in the role. You rarely see an actor playing such a hyper-masculine character be able to convey emotion and sadness in a way that doesn’t look either contrived or pathetic. And yet, despite the fact that we know that Spartacus was a legendary shackle smasher and one of the greatest symbols of the power of the oppressed, Andy Whitfield made him a real human being.
Unfortunately for the show, immediately following, Blood and Sand, Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As Whitfield underwent treatment, the producers, in 2011, created a prequel miniseries – Gods of the Arena, set five years before the events of Blood and Sand, and introducing another key character – Gannicus, a prized champion belonging to the House of Batiatus. Merely six episodes long, Gods of the Arena tells his story and gives greater depth to other familiar characters, including Batiatus himself.
A tragedy in the truest sense, Andy Whitfield died of that cancer, and the producers were left with the impossible task of finding a new Spartacus in his absence.
For the excellent and extremely well-paced season two – Vengeance, the producers put their hopes and dreams in a younger Australian actor – Liam McIntyre. Filling Whitfield’s old shoes while at the same time transcending the character from slave to freedom fighter, McIntyre put light on Spartacus’ leadership qualities with a commanding presence, both on and off the field of battle. But Vengeance showed us that Spartacus did not become the revanchist bane of Rome’s entire existence overnight. In fact, he made more than a few mistakes that nearly destroyed him. The season ends with Spartacus’ rebellion now fully established and legitimized.
Being a relatively unknown program on a network that doesn’t get too many viewers, Spartacus has something of a cult following. The premiere was hosted by Starz itself as well as Machinima.
I arrived about an hour and a half before the doors were open, to find a line already existing. By the time the premiere started, the line snaked all the way to the end of the theater and back out to the front. As we took our seats, we were asked tweet our questions to #askSpartacus which were used in the live on-screen interview with Steven S. DeKnight, and the main cast of the show.
A few facts I learned? Crixus actor Manu Bennett (the voice of Azog: The Pale Orc in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit) is full of hilarious stories. Actress Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess) is in her 40s and still looks absolutely gorgeous. Liam McIntyre plays videogames and is also due to be married soon. And best of all? Steven DeKnight’s next project is another Starz series – this time a sci-fi action drama in space called Incursion.
The only other noteworthy moment as far as the event itself is concerned was the fact that there was one woman in line with two kids, boy and a girl. And the boy (older one) couldn’t have been older than 9 years old. She either had no idea what she was about to let her kids watch…or she’s the stupidest parent alive. There really should be an age limit for this kind of things.
ENEMIES OF ROME:
This hour-long episode comes out swinging. About 90% of what you see in the trailer gets covered in Enemies of Rome. Whereas Vengeance started out with Spartacus being chased by Romans on horseback, War of the Damned beings with the Battle of Nuceria and with Romans being chased by Spartacus on horseback.
Spartacus’ rebellion has grown to a few thousand scrappers at his command, with his most trusted gladiator allies – Crixus, Agron, and Gannicus all as Generals. Everything that was great about the show before is still there. It’s gory, sexy, solidly written, and remaining focused on the characters. It was…just another episode of Spartacus.
Enter Marcus Crassus (played by Simon Merrells) – the wealthiest Senator in the whole Republic. Having accumulated all the money and military power a single individual is capable of accumulating, Crassus, a patriot of Rome, is asked to help with the crushing of Spartacus’ rebellion. He has 10,000 men at his command, and a foolish teenage son, who doubts his every move, yet always stands eager to please him. I have known Crassus for but a single episode of the show, and already he has become one of my favorite characters.
Rome bleeds from attrition and loss from the injuries Spartacus’ rebellion inflicts. Yet when they look at Spartacus, they refuse to acknowledge him as anything less than a slave who just needs to learn his place. As a result, they continuously underestimate him, and Spartacus uses that grave misjudgment to his advantage.
Crassus has a different attitude. It is a given that he has no shortage of arrogance to his nature. The Crassus family bows to no one…not even Julius Caesar. But Marcus isn’t actually fooling himself. He knows he must prove himself and earn, through his own sweat, the glory that he will then gloat upon later. He uses (to the chagrin of his family) one of his slaves – a former champion of the arena, to teach him how to fight like a gladiator. He respects his slaves, and knows that they are human beings too…human beings who, if nudged in that direction, can murder you and your entire family.
As a result, Crassus not only respects Spartacus, he believes that Spartacus is a man who stands on a higher level than even most Romans. When he looks at Spartacus, he doesn’t see a slave. He sees a challenge of significant worth. Spartacus has earned his freedom, as well as the respect the men he command bestow upon him. He, of course, must be defeated simply because he is a threat to the Republic, which must endure forever, and that’s why Crassus will answer the call. But Crassus is the first person to not make the mistake of underestimating Spartacus, for he understands just how dangerous Spartacus and his cause actually are.
I’m not sure I’ve ever identified this much with a villain…ever. Crassus understands his enemy. He can think like Spartacus, and can therefore predict his moves. And with 10,000 men at his disposal, he will make for a truly formidable bad guy.
Fasten your seatbelts and open up your history books, my friend. You’re about to see it happen.