Lucy Lawless Archive

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TV Review: Spartacus – A Brief Retrospective

It’s a challenge to look back on a series like Spartacus. When it began in 2009, I took it as a juvenile attempt to bring together over-the-top 300-style violence with the baseline hetero-male audience’s collective desire to see Lucy Lawless naked. I had all but written the series off until it showed signs of transforming midway through the first season. Shock and awe-yeahhhh camera work gave way to actual narrative. Sure, it wasn’t HBO’s Rome, but that didn’t make it uninteresting to watch John Hannah curse Jupiter’s cock as he attempted to climb Capua’s social latter. Subtext began to appear within the series’ imagery and long form story-telling found its way into the mix. I offered a public mea culpa before admitting to being hooked on Spartacus. For my last official Spartacus War of the Damned post, I thought I would talk about some parts of the show that have really stood out to me over the last few years.

Target Demographic

In the final episode of War of the Damned, Agron promises a dying Spartacus that his legend will live on throughout history. It’s a touching meta moment in the series, and perhaps the best thing a dying leader can hope to hear. But who actually carried Spartacus’ memory through history?

Until Spartacus entered popular culture in the 1960s, he was relegated to the realm of classists and historians. The legend of Spartacus, as written by the Romans, was not about the triumph of individual agency, but the validation of Roman law and civilization. Much to the fictional Agron’s horror, Spartacus spent the better part of two millennia as a ghost story for aristocrats. He was a warning for what happens when the higher orders push those under them beyond the breaking point.

The last fifty years have seen Spartacus appropriated from the narrative of “haves” and rebranded as a populist figure – historical accuracy be damned. Steven DeKnight’s Spartacus is perhaps even more a folk hero than the character directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by Howard Fast. The post-modern Spartacus began as a soldier within the Roman Auxiliary. He only became a slave when a betrayal from his Roman commanders saw him fighting in an imperial conquest rather than defending his homeland. A subsequent decision to desert led to Spartacus’ capture and colonization into the lowest order of Roman society.

I won’t presume to guess how much this resonates with the working poor of America, but it’s hard not to see the contemporary influence on the Spartacus story. How many disenfranchised Americans want nothing more than a chance to be a part of the system, yet find themselves betrayed and marginalized by those institutions? How many people put themselves into the spectacle of the internet in search of fame, glory, and a lasting memory by entertaining the masses? In this, DeKnight’s Spartacus is quite successful in continuing the democratization of Spartacus, as initiated by Kubrick and Fast. Moreover, the desire for individual recognition among an alienating global community, where the Internet is our arena, further allows the series’ gladiators, the rock stars of Rome, to inhabit a conceptual space common to a broad audience obsessed with getting their fifteen minutes of fame.

Spartacus and Gay Culture

When I was in high school I wrote a review of Spartacus (1960) for a writer’s craft course. When my teacher asked why I didn’t devote more time to discussing Spartacus’ queer-friendly scenes, I answered with a rather flip, “People were cooler about gay stuff before Christianity. The movie didn’t make a big deal out of it, why should I?”

Upon first watching DeKnight’s Spartacus I found myself a little put off with series in terms of its approach to sexual identities as well as the critical discussion surrounding them.

During Spartacus’ first season bonafide television and culture critics, I mean people who get paid to do write about TV for a living, would not shut up about Crixus’ and Spartacus’ apparent unresolved sexual tension. I was unimpressed. Neither character was gay. Characters are allowed to hate each other without wanting to have sex with each other, deal with it. Meanwhile Barca, one of the series openly gay characters, inhabited a character space akin to one of the gang rapists from The Shawshank Redemption. Simultaneously, all the women, once again playing into sophomoric fantasies, were secretly bi-curious. Yet critics could not seem to move past the juvenilia of Spartacus’ and Crixus’ non-existent tension.

Thankfully, the series seemed content to grow up while a great many other people were trying to figure out pitchers and catchers. Vengeance, the series’ second chronological season, saw the creation of a new same-sex relationship. In a series where seemingly every other relationship was forged out of convenience, politics, opportunity, lust, protection, or revenge, Agron and Nassir proved to be the only healthy and mutually supportive paring of the show.

I’m sure a great many people, likely with more legitimacy to speak on gay-advocacy than I possess, have written at length on the importance of Agron and Nassir as an openly gay couple within a very hetero-normative cable TV series. But if I can revisit a modified form of my high school thesis on Spartacus (1960), I think this series has done a great thing in crafting a space where everybody is cool with same-sex couples, even if it has to do a little girl-on-girl pandering along the way.

Spartacus Vengeance’s Fatal Mistake

Point 1 – Losing Andy Whitfield was a tragedy. Not finding a way to keep John Hannah in the series was a mistake. When a long form drama has the chops to maintain multiple leading men (John Hannah, Andy Whitfield, and Manu Bennet) it can’t afford to lose two of them at the same time. Gods of the Arena didn’t even have the decency to make its half-season arc focus on Crixus. Such a decision would have facilitated an introduction to Liam McIntyre couched in a greater attachment to Crixus.

Point 2 – Rather than having Batiatus survive the attack on the Ludus, and subsequently be elevated to desired station, thus giving the series an actual reason to be rooted in Capua, we were introduced to half a dozen new Romans with one-off intrigues. The Upstairs Downstairs element of the show was lost at a time when McIntyre was uncertain as Spartacus and the writers only saw fit to have him speaking in dry speeches. Even if John Hannah was only used for five episodes, it would afforded enough time to allow Galber to become a leading man in his own right.  Meanwhile having Batiatus concentrate a half-dozen new intrigues into one character would have made the story telling infinitely more efficient.

Historical Accuracy

I’ve taken issue with the series’ historical accuracy from time to time. All too often Spartacus seemed to get the minor details right while buggering up some of the bigger ideas. Upon re-reading some Plutarch and Appian I’ve been reminded of one of my earliest lessons in Roman history: The Romans are the biggest liars of them all.

Seriously, history is a hell of a lot easier to write when the goal is not to be accurate to fact, but to create a legacy for your allies while simultaneously vilifying your enemies. Bearing that in mind I’ve put together a point-counterpoint on some of the series ongoing historical “liberties.”

Ancient Romans were a pious and proper people. Nobody had sex like they did on Spartacus.

Right, and Silvio Burlusconi would have made sure his biographer included the part about Bunga Bunga parties if the press hadn’t found out about them.

Spartacus died in 71BC.

Maybe, maybe not. The “I’m Spartacus” moment/sequence in Kubrick’s movie and DeKnight’s series, respectively, reflects the fact that in an ancient army few people can recognize their general. Most people in Spartacus’ army were just following the person in front of them. Only a handful of Captains would have been able to recognize Spartacus or Crixus. Of course, the Romans are not going to be apt to write a history where the man who undermined the Republic escaped to perhaps one day threaten Rome again. Spartacus died as an idea in 71BC, the man bearing his name may have survived.

Roman swords are great for cutting off people’s heads.

False. The gladius is a short sword that would be quite terrible as a tool for beheading. It is best used when partnered with a legionaries’ shield and used as a stabbing weapon.

Final Thoughts, for now

I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t more to say about Spartacus. When three big themes and three smaller ones run nearly 1700 words it probably indicates a need for me to write an actual paper on the subject.

In the end, Spartacus’ legacy will be as a show that began as tawdry titillation and grew into a series which questioned the way we interact with history. It didn’t seek to subvert what we think we know, rather it looked for gaps in the primary sources and choose to live in those spaces, spaces where perceptions of the past are checked by modern historical sensibilities. This is no small feat. Arguably something like Game of Thrones, though similar in format and tone to Spartacus, will never be able to do what Spartacus accomplished. For that reason, as well as countless others, Spartacus will prove to be a pop culture event worthy of much critical discussion and dissection.

Thanks to everybody who kept up with these posts over the last ten weeks; it was a hell of a ride. A special thanks to the Google+ Spartacus Circle for allowing me to promote my work every week. Further thanks to Jennifer Adese who has been a fantastic supporter of these reviews, and this website, since I got it off the ground.

Nos morituri te salutamus


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TV Review: Spartacus War of the Damned Episode 10 – Victory

Bloodied but not beaten

As the title card flashed the single word “Victory” on screen, I immediately asked myself, “Victory for whom?” Who could possibly call himself a winner in this version of Spartacus’ legend? Could anything other than inevitable Roman glory triumph in the wake of Spartacus’ rebellion? For all the memorable aspects of this episode, and there are many, my take away has to be the way in which the acting, writing, and directing all came together to play with the audience’s almost certain quixotic hopes for historical revision.

NB: I’m going to try to limit my discussion of Victory to the episode itself. Next week I have plans to talk about the broader implications of the season and the series as a whole.

Also, do not read any further if you haven’t seen the episode. Seriously! This goes beyond a spoiler alert and into “you’ll ruin the entire fucking experience if you haven’t seen the series up to this point” territory.

In the broadest possible sense, I think this was the ending that Spartacus fans deserved. Victory walks a very fine line between the competing forces of the series’ sensationalized interpretation of Roman history, the tropes of a modern soap opera, and the demands of literary tragedy. Balancing on this high wire act produced a heretofore unseen sense of tension throughout the episode. Arguably a huge contributor to this edge-of-the-seat phenomenon came from the knowledge that any of the characters we have come to care about over the last four years could have died within the span of fifty-five minutes. In such a state, every line becomes a potential final word, each scene a potential grave yard. And anchoring almost every moment therein was Liam McIntyre.

This is not to suggest that Liam McIntyre hasn’t been on his game all season, but in this episode he inhabited Spartacus as if the character had been his all along. One of the episode’s many heart wrenching scenes saw the freed slaves offering gratitude to Spartacus. There was no clichéd extra suggesting he speaks for the group when he says (insert 3rd act gimmick here). They simply said, “Gratitude, Spartacus.” For McIntyre’s part, he reacted as if the words were a kick to the stomach. It’s the soul of poignancy to see King Spartacus thanked by his people, knowing they may well die despite everything that has passed.

Gratitude: a word uttered by John Hannah, Lucy Lawless, Simon Merrells, Todd Lasance, and every other actor playing a Roman. It is a word used so frequently among the Romans that it carries all the impact of a quick “thanks” offered to a clerk at a burger joint. Yet when “gratitude” passes from the lips of extras and third tier characters to a man whose name isn’t his own, the word finds new meaning.

As I said before, the episode lives at the intersection of powerful writing, acting, directing, and hope.

Shades of Gladiator

On the meeting of Spartacus and Crassus I could likely write a thousand words. For the sake of this review I’ll content myself with a hundred. Nowhere do we better see the literal “War of the Damned” theme come to a head than in this meeting. So much of the scene is carried in subtext and body language, culminating in a handshake between worthy foes. The two men are captives of an idea, and that idea is called Rome. Spartacus’ war was against the nation which sanctioned the rape and murder of his wife and reaps the daily labour of tens of thousands of slaves. Crassus is the living embodiment of that nation. He can no more let Spartacus honourably withdraw from Italy than he can forgive Kore for her betrayal. Both Spartacus and Crassus end the war damned tethered to their fate by the idea of Rome, regardless of if they can find a respect for the other.

And then, the dominos begin to fall. I admit I took no joy in the end of Naevia. Even though I’ve been a critic of how the writers managed her character, she demonstrated enough growth last week to make her death a bitter affair. Gannicus is another character who I detested in Gods of the Arena, if only because I was firmly in the “You’re not Andy” camp at the time. While I wish the writers would have found something more interesting to do than have him shack up with Sybil mid-season, his vision of Oenomaus and the arena amid crucifixion was a moving piece of closure. Similarly, Saxa’s death was a heartbreaking thing to watch. Even with the scant dialogue she received over the last two years, the Conan-esque sensibility Ellen Hollman brought to the role made the character’s death meaningful.

But what of Spartacus?

In the moment the spears hit him the audience is taken back to Crixus’ death. Yet, I won’t deny some peace of mind when it happened, despite the timing which only TV is capable of delivering. With a pilum through his heart, Spartacus would die quickly. The Romans could put him up on a cross, but he would not be Kirk Douglas, crucified along the Via Appia. It would have been a fitting death if it had ended there. Instead, the only functional couple the series has ever seen, who just happen to be a same-sex couple, pull him off the battlefield.

Yet it is not a deus ex machina. What follows is the writers’ last assault on whatever dam the audience uses to maintain composure during moments of tragedy. In Spartacus’ final minutes we witness him finding peace in two distinct ways. The obvious is his impending return to his wife in the afterlife. Beyond that, and left unspoken, is the answer to the series’ ultimate question: what is it all for? Even with Pompey rounding up a number of freed slaves who broke for the Alps, the others who waited for Spartacus secured their lasting freedom by being in the right place at the right time. Thus proving even Jupiter can’t rain piss and shit on everybody all of the time.

The beginning and the end

Laeta, Nassir, Agron, Sybil, the mother and her newborn child, and all the rest who make it to freedom justify Spartacus’ belief in the cause of life. Marked by a red serpent, the series comes full circle with a shot on Spartacus’ grave.

I don’t use the word perfect a lot in my reviews, but considering what the series began as, what it endured, and what it turned into this year, Victory was a perfect ending to an imperfect story. Where Stanley Kubrick gave us a tragedy without end, Steven DeKnight offered us a literary tragedy, where death informs the life that survives in its wake.

Tune in next week when I talk about the series as a whole, historical revision, and what I see as the enduring nature of the Spartacus Legend.


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Television Review/Recap: Spartacus Vengeance Episode 10

What sort of loose formation is this?

As prophesied, the final episode of Spartacus: Vengeance sees a whole bunch of main characters get killed. Did their deaths serve a purpose? Maybe, a little.

*Spoilers Ahead*

Was there action? Yes. Was there blood? Oh yes, by the bucket full. Did people get what they deserved? Some. How do I feel about it? Meh.

I’m going to write a wrap-up piece on the series next week, so I’ll save much of my criticism for that. For now, I’ll say that the route that Steven S. DeKnight, took to get Spartacus from A to B is not the path I would have walked. Yay, arm chair screen writing/directing; isn’t the internet a great place?

The episode opens atop Vesuvius. As expected, things are pretty rough. Mira explains to Spartacus, before getting in a little dig about his “next woman”, that the group is running low on food. Before Spartacus can respond to Mira’s barb, Crixus alerts Spartacus to the fact that some of the Germans are trying to breach the Roman position at the foot of the mountain.

This unauthorized sortie would have worked had Ashur and the Egyptian not conveniently arrived at the picket line to lend a hand. Before Ashur can cleave German skull asunder, Mira, Spartacus, Crixus and Gannicus show up to save the day. And then Mira gets an axe in the chest.

Kill count = 1

Also, remember last week when I said that for want of a relationship with Spartacus, Mira had no point in the story?

Alas, Mira, you should never break up with the leading man.

Normally I love being right, but Mira’s death is just too pointless for me to feel good about it. It reminded me of when Wash died in Serenity. The powers that be killed somebody just to show the audience that no primary is safe. Oh wait, this is Spartacus, we already knew that; we learned that lesson when Varro died. So now Katrina Law, who I’ve found to be a rather good actress within the series, is gone for season four. Boo!

Cut scene to Lucretia and Ilithyia in a cart together. Having reconciled with Glaber, Ilithyia is eager for her child to be born in Rome. She takes to the road so that she might convince Glaber to press his men up the mountain, rather than letting starvation do his job for him. Ilithyia also expects that Lucretia will be returning to Rome with the couple. Inevitably, Lucretia reveals Glaber’s plans for her vis-a-vis becoming Ashur’s bride. She also hints at a plan of her own to get out of it. Ilithyia, who now seems to have well and truly forgiven Lucretia for everything that happened in Season 1, reassures her friend that all will be put right.

With Shakespearian delicacy, Ilithyia pours a little poison into Glaber’s ear. First, she convinces Glaber to assault the mountain sooner rather than later. Then, she re-writes the story of how Seppia came to learn of her brother’s fate. With the now infamous snake bracelet in her hand, Ilithyia casts Ashur as the agent provocateur behind Seppia’s aborted assassination. Glaber, perhaps too easily, buys into the idea that Ashur is nothing more than a Syrian viper. And since murder is always more fun in pairs, Glaber informs Ilithyia that Lucretia has served her purpose as prophetess. The oddest of couples are loose ends that need tying up.

It seems odd to write Ashur’s name in close proximity to the word innocence, but such was the case. Glaber, however, refused entertain the Syrian’s pleas of loyalty. Instead, the Praetor sent Ashur up Vesuvius with an offer of clemency for the rebels if Spartacus would surrender his life. After giving a speech, Spartacus sends Ashur on his way. Yet Crixus has other plans. The Gaul would send Ashur’s head to Glaber as answer to his offer. Ashur cites his wounded arm as grounds for unfair completion between Crixus and himself. So Naevia steps up to settle accounts with the Syrian.

Kill count = 2

Oh don’t look so surprised; we all knew that Ashur had to die. Once he crossed the line in to being Mr. Rapey McRaperson, his days were numbered. However, his Iago-esque final lines were, for want of a better word, spectacular.

““Killing me won’t erase the feeling of my cock inside her, or all those that followed.”

One last chew at the scenery for a once great villain.

Still, Mira dies and Naevia lives? It hardly seems fair if you ask me. Mira evoked Artemis: a strong warrior and voice of proto-feminist reform. Naevia is as blood thirsty as Ares. I’ll take the earlier one for the win any day. I suppose the writers will have an easier time with brooding Spartacus than having to dive headlong back into the scummy waters of howling mad/sad Crixus.

After a chat with Gannicus, Spartacus devises a plan. He’d been using the vines that grow on the rock face of Vesuvius to shroud Mira’s body. Perhaps they could be used for other purposes? Purposes that involve rappelling down the side of the mountain.

Meanwhile Lucretia and Ilithyia are back at the ludus in Capua. Lucretia, thinking herself free of Ashur, tosses the red wig over the villa’s balcony to the cliff below. Joined by Ilithyia, the two women go on about how both shall soon be free of this, that, and the other thing.

*Shameless foreshadowing alert*

With Lucretia’s back turned, Ilithyia moves closer to the woman who earlier in the episode was a “cherished friend”. Despite her mixed feelings, the Praetor’s wife is intent upon uniting Lucretia with the gods. At the last possible second Lucretia turns to see her “friend” with hands raised in murderous intent. Pause for dramatic effect; then camera pan down to reveal Ilithyia’s water has broken.

Seriously? Considering the amount of water on the floor, I expect Ilithyia would have noticed something amiss a little sooner. Then again, I’ve never witnessed that particular biological function. Anybody care to educate me on this point? Anyway, murder is set aside as Lucretia takes Ilithyia inside to deliver.

Back at Vesuvius, Spartacus, Agron, Crixus, and Gannicus use vine ropes and cover of night to get behind the Romans’ line. After slitting a few throats, they make for the siege engines. The bombardment that follows lays waste to the Roman encampment. Furious, Glaber orders a charge on the rear flank. Just before the first rank of Romans cross steel with the small commando squad, Oenomaus and Nassir lead the rest of the rebel contingent down the mountain. The desperate assault catches the advancing Romans completely out of position. Guts and gore ensue. Oh and I hope nobody particularly cared about Oenomaus because he gets a sword through the stomach while fighting the Egyptian. With his final breath Oenomaus tells Gannicus that he’s off to be reunited with his wife.

Kill count = 3

Wait, they killed the only Black guy in the show?

I don’t want to say I saw it coming, but Oenomaus hadn’t been getting a lot of screen time. Notwithstanding the second and fifth episodes, I don’t really think the writers knew what to do with him.

Having lost the imitative in battle, Glaber orders a retreat to the temple. Spartacus, covered in blood and full of fury, commands his men to press their advantage.

Now things start to get a bit stupid.

We return to the villa to see Lucretia playing midwife to Ilithyia. She returns from getting some “herbs to soothe pain” covered in blood. It seems that Lucretia went on a killing spree while she was gone, a spree that extends to the slave attending Ilithyia’s bedside.

I’m sorry, but the time for Lucretia to go crazy was way earlier in the series. She’s been too normal for too long for this reversal of character to have any meaning. Any thoughts that I had toward Lucretia playing the long con died when the arena burned down. Now, without any regard for the integrity of the character or the intelligence of the audience, Lucretia decides to go bat shit crazy. Cut scene and Lucretia is outside on the sands of the ludus. With the newborn babe wrapped in her dress, she’s walking toward the cliff at the far side of the training area. At the same time, Ilithyia is crawling toward Lucretia, leaving a trail of blood behind her as she moves.

For the briefest of moments I thought Lucretia would claim the baby as hers. A legal heir to Quintus Batiatus would allow Lucretia to act as steward of the boy’s inheritance until he came of age. Such was not the case. Lucretia, one of the best characters in the show, mutters something in her crazy voice about “Quintus always wanting a son” before throwing herself and the baby off the cliff.

Kill count = 5

Can we say crazy eyes?

Bullshit. Total bullshit. Remind me again why I’m going to watch this show without Lucy Lawless or John Hannah?

Things wrap up at Vesuvius about as I expected. Romans die. Spartacus has a sword fight with Glaber. Glaber warns Spartacus that he hasn’t won anything; Rome will send legions to hunt him down. And Spartacus puts his sword down Glaber’s throat.

Kill count = 6

The season ends with Spartacus telling Crixus that it is time to build an army. Then there’s one last quick speech about freedom.

C’est ca.

At least now that they’ve killed Lucretia, Seppia, Seppius, and Glaber, there’s no reason for the series to be tethered to Capua. Next season SHOULD see a shift toward Rome, Crassus, and the glory stealer himself, Pompey. Still, I can’t help but thinking that this was the season of unrealized potential. I kept waiting for things to happen, but they never quite materialized in the way I expected. I’ll speak more on this next week when I do my season wrap-up post.

For now, I want to thank everybody for coming back week after week to read my recap/reviews. Starting next week, Monday shifts from Spartacus to Game of Thrones on the Page of Reviews.


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Television Review/Recap: Spartacus Vengeance Episode 9

Spartacus leads a team building seminar, with wine.

Misdirection was the word of the day for “Monsters”, the penultimate episode of Spartacus Vengeance. Yet with Spartacus making speeches in two out of his first three scenes, I feared another painfully talkie episode. Thankfully, I was proven wrong. Though getting from A to B was perhaps a bit too easy of a plot twist.

*Spoilers Ahead*

The story picks up with Ilithyia returning to the former house of Batiatus. After opening the door but before passing out, Ilithyia notices her husband wrapped up in Seppia’s arms. When the Praetor’s wife wakes up, she finds herself in the villa’s guest bedroom. Glaber initially greets Ilithyia with what seems like genuine concern. Of course, his facade of support quickly gives way as he attempts to use the details of his wife’s captivity to divine the location of Spartacus’ camp. When Ilithyia presses Glaber on the nature of his relationship with Seppia, the Praetor admits to the liaison and reminds his wife that he is a monster of her own making.

Back at the rebel camp, all is not well; so what else is new?

Spartacus, Crixus, and Gannicus, all clad as legionaries, scale the temple’s wall, walk through a warren of sleeping Germans and Gauls, and make it into the inner sanctum before Naevia sounds the alarm. After making another one of his bland speeches (Seriously, if the writers gave Liam McIntyre a chance to act rather than orate, he might make a great lead) Spartacus sets the camp to training. Unfortunately for the would-be army, petty grudges have given way to disharmony. In Crixus’ words, “We are but flailing fingers when we ought to be closed fist.” So Spartacus enacts a plan. He has Agron knock over a wagon full of wine so the rebels can spend a day drinking and bare knuckle boxing to settle old grievances. But before that kicks off, Mira finds the time to corner Spartacus to talk about their relationship. It’s all rather trite on that note.

Spartacus: You shouldn’t have tried to kill Ilithyia…

Mira: I did it for you…

Blah blah blah. The fast version is that Mira wants “more” and Spartacus is damaged goods what with it being less than a year since he held the bloodied corpse of his wife. So they sort of break up. Which means that Mira is probably going to die next week.

3:1 odds that Mira dies next week.

Other events shape up like so: Agron and Crixus settled their differences after being jointly beat up by Oenomaus and Gannicus, who proved that they can work together despite the latter’s habit of nailing the former’s wife which indirectly killed said wife. I know everybody has to pull together during a time of crisis, but this just seemed a little too contrived for my taste. I liked the tension between allies. Hopefully this “friendship” paves the way for more meaningful deaths next week.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I think next week is going to be a main cast blood bath.

Okay, back to Capua where Glaber and Ashur are meeting for a planning session. Despite narrowing the range of possibilities for Spartacus’ base of operations, the Praetor still has too few men and too large of an area to search. Enter the Greco-Roman god of plot convenience bearing the head of dead Lucius. Contrary to popular belief, dead men do tell tales in ancient Rome. Ashur’s connections managed to identify Lucius and trace his home to the Greek temple at the foot of Vesuvius. Armed with that information and Ilithyia’s vague descriptions of where she was held, Glaber plans to march on the rebel camp – a camp where, in case you forgot, they’ve spent the day drinking and fighting.

For his part, Ashur is offered a place at the Praetor’s side during the coming battle as well as Roman citizenship, possession of the ludus and marriage to Lucretia. He conveys this information to the widow Batiatus as a preamble to yet another implied scene of non-consensual sex. I really used to love Ashur as a character. Now, I’m a little torn. Emotionally, I know I want him to die for his sins. From a narrative point of view, I wonder what role he could serve in the show next season when Pompey and Crassus replace Glaber and Varinius. Yet some twisted evil part of me likes having a character who works toward his own goals without any limitations or moral compass.

Anyway, the stage is finally set for some action. Right? Wrong. Along comes Seppia. No longer apt to be bound to Glaber, Seppia summons Praetor Varinius to Capua with news of Ilithyia’s disappearance and proof of Glaber’s role in her brother’s murder. But by the time Varinius arrived in Capua, Ilithyia had returned to the villa. Also Seppia’s proof of Glaber’s murder, the snake bracelet in Ashur’s box, is laughable in Varinius’ eyes. Needless to say, the Praetor is quite pissed off. The only balm for Varinius anger is the Senatorial order that he carries demanding Glaber’s recall. Since ignoring the order would mean the end of his political career, Glaber acquiesces and makes preparations to return to Rome. This leaves Varinius free to take care of Spartacus.

Poor Seppia is now at something of a loss. Knowing that Roman law will not see justice done, the young Roman noble confides in Lucretia. For her part, Lucretia offers a dagger along with the suggestion that she take matters into her own hands.

This is where the misdirection starts happening. The writing leads the audience to fully buy into the idea that Seppia is going to put a knife into Glaber’s back. Moreover, Ilithyia talks to Lucretia about wanting her life back, and how that can only happen through blood. It makes perfect sense for Lucretia to agree with this sentiment as Glaber’s death means the end of Ashur’s hold over her. When nervous Seppia enters the bath and trades lines with Glaber about returning to Rome, it seems like his fate is sealed. Like a good little Roman wife-in-training Seppia strips the Praetor of his armour and clothing. Then she smashes an amphora of wine against his face. Blade in hand, Seppia is positioned to slay Glaber. Who would have expected Ilithyia to cut Seppia’s throat before she could finish off the Praetor?

Lest we forget, this is ancient Rome. Women are the property of their husband, father or nearest male relative. Ilithyia has none of these save for Glaber. The only life she could get back is the one of privilege that comes with being a kept woman. It’s the ideal solution for Lucretia, as well. A Glaber tempered by Ilithyia will allow Lucretia to come to Rome, rather than languishing in Capua as Ashur’s concubine.

Blood stained and stunned, Glaber asks why Ilithyia would save him. Ever the puppet master, Ilithyia reminds her husband that she is a monster as well. Further she suggests that they should turn their venom outward to set fire to the heavens. Encouraged by his wife, Glaber sets out for Vesuvius.

At the rebel camp, Spartacus stands vigil over his now unified troops. After trading some words with Gannicus, he happens to see a signal fire from one of his lookouts atop Vesuvius. It can mean only one thing: a Roman army approaches. How lucky it is that he looked up at the exact right moment upon the conclusion of a day of team building activities; once again the god of plot contrivances strikes. The approach of Glaber’s men quickly sobers everybody up as they take defensive positions.

They didn't teach us this formation in boot camp, Sarge...

As a group of rebels work to repel the first wave of Romans over the temple’s wall, another squad strikes at the flank of the main force. The battle goes so well that they capture the Praetor himself. But wait, it’s not Glaber that they grab but Varinius, who upon capture orders his men to lay down arms. Huzzahs all around. The rebels have captured a Praetor. Now they can outfit their ranks with proper military kit, right? Nope. Misdirection time.

Here’s the thing with this particular battle scene. The Romans might have been a bunch of puritanical, superstitious, sticks in the mud, but they were good engineers. So I thought to myself, “Why wouldn’t a Praetor of Rome deploy siege engines before sending in the infantry?” Varinius is an idiot, that’s why. As Spartacus and the rebels consider their victory, flaming catapult shot starts flying into their camp. Glaber, it would seem, is not as dim as his co-Praetor when it comes to matters of war.

When faced with Roman artillery, the rebels have no option but to retreat. Legionaries, mercenaries, and Ashur feat. hired goods pour in through the breached temple walls. While the remaining rebels evacuate through their escape tunnel, Oenomaus takes a knife in the eye as he and the other named characters attempt to hold the line. When the rebels emerge from the tunnel they find more legionaries advancing on them. Rather than fight, Spartacus orders a retreat up Vesuvius’ lone foot path.

The episode ends with Glaber taking possession of the temple and ordering his men to set up a picket at the base of the footpath. Rather than attack from the low-ground, he plans to starve the rebels out.

The misdirection here and there makes up for the embarrassingly obvious “Oh shit! How do we get this back on track?” moments that serve to move the plot forward. And while the scale of the battle seems off, Glaber brought 3000 men to Vesuvius according to the history books, the stakes finally feel appropriate. Too bad there’s only one more episode left. A drawn out battle of attrition could easily work over two episodes with a third after that to lay the foundation for where things are going to go next season.

Until next week…


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Television Recap/Review: Spartacus Vengeance Episode 8

Gannicus seeks to balance vengeance...

Another minor character bites the dust, Spartacus does some moralizing, and more fun with Lucretia and Ashur.

*Spoilers Ahead*

There are times when I think that Spartacus Vengeance specializes in setting the stage without ever raising the curtain. The writers have this unique talent for focusing on the movement of pawns around the board. Higher point pieces end up within striking distance, but more often than not seem to back down rather than press advantage. I am so bored with watching pawns fall at the expense of playing out a more risky gambit. Episode 8 “Balance” had it within its power to give the audience an event that would have rivaled the burning of the arena. Instead it just saw one more pointless piece removed from play.

The entirety of the episode focuses on one question: Will Spartacus kill Ilithyia? Gannicus, having brought the Praetor’s wife to the rebel camp, offers Ilithyia’s life as a means of balancing vengeance between Glaber and Spartacus. In his mind, Ilithyia’s death will put the rebellion to rest and allow some semblance of order to return. For all of Spartacus’ talk there’s no real doubt that he’ll let Ilithyia live. In fact, everything that goes on within the rebel camp comes across as telegraphed in advance. I’ve suspected that Ilithyia’s baby is actually Spartacus’ ever since her first scene of the season – why else would she have fantasies about their tryst in the ludus? In similar fashion, anyone with an eye for the obvious would have seen Mira’s attempt on Ilithyia’s life coming a mile away as it had all the subtlety of a Roman cavalry charge. Despite shallow writing, credit must be given to Liam McIntyre and Katrina Law’s performance during those scenes. After cutting short Mira’s attempt to strangle the life out of Ilithyia, Spartacus callously informs Mira that she does not know his heart. Law’s expression conveys agony bordering on betrayal as McIntyre finally gets a chance to act.

In Capua, Glaber is working damage control. Knowing full well that he will become a laughing stock in the Senate if word of Ilithyia’s abduction makes it to Rome, the Praetor institutes a media blackout. Instead of deploying his troops to the countryside, he sends Ashur and his goons to the local brothel in search of information. The scene that follows blends the best of computer and visual effects into one giant bloody mess.

Something worth noticing in Glaber’s plan speaks to the relationship between Lucretia and Ilithyia. For the longest time I thought that Lucretia was running a con against the Praetor’s wife. In light of Glaber’s half-hearted interest in recovering Ilithyia, Lucretia’s concern for her lost friend struck as genuine. Perhaps I’ve had it wrong all this time and she actually is clinging on to Ilithyia as a last vestige of support.

It is not a good thing when Ashur smiles.

Ashur returns to the villa without having found any lead upon Gannicus’ whereabouts. Naturally that means it’s time to pay a visit to his “beloved” Lucretia. The course of this degradation session, where once again Lawless and Tarabay are in top form, yields some essential reversal of fortune for the former domina. Upon being shoved to the floor, Lucretia topples Ashur’s chest of ill gotten goods. From within spills the bracelet of dead Seppius. At last, Lucretia finds a much needed (and not at all convenient) piece of leverage.

Meanwhile back in the telegraph office rebel camp, Ilithyia recognizes Lucius as a Roman citizen. With precious little encouragement the latter admits to the former that his state of affairs is due to Sulla seizing his family’s holdings. Therein Ilithyia offers a bargain; if Lucius gets word to Glaber of the rebel camp’s location, all his assets will be restored. For a moment, I almost believed that Lucius might sell out the rebels. Then Spartacus called him away for an off-camera wisdom walk and I knew the game was afoot. Lucius’ arrival in Capua only confirmed my suspicion. Rather than play out a believable gambit, Lucius took to insulting the Praetor as he delivered Spartacus demands: one, a wagon full of weapons for the life of Ilithyia and two, the deal goes down in-person between Glaber and Spartacus.

Once again, a person would have to be blind, deaf, and in possession of the cognitive faculties of an undomesticated possum not to expect that “wagon full of weapons” to be filled with Ashur and his goons. The ensuing battle, which at least Spartacus seems to have anticipated, sees Lucius get killed for no particular reason other than he didn’t feel like running away. Glaber took an arrow through the shoulder, but it was a mere flesh wound. Wait what? There’s no such thing as just a flesh wound when it comes to arrows, especially when they hit joints.

For all the plotting and counter-plotting, the episode’s last five minutes see the only significant story development. Lucretia confronts Seppia, who has been reveling in hubris as she takes to the Praetor’s bed in Ilithyia’s absence, with Seppius’ bracelet. Spartacus releases Ilithyia but only after some soft spoken yet utterly cruel lines about how Glaber, who valued capturing Spartacus more than recovering the mother of his child, doesn’t love Ilithyia as Spartacus loved his dead wife. Glaber and Seppia have a bath together wherein the Praetor recounts how the gods must have taken Seppius and Ilithyia to bring the two of them together.

Here’s what worries me: History tells us that a Roman Praetor named Gaius Claudius Glaber led 3,000 legionaries against Spartacus and his band of rebel gladiators at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. The slave army was able to route the Romans, and thus became worthy of Pompey and Crassus’ attention. I don’t see how this season could possibly end with that battle if there are only two more episodes left. What seems infinitely more likely is that Glaber is going to get the Julius Caesar treatment from Seppia and Ilithyia. Snore.

Characters positioned in order of importance, sigh.

On a positive note, Oenomaus got a few more lines than he did last week. Even though most of them were spent mulling over the fidelities of his dead wife, it is a pleasure to watch Peter Mensah work. I’m also softening on my previous “Kill Gannicus” position. He’s no Agron and he’s defiantly no Varro, but his whinging has given way to a greater depth of character. He knows that challenging Rome is futile. Yet he follows Spartacus because he believes that fighting for this cause might balance the impossible debt he owes Oenomaus. In a group full of idealists, Gannicus is the only realist. I thought neither actor nor character capable of pulling off such a layered performance. Crixus and Naevia constitute the final surprise of the episode. In a more action focused story this segment would have likely ended up on the cutting room floor. Instead, the audience saw Naevia taking to swordplay as a means of reclaiming what was taken during her various assaults. To my eyes, that little vignette seemed rather empowering, perhaps more so than Mira’s newfound Artemis vibe.

So there we have it. Another episode down and what have we to show for our troubles? The rebels are no closer to being combat ready than they were last week. Glaber seems more likely to take a knife in the back from a jilted lover than from Spartacus. And whatever long con Lucretia might have been running has taken a back seat to getting debased by Ashur. For all its potential, the stakes just don’t feel particularly high right now.


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Television Review/Recap: Spartacus Vengeance Episode 7

Nothing says "we're upping the ante" like a crucifixion.

Episode seven sees some small plot movement as it heaps insult upon injury, atrocity upon intrigue, and finally gives the audience a reason to care about Spartacus’ story line.

*Spoilers Ahead*

It seems that every time I think Spartacus is approaching a point of lethargy, a new writer/director team gives the series a shot in the arm. This week’s offering, “Sacramentum”, doesn’t end with the plot as a juggernaut primed to charge ahead, but at the very least it gives the audience a reason to care about all of various plot threads, even dumb-ass Gannicus’.

Thread 1: Enter the dark side of the force

Dramatis Personae: Glaber and Ashur.

Remember that particularly gut wrenching moment last week when Ashur employs his leverage against Lucretia for the most base of purposes? Well that wasn’t a one off. Knowing that a single word uttered to Glaber could end Lucretia’s life, Ashur has reduced the once proud mistress of the ludus to his sexual thrall. This week’s creepy moment comes not in the form of active conquest but in the pillow talk. Lucretia calls Ashur dominus, admits to enjoying her rape, and is forced to wear a gift that is meant to symbolize his dominance over her. Again, I have to give credit to Lucy Lawless, Nick Tarabay, and their writers for finding new ways to make me cringe.

Outside the land of blackmail and rape, Glaber indoctrinates the now deceased Seppius’ men into his own legionary cohort. He also welcomes the orphaned Seppia into his home right in front of his heart broken wife. The good Praetor then decides to send a message to the people of Capua, again at the expense of his wife. Any slave who mentions the name of Spartacus will find themselves crucified in the forum. And just to prove he’s serious, he puts Ilithyia’s personal slave to the cross. Stop and think about that for a moment. Rather than round up a criminal, Glaber visited the most horrible death imaginable on an innocent slave just to torment his wife. Later in the episode, Ilithyia wonders how she ever could have thought Glaber to be weak. It doesn’t take long before Capua’s streets are filled with the crosses of dead slaves.

Glaber doubles down on the dark side.

Bonus marks for historical accuracy at this point. The legionaries employed proper crucifixion technique: spikes between the radius and ulna rather than through the palms. Hands are fleshy and would never keep a victim’s upper body in place.

Thread 2: The Gladiator Gang

Dramatis Personae: Spartacus, Crixus, Agron, Liscus, and a German giant called Sedullus.

Finally, there’s a reason for half the principle cast to have a conversation with each other.

The gang enact a plan to raid slave ships as a means of filling out their ranks. When the reconnaissance portion of the mission falls to Agron, he opts to free a ship filled with his fellow Germans. Of course he fails to tell Spartacus that there was a ship filled with Gauls that would have proved just as promising. Once returned to Vesuvius, the Germans prove rowdy, irresponsible, and outright reckless to the point of drawing unnecessary attention with their attacks on the highway. Meanwhile, Oenomaus is alive and on his feet. Peter Mensah gets about three lines in the episode and to my eyes, remains the most under used member of the cast.

I don’t know that Spartacus ever doubts Agron’s intentions but he certainly questions his actions in picking Germans over Gauls. For Agron’s part, he justifies the decision as a necessary means of giving a bit of non-Gallic balance to the would-be army. Crixus is almost stoic about the entire situation. Which, I suppose, is a step up from the moping and pouting that we have seen this season. True to form he doesn’t trust Agron or his people, but he won’t act on suspicion alone. Instead, he focuses his attention on training Naevia as a fighter.

Things come to a head when a very drunk German named Sedullus attempts to rape Naevia. Naevia repays him with a knife to the stomach before Agron intervenes. Their fight spreads into an all out brawl between the Germans, Gauls and everybody else. Things escalate to swords between Spartacus and Sedullus, with the former cutting the face off the latter – a tip of the hat to the special effects people for that little visual gem. Never before have I seen brains spill out of a cranium.

Spartacus makes his only speech of the episode wherein he tells the remaining Germans to shape up, or else. In a moment that channels Conan the Barbarian, one of the Germans proceeds to bash together a shield and stick after uttering something along the lines of “Me support Spartacus.” And all’s well that ends with face severing for the former slaves. Agron’s given Crixus reason to trust him. Now the initiative is on the writers to do something with it.

Thread 3: Roman Girls Gone Wild, but not in the way you think.

Dramatis Personae: Lucretia, Ilithyia, Gannicus

It seems like it was only yesterday when Ilithyia was the spider at the center of a web. Now she survives at the largess of a madman. With that in mind, Ilithyia confides in Lucretia that she can no longer live as a hated and humiliated woman. The conversation that sees the Praetor’s wife contemplating suicide is an interesting one. Lucretia says that she would soon follow if Ilithyia took her own life. Instead offers a way they can both be free of Glaber and Capua. But why is Lucretia doing this? The expressions on Lucy Lawless’ face are those of genuine compassion for her friend(?). However, I’m not convinced that this isn’t a feint within Lucretia’s larger plan.

Drawing on her role as resident prophetess, Lucretia invokes the gods as a means of escape. After scraping a blade across her arm, she plies the spilled blood to Ilithyia’s dress as if to suggest there was something wrong with the pregnancy. The pious Glaber initially buys into the idea that the blood is a sign from on high and orders Ilithyia back to their villa in Rome with Lucretia to play nurse. Not to be deprived of his prize, Ashur reminds the Praetor that Lucretia is a public figure in Capua, and her absence might incite the crowd to fear and panic. So the scheme backfires and Lucretia is stuck in Capua with her only friend to be sent to Rome.

Gannicus before the Praetor's handiwork.

Enter Gannicus. Absent rudis and coin, Gannicus attempts to leverage money out of Capua’s magistrate for services rendered. Rebuked, he takes comfort in his favourite whore house, even though he hasn’t the money to indulge in anything other than drink and conversation. Therein Ashur finds Gannicus and brings him before Glaber. The Praetor, knowing that Gannicus could be a powerful morale boost for his troops and the people of Capua, returns the lost rudis along with an offer of station in the legion.

Gannicus wanders the streets, considering the Praetor’s offer, until he comes upon the crucified body of his brothel playmate. Amid these rotting corpses, Lucretia approaches Gannicus with her own offer. On the night that Ilithyia leaves for Rome, she will distract the gate guards allowing Ganniucs to slip into the villa and put a knife in Glaber’s throat while he sleeps. Lucretia sees this as the only option to prevent more crucifixions as she believes that Glaber no longer knows the guilty from the innocent. The plan also balances the scales of blood for Spartacus in that Glaber’s death avenges that of Spartacus’ wife. With all debts paid, Lucretia anticipates that Spartacus will leave Italy thus restoring peace.

Events don’t quite play out the way Lucretia expected. The only person to set upon Glaber in his bed is Seppia. While the Praetor is indulging in his extra-marital playtime, Gannicus is off slaughtering the convoy that is escorting Ilithyia to Rome. When the dust settles, Glaber find his troops dead and Gannicus’ rudis stuck through the throat of the man assigned as Ilithyia’s bodyguard. Are we to assume that Gannicus has taken Ilithyia to Spartacus as a bargaining chip?  If so, I can’t imagine Glaber reacting with anything other than a full mobilization of his forces.

Three episodes remain. Now is the time to ratchet up the pace and build off all the escalation that emerged out of this episode.


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Television Review/Recap: Spartacus Vengeance Episode 6

Nick Tarabay and Craig Parker form a new alliance as Ashur and Praetor Glaber.

More minor characters die, Spartacus gives a couple of speeches, and something unexpected happens to Lucretia. This week on How Glaber Got His Groove Back Spartacus: Vengeance

*Spoilers Ahead*

I don’t want to say that “Chosen Path”, Spartacus: Vengeance’s sixth episode, squandered the momentum that last week’s “Libertusbuilt, but it’s hard to keep an objective eye and not feel that something is missing. Perhaps it is a decent plot for Spartacus and Crixus? Despite the writers’ best(?) efforts to make the eponymous character more important to the overall story arc, I think it’s fair to say that the main thrust (no pun intended) is being directed toward the Romans in Capua, rather than the slave army gathering at Vesuvius.

Speaking of thrusts, Ashur raped Lucretia. Look, there’s no good way to segue into a scene about non-consensual sex; I stand behind my wordplay. That said, this was arguably the most powerful scene of the season, if not the entire series. It came in the aftermath of Ashur beating down three Roman Legionaries as a way of proving to Glaber that gladiators are “no mere house slaves”. Within his cell, Lucretia challenged a beardless Ashur as to how Glaber could have discovered Ilithyia’s abortion vial. Rather than allowing himself to once again fall under Lucretia’s yoke, the former gladiator revealed that he was Glaber’s man before extracting a little revenge for past indignities. You’d think that after all the perversions and hedonism that this show has piled on, seeing one character rape another would be a matter of course; it’s not. The fully clothed scene with tight shots on the faces of Nick Tarabay and Lucy Lawless was chilling to say the least.

Were that things so well scripted within the camp at Vesuvius. In a word, Spartacus’ plot arc is boring. When the Romans talk they do so to move pieces on the chessboard. But when these former slaves chatter, nothing much comes of it.

Gannicus, why are you here?

After an attempt at sex sends Naevia into flashbacks, she spends most of her screen time trying to tell Crixus that she has some serious PTSD. While it’s interesting to see a broken character in the show, this tertiary plot point is coming at the expense of more relevant ones. I’m tired of hearing Spartacus spew clichés about putting thought to purpose before recycling the same old speech about freedom. It’s tedious to see Oenomaus collect beat down after beat down. As for Crixus, where’s the former champion? Who is this giant teenage boy that spends his days having tantrums and moaping? Is there a point in Gannicus making everybody feel bad about their quest for freedom? Why is the blonde haired former slave that used to be sleeping with Rhaskos, but never actually had her name said until Mira killed her at the end of the episode because she was going to betray the slaves to Glaber for a bounty, somebody the audience should care about?

The acute problem of removing half the interesting characters from the ludus grows more chronic with each passing minute. Half the show’s leading men have no character interaction save for with each other. When they do trade a word or two it’s always about practical matters of survival. Turning Spartacus and Crixus into allies killed all the dialogue that emerged out of their animosity. This is the reason why material that should land on the cutting room floor is making its way into the show. With nothing better going on they might as well explore Agron and Nassir’s budding gay romance.

Sidebar: Anybody else expecting a reveal that sees Nassir and Ashur turn out to be brothers?

Thank the gods for the Romans then. When the former slaves went back to Vesuvius to scratch their heads and contemplate the meaning of freedom, Glaber ran with the ball. In earnest, this is Glaber’s episode. He’s no longer the reflection of perpetually screwed over Batiatus, but rather a pissed off ex-General with a new supply of political capital. In his first scene, we see Glaber directing the wealth of his dead father-in-law’s estate into the hunt for Spartacus. He’s also made it perfectly clear to Ilithyia that she lives only so long as the unborn baby does. And for reasons that are revealed in the episode’s final scene, Glaber has charged Ashur with rounding up a small contingent of Capua’s most undesirable henchmen.

Lucy (F)Lawless anchors the episode with acting beyond reproach.

Glaber’s actions drive the emotional train wreck that is Ilithyia further into the arms of Lucretia. Playing the role of a wise older sister, Lucretia counsels submission and devotion as the best tools to win back her husband’s favour. A gambit that Ilithyia readily employs when she suggests to Seppius, who was attending another of Praetor Glaber’s “let’s work together meetings”, that his sister join her and Lucretia for some group mourning. The subtext of this meeting is that Ilithyia and Lucretia will woo Seppia to get to Seppius. To her credit, Seppia proves smarter than she’d let on in the past as she calls out the sham. As it happens, her promise to talk to her brother, despite the misdirection, amounts to little. Enter Ashur.

The episode’s final scene sees familiar thugs killing slaves and citizens alike within a Roman villa. Ashur and Glaber emerge from the shadows, with the latter placing boot upon Seppius’ neck. Proclaiming himself as anything but the fool people assume him to be, Glaber snuffs out Seppius life, the life of a Roman nobleman, simply to acquire the troops under his command.

So there’s the trade off. We endure Gannicus trolling people and extras elevated to the level of minor characters in exchange for having Glaber emerge as a worthy successor to John Hannah’s Quintus Batiatus. Perhaps next week the writers can give Liam McIntyre some dialogue that actually lets him act rather than orate.


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Television Review/Recap: Spartacus Vengeance Episode 5

From left to right, Ioane King as Rhaskos, Peter Mensah as Oenomaus, and Manu Bennett as Crixus

Even though I’ve been extra forgiving of Spartacus: Vengeance in the wake of having to replace their leading man, I found myself thinking that episode five would need to be something special. Were we to quantify plot progression to date into a form of linear measurement, I suspect the net distance traveled would be measured in yards rather than miles. And while the last two episodes have seen some Roman intrigue boiling to the surface, they’ve also seen Spartacus reduced to a bit character within the series.  The first season was at its best when the intrigues of the villa spilled into the ludus below. Removed from that environment, the show has struggled to find a way to bring these two political spheres together. “Libertus” does so in perhaps the most dramatic way possible.

*Spoilers Ahead*

Word reaches Spartacus and gang, now holed up in a temple at the foothills of Vesuvius, that Crixus, Oenomaus and that Gaul who loved showing off his wang are to be executed in the arena. Naturally Spartacus decides that a rescue is in order: “Who knows the arena better than we gladiators?” The sands of the arena perhaps, but I had no idea that gladiators were so well versed in the architecture of the building and how it connected to Capua’s sewer system. Be warned that some small measure of suspension of disbelief is in order.

Also, Agron kisses Nassir on the mouth when the latter emerges from his sickbed. It was good for Agron and weird for Nassir.

Meanwhile in Capua, things are looking grim indeed for Praetor Glaber. The quadruple entente between Senator Albinius, Praetor Varinius, Lucretia, and Ilithyia is in full effect. The only thing standing in the way of Albinius dissolving Glaber and Ilithyia’s marriage is the “inconvenient lineage” growing in her belly. That’s right kids, it’s time for ye olde Roman abortion. Though I’d never suggest looking too deep into Spartacus for allegorical messages, I do enjoy seeing female characters playing politics with their reproductive system.

Also, for some reason the powers that be thought it would be fun to bring Gannicus back into the show. He’s going to be Crixus et al’s to be the executioner. The former champion makes a big show of how pointless his life has become what with all the drinking and shagging of four denarii whores, (BTW if a lady of the night only charges four denarii, she probably has a disease) not to mention the burden of always having to carry around a rudis as proof of his status as a freedman.

Dustin Clare as gannicus...whatever

I never cared for Gannicus as a character, nor do I have any particular love for Dustin Clare, the man who plays him. My only assumption is that the producers/writers brought him back to make Gods of the Arena seem less terrible and perhaps make Liam McIntyre look better by comparison.

Back in the ludus, Glaber decides that Ashur is of no further use. Thus he is to be put to death with Crixus and company. Naturally, the writers can’t get rid of everybody’s favourite Syrian in such a pointless way. Enter Lucretia with a deal. If Ashur sneaks into Ilithyia’s room and switches the bottle of abortion juice for a placebo, she will convince Glaber that the gods have a plan for Ashur’s life.

Behold Lucretia’s long con in all its glory. I think we all knew that she was planning something big. Now we have the first real evidence of her master plan. At that moment I was never more convinced that she scheming to marry Albinius, thus securing her station in the world, and then avenge her lost child on Ilithyia’s when it is born. Why else would she want to keep the spawn of Glaber and Ilithyia alive?

Of course, Ashur is never one to be outdone. On the morning of the execution, Ashur takes his life into his hands and dares to speak with Glaber, who had begrudgingly agreed to spare the former’s life. Ashur informs Glaber that he saw Ilithyia holding a vial of abortion juice as she moved about the villa. Upon confronting Ilithyia, Glaber finds his wife far too confident in her new station. Making sure to remind Glaber that he’s an inferior specimen, Ilithyia spills the details of her arrangement with Varinius. The cuckolded Praetor now mirrors the perpetually screwed over spirit of Quintus Batiatus.

But there’s no time for a temper tantrum because the couple is late for the arena. Glaber and Ilithyia, who now oozes with herpes hubris, trade knowing glances and barbed comments with each other. Ilithyia also quietly admits to Lucretia that her husband discovered the abortion juice in her room. Remember how I said that a small dosage of suspension of disbelief was necessary for this episode? Considering that the only people who were supposed to know about the illicit tincture were Ilithyia and Lucretia, I don’t know why the former didn’t suspect the latter of blabbing. Ilithyia already has reason to doubt Lucretia’s loyalty; it seems perfectly natural that she would confront Lucretia over this matter. Alas it does not come to pass.

But that’s okay because the execution is starting! Oenomaus and Gannicus trade some words about the former champion taking the once-Doctore’s wife to bed. Wang Gaul gets killed. Crixus gets stabbed a couple times but keeps on going. Mira and a bunch of red shirt rebels set the basement of the stadium on fire. Wait what?

 

These people picked a lousy day to go to the arena...

It’s a pretty impressive scene that finally brings together upper and lower class Roman society. Spartacus and Agron replace two of the stadium guards inside the arena. Their plan is to wait for the fire to cause enough of a distraction that they can retrieve Crixus and the others; a dramatic but reasonable course of action. Then I watched hundreds of Romans plunging to their death as their seats burned out from under them. As more sections of arena collapsed into the fiery blaze, I actually found myself feeling sorry for the spectators. Is it the fault of the great unwashed that the Roman system was unjust? Of course it could be said that they are  complicit in supporting it by attending public spectacles – no allegory there at all. As common folk dove from their seats to the sands below and the elites in the podium fought through rubble to escape, it dawned on me that this is Capua’s 9/11 moment.

Now hold on, don’t go lynching me for comparing one thing to the other. The camera work that captures the gradual collapse of the arena accurately embodies the visual characteristics of a controlled implosion. For that alone it’s hard not to make the comparison. On a more sub-textual level, this is a 9/11 moment because only as the arena is burning around the citizens of Capua does the reality of Roman imperialism and internal colonialism come home to roost. The thing with city dwellers is that nothing is real until it is happening to them; it was true 2082 years ago and its true today. Burning the arena makes Spartacus something that is real for the people of Capua, not just an abstract object of hate who killed some nobles and looted villas off to the south.

It also makes the nature of Spartacus’ rebellion that much more complex. Even without a current climate of anti-elitism, the audience can easily cheer for Spartacus looting and plundering the rich estates of the Italian countryside. Now Spartacus, Agron, and Mira are directly responsible for the wholesale slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands of common folk. There is a word for people who kill civilians as a means of acting against a government: terrorists. How’s that for an interesting idea? No longer the shiny ideologue of freedom for all, Spartacus’ approval of this plan suggests a new philosophy of freedom at any cost.

As if that wasn’t enough to turn the series on its head, one final development unfolds in the burning wreck of the arena. During their flight from the podium, Senator Albinius gets separated from the rest of the nobles. Glaber comes upon him trapped under a beam and begging for help. Being the loyal Roman that he is, Glaber lifts the beam, only to smash it into Albinius’ head. His line, “I’m not the fool you and your daughter take me for.”

Brilliant! In one fell stroke Glaber has gone from cuckold to deus ex machina. Ilithyia’s plans crumble like the arena in the background when Glaber admits that her father is dead. Even the unflappable Praetor Varinius is taken aback when Glaber puts his hand around his wife, and admits that they will endure the trauma as husband and wife. The Greeks might have invented Hubris, but it took the Romans to perfect it.

Albinius death secures not only Glaber’s marriage and lineage, but also leaves him the sole inheritor to all of Albinius’ wealth. Wealth, that we have been told, is second only to the fortune of Marcus Crassus himself. While Spartacus might remain Glaber’s embarrassment, the Thracian’s actions have indirectly served to make his enemy more powerful and more dangerous than he ever was before.

Obvious as they were, I’ll forgive the episode’s deficiencies in the suspension of disbelief department when it moves the narrative with such gusto. Now let’s see if the momentum continues into next week.


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Television Review: First impressions of Spartacus Vengeance

Summary Judgement: Though absent two of its leading men, Spartacus’ return washes away the horrible taste that Gods of the Arena left in our mouth.

Starring: Liam McIntyre, Manu Bennett, Lucy Lawless, Peter Mensah, and Viva Bianca

Imagine if during the first season of Star Trek TNG the writers killed off Worf and Picard with plans to have Riker promoted to captain. Then just before the season finale airs Jonathan Frakes takes sick, quits the show, and dies a few months later. The network decrees that season two will go on with a little Dick York/Dick Sargent switch-up as the word of the day. As if the emotional trauma of losing a friend and colleague weren’t bad enough, the eighteen month layover from season one to season two saw some additional actor turnover among the secondary cast. Such is the situation confronted by Starz’s sleeper hit Spartacus: Vengeance. To the credit of the entire production, they’ve done a solid job holding everything together.

The story picks up three months after the events of Blood and Sand. Spartacus and Crixus’ uneasy alliance has led them to the temporary shelter of the sewers outside of Capua. From there they pillage the countryside for supplies and try to prevent the amalgam of escaped slaves from becoming a rabble. At the same time, a Capuan noble named Seppius has been dispatching mercenaries to hunt down the rouge slaves. Ineffective as they may be, his efforts have caught the attention of Rome. Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), the general who condemned Spartacus and his wife into slavery and was extorted into granting patronage to the House of Batiatus has been elected to the office of Praetor (Think a chief justice and joint chief all in position). His glory seems short lived as forces within the Senate have tasked him to deal with Spartacus’ uprising, citing the bonds of patronage between himself and Bataitus. This affront to his position sees he and his wife Ilithyia (Viva Bianca) return to Capua.

There’s an incomplete feeling to Spartacus sans the late Andy Whitfield and the still living John Hannah. If there was any way to augur Whitfeild’s death, I suspect that executive producers Steven S. DeKnight and Sam Raimi would have seen Quintus Bataitus survive Spartacus’ initial uprising. Ever cursing the gods and invoking Jupiter’s cock, Hannah’s portrayal of an ambitious gladiator school proprietor served to forward the show’s intrigue and offer much needed comic relief. I expect the triumvirate of Galber, Seppius and Ilithyia will fill the void therein. For his part, Liam McIntyre, Whitfield’s successor as the titular character, did an adept job in assuming the mantle left for him. He can chew up the scenery with the best of his colleagues and does bear some positive similarities to the late Whitfeild in his demeanor and the way he executes the character. Beyond saying it requires only a little suspension of disbelief to see him, not Whitfield, as Spartacus, I’m inclined to give McIntyre a few episodes to settle into the role before leveling any real criticism in his direction.

Similarly, the remainder of the regular cast have picked up their roles without dropping a beat. Manu Bennett as Crixus and Peter Mensah as Doctore/Oenomaus both ground the show in the familiar. The former is reveling in his new found freedom but driven to find his lost love Navea who was sold from the Bataitus estate in the previous season. Oenomaus has taken to walking Capua’s streets desperate to find some way to restore the honour he believes he lost in betraying Bataitus. Lucy Lawless returns to her role as Lucretia, emerging from the blood stained ruins of Bataitus Villa as an amnesiac shell of her former self. I give it three episodes before she remembers everything and brings on the rage. Please bring on the rage. There’s nothing better than Lucy Lawless when she is pissed off.

Then there’s the violence and sex, hallmarks of Spartacus. At the expense of a few external shots that were so heavily green screened it was almost pathetic, the fight choreography in season two’s premiere episode is top notch. Yes, the blood effects can be a bit goofy at times, but the sword play is genius. Perhaps seeing a man impaled through the back of the neck is gratuitous, but what isn’t in this show? The episode’s raid on a brothel manages to do the impossible and combine sex and violence into one giant orgy of indulgence. Without treading into specific details, I think un-tempered is the best adjective to describe this scene; the brutality of the violence matches the abject, unapologetic, and not exclusively hetero-normative hedonism – which for the record makes everything from last season look positively vanilla. Arguably such a display is over the top. However, I think it to be the right move on behalf of the writers and producers since there’s no better way to reinforce to the audience that despite the changes this is still the same Spartacus.

So long as Spartacus: Vengeance doesn’t make the mistake of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, that is getting into a pissing contest with itself to see just how far they can push the decadence from week to week, the season appears full of potential.


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Television Review: Spartacus Gods of the Arena Episode 3

Summary Judgement:  Did Michael Bay direct this episode?

Produced by: Starz

Starring:  John Hannah, Lucy Lawless, Dustin Clare, Antonio Te Maioha, Manu Bennett, Nick Tarabay, Jessica Grace Smith, Peter Mensah and Lesley-Ann Brant

Normally, I’m not one to write ongoing commentary about a television program.  I like to bookend my TV reviews with initial thoughts and then a wrap up review where I’m either eating crow or gloating.  However, this week’s episode of Gods of the Arena is so particularly tedious that it moves me to put thoughts to action.  I’m not quite sure if that last sentence makes sense, but it fits contextually with the show’s dialogue so I’m going to run with it.

Let’s start with the wine splashing breast licking threesome that inaugurated this particular episode.  Now the gods know that I’m not a prude, but even I’m approaching a saturation point with respect to the show’s sex scenes.  It’s akin to having a standing invitation to Caligula’s house; you know it’s probably going to be a good time but there’s the lingering fear that somebody will shove a pineapple up your ass just for the sake of novelty.  Case in point: last week we saw a slave rape another slave for the autoerotic amusement of a houseguest.  This week, the patriarch of the Batiati walked in on his son amid an orgy that would make Hugh Hefner blush.  So how do you up the ante for next week?  Perhaps Barca will take a furlough from the ludus to make love to a centaur at the foot of Mount Vesuvius?  Sufficed to say, I can no longer defend the show’s sex as a subversive reading of Roman history.  It’s just titillation to draw as wide an audience as possible.  Beware the ides of March, Starz.  The Romans knew all too well that the loyaty of the mob hinges upon their painfully short attention span.

Then there’s Crixus.  Crixus may be new to the life of a gladiator, but he hardly seems to possess the mettle of a future champion.  Manu Bennett, perhaps under directorial direction, spends most of the episode walking around slack jawed and wide eyed.  Where’s the savage Gallic fire?  Where’s the swaggering posturing arrogance?  Notwithstanding some awful montage sequence, how is this character supposed to evolve into a living legend, let alone a god among mere mortals.

Heaping insult upon injury is this episode’s awful camera work.  It could be that there was one pint too many of Russian Imperial Stout coursing through my post-Superbowl veins, but half the episode seemed to have been shot in slow motion.  Much to my surprise, Michael Bay is not attached to this episode as director.  Michael Hurst aka Iolaus in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys is to blame for this overuse of slow motion blood splatters, boobie jiggles and sword thrusts.  While I’m on the subject of thrusting, what’s the rationale behind having the two gay gladiators suddenly turn into expert warriors with the spear?  You’d have to be both blind and stupid not to recognize the immature phallic metaphor in action.   Why not just skip the bullshit and fire off a man-on-man sex scene?  Given the show’s target demographic, I don’t think it would hurt the ratings.

With only three episodes remaining in the miniseries, what little glimmer of intrigue that the show offered over the last two weeks has been summary tossed in the laundry like so many of Batiatus’ soiled bed linens.  Instead, we are left with an utterly predictable story arc.  I imagine episode six will end with some permutation of Quintus Batiatus killing his old man, Onamaeus learning how to crack his whip, Onamaeus throwing his wife off the precipice of the ludus and Crixus killing Gannicus in the arena.  While it kills the fifteen-year-old version of myself that still resides within the dark corners of my mind to say so, this show has turned painfully stupid.  I hope the second season is already filmed because if I were a network executive I’d have some serious doubts about this show’s future.  Perhaps some consistency in the writing and directing might help get things moving in the right direction.  Then again sex sells and TV is all about ratings.

Overall Score thus far: Downgraded from +1.5 to -2