The Blood-Soaked Brilliance of Spartacus

Spartacus Main CastYup, first post in almost two months, and it’s about – of all fucking things – Spartacus. Yes, the Starz show. Yeah, the one with all the hack-and-slashing and sex-and-boning. Yes, really. And if you had been watching Spartacus from the start, you wouldn’t be so surprised. While it’s a huge part of what makes the show what it is, I sometimes wish it was a little tamer with the sex and violence just so more people would give it a chance, because this is one of the most entertaining, surprising, daring, and – believe it – thoughtful shows on TV.

Which is why I’m going to make a spoiler-free attempt here (well, mostly – it does stick to the broad historical accounts, so some things technically aren’t spoilers) to convince anyone who doesn’t watch Spartacus to give it a chance. I figure it’d be best to approach this in list format, so I can address individually what I think might be the major elements of the series that are giving people pause, and hopefully explain why I think they shouldn’t.

So then, as Crixus the Undefeated Gaul would scream like a raving maniac: SHALL I BEGIN?!

1) Don’t let the rocky start sour you. The one thing it must be said about Spartacus is that it did a tremendously awful job of pulling people in. The first episode is the worst in its entire run, and even the creators admit it took them time to go from shameless 300 rip-off to something less live-action graphic novel-y and more of a unique visual style the show could call its own.

Hell, I gave up on Spartacus at first, too. And then I happened to watch a bit of a later season-one episode, purely out of curiosity, and luckily realized it gets way, way better, and does so really, really quickly. The progression of watching Blood and Sand is something like going, “Jesus, this is awful” to “Well…okay, this is fun in a silly, guilty-pleasure kind of way” to “Holy shit, this is still dumb, but that twist was pretty awesome” to “HOLY SHIT, WHAT?! Yeah, this is just legitimately fucking awesome.

Again, I would go into detail on why the first season skyrockets into fucking awesome, but I don’t want to spoil anything – there are story developments in Blood and Sand that make you quickly realize this is a series written by fearless creators, a hallmark that lasts throughout the rest of its run. By season two, Vengeance, and three, the current War of the Damned, there are episodes mid-season that in scope and scale would be season finales for lesser shows. Believe it or not, but Spartacus has one main attribute in common with Breaking Bad: both burn through plot developments more quickly than you would ever expect, leaving you wondering what the hell could possibly happen next…and then never fail to deliver.

Spartacus Andy Whitfield

2) The series survived its tragic setback. Actually, perhaps you’re not aware of this if you’ve never seen the show, but after the first season ended on such firm footing and exciting prospects for season two, plans had to change when star Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with cancer. Creator Steven S. DeKnight conceived a short prequel season, Gods of the Arena, in the hopes of buying more time for Whitfield’s recovery, but he passed away and the role had to be recast.

Beyond the obvious real-life tragedy, the loss of Whitfield was a real artistic shame since his portrayal of Spartacus – quieter, less alpha male-intense than you’d expect – was a big part of what made Blood and Sand work. But as his replacement, Liam McIntyre has made the role his own. And surprisingly, Gods of the Arena not only didn’t come off as desperate filler material, but even added engaging backstory for a few of the supporting characters and introduced one of the best characters in the rest of the series. It’s one of the few, rare examples of a prequel that enriched its source material rather than weaken it.

3) The sex and violence is, in a certain sense, less gratuitous than you probably think. Yes, I put a big qualifier in that sentence: in a certain sense. Because there is no denying that the sex and violence here is as extreme as it gets in premium cable shows, and I understand that for some that will always be a deal-breaker. But I would submit that, considering the setting, period, and characters involved, Spartacus uses sex and violence in more story-driven ways than even some of the best “respectable” cable dramas.

Every episode begins with a warning that it’s “a historical portrayal of ancient Roman society that contains graphic violence and adult content.” While it’s a bit comical to call Spartacus “a historical portrayal” (it reminds me of how I joked Unstoppable was “based on a true story” only in the sense that trains exist), it’s not entirely off-base. Romans did some fucked up shit, and yeah, sorry, but I bet that gladiator battles and the Third Servile War that followed were really bloody and gruesome. Spartacus obviously exaggerates all of it in a very stylized way, but in a sense, it’s kind of how David Milch defended the extreme amount of modern curse words on Deadwood – it’s not strictly accurate, but exaggeration is necessary to properly portray what was supposed to be shocking at the time for modern viewers.

Spartacus Liam McIntyre

And I’ll say this for the violence of Spartacus: it sure as hell makes you feel it. A lot of violence in cable shows (and movies) occurs without any real sense of how awful what you’re seeing is – it comes off, by design, more as “cool” or “badass.” And yes, I won’t deny a lot of violence in Spartacus works that way, too. But these gladiators were often barbaric, and Spartacus doesn’t shy away from that. There have been events on this show that literally made me feel uncomfortable watching – not so much through explicit, gory detail, but through story-driven acts (sometimes by characters you want to be rooting for) that make your stomach turn. And it’s a rare series that has the courage to deliberately go to dark enough places that it makes you question why blood and carnage in a TV show should do anything other than make your stomach turn.

As for the sex and nudity, is there a ton of it? Sure, but again it’s almost all used to either demonstrate the hedonism of Roman society (and often to demonstrate the subjugation of their slaves), or provide well-earned emotional payoffs between two characters, usually as expressions of love. Yes, love! Comparatively, the so-called “sexposition” often seen in Game of Thrones (and don’t get me wrong, I love Game of Thrones), where characters are having sex only to make an otherwise dialog-heavy scene more interesting, comes off as far more unnecessarily pervy.

4) Speaking of love, it’s the driving force of the entire show. And I mean that in a few different ways. Naturally there’s the love Spartacus has for his wife (taken from him by the Romans in the first episode when they’re forced into slavery) that drives his rebellion throughout the rest of the series. But by the end of the show (only two episodes left, alas), every other major character is touched and changed significantly by love as well: be it Crixus and Naevia, Oenomaus and Melitta, Gannicus and Sibyl, or Agron and Nasir. And I kind of hate the whole, “Hey everyone, look at how NOT discriminatory I’m being!” thing, but it is worth admiring how Spartacus treats the heterosexual and homosexual relationships in the show equally, and is pretty balanced when it comes to female and male nudity (which I do think is important here, since, again, it contributes to making the sex and nudity feel less gratuitous and more as an expression of the overall hedonism of that period and culture).

But it’s also the bond between the gladiators themselves – the “brotherhood” – that makes the show emotionally ripe. The arch of the relationship between Spartacus and Crixus throughout the show’s run has been one of the most interesting and satisfying I’ve seen on TV, not just because they’re such different characters with different motivations and backgrounds, but because their bond is eventually used to represent two different and competing worldviews.

Spartacus and Crixus

Ultimately, that’s what I admire about Spartacus most. Again, no spoilers, but this show could have easily been just sex and violence and probably still pulled in a good audience looking for nothing more. Instead, as it approaches its final two episodes, it’s revealed itself to have a lot more on its mind – about the nature of power dynamics, both between the state and the individual and individuals over each other, and about what Spartacus’ rebellion should ultimately stand for. It could have been a weakness that we know how all this has to end, but instead that problem is disarmed by a shift in narrative focus – it’s less about what will happen to the rebel slaves (there will be no Inglourious Basterds-style history rewrites here), and more about what their rebellion should mean as a statement, as an idea, as a moral rebuke of oppression of all forms.

Yes, all this from the show that also has a recurring gag where characters sing a delightful diddly called “My Cock Rages On.” Another reason I love it, by the way.

Is Spartacus perfect? Holy shit, no. The budget constraints are visible, occasionally in truly clunky ways. It’s certainly gotten better since the first season, but the blue-screen effects still look very blue-screen, and even when the slaves broke free and the show became more open-ended, you still get the sense there are aspects of the overall story that had to be written specifically to get the characters in confined, recurring settings that they could shoot in repeatedly. And no, not every story beat always worked, mostly on the Roman side of things – which sometimes involved stuff that, no matter how well written and acted, was ultimately superfluous to the overall story of the slave rebellion.

But Spartacus the series has lived like the ruthless rebel gladiators it portrays: full-bore, chaotically, and most of the times screaming at the top of its lungs. Sometimes that meant it overreached and showed its seams, but that also meant it consistently swung for the fucking fences, and damn if it didn’t connect more often than not.

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