Spank The Monkey comes to praise Spartacus, not to bury him
Do we need spoiler alerts for this one?
When I wrote about the Starz TV series Spartacus for Mostly Film last year, we were three seasons into what we knew by then was a four season run. I tried to keep spoilers to the absolute minimum, just telling the bare bones of the familiar story: the one about the Thracian slave who ended up leading an army of the oppressed against the might of Rome.
But now we have the final season to consider – Spartacus: War Of The Damned, recently shown on television and just released on home video. The story of Spartacus is familiar, and its ending is even more so. One particular version of it has become so ingrained in our culture, it’s become a metaphor for a certain type of heroic sacrifice. And that’s not even the true version. As Steven S. DeKnight and his writers approach the final chapters of their tale, their retelling of it has to battle against all the baggage the viewer brings along to it. It’s been pre-spoiled. Is that going to be a problem?
By the end of the previous season (Vengeance), our hero was looking pretty much unstoppable. His initial quest for simple revenge had mutated into a more noble cause: leading an uprising against all the leaders of Rome, not just the ones who’d taken his wife and sold him into slavery. The powers that be are nervous, particularly as they haven’t got the resources to take on an army of that size. So initially, when they call in Marcus Licinius Crassus, it’s merely to use his wealth to bankroll a military operation that will be commanded by others. But by the end of the first episode of War Of The Damned, those commanders are dead, victims of an anonymous tip sent to Spartacus. This misfortune results in Crassus commanding the army himself. Which is convenient.
It’s our first indication that Spartacus may finally have met his match in terms of strategy. Crassus has a spectacularly devious mind, coupled with a healthy respect for what Spartacus has achieved to date. “He and I stand the same: each believes himself the hero, the other villain. It is for history to decide who is mistaken.” That line identifies what makes Crassus the most engaging bad guy in recent television history: technically, he’s only the bad guy because it’s not his show. Simon Merrells – an English actor whose previous career highlights include London’s Burning and Family Affairs – pulls off a terrific balancing act in his portrayal of Crassus, his intelligence always coming to the fore, while occasionally revealing the cold-heartedness that allows him to take the sorts of decisions that set him far apart from other men.
Mind you, having Julius Caesar as your best mate doesn’t hurt either. Yes, that one.
Try to imagine the sort of character that Julius Caesar (Todd Lasance) would be in the Spartacus universe. If you guessed “young, violent, sweary and a compulsive womaniser,” then that just shows you’ve been paying attention. His first few scenes appear to set him up as the Ancient Roman equivalent of a surfer dude, but we come to realise that he’s just as sharp an operator as Crassus, albeit one with a dollop of pure physical bravado on top. Even Caesar’s most dodgily depraved scene – where he receives what appears to be a knife-assisted blowjob – turns out to be further evidence of how smart he is.
So that makes two antagonists on this show who are both largely sympathetic! It’s a good job that the third one is such a dick, then. To be fair on Crassus’ son Tiberius (Christian Antidormi), he doesn’t start out as a dick, just a young lad desperate to prove himself to his father, and struggling to make his presence felt in the wake of the unstoppable force that is Caesar. But when he makes a huge blunder on the field of battle, Crassus’ punishment forces Tiberius to grow up fast, and not in a good way. He becomes a thoroughly annoying villain in the context of this show, because unlike Crassus or Caesar he doesn’t have any real skills of note. In fact, his signature move turns out to be proof of the old saying: when the only tool you own is a penis, every problem begins to resemble a vagina. So no, not sympathetic, then.
I’ve been talking solely about the – for want of a better description – ‘bad guys’ so far, and that’s deliberate. DeKnight has had to introduce a whole set of new antagonists in the final ten episodes of his show, and they have to stand up as characters against the heroes we’ve come to know and love over three seasons. To his credit, he’s managed that superbly. As for the heroes… well, they’re just doing what they’ve been doing before, only to a greater degree. For better or worse.
In the case of Crixus (Manu Bennett), it’s worse rather than better. The Undefeated Gaul has always had an uneasy friendship with The Bringer Of Rain, but in this season the gulf between Crixus’ kill-them-all approach and Spartacus’ own brand of cautious planning threatens to tear them apart permanently. The former is backed up in this by his lover Naevia (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), who over three seasons has been transformed from timid slave to kickass warrior. Unfortunately, the writers don’t know where to take the character from there, so in WOTD she goes from kickass warrior to hair-trigger psychopath, which just feels clumsy.
But it’s indicative of a general problem with WOTD when you compare it against what’s come before: its women. Lucretia, Ilithyia, Gaia: Spartacus used to be full of great female characters with their own stories and massively juicy dialogue. It’s notable that the three new women who join the show this season – the Roman Laeta (Anna Hutchison), and the slaves Sibyl (Gwendoline Taylor) and Kore (Jenna Lind) – largely exist as romantic interests for the male characters, and get very little to do outside of that. The only major female character apart from them is Gannicus’ partner in sex and death, Saxa (Ellen Hollman): and if Spartacus was really the sort of show that people stereotypically take it to be, then ‘bisexual Teutonic killing machine’ would be perfectly acceptable as a character bible. But we’ve come to expect more from this writing team than that.
Those quibbles aside, the other characters have been developed beautifully for this final run of episodes. Agron (Dan Feuerriegel) and Nasir (Pana Hema Taylor) have, against all odds, become the most rootable-for couple on the show – Spartacus has always been supremely confident in the handling of its gay characters, but the way their relationship is tested in WOTD takes it to a whole new level. Gannicus (Dustin Clare) continues to laugh and get drunk in the face of death, but starts to realise his potential for something more worthy of his skills. And Spartacus? Well, it turns out that the massive slaughter that marked the midpoint of Vengeance – an assault on Capua that took out a large number of its citizens as collateral damage – has left its mark on him, as his attempts this time to care for his prisoners end up becoming as important to him as his assault on Rome. His dawning realisation that he can’t do everything is beautifully calibrated throughout the run, and proof (if it was still needed) that Liam McIntyre has made the role his own.
And so, after 38 hours of television, we hit the biggie. The series finale. The pre-spoiled one. Spartacus has always known how best to wrap up a season – with the possible exception of Gods Of The Arena, where the requirement for a prequel to set up certain narrative flagposts resulted in a clunky end-of-level battle surrounded by gobs of exposition. The final season finale did everything you could possibly ask it to: the biggest single battle ever staged in the show, the tying up of all the narrative threads, and a certain type of heroic sacrifice. I can’t imagine any way in which it could have been done better. And yet, at the end, I felt slightly unsatisfied by it.
I tried for a while to rationalise my dissatisfaction intellectually – was it the writing, the acting, the staging? – until I realised it was something more fundamental. I childishly didn’t want it to stop. For the Spartacus fan, WOTD has been more of an anxiety attack than a TV show, bringing to mind Joe Bob Briggs’ First Rule Of Great Drive-In Movie Making: “anyone can die at any moment.” I knew the show was going to end, and that knowledge gave its ongoing narrative a power above and beyond anything it had achieved before. Sometimes spoilers work in unexpected ways.
There are rumours of a possible spinoff – The Further Adventures Of Young Julius Caesar And His Cock, anyone? – but for my money, Spartacus is a rare example of a show that chose just the right time to end. And it proves crowd-pleasing all the way up to the final credit roll, accompanied by a photomontage of all the major characters we’ve enjoyed since Blood And Sand, most of them now admittedly dead. In its final final seconds, Spartacus reveals it has just one more card up its sleeve – one that seems cheesy and manipulative on paper, but which grabs you by the heart when it actually happens on screen. Much like the show as a whole, really.
Spartacus: War Of The Damned is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Anchor Bay.
Spank The Monkey never really knows what to say in this bit.