In another walk down memory lane we revisit one of our most popular posts, by Spank the Monkey, probably because it contains the line My cock rages on, my cock rages on.
Blood rains down from an angry sky
My cock rages on, my cock rages on
– Traditional gladiators’ drinking song. Apparently.
This is the story of a television drama that everyone thought was a bit of a joke. Except that the joke was on the people who abandoned it after the first couple of episodes, and failed to spot it slowly turning into one of the most deliriously entertaining shows on the box, despite the untimely death of its leading actor. The most recent season of Spartacus is about to be released on home video: let me explain why you should be buying it.
The first time I became aware of Spartacus was via Charlie Brooker, and his snotty TV quiz show You Have Been Watching. During an episode in 2010, Brooker and his panelists took a massive dump from a great height on Spartacus: Blood And Sand, which had recently started on Bravo (it’s subsequently been transferred to Sky One). With the help of the most graphic clips he could find, he highlighted all the most ridiculous elements from the first two episodes. The continuous swearing! The hugely unrealistic gore! The incredibly cheap-looking CG scenery! And cocks, cocks, cocks, everywhere you looked! (We also had the nipples of Lucy Lawless, Xena Warrior Princess herself, on prominent display. But nobody seemed to be complaining about that.)
He didn’t mention it at the time, but Brooker forgot the most obvious criticism you could hurl at Spartacus: its unoriginality. With all those near-naked men homoerotically carving each other up at constantly varying frame rates to the accompaniment of grungy guitar riffs, it was a blatant attempt at making a TV version of 300 without actually buying the rights to the original. It even had Peter Mensah in a supporting role, the very actor who supplied the setup (“This is blasphemy! This is madness!”) to 300’s most notorious punchline. (“THIS! IS! SPARTAAAAAAAAAAA!”)
It was far too easy for the casual viewer to focus on the sex, violence and cussing, and miss that there was a story in there too. The story of a Thracian soldier (Andy Whitfield) who is persuaded to fight for the Romans, but ends up leading a rebellion against their commander Glaber (Craig Parker). Glaber’s revenge is swift and comprehensive: he destroys the Thracian’s village, kidnaps his wife, and sends him off to Capua to be executed in the gladiatorial arena. But the last part of that revenge doesn’t quite work out as planned, with the Thracian left standing ankle-deep in the body parts of the four men assigned to kill him. Batiatus (John Hannah), the master of a stable of gladiators, knows a future star of the arena when he sees one, and takes him on for training under the name… wait for it… Spartacus.
By the end of the first episode, the main threads of the story are in place. Spartacus’ training and rise through the gladiatorial ranks: his quest to discover the whereabouts of his wife: and his growing desire to take revenge on his captors in general, and Glaber in particular. From those basic threads – plus bits of actual real-life history where appropriate – series creator Steven S. DeKnight gradually built a beautifully textured melodrama. Even the most loyal fan of Spartacus will gleefully confess that the first couple of episodes were dog-rough: although when you go back and look at them again in hindsight, they weren’t so bad really. Their biggest crime was front-loading the season with as much shagging, stabbing and swearing as they could to get the punters in. Those punters may have come for the cocks, but they stayed for the story – though that’s not to say that the sensational elements were in any way reduced in later episodes of the show, they weren’t just the prime focus any more.
The important thing is to recognise the visual style of Spartacus for what it is. If there was one thing that 300 did successfully, it was to find a way of translating the imagery of comic book art to movies without making it look ridiculous: and this show builds on that idea. There’s a bit during the climax of episode one where Spartacus is struck in the back, and blood sprays out to literally obliterate the entire background of the shot. Do we assume that he’s lost twenty pints of blood as the result of a single wound? Of course not. We take it as a visual representation of the amount of danger he may be in at that point. Once you’ve made that mental leap, you stop laughing at the fight scenes and start worrying about the characters on screen.
To pull off a show with this degree of stylisation, you need a cast that can play their roles with absolute precision: and by the end of Blood And Sand, it was agreed that Andy Whitfield’s portrayal of Spartacus couldn’t be bettered. His commitment to the role kept viewers hooked all the way through to the spectacular season finale, where – spoiler? – the violence came to the forefront again just a tad. His combination of physical presence and emotional integrity turned out to be the beating heart of the show.
Which made what happened next all the more heartbreaking – during the preparation for the second season, Whitfield was diagnosed with cancer. He was apparently responding to treatment, but there was no way he’d be ready in time for the rigours of filming another full season. DeKnight had to come up with a solution, and fast. The one he chose – replacing the second season with a prequel miniseries, looking at life in Capua in the years before Spartacus arrived there – may seem obvious at first glance, but it resulted in the show as a whole taking a very interesting turn.
The prequel approach of Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena had one obvious advantage: it allowed DeKnight to revisit the most popular characters from Blood And Sand, including those who didn’t make it out of that season alive. We’ve gone back to a time where the arena is still being constructed, and a young Batiatus (John Hannah again) is desperately trying to get his gladiators on display there. He has some good men – the rock-star-before-they-had-rock-stars Gannicus (Dustin Clare), and a new recruit called Crixus (Manu Bennett) – but the officials keep standing in his way. It’s up to his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) to come up with a plan to increase the profile of the house of Batiatus. Inevitably, nipples are involved.
Again, you could pick holes in Gods Of The Arena at the start, mainly because it’s trying too hard to copy Blood And Sand. The training scenes in the first season were built around the uneasy relationship between established champion Crixus and new kid Spartacus: here, Crixus becomes the novice looking up to Gannicus. Similarly, the barely concealed antagonism between Lucretia and Glaber’s wife Ilithyia (Viva Bianca) made for some of the juiciest dialogue in B&S: but GOTA is set in the days before Ilithyia, so instead Lucretia has to hang out with gal pal Gaia (Jaime Murray). Inevitably, the nature of a prequel ruins some of the suspense. We know some of the characters will survive to subsequently appear in B&S, and we’re naturally suspicious of the ones who didn’t appear in the earlier season.
Once again, it takes an episode or two to get into the flow: but once it gets going, GOTA moves like a rocket. The earlier series had 13 episodes, so its pacing had a natural ebb and flow to it – but GOTA has only six hours to play with, and it crams those six hours full of incident. All the things that made B&S a cumulative joy to watch are present and correct again. The language: a unique combination of archaic words, dropped attributive adjectives and classic Anglo-Saxon. The violence: still full-blooded, although the climax of the series (set on the opening day of the new arena) seems a little too obviously crowd-pleasing. And the sex: ramped up to even higher levels here, as the seeds are literally sown for plotlines to come.
GOTA was intended as a delaying tactic, a way to give Andy Whitfield time to recover from his cancer. But that recovery never came. Shortly before his death in September 2011, Whitfield gave his blessing to the crew to carry on the show without him. Liam McIntyre took over the role for Spartacus: Vengeance, which is either the third or the second season of the show depending on how you count GOTA.
That has to be one of the toughest jobs in the world, surely? A TV show’s lead actor dies in tragic circumstances, and his replacement is expected to somehow make the role his own. I think McIntyre pulls it off, though the structure of the series helps him hugely with that. By the end of Blood And Sand, Spartacus has evolved from a gladiator to the leader of a rebellion, and he gets a big Final Speech to mark that transition. McIntyre has plenty of those speeches in Vengeance, and he nails them every time: he may not be as physically imposing in a scrap as Whitfield, but he’s now in a position where he doesn’t have to be, inspiring others as much with words as he does with actions. On a couple of occasions, the writers even have the balls to make Spartacus say that he’s a different man from the one he used to be, which is true in every sense of the word.
If the first two seasons of Spartacus were notorious for starting poorly, then Vengeance shows that either DeKnight has learned how to begin seasons better, or that we as viewers know what to expect now. This ten-episode run hits the ground at full speed, and builds up to the equivalent of two season finales. Halfway through the run, a whole series of long-running plotlines is concluded in an apocalyptic fashion (presumably taking out most of the season’s effects budget with it). It looked at that stage like the show had shot its load early, but the real season finale managed to somehow even top that, with jaw-dropping moments a-plenty from beginning to end. If I had to pick a favourite moment, it would be the creation of a context in which the line “It is no easy task, to cleave a man’s head from his shoulders in a single blow” – plus the reply to it – combined to become the most romantic thing I’ve seen on telly all year.
Because everyone thinks we’re there for the sex, and the violence, and the language. And yeah, to a degree, we are. But the characters are what counts. One of the major pleasures of Vengeance is discovering what a lovingly constructed retcon GOTA was: plot points from the prequel became secrets that characters were keeping to themselves in B&S, only for them to be revealed in Vengeance at the worst possible moment. (That last sentence may require a Venn diagram for clarification.) We can admire the juggling act being performed by DeKnight and his writing staff, but at the same time we’re genuinely feeling for the people on screen, and that’s one hell of an achievement.
As of October 1st, you’ll be able to buy a gigantic box set featuring Blood And Sand, Gods Of The Arena and Vengeance – 29 hours of bloody magnificent entertainment. Watch them before the end of the year, and you’ll be ready for Spartacus: War Of The Damned in early 2013, which we’re promised will be the finale to end all finales. At a time when TV shows find excuses to go on and on beyond their natural lifespan, it’s refreshing for one not only to have an end point in sight, but also the courage to run headlong towards it, screaming obscenities as it does so. Spartacus may be over by the Spring of 2013, but his cock will undoubtedly rage on.
Spartacus: Vengeance is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Anchor Bay on October 1st. Blood And Sand and Gods Of The Arena are also available, separately or combined.
As an IT professional and a fan of Spartacus, Spank The Monkey sometimes finds himself wishing that the VPN software on his work PC wasn’t called Junos Pulse.