Spartacus: Vengeance

Posted on February 18th, 2013 in film and tv

Hrrrm.  Drums fingers on desk.  What to say about Spartacus: Vengeance?  I think on balance it was about as good as the previous prequel series, Gods of the Arena, but not as good as the first series, Blood and Sand.  I’d like to say that makes it watchable hokum, but I think that’s simultaneously unfair and over-generous.  Because there are some really good things about Spartacus, honest.  But there are also some laughably poor things, for real.

I’m a bad news first kind of guy, so let’s begin on the poor side of the scales.  The first two series were focused around the Ludus in which Spartacus and the other gladiators were trained, their loves, rivalries, and the machinations of their master and mistress, with occasional trips to the arena for ultra-lurid highly stylised and weirdly edited savage bloodshed.  In Spartacus: Vengeance the slaves have escaped into the Italian hinterland, but the budget only stretches so far and the locations are limited and often a bit rubbish.  Woods, mostly.  And recycled locations from last series.  There was always a lot of sweaty sex, but within the feverish confines of the ludus, everyone facing death on the morrow, that made a kind of sense.  Here it seems even more gratuitous and often more than a bit eye-rolley.  Plotwise there’s a lot of not particularly convincing treading of water in order to get everyone into position to participate in a massive bloodbath at the end of the series.

Then there’s the acting.  In the main, the escaped slaves are really … let’s say not great.  Andy Whitfield, who played Spartacus in Blood and Sand with a good deal of charisma, sadly died after season 1, and I’m not a huge fan of his replacement, nor of the rather repetitive rousing speeches about freedom and togetherness the writers have inflicted upon him.  And therefore us.  Many of the other slaves have clearly been selected to look A1 in a loincloth, but some ability to speak is also desirable.  And the script really isn’t helping that much.  There’s this truly odd habit the writers have of dropping most of the pronouns, so instead of saying, ‘Get your mind on the task!’ they’ll say, ‘Get mind on task!’  Perhaps it’s meant to simulate the cadence of latin, or something, but, er, it doesn’t.  In the first couple of seasons John Hannah could make it sound good.  The better actors here get away with it.  The worse ones, and there are quite a lot of worse ones, sound risible.

But now to the upside.  The villains are way, way better than the heroes.  Last two seasons it was John Hannah who stole the show as the owner of the ludus.  This time around it’s Craig Parker (who I last saw as Haldor in Lord of the Rings), as glassy-eyed psychopath Praetor Glaber.  Generally the backbiting of the Romans is a whole lot more entertaining than the lumpen feuding of the slaves, and you keep on wishing they’d get on with crucifying Spartacus so we could have a show about roman politics.  Like Rome was.  In spite of the occasional sparsity of location, the look of the series is actually really good.  There are a lot of interesting visual ideas in there, a lot of strange and surprising editing, and a distinctive grade to the whole thing (that’s the tone and colour palette, in case you was wondering).  It doesn’t always work but it hits more than it misses, I think.

And finally, well, you could call it silly splatter or ridiculous schlock, but there’s a balls-to-the-wall, no-holds-barred, lurid, feverish intensity about parts of the show that you’re just not going to see anywhere else.  One scene stands out in particular (and SPOILERS for anyone who hasn’t seen it), in which Glaber’s lover tries to murder him while he’s buck naked getting ready for his bath, but she is instead murdered by Glaber’s wife before she can wield the knife, showering him with slow-motion arterial spurt.  They then have sex covered in blood while the body floats about in the bloody bath water.  In BLOOD.  I gave this kind of incredulous titter afterwards.  Then I had to watch it again just to make sure I hadn’t imagined it.  Did that scene need to be made?  No.  No, it didn’t.  But I’m kind of glad it was, and I’m not even sure why.  Therein lies a metaphor for Spartacus in general, perhaps.

Still, it concerns me that they have an unfortunate habit of killing off their best characters at the end of every season.  A certain ruthlessness with your cast is much to be admired but you’ve got to have someone left to root for.  The end of this one was a proper slaughter in which for my money the four best characters went out in a blaze of splatter.  Good episode but, man, I worry about the next season…

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  1. I agree with your review of Spartacus completely. I can add nothing usefule to what you have written except to say that now is a good time to stop and not begin this new (last?) season. It makes the previous seasons look Oscar worthy.

    I am very dissapointed with it.

  2. Brilliant review, Joe. For me, Vengeance started off very slowly but got better in the latter half of the season. Still a bit of a disappointment after the first season and the prequel, which had no business being as good as it was. But you suspected that was always going to be the case once the action moved out of the ludus.

    I’m going to disagree with Terry above. In my opinion, the third and final season of Spartacus has begun admirably considering how many characters were killed off at the end of Vengeance. We’re starting to see a different side to the rebels; Spartacus is struggling to keep control; and the “villain” is the classic good guy who’s on the wrong side. All in all, it’s starting to resemble The Heroes in that the viewer can legitimately cheer for both sides.

    I think the Spartacus writing team a very talented, and I wonder what they could do with a show like The Walking Dead (which has everything, it seems, except for a decent writing team).

  3. I don’t watch this but a friend of mine does, he finds the Australian accents amusing and the slo-mo blood stuff a bit daft.

  4. I don’t care for Andy’s replacement and have stopped watching.

  5. Vengeance isn’t such a bad season, but the replacement of the lead actor was a poor choice in my opinion. They needed someone better, else it was always going to drop a grade in the fans’ eyes. Having said that, I reckon your review is pretty spot on on all counts.

    I love Lamb.

  6. Joe, Here in the US, Spartacus: Army of the Damned has started and I will give no spoilers. I have only seen two episodes so far, but what you observed in Vengeance is carried on into Army of the Damned. My biggest gripe is that every warrior, especially Spartacus yells to the top of his lungs with every swing of his sword. I would think that he would be rather exhausted after a while. (Does Nine-fingers do that?) And who knew that human bodies were blood filled sacks that virtually exploded at the slightest nick of a blade?

  7. My wife described the 3 seasons so far as the best porn on TV; it certainly caters for all tastes.

  8. Hi all.
    im not going to talk about the subject now so you may no wish to read this.
    Ive read the First law Trilogy and best served cold in about a month but i cant start The heroes.
    Listen to my situation here — im 14 and Bulgarian.Ive read lots of authors and joe is by far the best one yet. Can anyone tell me when The heroes will be translated on Bulgarien because my englihs is not good enought( and it wont et eny bether because i have to lern Deutsch)
    I dont want a direct date,just someone tell me if its being translated at the moment.Tnx in advance.

  9. I am afraid to me there is only one Spartacus, the one from the fifties, with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, and the great Laurence Olivier, with one of the best dialogues I remember, the scene in the bath with Olivier and Curtis. A movie I watched again recently, and the main core has aged really well…
    These new series, I think they cannot compete, even with super slow motion and visual effects of the 21st century…

  10. I love Spartacus i really do but… don’t you think if they took out all the slow motion fighting an episode would probably last half the time?

  11. Chevi77,
    Stanley Kubrick’s film, sure, it’s a classic. That bath scene with the brilliant snails and oysters speech was cut from the original release though – a little strong for 1960s hollywood, it would appear – and put back in the 1990s cut. Excellent scene. As is “I am Spartacus!” of course.

  12. I preferred the prequel series too – ironically for me the best Spartacus was the one without Spartacus. It seems like with the photography for the Vengence series that they’ve overdone the 300-esque look and it’s turned out looking more like a 50 Cent video, and without John Hannah a lot of the character and acting is missing.
    Still, there’s another series on Sky at the moment, and the episodes are on my Sky+ somewhere in between Suits, Red Dwarf and about 200 epsodes of Cold Case … so we’ll see if they’ve redeemed themselves…

  13. They have a knack for good villains, I think the one in the newest season has potential to be the best yet.

    Definitely a guilty pleasure show, the absurdity and unpredictability make it highly entertaining. Seriously, there is no where else you can hear people say “Jupiter’s c***.’

  14. I enjoyed Spartacus Blood and Sand but I thought the prequel was even better. I liked the small scope of it, all about the characters, the new arena in Capua, the Ludus and I thought Vengeance couldn’t live up to it. I think Spartacus isn’t much of a character but Andy’s charisma made a difference. Without Andy and without John Hannah the show lost its sparkle and the writing wasn’t as brilliant as in the prequel, in my opinion. We’ll see what happens in this new and final season that just started. I really want it to be good because even if it’s not perfect, Spartacus has been a brave show. Would deserve to end on a higher note than Vengeance.

  15. Heh, yea Joe, the “I like snails AND oysters” bit was good. Very clever way of telling us his preference’s. I watched it the other day and caught that.

    I tried to watch the season premier of war of the damned but couldn’t get through the first episode. Season 1 was special but it’s just not the same without Andy.

  16. “Still, it concerns me that they have an unfortunate habit of killing off their best characters at the end of every season.”

    Hey , this sounds mighty familiar. ;)
    This Joe Abercrombie guy too has a knack of kiiling major characters…

  17. I agree with a lot of what’s been said, but lets face it you can’t take this show too seriously (I try very hard to ignore the fact that no Roman soldier is capable of standing in formation and so slaughtering the gladiators in about 30 seconds). If you just sit back and enjoy an hour of blood, violence and nudity it is great fun.

  18. We are talking of one of the best film makers ever, of course, none other than Mr. Kubrick. That scene being included again was a blessing, it seems it was not slight enough for its time, but the Olivier performance, as usual, a masterclass. And that ending conversation between Curtis and Douglas still so moving.
    These new series, well, fulfills other needs I guess. The one I could put up with was Gods of the Arena, but on the whole I could take them or leave them…

  19. I think Spartacus suffered from ‘surprise hit syndrome’ where a lot of time and effort and thought is spent on the first series (or film or book) but subsequent efforts are rushed out to make as much money as possible.
    Somewhere along the line they lose what made the first series/film/book a success in the first place.
    The Matrix is also a good example.

  20. To be fair, the lead actor became unexpectedly ill and passed away between the first and second seasons. You can’t plan for that. Taking that into account, and the necessity of moving the story away from the ludus at some point while being at least somewhat restrained by historical events, and the likelihood of the budget being rather small in comparison to other shows, I’d say they’d done about as well as could be expected in the circumstances.

  21. The first series, and the prequel, seemed to have something to say about surrender to the inevitable making you powerful, and that the moment of victory was where you were most vulnerable. Variations on this theme came up again and again. Once the slaves escaped, it didn’t seem to have as much to say.

    There’s definitely something about it though, that even when it’s failing, it doesn’t look, or sound, or feel like anything else on TV.

  22. You have lost mind. Writing on show is top-notch. Addition of breasts and subtraction of pronouns is brilliant innovation.

  23. Spartacus with Batiatus (John Hannah) was fine, a clever, nice ambivalent character..now its only dumb kitsch, bloody trash.

  24. Semi-agree, semi-disagree. Definitely the first and prequel series were the best. But honestly, much as I loved Andy Whitfield in the part, his replacement has blended in pretty much perfectly for me. Perhaps it is his physical similarity?

    The latest series kicked off totally over the top for me, the first episode was almost completely screaming CGI bloodshed, but it didnt take long to settle down to the usual mix of politics, chicanery, sex and, well, screaming CGI bloodshed. Some very interesting Roman characters this time round..

    Its definitely a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.

    Since we are on the subject, a definite not-guilty pleasure is the new series Banshee. Right up your alley Joe, about as morally ambivalent as they come, but not unremittingly bleak, a nicely complex yet gradually introduced plot, and a protagonist that one can root for at times whilst being shocked by at others. Recommended.

    Anyway, set mind to purpose, take up remote! Or pen.

  25. I’m way ahead of you – I’m already well into War of the Damnned (the one after Vengeance)….and I agree with just about everything that Joe’s written above. Blood and Sand remains the best series by far, and half of the reason behind that was its novelty value – the 300/Sin City factor, if you like. Lots of blood and breasts…which, let’s face it, can never be a bad thing. However, after Whitfield’s premature departure, and the loss of novelty, it has gradually gone downhill, and each season has got progressively worse. All the best character’s have gone, and I don’t much like their replacements (although there is a smoking hot blonde German girl-warrior in Vengeance/Damnned). At least we all know how Spartacus’s story ends – I’m just hoping for the ‘I’m Spartacus’ ending, befroe they nail them all up.

  26. Well, I had a look at the first 3 episodes of the new season S.3/2013. It’s good, perhaps better then the past season. I agree in large with you, and some of the problems are still here, but there is also some new elements of interest. I would not worry, except for the casting of…

  27. I’ve enjoyed the whole thing aside from the abysmal pilot episode. It’s a mixture of guilty pleasure and genuinely well handled show for me.

    You say you are more interested in the Romans, Joe? Well there’s a rumour the creators are developing a spin-off/sequel charting the life of Caesar. I’m guessing that will heavily focus on the Roman side of things.

  28. War of the Damned is driving me crazy in a good way. I add a lot of mwahahaha sound effects for fun. They are getting some of the history correct. I just (for some odd reason) love when all of the guys jump super high in the air and kill people. It is so bizarre but fun. RAWR I just jumped off of a 10 meter wall and landed on you…DIE! Or how Spartacus can just run and jump 4 meters into the air on…well nothing!

    What the heck is with the casting of ahem…surfer version of Gaius Julius you-know-who. HUH? Not much of a spoiler as he was pals with Crassus. He is…never mind, that is all I will say. Neptune’s beard, must ride waves!

  29. Crixus had much better roles in the first and second (prequel) series. The poor man looks ridiculously scruffy. Also, Gannicus is great! I guess they’d cast him while they were waiting for poor Whitfield to recover, but now I wish he were Spartacus, despite my fondness for the Gannicus character. Sorry new Spartacus, (Liam) but you are pompous and stiff rather than clever, frightening and charismatic. He does have a goody two shoes air…which will eventually come in handy.

  30. Just watch the show its good!enough mindless talk!

  31. RAAAAAWR! Jumps into the air…..

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