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…