Cosmic Channel Changer
Warning: The following may spoil a lot of Spartacus for some readers.
There are so many different labels I could place on Starz's Spartacus. In sheer genre terms, it
would most closely fit into the category of action or historical fiction. That being the case, my
strongest impression coming out of the show's fourth and final season is that it is a testament to
how strong and powerful a story television can craft when creative people go into it with a plan
and a predestined end point.
It's a series that could easily have been dragged out. There would even have been some
historical basis for it. The Third Servile War (73-71 BC) upon which the show is based was
actually longer, larger in scale, and more complex than it's represented to be in the show. The
series' creators made the decision to condense details, skipping figures and events while giving
others more prominence. It's a move that might irk historical purists, but the show makes no fuss
about being accurate. It strives to tell a story and is willing to damn the details when necessary to
make its point.
The story itself is likely a familiar one to many people. Spartacus, a warrior from the land of
Thrace, is captured and sold into slavery by the Romans. He winds up being trained as a
gladiator and eventually rebels against his masters. He and his fellow arena fighters spurn a slave
revolt that eventually grows into a full-fledged war threatening Rome itself. While Spartacus and
his allies are able to win some dramatic victories, his army is eventually outmaneuvered and
destroyed by the legions of Marcus Crassus.
The Starz show follows this basic plot closely, but nonetheless takes a different approach from
prior fictionalizations. The Stanley Kubrick film, while excellent, was always a bit too clean.
There was some gore, but it was the sort of thing you'd expect from a film made in 1960. The
Starz series comparatively could easily top the running for the most brutally violent show ever
to hit the air waves. Graphic violence and sexuality are frequent to the point of being mainstay.
In short, it's not a series for the faint of heart.
While some of the content is gratuitous, Spartacus is the rare show that actually employs
violence and sex as an integral tool for world building. Rome is presented as a society with a
veneer of civilization whose favorite past time happens to be hurting people. The rich and poor
alike fill the arenas to watch gladiators butcher each other. The wealthy throw parties and pass
their slaves around like sexual appetizers. Rather than having slaves tell us anecdotally about the
indignities they suffer, the series presents it to us directly.
It can be uncomfortable to watch. Where other shows heavy on sexual content tend to aggrandize
it with swelling romanticism, Spartacus takes pains to portray the non-consensual sex between
masters and slaves as being something the slaves just get through. Women look bored and
impassive during these proceedings while men ordered into such service feign the passions they
might share with a personal lover. All of our modern visions of rape point to people fighting and
struggling to escape it. In Spartacus the slaves know they have no choice but to grit their teeth
and bear it, or face death.
In contrast, the gladiators, often seem to be enthralled with their lot in life. It becomes clear as
the show proceeds, however, that they've largely been brainwashed. The most dramatic example
comes from Crixus "the undefeated Gaul." When we first see him in the show he is the unrivaled
champion of the city of Capua. He enjoys the respect of his peers and is considered to be animportant part of his household's success. During the show's second prequel season, however,
we're shown Crixus at his origin point. Freshly enslaved, he is young, scared and completely
aware of his vulnerability.
The opportunity to ascend to the position of gladiator, in turn, seems to him like a salvation.
When faced with a choice between the helpless life of a slave and the superior position offered
by the life of a gladiator, he jumps at every chance to prove himself the best of the best. He soon
comes to love fighting and lives to bring honor to his masters. Despite all his efforts, however,
he is cast aside as soon as somebody more promising enters the picture. All of his pain and
suffering proves pointless because at the end of the day he isn't considered a person, he's
property to be used and cast aside at his master's whims
I will go on record as saying that the series' first season, Blood and Sand, is the strongest part of
the show, in no small part because it focuses the majority of its attention on the way this sort of
treatment affects people. The slaves lead lives where nothing is safe and they have nothing their
masters can't take way. The resentment this breeds and the feelings of rage you can visibly see
stewing beneath the surface are intense. The first season is like a pressure cooker, heating slowly
until it eventually bursts in the final episode, aptly titled Kill Them All.
The following seasons are excellent as well, but are also much less complicated in their content.
Gods of the Arena (season two) is a prequel taking place before the slave revolt that caps off
Blood and Sand. Vengeance (season three) takes place immediately following Spartacus'
rebellion as he and the other escaped gladiators start building their forces. War of the Damned
(season four) closes the story out, beginning with Spartacus' army at the height of its success and
following it to its eventual defeat. Seasons two through four introduce new characters and
explore different facets of the show's central themes, but they never quite reach the poignancy or
intensity of season one. Blood and Sand feels like a complete story that's strong enough to stand
entirely on its own. The seasons following, comparatively, rely heavily on the relationships
formed and pains endured during the show's opening run.
It's impossible to talk about Spartacus without talking about Andy Whitfield. When the show
began, Whitfield was cast as Spartacus, and was fairly brilliant in the role. If season one is the
emotional core of the series, Whitfield's Spartacus is the heart of season one. He's the person we
can relate to and embodies the role of a desperate man fighting to free himself and save his wife,
also enslaved by the Romans. Sadly, Whitfield, afflicted with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, suffered
a relapse and passed away in 2011. Liam McIntyre would take over the role in seasons three and
I am torn because in many ways, Whitfield's portrayal of the Spartacus isn't the one I'd have
chosen for the character in seasons three and four. While he steps into a leadership role at the
end of season one, he never quite conveys the gravitas of command. McIntyre, conversely, is
perfect as cold and calculating commander. You believe that people would follow him. That said,
his Spartacus lacks some of the personal depth of Whitfield's performance. Granted, the two
men play the character at vastly different spots in the story. Whitfield's Spartacus is shown to
still be holding onto hope of reclaiming his old life. McIntyre's, on the other hand, is scarred and
jaded by his experiences. He's not as personable as Whitfield, but his character really shouldn't
be by that point. Had either man had the opportunity to play Spartacus from start to finish, I
might feel differently. Sadly, that couldn't happen and we'll never know.
What I do know is that Spartacus is, in many ways, the best thing I've seen on television in a
long time. It takes the difficult subject of slavery and explores all of its darkness. As bleak as it
can be, however, it's also exciting, touching, and glorious all at the same time. It's no secret that
Spartacus loses at the end. It's a piece of history, recorded and unchangeable. Nonetheless, you
don't leave the show feeling empty or as though the efforts of the rebels were in vain. As another
character says prior to the final credits, "One day Rome shall fade and crumble. Yet you shall
always be remembered in the hearts of all that yearn for freedom."
Read more by Stewart Shearer