After a bit of a production delay, Spartacus: Vengeance kicked off the season with a bloodbath from beginning to end, interspersed with the occasional soft-core porn. The Starz adaptation of the Spartacus legend is already noted for its unique production style, meant to evoke the film 300, with an added note of ultraviolence that wasn’t possible in a production intended for theatre audiences. Producers of the series have embraced and fed the apparent desire for blood on the part of cable consumers with a series sopped in nonstop death; viewers either become inured within minutes, or presumably turn the television off out of disgust, depending on their tastes.
The story picks up shortly after Spartacus: Blood and Sand left off, with the escapees from the House of Batiatus living on the run, picking off Roman soldiers where they can. To lure in bloodthirsty viewers, the opening sequence depicted a vicious battle between ex-gladiators and mounted Roman soldiers, complete with a truly revolting head-bashing sequence and some postmortem chest carving, a skill I for one do not remember learning in arts class during my school years. Artful slowed camera speed underscored the strange beauty of ultraviolence as men and horses twirled around each other in a carefully choreographed ballet interrupted by the occasional spurt of blood.
If I sound like I’m lingering on the gore, it’s because everything else in the season opener was thin on the ground. ‘Fugitivus’ mainly sustained itself from fight to fight in a series of graphic scenes that periodically spattered the camera with blood and demonstrated new and rather interesting ways for people to die, get slammed against things, and incur fractures. People both living and dead were mutilated by both sides in the conflict, sending a message to each other and to viewers: There will be blood in the revolt against the Romans.
Lots and lots of it. Truly, one can understand why some of the sets are sub-par when the budget for fake blood is accounted for. Injury makeup for a single scene alone probably outstrips the production cost of sets for a whole episode; it’s remarkably detailed and there is something almost loving about the precision with which makeup artists are determined to render gory injuries. Truly. Someone should make sure they get an award.
There was also, of course, the usual sprinkling of casual nudity to keep viewers titillated, along with a few juicy sex scenes. The production team certainly seems to be attempting to mimic the Rome of legends, where complex orgies featuring a boggling array of positions were supposedly a favored mode of entertainment among some of the leaders of the empire. One memorable scene combined gore and explicit sexuality with a raid on a house of prostitution; from pegging to throat slashing in one easy step!
People aren’t watching this series for the history though, but rather for the sex, gore, and occasional plot, which periodically crept up despite the best efforts of the writers and production staff. Complex political machinations are at work as the Romans battle over the best way to deal with the slave uprising, while Spartacus and Crixus debate their next move. This episode sets us up for a great migration to the south over the course of the season, freeing slaves as they travel, which will undoubtedly provide numerous opportunities for bloody battles.
Liam McIntyre has replaced the late Andy Whitfield as Spartacus, and it does take some time to get used to the transition. Assuming roles this way can be a challenge, and McIntyre has done his best with the dialogue and colleagues he has. The acting in general in this episode was not particularly stellar, McIntyre included. One could charitably assume that the actors were perhaps rattled by all the gore.
The standout was Lucy Lawless reprising her role as Lucretia. Traumatised by the events of the last season, she’s found wandering the gutted remains of the ludus, seeking servants who aren’t there and muttering to herself. Lawless rendered a credible and believable portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder that seemed almost wasted in the general crowd of overacting that surrounded her.
But again, it is not acting that is drawing viewers to Spartacus.
Viewers just dropping in this season may have some plot-related confusion as they catch up with events, but it should be relatively easy to catch on, given that some characters obligingly dress in rags or fighting jockstraps, while others wear nifty Roman uniforms, and they appear to be fighting each other. Women float about at the margins of the series, occasionally popping in for some sex or a closeup of their eyes while they make passionate statements. Some people wear togas and act pompous in villas. Beyond that, viewers don’t really need any additional information.
Starz has had trouble with making original series stick and it seems proud of its success with this particular entry. As with The Walking Dead, the allure for viewers may be the violence, and some at least appear to be sticking around to see what happens next. We shall see if Spartacus has the endurance it needs; after all, the show’s historical counterpart was eventually defeated in a bloody battle almost as vicious as cable ratings wars.