Starz’s sword-and-sandals (and boobs-and-blood) hit series returns for its second season this Friday. After taking time to shoot prequel miniseries Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, Spartacus is back on track with a new star and new intrigues following the first season finale’s violent uprising. Liam McIntyre steps into the role as the leader of the slave rebellion, tough sandals to fill after the untimely passing of fan favorite Andy Whitfield last year.
Several huge changes loom over the cast of characters during this season outside of the House of Batiatus and its gladiator boot camp.
We pick up a few weeks after the slaughter at Batiatus’s house, where Spartacus inspired his fellow gladiators and the house slaves to revolt and kill their corrupt masters. Now, they are all fugitives, hunted by local politicians and Rome itself. Rome’s interests are represented by Gaius Claudius Glaber, the man who condemned Spartacus and his wife to slavery in the first place.
I won’t lie; it takes some getting used to Liam McIntyre as Spartacus. Two episodes were available for early press screenings and I think it was a wise choice. It’s not that McIntyre is better or worse than Whitfield. He’s maybe a bit gruffer than I like my Spartacus, missing that mischievous spark behind his eyes, but perfectly acceptable. What makes it distracting in that first hour is Spartacus talking to his brothers about their struggles. This isn’t the same exact Spartacus we watched suffer the indignities of House Batiatus nor the triumphs of the arena.
But it’s okay because this is a new Spartacus, with new problems.
Tensions are high among the freed slaves. Crixus (the frequently naked Manu Bennett, star of Syfy original gems like Sinbad and the Minotaur) wants only to be reunited with his lover Naevia, sold to a lecherous slave trader. Oenomaus, who was on the cusp of being a legally freed slave before the rebellion, mourns for the passing of a once-great house and his esteemed position in it. Always an honorable man, he feels deep shame for his betrayal.
The weight of last season’s choices lay heavily on Spartacus, too, and his biggest challenge at this stage is whether he can set aside his personal quest for vengeance against Glaber in favor of the greater good of keeping those loyal to him alive and, beyond that, ending slavery in Rome altogether.
Lest one imagine Spartacus has become nothing but scenes of existential angst, the premiere features a huge fight scene in a brothel. This is the stuff late-night cable was pretty much invented for, right?
While the death of Andy Whitfield is a sad reality and the cast and creators are handling it the best way they can, the death of John Hannah’s Batiatus is cause for greater concern, in terms of the story. Hannah’s foul mouth, plotting, and charisma are sorely missed. Played by a wry Craig Parker (Haldir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy,) Glaber is a bit textbook in his villainy thus far. And his peers in Capuan nobility, namely a pair of twins who seem creepily close — where have we seen this before? — fail to entertain.
Luckily, some escaped the bloodbath, including Illithyia, the Paris Hilton of ancient Rome and wife of Glaber. She played her own part in the rebellion and she’s none too happy about having to return to the podunk town of Capua with her husband. In a surprise twist no promotional poster hid, Batiatus’s wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) also survived, though her husband and unborn child did not.
How did Lucretia survive the massacre? Has she really seen the light since her near-death experience or is her newfound piety part of a larger scheme against her frenemy Illithyia, as secrets and more grow between them? These two ladies will be ones to watch for delicious evilness this season.
The first episode is a throat-clearer for the rest of the season, but things definitely pick up by the end of the second, with an origins-story flashback feel, a killer cliffhanger, and the unwelcome return of a character people love to hate. Also returning somewhere down the line, Gods of the Arena star gladiator Gannicus, another fan favorite.
Despite the rocky road to the second season, Spartacus (and his cock) rages on. Thank the Roman gods for some bloody fun TV.
Check out Tor.com’s interview with Spartacus creator (and former Whedonverse scribe) Steven S. DeKnight here.
Spartacus: Vengeance premieres Friday, January 27th at 10PM E/PT. Watch the first episode on Starz.com now.