The War of the Damned begins tonight as Spartacus fights his last battle on Starz’s blood-soaked hit series.
To non-viewers, Spartacus comes across as a violent, pornographic 300 knock-off with delusions of David Milch-esque dialogue. To be sure, that was my initial impression when watching the first three episodes of the first season, Blood and Sand. I kept watching for that so-bad-it’s-good vibe. Then, during episode four... Spartacus actually became good. Really good. And got even better by mid-season. The devious mind of show creater and former Buffy scribe Steven DeKnight—and the flawless performances of John Hannah and Lucy Lawless—elevated the show to a roller coaster of shifting sympathies, stunning and cruel betrayals, and steamy romance all framed in a graphic novel look.
I would go so far as to say the first two seasons of Spartacus, set in the gladiator school before the famed slave revolt, are an even better upstairs, downstairs drama than Downton Abbey. Here, the stakes are so high because the lives of the servants are literally in their masters’ hands. It’s class warfare at its bloodiest.
Spartacus should also be praised for its broad embrace of sexuality, rare even on a cable network. Sex is as integral to the show as violence, presented as, by turns, matter-of-fact and gratuitous. But it’s always inclusive. Straight, gay, and polyamorous relationships are all treated with respect. The unexpected romance between gladiator Agron and a male body slave, Nasir, for example, is portrayed as tenderly as the love between a hetero pair of the same social makeup.
Sadly, despite solid ratings for cable, what brought Spartacus wider attention was the unfortunate illness and death of the series’ original star Andy Whitfield. Newcomer Liam McIntyre had huge sandals to fill as the new Spartacus but did an admirable job as the show’s story led the former gladiators out of the ludus and into war against Rome itself. I’m hopeful that this year McIntyre can fully disappear into the role.
Barring that, the supporting cast is excellent. Of particular note are Spartacus’ right-hand-men Agron (Dan Feuerriegel) and the charismatic Gannicus (Dustin Clare.) Manu Bennett, most recently seen as the Orc captain Azog in The Hobbit, returns as the most romantic rebel leader of all, Crixus. Marcus Crassus makes his eagerly-awaited appearance as the Roman general tasked with bringing Spartacus down. Fighting at his side is a young upstart named Julius Caesar as he’s never been portrayed before.
While I’m sad to see the series go, I’m okay with DeKnight’s decision to voluntarily end the show so it would go out on a high note. Dramatically, if not historically, considering the ultimate fates of those involved in the Third Servile War. DeKnight has turned his eye towards new projects including Incursion, a gritty space opera with lots of creature FX. I’m excited to see what fresh fan tortures has in mind and there’s a definite dearth of R-rated SF around, but after the graphic novel action, dust, decadence, and blood of Spartacus, space seems so... sterile by comparison.
I’m hoping my expectations are proved wrong once again.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com. She covers True Blood, Game of Thrones, and is also an avid gamer. She has also covered tech and TV for Geektress.com and Action Flick Chick. Follower her on Twitter @tdelucci