Mon 12 Apr 2010
Note: I wrote this after the first season of Spartacus. All of the show is now available on Netflix. Go. Watch.
For those who’ve seen it already, I wrote a few more articles: Spartacus, Rome & Patriarchal Society, “Kill Them All, The Spartacus Finale,” and Six Ways Dinah of Seneca is Like Spartacus. Back to your regularly scheduled programming.
In the case of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, I want to explain to people who scoff about it being bloody porn why I love the show.
Oh, it has flaws. There’s dialogue that goes over the top–Jupiter’s cock!–scenery chewing acting, and bloody special effects that are so stylized that they’ve become silly. Oh, look! Entrails again!
I also have doubts of historical accuracy.
Yet I am incredibly hooked.
I am far more hooked on this show than on the Emmy-nominated True Blood, which shares more than few elements in common with Spartacus–especially the blood and sex part. But I find True Blood absolutely dumb–that includes both the characters and the plot. The premise is good. The writers just don’t do anything interesting with it.
Ostensibly, Spartacus: Blood and Sand is the tale of the gladiator who led a famous slave rebellion against the Roman Republic. The show begins before our hero becomes that guy. He’s an unnamed Thracian warrior who joins the Roman legions and then rebels against his commander because, well, the Roman commander is an ass.
This is ends badly for our hero, as not only is he captured and sold into slavery, so is his beloved wife. The first two episodes are basically set up to Spartacus’ entering gladiator training.
But by episode three, interesting things start to happen with the writing.
Be warned, minor spoilers below. I’ve tried to be general but…
Plots and character arcs are put in motion, arcs that pay off magnificently by season’s end. Nothing at first is what is seems.
I think that’s the ultimate difference between True Blood and Spartacus.
They both have unpredictable plotting and “WTF?? happened” elements. But in True Blood, no one ever learns anything. It’s all character shuffling around. They never seem to grow. Or, as a friend put it, “stay tuned for next week, when Sookie does something stupid!”
In Spartacus, the characters change and grow. In some cases, they just end too. No one is safe and that adds to the unpredictability of the show.
For example: Batiatus, the Roman gladiator owner who buys Spartacus seems a decent enough sort for a Roman and I initially sympathized with him because of his obvious love for his wife and his burning desire to be recognized above his class. He also seems honorable, giving Spartacus his word to reunite him with his wife.
By the next-to-last episode, it becomes clear that all the initial impressions about Batiatus are just plain wrong. He’s sneaky, more than a little batshit crazy and gives us at least two “oh, no, I cannot believe he did that!” moments.
Crixus, who first appeared to be no more than a fellow gladiator determined to bully Spartacus, has turned into the most fascinating character on the show. He’s a brute, true, but he’s totally drunk the Kool-Aid about how honorable it is to be a gladiator, even the part about how his eventual death with bring glory to him.
That is, until it’s made clear that his life and the lives of those he loves are pawns in a game to entertain those lucky enough not to be slaves.
This point of being a plaything is driven home to Spartacus himself in the most heart-wrenching episode of the season. This death was pure tragedy and worked brilliantly. It was clear that this character was probably not destined for a good end but the way it happened was shocking.
In short, unpredictable plot turns plus awesome character arcs equals a show that I absolutely cannot miss.
I will, however, not deny that all the incredibly well-built handsome gladiators who strut around with little clothing doesn’t hurt its appeal. Neither does the occasional (but brief) full frontal nudity.
The husband says that all the naked women doesn’t hurt either. Lucy Lawless’ breasts, he says, are quite magnificent. I note that most of the naked women have breasts that lack implants. Perhaps because this isn’t a show produced in Hollywood.
There are also the orgies featuring simulated sex. (Well, I think it’s simulated…) But, the fascinating part for me is that the sex isn’t, well, sexy. It’s background noise.
Sex, especially with slaves, means little to any of the free Romans. It’s a commodity, just live the lives of the gladiators.
There are only five characters having sex on the show for love. And one of them is having sex with someone they love who doesn’t love them but has no choice in the matter. In other words, rape. The others, well, I doubt it’s going to end well.
What’s truly sexy on this show is the longing. The longing to matter. The longing for freedom. The longing for love without conditions.
The finale is on Friday night. I foresee a lot of blood being spilled. Or, as Spartacus said, there’s only one good plan left:
“Kill them all.”