Late to the Party – Thoughts on Spartacus (2010-2013)

It’s hard not to remember reactions to the premier of Starz’s Spartacus in 2010. It was often maligned and dismissed as a 300 knock-off, said to be guilty of stealing the film’s distinct aesthetic and director Zack Snyder’s particular style of slow motion. Having recently completed the series, I must say I feel sorry for anyone that stopped watching after the pilot because Spartacus is so much more than that. The story of Spartacus is inspired by true events that took place within the Roman Republic circa 73-71 B.C. It follows the tale of a Thracian man given the name Spartacus who was enslaved and forced to become a gladiator and how that gladiator grew into a legendary leader in the rebellion against Rome that would come to be known as the Third Servile War.

The show itself, created and produced by Steven S. Deknight (Dollhouse, Smallville, Angel), focuses on the Thracian who would come to be called Spartacus, along with several other eventual leaders of the rebel movement: Crixus, Oenomaus, and Gannicus. Like many premium cable shows, Spartacus is filled with explicit sex and gruesome violence, but given the time depicted, it’s hard to imagine it being far from the truth. Though the characters themselves seem to live in a heightened version of reality, it is reality nonetheless and Spartacus never dips into indulgent fantasy, but rather stays faithful to its source material, with many characters (some of which fan favorites) dying as they did in history. What begins as a show about a man having to survive as a slave to a ruthless Lanista (or gladiator owner) ends as a military epic, complete with massive battles involving thousands of people. On a solely visual level, Spartacus is beautiful. The cinematography is consistently brilliant and dynamic, the costuming is both believable and cool, and the fight choreography is stellar throughout. However, the show has depth behind that colorful presentation and the sheer breadth of what the show presents in its three and a half seasons is truly impressive, giving us a stylized history series that is both well-written and memorably acted. Also, considering the trials the show had to overcome in order to make it to the small screen, the finished work is made that much more remarkable.

The biggest and most regrettable hurdle that the show had to overcome was the loss of Spartacus himself, Andy Whitfield, who died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2011. I love film and television and the actors and actresses that bring the characters to life within them. Though I may not know them personally, I think it is only natural to admire those whose work you find enjoyable. Andy Whitfield remains distinct in this area for me because I had never seen him in anything else. Yet, the charisma with which he played the nameless Thracian that would come to be the rebel leader Spartacus was unmistakable and invigorating. His Spartacus was a strong man, capable of violence, yet also great love. How stark Andy Whitfield’s performance remains in my memory is a testament to how much I enjoyed him as the character, made even more remarkable by the fact that Whitfield only starred in thirteen episodes of a series that would run thirty-nine. His performance aside, Andy Whitfield seemed like a kind and caring man who undoubtedly would have gone on to great success. His struggle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma is the subject of the documentary Be Here Now, which is as of yet unreleased, though hopefully we will get to see it later this year.

Taking over for such a beloved actor would be difficult for anyone, but Australian actor Liam McIntyre managed to do so and make the role his own. He took the Spartacus that Andy Whitfield had made and developed him further, depicting a man driven by passion, yet empty on the inside excluding the fire of his purpose. McIntyre proved himself just as capable at delivering dramatic lines as he did swinging a sword and I believe that he inhabited the role completely, banishing my doubts after the first few episodes of season two. Now that I’m done with the series, I am very happy to say that McIntyre excelled in the role and I look forward to seeing what he does in the future.

Supporting Andy Whitfield and subsequently Liam McIntyre, were a plethora of characters, all of which played in a convincing and memorable manner, the most important being actors Manu Bennett as Crixus, Peter Mensah as Oenamaus, and Dustin Claire as Gannicus. Manu Bennett, most recently “seen” in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films as the Pale Orc, Azog the Defiler, plays the Undefeated Gaul, Crixus. The muscled and frankly terrifying Crixus is a man of constant tension, always upon the precipice of violence. Though Crixus may seem like a brute in the beginning, the series manages (as it does with the majority of its characters) to eventually make him into a rich and layered human being, one that is often torn between his own desires and that of the greater cause at hand. Peter Mensah, known for being the messenger that gets kicked into the well in 300, brings a sense of wisdom and honor to the proceedings as Oenamaus, his level-headed nature often serving to counterbalance the raging testosterone found elsewhere in the series. Dustin Claire gives the series some brevity in the form of the initially carefree Gannicus, a gladiatorial god of the arena who would win his freedom, yet still come to be a part of Spartacus’ rebellion in the end. The definition of the reluctant hero, Gannicus’ transformation from selfish wanderer to a leader is one of the best and most satisfying parts of the show.

Though the heroes of Spartacus are impressive, its villains are just as important and memorable. John Hannah, known for his comic turn as Jonathan in the Mummy movies, is positively evil as the lanista Quintus Lentulus Batiatus, but he does not manage to be so alone. Lucy Lawless, of Xena: Warrior Princess fame, is equally impressive as his deceitful and ruthless wife, Lucretia. The list of Spartacus’ enemies grows as the series continues, swelling to include: Craig Parker (Haldir from the Lord of the Rings) as the ambitious Roman Commander, Gaius Claudius Glaber, his equally ambitious wife, Ilithya, as portrayed by Australian actress Viva Bianca, Roman General Marcus Licinius Crassus portrayed by Simon Merrells, and Todd Lasance as Julius Caesar (yes, that Caesar). All are despicable in their own ways, but all also have satisfying character arcs of their own, which is something of a rarity in most shows I think.

All in all, Spartacus is a criminally underrated show that told an epic, sprawling tale of vengeance, blood, and sand. Though Kubrick took a stab at Spartacus in 1960, the Starz’s version will forever be etched in memory as the one that I think about when I hear that famous cry, “I am Spartacus!”

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