by Matthew Thompson (all images courtesy of the Spartacus website found here)
(So that my non-Spartacus-watching readers can see a little of why I became hooked on the show, I have written this first season review with no spoilers except in the bullets. The bullet points are intended to give people who have seen the show an idea of my favorite moments and the like from the season.)
The Olympics made for a barren TV landscape in February. So I found myself digging through OnDemand for something else to check out in the meantime. I think partly influenced by my recent obsession with the God of War video games, I ended up giving the Starz series Spartacus a try. While it clashes a bit with my sensibilities at times, I found myself hooked on the show and very glad I gave it a try.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand follows the journey of a Thracian man. When a deal struck for him and his Thracian brethren to aid the Roman army turns sour, he and his wife are taken as slaves and separated with him sent off to the arena. Despite facing what looked like certain death, he manages to survive and his life as a gladiator and the titular Spartacus begins.
While this tale may be familiar to some due to the 1960 film or just the history it was based on, I went in knowing only the broadest strokes of the story so the series retained a lot of the suspense of a purely fictional TV show as I was unaware of many of the characters’ fates and of course there was always the different directions the show’s creators could veer off from history itself. Adding an extra fun layer to whole thing was going back and reading up on the real Spartacus and seeing what was based on actual history which is something I will comment more specifically on as I talk about certain events from the show.
The biggest selling point early on is undoubtably the action. The fight scenes are glorious particularly the one on one battles that occur in the arena. Great choreography and stunning bouts of violence left my mouth agape while the stylized look added a certain flare to the proceedings. Sometimes the way heads fly after being lopped off looks a little silly, but it is a minor blemish on what are otherwise some top-notch fight sequences which are worth the price of admission alone. Even just seeing the different fighting styles as the series goes on from sword and shield to trident and net is fascinating in its own right.
The show as a whole takes a little bit to get going. The first few episodes are really rough around the edges, but by about halfway through the first season things really start to come together in most all aspects. I was particularly impressed with the pacing. Things that were happening halfway through the season could have easily been finale material. Looking back knowing the history, it does make a bit more sense. The sort of phases each of the three main seasons respresents really works, but they still could have easily decided to draw out any of these arcs to multiple seasons. So I appreciated the momentum they created in the show’s plotting.
One thing that helped hook me into the show as it continued was the duplicitous plans that were being hatched, especially by the non-gladiator characters in the show. Batiatus runs the ludus, a training school, that the gladiators call home and he is quite the schemer. He’s played by John Hannah and is one of those memorable villains that you love to hate. His wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) and another character, Ilythia, do some crazy things as well. It not only helps to build a group to root against, but makes them seem like capable antagonists that while physically inferior to Spartacus have the brains to give him a different kind of rival than the ones he meets in battle on the sands of the arena.
Another interesting aspect of the show is the dialog. It has a prose-like quality to it that makes me feel like no ever could have talked like this though a little reading told me it was maybe supposed to be how Latin might sound in modern-day English. What makes it more interesting is how they worked some hilarious vulgarities into the speech. So along with flowery talk of sunsets, you’ll hear the term “Jupiter’s cock” about 300 times throughout the series and learn that it is a part of Spartacus’ charm.
With that being said, this is clearly a show for adults. The language and violence are enough to make it so, but there is plenty of nudity and sexual content too. I personally found myself rolling my eyes because of it at times. The show couldn’t resist just cutting to shots of women in the arena audience pulling their breasts out or having a couple of people engaging is various forms of intercourse in the background of others’ conversations and sometimes it just felt a little over the top. While it sometimes came off a bit silly to me, it could certainly be seen as a plus for others.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand starts out a little rough, but by the end of the first season I was absolutely hooked on this drama. It proved to be more than just “Blood and Breasts.” The show provides ample amounts of both, but it surprises with clever writing and characters you will grow to love for more than their figures and fighting prowess. I am so happy I gave this show a shot after dismissing it for years now.
- The Pacing: I mentioned earlier about the fast pacing. I was surprised to see Spartacus’ wife killed halfway through the season and equally surprised to see Batiatus bite it at season’s end. Same with how fast Spartacus became champion. In hindsight, it makes more sense, but still another show may have dragged those out especially when crafting such a great villain in Batiatus.
- The Scheming: I was specifically thinking of two plans when I commented about this earlier in the article. One being how Batiatus orchestrated the death of the magistrate and the other being Ilythia’s part in Varro’s death. And of course, Ashur plays a huge part in the former and he turns into quite the villain himself.
- Best Character: This is a tough one, but I will go with Spartacus. Andy Whitfield did such an excellent job with his character and I liked how his passion for his wife lent a softer side to his personality and a great driving force for his actions throughout Blood and Sand.
- Best Fight: So many good battles in the first season, but I will go with Spartacus and Crixus’ fight against Theokoles. Watching the two rivals work together, at times at least, to try and best the hulking beast is pretty awesome and helps show off some of the fantastic choreography. And Theokoles is such an intimidating presence as well. Makes it even better when he finally gets taken down.
- Most Shocking Moment: There were a few moments I could just not believe they even showed on TV. The one that for better or worse stands out in my head is when one gladiator gets his… member removed and they showed the… stump spurting blood from his body. One of many brutal moments from the show.
- Best Episode: The finale “Kill Them All” is one of those truly memorable hours of television. It might be the series best episode (a couple from later seasons give it a run for its money though). Watching Spartacus lead his rebellion against those who held him and his brothers captive was unforgettable.
- Best Moment: When Crixus taps his shield finally signifying he will help and Spartacus flings himself off it to attempt an assassination of Batiatus on the balcony. Wow! Just so cool.
I will continue my look at the series over the next couple of weeks with three more blogs, one for each of the other seasons. These will be a little shorter and for those who have already watched. Just merely talking about their setups kind of spoils earlier parts of the show, so this is kind of the end of the road for non-watchers. I’d love to hear any other Spartacus fans’ thoughts on Blood and Sand in the comments. What were your favorite moments and characters? As always thank you for reading!