by Matthew Thompson
(This blog contains spoilers for Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. You’ve been warned!)
Gods of the Arena acts as a prequel to Blood and Sand, but is fully intended to be watched after the first season even bookending the short six-episode run with snippets of Season 1’s final moments. After the crazy finish to Blood and Sand, I was more excited to see the continuation of those events, but Gods of the Arena delves into the backstories of many of the series main characters while delivering some more enjoyable arena action.
Like with a lot of prequels, you ultimately know where many of the storylines end up. But it is still fun to see all the pieces fall into place. We see how Crixus ended up a gladiator and how Oenomaus became the ludus’ doctore along with smaller things like how Ashur hurt his leg and began to feel the way he did about Crixus in the future. And a lot of time is spent on Batiatus and how he schemed his way into a better position. He’s such a fun character to watch that it is hard to complain about seeing a bit more of him since Season 1 could have been the end of it. His relationship with his father is played for good drama and I found myself appreciating and shaking my fist at the duplicity with which Lucretia planted the seeds for the elder Batiatus’ demise.
Of course, the best thing about Gods of the Arena is the introduction of Gannicus who became probably my favorite character in the series by the time it finishes out. It wasn’t something I suspected either. His cocky demeanor in the arena and lazy attitude outside of it didn’t appeal to me at first. I’m usually a fan of the more classic hero-type. But there is something about his personality that just won me over. The booming laugh and his general jovial demeanor makes for a character who is just easy to like. And it doesn’t hurt that he is every bit the badass Spartacus is. His tale is also one I did not know the end of which helped up the stakes a bit. I kind of figured he might die by season’s end which is why he wasn’t present in Season 1, so the ending in which he wins his freedom managed to catch me off guard. It’s another example where knowing so little of the actual history helped because it gave the season an element of surprise that it was lacking at times due to its prequel nature.
What worked less well for me was the orgy (or whatever you want to call it) storyline that focused on Lucretia trying to gain favor with prominent Romans. Of course, this is another example of my personal preferences coming into play, but the way some of the slave characters are treated just came off a bit too rough for me at times, particularly Diona. Cossutius is just kind of the worst too. They totally nailed his casting I suppose because he has the most punchable of faces. Despite this plotline being one of the low-points of the series for me, I do think the friction it ended up creating between Gannicus and Oenomaus ultimately pays dividends, but that is something I will talk more about in my Vengeance post.
One thing I appreciate even more about this season in hindsight were the arena battles. I talked in my Blood and Sand review about how those were a big reason why I grew to love the series. And it is something the show has to move away from in its final two seasons, so a few more of these were definitely a good thing. The smaller venues also gave them a more intimate feel compared to the ones being fought in the huge arena in other seasons. I even loved the one that is hosted in the streets of Capua right amongst the people. This one doubles as a way to show just how much of a badass Gannicus is as he takes another man on while blindfolded. Was it completely absurd? Yeah, kind of. But also cool as hell so I give it a pass.
Gods of Arena may not have been what I wanted coming out of Blood and Sand since I was dying to see what Spartacus and company got up to after their breakout. But I understand the circumstances that brought this abbreviated prequel season about and it ends up being a success in its own right by shedding light on the histories of some characters we came to care about in the first season, giving us more of the bloody arena bouts we loved to cheer for, and even adding characters and storylines that would ultimately pay off big time as the series continued proper. And for those reasons I enjoyed my time with Gods of Arena even if I’d put it at the bottom of my Spartacus season rankings.
I will be back sometime soon with my thoughts on Spartacus: Vengeance which brought about big changes for the series. Feel free to share your thoughts on Gods of the Arena in the comments as I’d love to hear them. Thanks for reading!