Spartacus: Gods of the Arena Review

by Matthew Thompson

(This blog contains spoilers for Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. You’ve been warned!)

Spartacus Gods of the Arena Banner

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.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena; Episode 1

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.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena; Episode 1

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!

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Spartacus: Blood and Sand Review

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

Spoilery Bullets!

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  • 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!