Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Review: Spartacus: Gods of the Arena "Past Transgressions"

Non Spoiler Review:
Spartacus has had nearly as much drama off screen as on. Given Andy Whitfield's need to withdraw from the series for a period to recover from cancer, a prequel was greenlit in order to fill in the long gap until season two. Unfortunately, Whitfield's cancer returned, and he had to withdraw permanently from the character he made his own. While the role of Spartacus has finally been recast, with season two set to begin filming in a few months, we at last get the six episode Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, which focuses on the early days of the doomed House of Batiatus.

While there is legitimate concern that the absence of Spartacus himself might diminish this story, or that this prequel is simply thrown together to satiate the audience, I can safely say this is not the case at all. One of the strengths of season one was the ensemble cast and the depth built into even the minor characters, and it appears all of them are going to have a chance to shine—Doctore (now Oenomaus), Crixus, Barca and Ashur, Solonius, and innocent Naevia (Crixus' ill-fated girlfriend). We received brief suggestions and hints of some of their pasts through occasional comments and references last season. All are present here in more youthful incarnations, along with a host of other new and interesting characters.

The first installment begins with a younger, ambitious Batiatus and Lucretia in Capua, about five years prior to season one. The big arena is only now under construction and Batiatus is struggling to get ahead and escape the shadow of his still living, but retired, father. He has yet to gain enough respect to get his gladiators in the opening games, and seems to be at the mercy of his rival, Vettius, an impudent youngster who has influence with wealthy merchant Tullius and magistrate Sextus. 

At the moment, Batiatus' star gladiator is hulky showboater Gannicus (Dustin Clare), who loves wine and women and the crowd's adoration. Enter Gaia, Lucretia's old friend and Roman party girl, who's elderly husband has just died, ready to show Lucretia how the other half lives. We also get introduced to Oenomaus' wife and familiar slaves from last season.

With this mixture of new and old, the story deals out the customary sex, blood and action in spades, against the highly stylized backdrop we've grown accustomed to. In all respects, this felt like Spartacus from the first moments. I was invested in everyone's story pretty quickly, but particularly Lucretia and Batiatus'—despite their schemes and villainy in season one, they were truly in love with one another so it was hard not to cheer them on as their status rose under the banners of Crixus and Spartacus. This sort of moral ambiguity is one of the show's great strengths, watching both hero and villain alike blend together as their agendas come into conflict.

While it's not entirely necessary to have seen season one of Spartacus to watch this, it will certainly be fulfilling if you do. And considering that the opening sequence of Gods of the Arena spoils the entire first season, it would be well worth sitting through that to build up the emotional connections to these characters which will certainly pay off in this six-parter.

If the rest of this miniseries matches this week's calibre, it will easily stand alongside season one for quality. There are so many storylines only spoken of in passing that we'll get to see unfold. A fantastic start. 

Spoilers Now!
The call to "Kill them all" brings us back to the massacre of House Batiatus, leaving Spartacus and his rebels to confront their master as Lucretia stumbles out, dying. What follows is a montage of Batiatus' season one crimes (deaths of Barca, Spartacus' wife, and so on) as he dies at his slave's hand, and we zero in to his wide eyes to flash back many years...

It's a younger and more innocent Batiatus and Lucretia looking very much in love and striving to gain status in Roman society. Capua is in the process of building the grand stadium we see in the first season, and for now, we see the games in a cramped and wooden arena. It's very bloody, complete with bare-breasted women and severed heads.

Batiatus' men are proving hopeless against young upstart lanista, Vettius, until he brings out his champion, Gannicus. The arrogant and crowd-loving muscleboy Celt easily dispatches Vettius' champion, but he does so before the arrival of the guests of honor, the magistrate and Tullius. Batiatus has been striving to impress them in order to secure his gladiators for the opening games of the new arena.

He commiserates with his BFF, Solonius (!), both men longing to climb the social ladder. Nice to see these two hated enemies such obviously close friends at this point, free of all the animosity that will tarnish their future associations—and I'm sure it won't last long at all.

Lucretia is surprised to see her friend Gaia in town, free from her recently deceased husband, bringing her wild and crazy Roman lifestyle along with her—I love this actress from Dexter, and she's perfect here. She stays with the household until she can find some more permanent lodgings, and it's obvious she has an eye for Lucretia.

Our first glimpse of the gladiator school provides a very interesting contrast to what we're used to. A new Doctore (a man of Batiatus' father) is schooling the old and new recruits (one of whom is Ashur). Oenomaus (future Doctore) is still recovering from his wounds inflicted by his battle with the infamous Theokoles (the story recounted in season one). As former champion, he graciously yields to Gannicus' prowess and stardom at the moment. In fact Oenomaus is extraordinarily gracious, it's hard not to sympathize with the poor guy. His wife, Melitta, is also a slave in Lucretia's company, as well as younger slaves Naevia and Mira, and new character Diona.

While walking through the market with Solonius, scheming of ways to gain entry to the games, Batiatus' comes upon several of Tullius' new slaves, one of whom is a familiar long-haired Gaul. He buys Crixus for an exorbitant amount, determined to groom him into a champion. For that he asks an eager to please Oenomaus to train him. 

Gaia enjoys the atmosphere of the gladiator school, chiding Lucretia that she has not slept with any of the gladiators. Lucretia is horrified at the thought, and is happy with just Batiatus. Gaia's impressed at the drive of her husband, as it's common knowledge that his father had no mind for the business, and even now has retired to Sicilia for his health, though his influence appears to weigh heavy over Batiatus.

Eager Crixus is thrown in with the new recruits, including Ashur, and a few others who all think Crixus will be quickly dispatched in the tests, as they must face the seasoned men in order to earn their mark of brotherhood. Oenomaus sets about teaching him the ways of the gladiator, while secretly resenting that Batiatus is not allowing him to return to form as his prime fighter. For his part, Crixus is wowed by the adoration presented upon Gannicus, and vows to one day be the champion.

Much like her older self, Lucretia feeds Batiatus' ambition, suggesting he have a chance meeting with Tullius in the market in order to discuss the games. He heads off with Solonius, finding Vettius is there, as well. Tullius notes that Batiatus bought Crixus well above his price and offers to buy him back. Vetttius goads Batiatus' ego and soon he is boasting that Gannicus can beat his best man blindfolded (Nooooo!). Tullius also likes that idea, and suggests they meet the next day for a fight in the market.

Batiatus is disappointed that the venue is so low brow, but asks Oenomaus if Gannicus is worthy of the fight (he refuses to take the counsel of Doctore, his father's man). Disappointed he won't be fighting himself, Oenomaus vouches for Gannicus, and in gratitude for his loyalty and unprejudiced advice, Battiatus sends Melitta to his bed.

Lots of foreboding here, as we know something is going to happen to destroy Oenomaus' marriage. Whether her death will be a part of it is unclear, but they're definitely happy here. 

Later, Oenomaus finds Gannicus drunk and perilously close to the cliff face, urging him to go to bed and get sleep before his battle. Even Gannicus says it should be Oenomaus who fights. The two men obviously have great respect for one another, reminding one of Spartacus and Varro.

The market gathers for the spectacle the next day. Vettius and Batiatus hurl insults at one another. Tullius, meanwhile, notices Gaia from courting her years before and still has an interest in her. The magistrate attends and starts the battle, but Vettius brings up Batiatus' boast about the blindfold, and Tullius holds him to it.

Gannicus complies, and a heated battle ensues until Gannicus finally gains the upper hand and kills Vettius' man. It's an intense scene (Lucy Lawless' cringing facial expressions during these battles are gold). The magistrate and Tullius are both impressed, and he invites Batiatus to discuss the upcoming games. Gannicus celebrates with his brothers, but not the new recruits—namely Ashur and Crixus, who have yet to receive their mark.

Batiatus is buoyed by the victory and the meeting, and he wants to bring reward to Solonius' house, as well. So he sets off that evening while Gaia and Lucretia share some opium.

Things don't work out as planned. Tullius wants to purchase Gannicus for the games rather than let Batiatus in on them. He offers 200 dinarii, but Batiatus refuses to part with him. Given he allowed him to purchase Crixus, Tullius says it's only fair. Everyone has a price. When he refuses, Batiatus' bodyguard is killed and he is beaten to a pulp between Vettius and Tullius—all the while Gaia and Lucretia are enjoying an opium-induced sexcapade. To further the indignity, Tullius urinates on him, and urges him to reconsider or be excluded from the games forever. Battered Batiatus watches the sun rise over the arena site.

This was a prequel done right, building on backstories hinted at in the regular season while introducing another batch of interesting supporting roles. The strength of Spartacus is the characters. Most are so developed and compelling on their own, that if you stripped away all the action and sex, you would still be left with a great story.

Gannicus remains the mystery man. His is the major new story to be told, with the reasons behind all his bravado and reckless action to come. His character does not yet inspire the empathy of a Spartacus, Oenaumaus, or even Crixus, but knowing the likely outcome adds to the tension (he certainly isn't around, or mentioned, in season one).

We continue to get cultural insights into the everyday life of the nobility and slave classes. What is Spartacus without the over-the-top polytheistic cursing and cock being bandied about every other sentence—you could construct a drinking game around that alone. Much like HBO's Rome, it's these background elements that are just as fascinating (including this week's particularly interesting scene with a public toilet).

I have nothing but praise for this episode. It kept the momentum to the very end, and after so much story we're left with lots of blanks to fill in for what's to come—Oenaumaus will never become champion again, with a marriage fated for heartbreak, as his wife "lives only in memory". Scheming Ashur awaits his crippling injury in battle. Barca's lover Auctus is likely not long for this world either. And the fatal enmity between Solonius and Batiatus is ready to be sparked. Add to that the likely appearance of Batiatus' maligned father at some point. The only thing for certain is that these next five episodes will fly by just as fast—and there will be plenty of sex and blood.

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