Monday, January 30, 2012

Review: Spartacus: Vengeance "Fugitivus"

Non Spoiler Review:
Following the fall of House Batiatus, Spartacus, Crixus and their group of freed slaves have taken refuge in the sewers beneath Capua while reigning terror above. Capua is in fine tizzy, given Spartacus is the bringer of rain and slayer of Theokoles, the shadow of death, and all that. That prompts a response from Rome, with newly minted praetor Gaius Glaber dispatched to deal with the uprising. He brings with him a very reluctant Ilithyia.

Struggles abound within the ranks of the fugitives, as Crixus' Gauls and Spartacus' followers compete for power and differing agendas. Questions arise whether Spartacus will let his desire for vengeance overtake the greater safety of the group.

After such a long wait (made easier by the most excellent Gods of the Arena), Spartacus returns with a new direction and a new lead. Andy Whitfield's spirit is very present in this episode, but Liam McIntyre rises to the very difficult task of succeeding him, managing to deliver his version Spartacus, and one that is surely to develop over subsequent weeks. While the casting was a bit jarring at first, it was helped by the long stretch between seasons, and in fact, it was Liam's distinctive voice that was more noticeable than the appearance, given his tone and manner of speaking is so different from Whitfield's. But overall it did not prove a big distraction from the story at large. I have confidence he will only grow more at ease in the role.

The season appears more Rome-focused, and brings the introduction of powerful players vying to quash this troublesome rebellion for their own ends. The pace is frenetic, with a fantastic second half that is pure Spartacus—sex, blood, intrigue, action and great character moments. Coming off the heals of the well-crafted Gods of Arena, season two's premiere has left me with no doubt that the series is in safe hands and on course for an epic run.

Spoilers Now!
It's some weeks after the fall of the House of Batiatus, and young Capuan noble Seppius (in the hopes of gaining standing) has dispatched mercenaries to rid them of Spartacus and his rebels. That doesn't work out too well, as Spartacus kills all eight men and takes their stuff, but not before carving a message out for a certain someone.

That would be Gaius Claudius Glaber, the man responsible for bringing the Thracian to Rome in the first place. He's since been promoted to praetor, but the scandal in Capua is staining his reputation. His senator father-in-law, Albinius, orders him back to Capua to restore order and destroy the rebels, given it was his name left on the dead.

Furious that the whole matter is beneath his new station, he acts out his frustrations against his wife, Ilithyia (now pregnant), by ordering her to accompany him to Capua (and the scene of her own scandal—the murder of Licinia, the evidence of which he hopes to see buried). She is adamant she won't go, and insists all the witnesses are dead, but he'll hear none of it. He has little choice given Albinius' comrade in the Senate, praetor Varinius, supports Seppius, so if the latter catches Spartacus, that victory will be used to embarrass Glaber. He orders her to get ready to leave.

The freed gladiators and slaves have taken refuge in the sewers, including Varo's widow Aurelia, and Mira, Spartacus' confidante and lover. Mira suggests they move to the mountains for better prospects of food and safety, but it's clear Spartacus is driven by revenge against the Romans. German gladiator Agron remains a close ally of Spartacus and is driven by revenge for the death of his twin brother Duro during the massacre. He and others are hostile to the Gauls under the control of Crixus who see no use for filling their numbers with hungry and weak house slaves who don't know how to fight. But Spartacus and Crixus themselves are not at odds, and both are seemingly working together to kill Romans.

Crixus searches for information on his lost love Naevia, whom Lucretia sold prior to their escape. His search has produced a name, Trebius, a slave trader who frequents a brothel. Neither he nor Spartacus have seen Doctore since the ludus fell, and feel he has disappeared, absent a purpose.

Capua has worked itself up into a fine mess. Not only is the populace terrified by the rebels, but the gladiatorial games totally suck, given all the big lanistas are dead, and the good gladiators running amok.

The new magistrate (succeeding his murdered cousin Sextus) is not impressed given the crowd needs distraction. His daughter Seppia is a bit of a rebel herself, talking up her brother Seppius' failure to capture Spartacus and the loss of his men. He shows up to face his father's chiding, much to his sister's glee.

From the stands, Oenomaus watches the games, then departs, only to be set upon by a few men who recognize him and want the reward for their capture. He dispatches them all with relative ease.

Spartacus commiserates with Aurelia, who is longing for her absent son. Given the talk of moving east, he remembers her brother lives there, and that she might join her son. He produces coin he stole from the Romans to buy her and her son passage beyond the Republic (fulfilling his vow to Varo to see his family cared for). He sees her off, then he and Agron join Crixus on the attack on the brothel.

Needlesstosay, Crixus creates mayhem in the brothel, but Trebius is seriously wounded by his whore.  Agron is equally hostile, given he's the slave trader who sold him and his brother to Batiatus. Crixus does manage to coerce information out of him before he dies that Naevia has been sold to villas in the south.

Spartacus is skeptical that they can find Naevia among so many farms, plus they would be exposed in the open. Crixus finds his caution ironic given he's been leading them into constant battle with the Romans. Trebius gloated that soldiers from Rome were on their way, and Glaber is leading them.

Come morning, Glaber, his subordinate Marcus, and their men arrive in the city, heading to the abandoned House of Batiatus. Glaber is taking it over given it can conveniently house his men. Ilithyia is mortified to have to stay in that house, still full of the blood of those who died, but Glaber lays down the law that they remain until Spartacus falls. So she sets her servants to clean the place.

But the house isn't empty. She sees the mask that she wore when she unknowingly had sex with Spartacus. And then she sees a ghost and screams. Everyone comes running and look in amazement upon Lucretia, a little worse for wear and thinking everything is just as it was when her husband was alive.

Ilithyia wants her killed, but more sensible Marcus suggests to Glaber that Capua would see her survival as a symbol of Roman vigilance against the rebels. He sends Lucretia to be cleaned up, and Ilithyia to find out what secrets she knows. Lucretia bears the scar of her wound that nearly ended her life, but no answer as to how she survived, and her memory is sketchy enough to believe Licinia is alive. She takes particular notice that Ilithyia is pregnant.

The fugitives are in a panic about the arrival of the Romans. Spartacus tells them this was always fated to be, but Doctore arrives to interrupt his speech, warning that there are enough Romans to end them all. Glaber will address the town in the morning, and he suggests they use the distraction to flee. Spartacus wants him to stand with them, but Oenomaus tells him Doctore is nolonger his title. There is only one place for such an animal without honor, and departs.

Spartacus and Crixus disagree on their course of action. Crixus wants to flee south, given their house slaves and gladiators are not an army fit to face the Romans. Spartacus' desire for vengeance is driving him to stay and fight.

Mira and Spartacus lie together discussing the situation. Mira realizes he's always hoped they would send Glaber, and that's why he sent Aurelia away. She urges him to follow Crixus south and not lead them into a massacre. Finding Naevia and fleeing far from the Republic is the best course for them all.

In the morning, Mira tells Crixus that Spartacus' thoughts were towards caution, but he was gone by the time she was awake. He's already in Capua, concealed among the crowd as the magistrate attempts to calm the citizenry.

The people are quite skeptical of the assurances of the magistrate and Seppius. Glaber steps up to compete with Seppius for the crowd. He assures them Spartacus is but a man and Batiatus' wife stood against him and lives...and reveals Lucretia to a shocked and elated crowd that sees this as a sign of the gods. Seppia teases her brother that he's been eclipsed by Glaber.

Lucretia catches a glimpse of Spartacus (equally shocked to lay eyes on her) and starts to freak out, but Ilithyia manages to calm her down. Glaber isn't finished. He produces a beat up fugitive who was found attempting to flee Capua—Aurelia—and promises she will reveal where they are hiding before she's killed. Spartacus is horrified.

Glaber basks among the crowd's cheers. As Lucretia and Ilithyia walk off, she sees Spartacus a second time, and Ilithyia does too. Spartacus then launches after Glaber, prompting chaos and panic in the town square as he's set upon by the Roman soldiers. Crixus and his men abruptly appear to save him. Agron grabs Aurelia. Lucretia and Crixus both lay eyes on one another, and that prompts a flashback to him stabbing her. The rebels manage to run off after Crixus convinces Spartacus he can't win this.

Back at their hideout Mira is furious with him for being so reckless, and they need a leader, not an angry boy. He thanks Crixus for saving him, but Crixus punches him out for his foolishness, pointing out that killing the praetor would result in Rome sending a real army against them, something they will never be. 

They're interrupted by Agron, summoning them to Aurelia's deathbed. Her last breath is a curse against Spartacus, asking him to never seek out her son because he brings death in his wake. A harsh lesson, but one Spartacus takes to heart. They will go south, he agrees, in search of Naevia. They must stand as one or fall divided. They will free the slaves who cross their path along the way, and when their numbers grow to legion he vows they will face Glaber again.

The Verdict:
Andy Whitfield is sorrily missed and I kept picturing him in every scene. However, McIntyre does a fantastic job here, a commanding presence and radiating authority as one would expect from Spartacus. His acting skills are not in doubt, and I'm very confident he will make this role his own.

The new characters with more Roman political machinations looks promising. I'm especially pleased that Glaber has moved into the ludus, at least providing some continuity to the first season. It's odd enough to see all the gladiators walking about freely in civilian garb, so the familiar (albeit bloody) walls of the Batiatus household are a comforting tie.

I'm already liking Marcus and he appears to be a sensible character to counter Glaber's more megalomaniacal elements, and Seppia and Seppius look to be equally strong (and somewhat incestuous) foils for one another. It's been awhile since we've seen Ilithyia, but she certainly made up for the absence, and her scenes with Lucy Lawless promise a lot of fun this season.

Despite the long shot odds that Lucretia could possibly survive her wound(s), I'm really happy to have Lucy Lawless back and rocking it as the dazed and confused widow. She brought several great shocker moments when Ilithyia, Spartacus and Crixus all laid eyes on her. She's also one of the few keepers of secrets left alive, which has left me predicting that she will really figure in the future when Gannicus shows up—she knows transpired between Gannicus and Melitta in Gods of Arena. How soon before she uses that to drive a wedge between Oenomaus and Gannicus, given the opportunity?

My only critique this week is the relatively glazed over escape from Capua that Spartacus and Crixus make after their brazen attack at the market. One would think Glaber's men would not get lost in the scuffle and manage to eventually overtake them. Oh well.

The premiere concludes on a satisfying note—Spartacus realizing his own quest for vengeance cannot supersede the good of the group, though it took Aurelia's tragic death to hammer it home (very reminiscent of Diona's execution at the conclusion of Gods of the Arena). Hopefully Crixus comes to the same conclusion regarding Naevia. But heading south appears to be the best choice.

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