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Television Collision: Spartacus Is Back With A Vengeance

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer


What started out as a guilty pleasure people talked about in hushed whispers, because no one was sure whether or not it was alright to like something as dirty as this, has turned into one of Starz’ biggest buzz makers. I am talking, of course, about the epic tale of gladiators in Ancient Rome of Spartacus. The third season (don’t get technical on me here with the prequel not being Season 2 etc.!) Spartacus: Vengeance returned two weeks ago, but it sure looks a lot different than what the show started out as.

What hasn’t changed is that scenes of violence in slow motion still fill the screen aplenty in every episode. And even though these scenes make us wince (and inspire columns entitled “Things That Made Us Go ‘Ew’!”), we all know that they are part of the reason we are tuning in. Thousands of years later, we still enjoy the same games as the Romans. Let that sit for a minute.
However, since this season deals with the fall-out of the Spartacus-led rebellion against Batiatus, the violent fights seldom take place in the arena anymore (I think I counted exactly one arena fight). Mostly Spartacus and his motley crew battle Romans wherever they encounter them, giving the stunt team many opportunities to come up with more ways to kill people with a sword than you ever imagined there were.

Even the sex, the other thing that lured us all into watching religiously, has been scaled down a bit so far. Which is fine for me, because this way it feels less gratuitous. The women are still scantily clad and the men only wear the clothes they have to, but so far, Vengeance has been far less sexed up than I remember previous seasons being.

Speaking of previous seasons and what has changed, of course I have to address the change of the lead actor. As is common knowledge, Andy Whitfield, who originally brought Spartacus to live, lost his battle with cancer last year and this left the production no choice but to replace him. They searched long and hard and finally settled on Liam McIntyre, who so far has proven to be a worthy choice. The fact that it has been two years since we last saw Andy as Spartacus helped a little bit to take the sting out of seeing a new actor embody him now. When Whitfield was diagnosed, Spartacus creator Steven S. DeKnight & Co. postponed production on the follow-up season to Spartacus: Blood and Sand and instead filmed the prequel Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.

Obviously everyone would have preferred for Andy Whitfield to still be around, and that’s no offense to Liam McIntyre. He is doing a good job in a tough spot, although it might still be a while until I can watch Spartacus: Vengeance and not wish to see Andy Whitfield there. But truth be told, Liam McIntyre could have been cast in the very beginning and the show might have turned out just as well. No disrespect to Andy Whitfield in this instance.

So now, after all the trials and tribulations, two years later, we finally get to see the continuation of the rebellion originally led by Whitfield’s Spartacus and I have to admit it was a little hard for me to get my bearings in Vengeance’s opening episode. I had forgotten a lot more than I thought I would, but the episode did a good job of putting us right back into the place of sheer desperation and anger that sparked the rebelling in the first place. All the loss Spartacus, Crixus and the crew they assembled around them had to endure was palpable when they plotted their next moves and of course we are rooting for them once again.

More change is definitely afoot, not the least of which will come when they finally find Naevia, Crixus’ beloved, who will also be portrayed by a different actress than before. But Vengeance also gave us glorious returns. I was always a fan of Viva Bianca’s Ilithyia and the dynamic between her and Lucy Lawless’ Lucretia. And low and behold, Lucretia emerged from the massacre at the House of Batiatus, a little worse for wear, but with a glimmer in her eyes that suggests she will soon be back up to her old tricks. Her husband, Batiatus, will probably never appear again, unless the show starts incorporating more flashbacks than it already is. This is another sore loss in my book, because I enjoyed Batiatus, but I am always a proponent of high stakes in television and sometimes that means you have to sacrifice a character that you really like. Change, even painful change, is a part of life, and so I believe it should be a part of television too.

The bottom line so far is that Spartacus: Vengeance has a lot of obstacles to overcome, with the recasting and the long time delay between Blood and Sand and Vengeance on the production side, and the fallout and shuffling of characters within the show’s text. Some viewers are openly expressing that they feel something is missing from this season of Spartacus, because it looks and feels different than in previous seasons. I think this is a good thing. No longer does Spartacus trade in the pathos that comes from winning for “your master” in the arena, but it gets down to the nitty, gritty human reality of what it means to break the bonds of slavery, and how that still doesn’t immediately translate into being free.

This moral grey area the rebelling slaves are treading makes for very interesting television much in the way the telling of Batiatus’ story made in the first two seasons, where we all knew he was technically doing something wrong by keeping slaves, and yet we felt for the guy and his struggles with a domineering father and a faltering political career.
Ultimately Spartacus: Vengeance still delivers what most viewers tuned in for in the first place: blood, sand and sex.