Monday, February 28, 2011

'Spartacus: Gods of the Arena' (2011)

Starring John Hannah, Lucy Lawless and Dustin Clare
Created by Steven S. DeKnight

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena [Blu-ray]Winding the clock back to before the events of "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," Starz presents another series of episodes featuring bloody combat, dark political maneuvering and vicious backstabbing.

Recently taking over his father's Ludus, Quintus Lentulus Batiatus (John Hannah) is eager to prove himself the best lanista in Capua.  His stable of warriors includes Gannicus (Dustin Clare), whom Batiatus believes will one day be Champion of Capua.  Unfortunately for Batiatus, so does everyone else, including the rich and influential Tullius (Stephen Lovatt).  Tullius will do everything in his power to obtain Gannicus from Batiatus, become ever more devious as he finds he can't simply offer Batiatus large sums of money for the man.

Meanwhile, Batiatus' wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) finds herself entertaining an old friend, Gaia (Jaime Murray), a widow from Rome who has lost her status with the death of her husband.  But Gaia's social connections prove useful as Batiatus and Lucretia scheme toward higher stature among Capua's elite.  Those schemes will become riskier and come with heavy tolls for all as the opening of Capua's new arena draws near, for Batiatus will do whatever it takes to make sure that his men stand alone as victors, 'Gods of the Arena.'

At six episodes, "Gods of the Arena" is a mere half of the previous season, "Blood and Sand."  Originally conceived as a single flashback episode, "Gods of the Arena" was expanded to a full-blown mini-series when it was announced that series star Andy Whitfield had cancer and needed time off to recover.  Whitfield appears only briefly, in stock footage, as Spartacus in the opening and closing moments of "Gods of the Arena."  The rest of these six episodes falls squarely on the rest of the cast, both new and returning characters.

"Gods of the Arena" actually proves itself to be a worthy sequel, with many intriguing details that inform the status quo at the beginning of "Blood and Sand."  We learn the origin of the animosity between Batiatus and rival lanista Solonius (Craig Walsh Wrightson), see the arrival of future champion Crixus (Manu Bennett), and how former gladiator Oenomaus (Peter Mensah) became Batiatus slave master.  We even get to see the origins of the leg wound that keeps Ashur (Nick Tarabay) from performing as a gladiator in "Blood and Sand," and the reasons why the other gladiators resent his presence.

"Gods of the Arena" does all this without feeling like it's simply running through a checklist of things that need to be explained... unlike some other prequels.   This mini-series might not have quite as much time to develop its twists and turns as a full season, but it gets in lots of shocking developments, and adds new layers to existing characters.

It's interesting; Batiatus is clearly a greedy, egotistical jackass... but the show makes you care about him, makes you want things to go his way.  The writers are careful to make sure that Batiatus is a rounded character, giving him both good and bad qualities, which makes him not evil, but dangerously flawed.  John Hannah's portrayal of the character is top-notch, and all the good writing in the world wouldn't save him without an actor to bring him to life in just the right way.  Similarly, Lucy Lawless creates a crafty, naive earlier version of Lucretia, but by the end she reveals herself as the dangerous serpent we recognize from "Blood and Sand."  The mini-series lives and dies on these two characters, and they're executed flawlessly.

Still, "Gods of the Arena" isn't perfect.  The first three episodes seem somewhat unfocused, and while that's simply how the show's arc is set up, to begin wide and narrow down to the end, it can feel frustrating for the viewer.  But the events of the second three episodes take all that setup and run with it at an almost non-stop pace.  The final episode, however, seems somewhat subdued compared to where we might expect things to be going.  Sure, the final battle between Batiatus' warriors and Solonius' men in the new arena is gripping, lengthy and viciously gory, but somehow the results feel... tame.  Perhaps because it contains no shocking twists, merely logical resolution of where things were headed after the shocking fifth episode's end.

But what remains is the fact that "Gods of the Arena" is a prequel done right, one that delivers on the promise of exploring interesting backstory while still standing on its own.  And it ends with great promise for the show's return for a full Season 2. Perhaps some of the best praise I can give it is that as soon as the final episode of "Gods of the Arena" was over, I re-watched the first episode of "Blood and Sand," and while the final moments of "Gods of the Arena" gives away the ending of season one, it also felt like there wasn't a beat missing.

So, Starz... Season Two: Bring it on.

See Also
Spartacus: Blood and Sand