Friday, September 6, 2013

'Spartacus: Vengeance' (2012)

Starring Liam McIntyre, Manu Bennett and Dustin Clare
Created by Steven S. DeKnight

Following the bloody slaughter at the House of Batiatus, the Thracian warrior Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) and his group of rebel gladiators and slaves take refuge underground, striking fearsome raids into the city of Capua for supplies and food. But the loose band of former rivals does not function well. A band of gladiators led by the gaul, Crixus (Manu Bennett) is a constant aggravation for the other slaves, often taking their food and women with little thought for others.

But Spartacus swore an oath to Crixus that he would help him find his lost love, Naevia (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), who had been banished from the House of Batiatus after their affair was discovered by Batiatus and his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless). Spartacus attempts to balance the needs of keeping his rebel group alive with his oath to Crixus.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Rome, infuriated at Spartacus' murder of so many nobles, sends Praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), the very man who sold Spartacus into slavery in the first place, to correct this grave error. Accompanied by his pregnant wife Illythia (Viva Bianca), Glaber sets up shop in the fallen house of Batiatus, only to discover that Lucretia still lives within its walls, injured and half-mad from her ordeal.

With supplies scarce, and internal rivalries growing hotter, Spartacus struggles to lead his ever-growing band of rebels to safety... as Glaber closes in with his legions.

It's a little strange tackling this second full season of Starz' "Spartacus." After a slow start to the first season, the show picked up considerably. Unfortunately, its main star, Andy Whitfield, was diagnosed with cancer. The show produced a six-episode prequel mini-series while he underwent treatment, but Whitfield sadly did not recover, and passed away in 2011. Some time went by before the show's second season, with a new actor in the role, would premiere.

Liam McIntyre fills the role of Spartacus, but he doesn't ape Whitfield's performance, nor could or should he. He is, quite simply, a different person. He looks different, he sounds different... Immediately, Spartacus feels like a different character. It's jarring, especially if you're watching the show in close succession on video.

That said, McIntyre grows into the role. He never makes me forget Whitfield, but after a few episodes I began to accept him as Spartacus. He's at his best when he's fired up by his rebellion, commanding his troops and letting savage combat unleash his emotions. It always feels like he's thinking, and the concept of Spartacus being the smartest guy in the room is an interesting tack to take.

The character of Naevia has also been recast, with Cynthia Addai-Robinson replacing Lesley-Ann Brendt. Addai-Robinson transforms this character entirely over the course of this season, starting out as a frightened, traumatized slave and evolving into a warrior thirsting for vengeance. You would be hard-pressed to recognize Naevia at the end of the season, slashing her way through Roman soldiers, as the same innocent slave girl who brought Lucretia wine and looked lovingly upon Crixus from afar.

The cast of this series is rather huge. Other returning characters include Peter Mensah as Oenomaus and Dustin Clare as Gannicus, who both have their own subplot with Gannicus seeking forgiveness for his affair with Oenomaus' dead wife; Nick E. Tarabay returns as the slimy, devious Syrian gladiator Ashur; Katrina Law as Spartacus' lover and adviser, Mira; Dan Fuerriguel as Agron, one of Spartacus' most trusted lieutenants, and a gaggle of Roman characters who will plot, fuck, and scheme against each other.

While the season makes a bold opening with a vicious raid upon a brothel that features a whole lot of the series' trademark sex and violence in the same scene, the first few episodes themselves feel rather slow and underdeveloped, mirroring how the first season went. But again, the episodes on disc 2 begin to pick up, and by the end, you'll be hooked, as Spartacus' confrontation with Glaber comes to a head on Mount Vesuvius.

Some storylines feel like they just take too long. Crixus is single-minded in his search for Naevia, and at times it feels like this is all we ever hear about from him. Similarly, the strife between Gannicus and Oenomaus grows repetitive. The various maneuverings and backstabbings between the Romans rarely grow offensive, however, and it's a ton of fun watching these people all trying to get the upper hand on each other. Especially fascinating is the relationship between Illythia and Lucretia, the latter of whom reveals herself late in the game to be the snake we all suspected she was. Get ready to be on the edge of your seat when their storyline hits its climax in the season finale.

As before, the show is loaded with explicit sex and grotesque violence. The Romans lived in a decadent age, and the show is glad to show this off. Characters freely drink and have sex in groups, seemingly as just how they tend to spend their evenings. Roman parties often involve naked dancers and slaves being ordered to do sexual acts on each other and their masters.

Similarly, the show never shies from its violence. Characters are cleaved left and right, heads stomped, limbs chopped, guts falling out... It's pretty disgusting, and there were a few times even I find myself turning away, and I'm not typically squeamish like that.

So despite its slow start, "Spartacus" once again proves an enthralling experience by season's end. The new cast members take some getting used to, but the show remains unabashed, trashy fun.

See Also
Spartacus: Blood and Sand
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
Spartacus: War of the Damned

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