Friday, September 6, 2013

'Spartacus: War of the Damned' (2013)

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

Rome is in crisis. With its forces spread thin dealing with foreign threats, it is unable to counter heavy losses at the hands of the rebel army of Spartacus (Liam McIntyre). To this end, the Senate broaches its richest citizen, Marcus Crassus (Simon Merrells) to use his fortune to raise an army of his own to meet Spartacus. To this end, Crassus recruits a young, but highly-skilled warrior, Julius Caesar (Todd Lasance) to infiltrate Spartacus' ranks. Then, with his son Tiberius (Christian Antidormi) at his side, Crassus makes his march with an army 10,000 strong.

Meanwhile, Spartacus' rebel army has grown massive. In need of food and shelter, Spartacus and his lieutenants, Crixus (Manu Bennett), Agron (Dan Feuerriegal) and Gannicus (Dustin Clare) hatch a bold plan: to capture an entire city and make it their stronghold. The rebels manage to infiltrate and overthrow the city of Sinuessa, on the coast, slaughtering the many nobles that reside there.

Spartacus draws the ire of his people, however, when he decides to keep some of the Romans as prisoners instead of killing them outright. He places one of the prisoners, a woman named Laeta (Ann Hutchison) in charge of the prisoners. Though she resents him for killing her husband, Laeta proves sympathetic toward Spartacus as time passes.

And Spartacus soon finds that taking a city is far simpler than keeping one. With Crassus at his doorstep, pirates of uncertain loyalty on the seas, and ever-growing rivalries between his own men, Spartacus struggles to keep his rebel army from falling apart... and falling beneath Crassus' sword.

This is the third and final season of Starz' "Spartacus" series, and I'm sad to see it go - though happy to see it go out on top. While previous seasons had been somewhat slow to start, this final season feels like it's firing on all cylinders from the get-go. There's a great deal stuffed into these ten episodes, and the whole thing flies by.

And then there's the tone of the thing. At issue here is that while obviously fictionalized and stylized, the series is based on true events and real people. We know what became of Spartacus' rebellion - and how it must end. After two and a half seasons of rooting for these characters, we're forced to watch them come to their end. The show is careful to make sure that it doesn't ruin our enjoyment, indeed, there is even victory in death for many, and loss in victory for others. Everyone gets what they deserve, and it makes for challenging television.

With an almost total focus on the all-out war between Spartacus and Crassus' forces, the show has ditched most of its Roman nobility characters and their schemes. A shadow of this exists in a subplot with Tiberius and Caesar both attempting to gain the upper hand and become Crassus' right hand man.  But for the most part, this season is lean and mean, getting right down to business and moving with a speed that previous seasons lacked.

Starz, to their credit, seemingly allowed the show's producers to do whatever they wanted to close out the series, and handed them a hefty budget. The show's occasionally iffy effects are flawless here, and there's a slickness to the production that feels assured and bold.

The cast brings their A-game, though the show is still heavy on growling and shouted speeches. The back half of the season is loaded with emotion as characters go their separate ways or get killed. There are a lot of longing glances and gestures of solidarity and brotherhood that all are well played.

In particular, a subplot involving the deepening rift between Crixus and Spartacus is rather heartbreaking. It proves to be the show's best bromance, as these two formerly bitter rivals have now become brothers who struggle with the realization that they are once again coming to divergent paths.

The show does a wonderful job acknowledging its own history. There's a moment in the finale when Spartacus catches sight of a red serpent painted on Agron's shield that brings things full-circle back to the first season, and a couple other references to tie things together that help make this episode really feel like a big finish.

Also excellent is a scene in which Spartacus and Crassus meet face to face before their final battle, with Crassus admitting his admiration for Spartacus as an adversary, and Spartacus explaining to Crassus why he's even attempting this battle he's not likely to win. It's fascinatingly played, and even more so when you realize that these two characters, who have been butting heads the entire season, actually have never met each other before.

Starz' "Spartacus" series stumbled a few times, and was nearly derailed by the tragic death of its main star early on, but it comes to a close in top form. Even when you know how the story ends, it still punches you in the gut - and that is the sign of a story well told.

See Also
Spartacus: Blood and Sand
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
Spartacus: Vengeance

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