Well it took some weeks of waiting, but I did what I set out to do. My plan was to wait until Spartacus: Gods of the Arena had aired in its entirety, and to swallow it all up in one go. I’ve just now finished the six hour prequel mini-series, and I’m ready to share my thoughts.
The original Spartacus: Blood and Sand stands as one of my most misjudged series. I originally wrote it off after a seemingly ridiculous pilot, but then later upon reader and friend suggestions, returned to the series. Once you embrace how over the top it is with its depictions of the savage Roman culture based almost entirely around violence and sex, you realize that within that frame, there is an actual compelling narrative, and well developed characters acting out a complex and interesting story.
I count the season one finale as one of the greatest episodes of television I’ve ever watched, and was looking forward to seeing what else the show had to offer when it returned for season two. But then tragedy struck.
The star of the show, Spartacus himself, Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with lymphoma, and it’s severe enough where he has been unable to return to the show. So with a hit on their hands, and no leading man, what’s Starz to do? And so the prequel mini-series was born.
Dottore in action! Though still sadly not in the arena.
It’s meant to serve a dual purpose, providing more gladiator fights that are presumably absent from a follow up season where all gladiators are free men, and also to give more depth to a number of characters we’ve grown to know, as well as bringing back all that were murdered in the first season.
But there are specific problems you get with a sequel, namely the complete lack of surprise as almost always, you know where the plot is going. Blood and Sand was filled with unexpected plot landmines, but Gods of the Arena has far fewer surprises. It’s rather disconcerting to start with a cast peppered with new faces, knowing that almost all of them have to die in order to move the plot forward.
The miniseries also suffers from the problem of not having a real lead. Blood and Sand has Spartacus, obviously, and it was assumed that Gods of the Arena would focus on the rise of his rival, Crixus.
Crixus’ ascent does occur within the six hour long episodes, but he’s hardly the focal point. Rather, he’s more of a background character, and thus incredibly one dimensional. He has little personality other than demonstrating extreme bloodlust and ambition to be champion right off the bat. Crixus endures little of the hazing Spartacus did at his hand, and he simply kicks a bit of ass, and is generally respected among the gladiators, even as a recruit.
The new star of the show.
Rather, the gladiators who get more attention are Oenomaus (the hulking Dottore from season one) and the new face of Gannicus, the cocky champion who spends all day in the shade and fights so sure of himself, he’ll drop his weapons or take on opponents blindfolded. The two are best friends, and Oenomaus’ wife Melitta counts him a brother. But as you’ll notice her conspicuously absent from season one, you can guess what happens to her. It’s just a matter of how.
There’s a very shoehorned love triangle where Gannicus gives up his playboy ways and falls for Melitta, and she returns his feelings. That would be a fine plot development, but it happens after the two are forced to have sex for the amusement of a local dignitary, and they do so despite their platonic friendship and mutual love for Oenomaus. It’s a very strange genesis for actual romantic feelings, and one that doesn’t quite ring true when you watch it unfold onscreen.
Rather, the bulk of the plot centers around the dastardly duo of Dominus and Domina yet again. We saw them meet their end in the glorious finale, but here we see their efforts to weasel their way into having influence, much like we witnessed previously. Again, the prequel problem arises when Batiatus’ overbearing and controlling father shows up. We all know what’s going to happen to him, and once again, we’re just looking for the how.
Dude just can’t catch a break.
Almost exactly like in season one with Ilythia, Lucretia has a sidekick who causes trouble for her, while giving her something to do. Her friend Gaia essentially turns her house into a brothel, which creates many of the necessary over the top Spartacus sex scenes, which rival anything else broadcast on television, but the whole affair serves very little purpose to the ultimate plot.
The story fits a lot in to six episodes. We see Dottore’s rise to power, the schism between Batiatus and Solonius, the injury of Asher, the appointment of head servant Naevia, and the beginning of Crixus and Lucretia’s “romance.” The plot is very well structured, but the series as a whole can’t really live up to the first season, as too much is already known.
The story would have benefitted from humanizing Crixus more, and making him the focal point of the story. Too much time is spent of Batiatus’ political maneuvering and not enough time in the arena. However, the show does make up for that with a supremely epic finale which is almost entirely one long gladiator battle, and it ends on a satisfactory note.
I’d even call it a surprise ending.
If you were a fan of the first season, you would be well advised to check out Gods of the Arena. It doesn’t add anything particularly revelatory, but it’s much of what you liked about the original show, albeit I’ll argue it lacks the guiding rudder that was Spartacus himself.
The show is gearing up for season two, and Andy Whitfield has been replaced by a similar looking actor who hopefully can keep the show alive despite a lot of its fundamental changes after the finale. Best luck to Whitfield, and here’s to hoping we see him on the sands again someday.