Entertainment

Spartacus: Vengeance - Season Two

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Sep 10, 2012
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"Spartacus: Blood and Sand" was hailed from its premiere as a groundbreaking historical action series that pushed the envelope for sex and gore even by cable standards. And why not? Based on the historical slave who led a bold revolt against the Roman Empire, "Spartacus" was, and remains, a visionary re-telling that falls somewhere between the somber majesty of the HBO series "Rome" and the graphic novel glories of highly stylized, albeit cartoonish, films like "300."

Admittedly, "Spartacus" falls far closer to "300" than to "Rome," what with its old-school-painterly CGI landscapes and its balletically overblown violence, not to mention its flagrantly ribald depictions of flesh (muscles, breasts, male full frontal, the works), but why not? The story of an enslaved man, forced to fight as a gladiator for the amusement of his oppressors, rising up against the rigidly uniform mindset of an entire nation always holds some red meat appeal to the angry American male. Moreover, the Roman attitude towards eros and nudity being what it was, the show’s overt sexuality is, like its depictions of gladiatorial violence, at least somewhat accurate (if likely exaggerated).

Regrettably, the behind-the-scenes story took a tragic turn when Andy Whitfield, the actor who originally played Spartacus, took ill and eventually died. While Whitfield received treatment, Starz--that cable channel that broadcasts "Spartacus"--did its best to behave honorably toward him, putting off a second season and instead producing a prequel miniseries, the six-episode "Spartacus; Gods of the Arena."

Whitfield was unable to return for a second season of the regular series, however, and in 2011 he died. The series’ producers re-cast the role of Spartacus, and so it is that in the opening scene of the first episode of "Spartacus: Vengeance," we meet the new actor, Liam McIntyre, in full flight... just before he turns and takes out the three horsemen pursuing him. From there on, the season just gets more and more outrageous, daring, and blood-soaked.

There are elements to the show that are off-putting, at least initially. The action frequently snaps into extreme slow motion, all the better to show off severed limbs and arterial blood sprays; it’s an effective technique, at first, but it grows stale with overuse. Something else that gets tiring after a while is the way the dialogue is written; it’s a rich stew of profanity, poetry, and dropped articles, but it also sounds stilted when presumably educated characters, like Claudius Glabus (Craig Parker), the nobleman who enslaved Spartacus and now pursues him, utter lines like, "Do not attempt fucking lie!" I’m no Latinist, but I suspect that the line, in the ancient world, would have been a little less crudely spoken. In any case, coming from a guy with a posh English accent, this sort of thing sounds jarring rather than authentic, especially since the slaves (presumably uneducated for the most part) speak with much the same color and vocabulary.

Then there’s the matter of the sheer amounts of blood; each sword thrust unleashes tidal swells and scarlet bursts, to the point that the series often uses a wash of red over the lens as a means of transitioning from one scene to the next.

Underneath it all, however, there’s a boiling, if soapy, drama going on. The makeshift army of slaves, a mixed and motley lot from lands hither and yon, are forever on the verge of splitting up into factions; only Spartacus’ blend of brute strength and compassionate leadership keeps them in check. Meantime, the Romans who seek to put an end to the revolt are consumed with rivalries and schemes, each pursuing his or her own agenda of ambition and, more often than not, deceit.

The show is largely filmed in front of green screens; how else to create landscapes so grey, so stony, and so epically barren? How else to create a stadium (or burn one down) on a television budget, even a lavish one? Visually, "Spartacus" is not always convincing, and it’s not even always beautiful, but it is arresting and stylish.

This winter will see the premiere of the third and final season, titled "Spartacus: War of the Damned." With heroes this grimy (and this naked), villains this juicily evil, and action this unremitting in its fury and speed, it’s just got to be a hell of a ride. The ten episodes of this second season, on three DVDs, are so skillfully made that their literary flaws are completely beside the point: This is artistry of high caliber, even if the result isn’t exactly Art with a capital A.

Many of the Season 2 DVD set’s special features are repurposed promos. These include the featurettes "Starz Studios--Spartacus: Vengeance," ’The Making of Spartacus: Vengeance," "Behind the Camera: Directing the Rebellion," and "On Set with Liam McIntyre," in which the new star, covered in fake mud, asks (rightly enough, one must admit), "Why would you want to be clean when you could be this... filthy?"

Other features are a little more educational. "Burning Down the House: The VFX of Episode 205" may have a stilted title, but it offers thrilling content. It’s really just a clip, plus audio commentary track, of twelve and a half minutes lifted intact from an episode in which Spartacus and his men (and women!) launch an attack right on Glabus, and Rome itself, by incinerating a stadium in the middle of a gladiatorial event (and rescuing their captured friends while they’re at it). The sheer level of technical wizardry required to pull it off is stunning.

"The Legend of Spartacus" takes a look at the historical figure who for two years worried and frustrated Rome, and drew the Empire into a what was essentially as war. Little is known about the actual man; even the idea that he hailed from Thrace is uncertain. But his impact was indelible, and that, together with the lack of hard information about him, makes Spartacus an idea figure onto which to project our own noblest imaginings and fiercest fantasies.

"Famous Last Words" takes advantage of the series’ tendency to kill its heroes off, often in grand fashion, by focusing on the actors and actresses who get written out in Season Two.

"Bloopers" is standard stuff; ad-libs, missed cues, mangled lines, and the like. There’s a "Spartacus: War of the Damned" teaser that does exactly that: teases. There’s also a DD-ROM-accessible special feature in the form of the first chapter from a "Spartacus" novel.

Is this DVD set worth owning? If you’re a fan of elaborate historical epics, potboiler action-adventure, or Lucy Lawless, who plays the survivor of the house where the revolt originated, then the answer is yes. And, truthfully... who isn’t?


Spartacus: Vengeance.
DVD
$49.95
Anchor Bay Entertainment

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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