Saturday, January 26, 2013

Spartacus Returns Big, Bold & Bloody, With a Great New Villain

Spartacus: War of the Damned, Episode 1 - "Enemies of Rome"

If there's one thing I feel a great certainty about, it's that Spartacus – now in its final season, subtitled War of the Damned – is the most underrated show on television.

I could go on and on about how this fucking mind-blowingly kick-ass show has continually refined and bettered itself since its January 2010 debut, making the vast swaths of TV critics who wrote it off after its very first, table-setting episode look increasingly stupid. I could go on and on about its surprising thematic depth in its exploration of freedom and choice and power, or about the fascinating moral questions it raises on a regular basis, or the way it marries an epic scope to intimate concerns in a way that should make damn near all other sweeping genre sagas envious, or its rich, multi-dimensional character development, or about how it can deliver a moment to make you bolt upright and go "HOLY SHIT!" like few other films or TV shows I've damn near ever seen.

I could also appeal to TV fans' love of Joss Whedon and point out that Spartacus boss Steven S. DeKnight honed his writing, producing and directing in various combinations on Buffy the Vampire SlayerAngel and Dollhouse over nine years (including writing Buffy's "Seeing Red," by far the most controversial hour of the Buffyverse), and it shows. Spartacus is unmistakably familiar in its season-spanning story arcs, building long-term villains to eventually be satisfyingly defeated, always maintaining tension and conflict among the heroes' makeshift family and never shying away from killing off a character (at a rate that would make famously kill-happy Whedon tremble in fear, I might add).

I could even take the basest road and go on and on about the pure, unadulterated visceral pleasure of its ultraviolence and ultragore and ultranudity, though, recalling much of the criticism I've read of the comparatively gentle, PG-rated Game of Thrones, the milquetoast fucking buzzkill whining about this aspect of Spartacus would probably make me wish I could hit undo and make critics unaware of its existence again.

But for the purposes of not making this introduction to my review of Spartacus' final season premiere, "Enemies of Rome," into a 5,000-word dissertation, I'll whittle the show's greatness down to one core guiding principle: It's the pacing, stupid.

Put simply, this sucker moves. I mean, it really, really moves. It had to hone itself in the first half of its first season, but what emerged was a show as lean, fat-free, and ready for action as its well-oiled cast. There isn't a speck of filler on it. The status quo changes so quickly, storylines are squared away (generally with massive bloodshed) hours before they can even begin to grow stale, climactic arc-ending episodes that any other serialized drama would have saved for their finale are tossed casually into the middle of seasons. This is aggressive, thrilling storytelling.

Let me put it this way: If Game of Thrones was run by Steven DeKnight and his Spartacus writers, everything from the pilot to Blackwater Bay all would have gone down in one season. If The Vampire Diaries was run by DeKnight and company, Klaus would have been dead a year and a half ago. If The Walking Dead was run by DeKnight and company, the season 2 farm arc would have spanned about ten minutes.

I cannot overstate how incredible it is to me that "Enemies of Rome" is only the 30th episode of Spartacus (and, were it not for the prequel, would only be its 24th episode!). Going by the usual standards that govern TV pacing, it feels like 150-200 episodes worth of incident has gone down. This show has established new status quos, burned them to the ground while slaughtering half the cast, rebuilt with brand new settings and status quos, and it's done so again and again. It's fucking dizzying, and breaks all the rules of television in the most spectacular way.

And then, about six months ago, Steven DeKnight made the most ballsy and badass creative decision yet: That War of the Damned, the show's third main season following Blood and Sand, Vengeance, and the prequel miniseries Gods of the Arena, would wrap up the story and conclude the series. I'd be lying if I said the decision didn't upset me, but doesn't burning bright, hot, and quickly reflect the spirit of the Third Serville War itself? Spartacus is the highest-rated show on Starz by orders of magnitude, and DeKnight could have kept this cash cow going ad infinitum, but he's a man with a fucking vision, and that's so rare and so awesome on television.

And that brings us to "Enemies of Rome."

Spoilers spring forth from this post as cock from robe!

First things first: Crassus kicks ass. We're all in agreement on this, right? With Batiatus, Lucretia, Varinius, Ashur (R.I.P, you wonderful, slimy bastard), the Egyptian, Ilithyia, and Gaius Cladius Glaber all dead in the dirt, the introduction of new villains was priority #1 for this hour, and I have to say DeKnight and company totally delivered. Marcus Crassus feels thrillingly new from the second we meet him, his twisted sense of honor and sincere, almost reverential respect of Spartacus and the slave rebellion instantly marking him as a very different animal than all that came before.

I was less certain whether the more generic Roman elitism of transitional archenemies Furius and Cossinius would be able to maintain my interest for long, but it turns out that when you underestimate the pacing mastery of DeKnight and company for even one episode you'll end up looking the fool: All of 45 minutes into War of the Damned Furius and Cossinius are dead as hell, with Crassus assuming sole command of the Roman counterinsurgency. (I know I literally just said it, but goddamn do I love the way this show moves.)

But this spectacle of good vs. evil bloodshed became all the more fascinating and awesome when it was revealed that Team Spartacus, like so many dumbass JRPG heroes through the years, was unwittingly serving the will of their enemy the entire time, as Crassus had arranged for the deaths of Furius and Cossinius, intending Spartacus to intercept their location from his courier. In coupling Crassus's bizarre but compelling sense of honor with this shrewd tactical maneuvering and (presumably mostly fictionalized) martial prowess as he slays former god of the arena Hilarus, the Spartacus writers have created a titan of brain and brawn and a villain to be both feared and respected.

In a way, Crassus puts an abrupt, almost jarring halt to the continually building evilness of the show's villains to date (when viewed in airing order as opposed to chronological order, that is, with Gods of the Arena coming after Blood and Sand). As we moved from Batiatus and Lucretia in Blood and Sand to Tullius in Gods of the Arena to Glaber and Ashur and the Egyptian in Vengeance, every season of this show has had a less sympathetic, more irrational and sadistic, more rapey/torturey/murdery lineup of antagonists than the one before it. That DeKnight and company chose to follow up Vengeance with a main villain – in this case the ultimate, final villain for the entire series – so sympathetic that lots of viewers may actually root for him may initially seem peculiar.

But it makes sense from a storytelling perspective, doesn't it? I mean, whatever tweaks the show makes to history, even if they have a few of our heroes sneak away from the final battle alive, Spartacus is going to end with Crassus winning and our heroes losing. And wouldn't it be a fucking awful bummer watching them go down to a mustache-twirling rape-and-treachery cartoon villain? This graying of the moral playing field definitely seems like a smart way to play things as we move into the endgame.

Obviously, there was a fair amount of Team Spartacus material to complement this hour's Team Crassus arc – including a kick-ass war scene to launch the episode and season, Spartacus up and deciding the slave army is going to take over a city, and confirmation that Naevia can now indeed cleave head from body in one strike and that Gannicus and Saxa be fuckin' – but it definitely took a backseat to the antagonist-building at work.

However, a major thematic development at play in the Spartacus half of the story seems to be the reveal that, even with Glaber and the rest of Sura's killers sent to the afterlife, the specter of vengeance continues to be the singular force that propels Spartacus in all his actions; a burning engine of rage that can't be stopped, even against the counsel of his own generals. While I suppose his hatred could propel him through the next nine episodes up to the final battle and into the grave, my supposition is that this is setting him up for an arc not unlike that found in The Dark Knight Rises. In that film, the ultimate victory for Bruce Wayne was no longer having to be Batman. Here, I'm willing to bet, the ultimate victory for [Whatever Spartacus's never-given real name is] will be no longer having to be Spartacus.

But just because the final battle might be one of the soul don't mean there ain't gonna be a whole lot of fun and carnage and very literal battling on the way there. As of one episode in, I'm definitely already tuned to War of the Damned's very different but drunkenly, giddily entertaining wavelength. The Spartacus vs. Crassus foundation has been laid very well. Can't wait to see them collide.

No comments:

Post a Comment