I'm relieved to see Gods Of The Arena quickly reaching the highs it took Blood & Sand half a season to achieve. The writers clearly understand their show now and, despite feeling that a few ideas are being recycled with different characters, "Missio" delivered more of the deviousness and sharp emotion that became so compelling last year. In the wake of Batiatus (John Hannah) being beaten in the street by flaxen Tullius (Stephen Lovatt) and pressured to remove his gladiators from competition, this week the battered lanista unleashed a plan to go over the head of Tullius by endearing his fighters to the game's visiting organizer Varrus, with a little help from his wife's friend Gaia (Jaime Murray).
A key feature of Spartacus is how the institutionalized slaves come to realize they're just meat-sacks, to be controlled on the whim of their master, often at the expense of their self-respect, principles, sexual orientation, moral code, and physical or emotional wellbeing. Batiatus isn't as callous as he was in Blood & Sand, and his marriage is certainly much stronger with Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) because she hasn't yet started her affair with Crixus (Manu Bennett), so it was interesting to see him look a little disgusted with himself when entertaining Varrus took unexpected turns: such as allowing champion Gannicus (Dustin Clare) to have sex with slave girl Melitta (Marisa Ramirez), the beautiful wife of his most trusted gladiator Oenomaus, just to satisfy their guest's taste for voyeurism. It was a surprisingly difficult scene to watch for viewers, too -- knowing the irony that Gannicus boasted to Melitta that he can fuck his way out of most situations, and the show's done a solid job selling the devotion Melitta has for her faithful husband Oenomaus, which was being despoiled behind his back.
Also fun to see Crixus rising from his lowly position as a mere slave, desperate to achieve the mark of the Brotherhood and prove himself a worthy gladiator, even growing close to besting Gannicus in a fight overseen by Varrus. It seems that Crixus has the Spartacus role this year, while Gaia (who clearly fancies the Gaul) is being written as an early version of evil Ilithyia from Blood & Sand -- although, as of right now, she seems very genuine. Perhaps she'll end up getting close to Crixus, only for a jealous Lucretia to steal him away from her, which will result in an acrimonious breakup to their friendship. Part of the fun with prequels is trying to guess how certain events come to pass, and we know that Gaia won't be around.
Overall, this was an impressive second episode and I was pleased to see so much happening (aided by the extended 52-minute runtime of Starz dramas), but more importantly it's great that new characters like Gaia and Gannicus already feel like part of the furniture. This is a great sign for Blood & Sand's second season, which returns later this year with Liam McIntyre replacing Andy Whitfield in the title role.
What do you make of Gods Of The Arena so far? If it avoiding the pitfalls most prequels face, or are you slightly bored because you know certain characters won't die. In "Missio", there was a moment of high drama when Crixus's life was put in the hands of Gaia, who could have ordered his death, but we know from Blood & Sand that Crixus is safe and will eventually become the Champion of Capua. Does this damage the show Gods Of The Arena too much, or should we just focus our attention more on the characters whose fates are a mystery to us, and treat the rest as enjoyable back-story brought to vibrant, blood-spattered life?
WRITERS: Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon
DIRECTOR: Rick Jacobson
TRANSMISSION: 28 January 2011, Starz, 9/8c