The finale of Gods Of The Arena was as gruesome, gripping and violent as we've come to expect, although perhaps not quite as edge-of-your-seat thrilling as hoped. I blame the fact there wasn't enough in "The Bitter End" that could compete with the previous shock deaths of Gaia and Titus, as it was practically a foregone conclusion that characters like Tullius (Stephen Lovatt) would be eliminated. Still, the fact so much of the story appeared to have been wrapped up halfway through gave the second half a more unpredictable feel, and I was delighted so much of this prequel's events dovetail into Blood & Sand in ways I didn't expect.
The funeral of Titus brought a somber air to the ludus, with black attire and the gladiators wearing full regalia, although it didn't last long before Batiatus (John Hannah) was plotting to avenge his father's murder by killing Tullius, unaware it was his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) who was behind the poisoning. The plan itself was a beauty: Solonius (Craig Walsh Wrightson) pretending to have turned traitor from his best-friend, alerting Tullius to Batiatus's plan to have Gannicus (Dustin Clare) conveniently "escape" so he can't honour his father's debt. Poor Tullius and his lapdog Vettius (Gareth Williams) fell for the story, walking straight into an ambush by Batiatus's men. The ultimate fate of Tullius, knifed multiple times and bricked up in the foundations of his beloved new arena, was particularly grim and darkly poetic. He's such a detestable character you couldn't totally sympathize (certainly not after his unwarranted murder of Gaia), although knowing he didn't actually kill Titus and the ghastliness of his death elicited some degree of compassion.
A large portion of the finale was given over to the inaugural games themselves, in Capua's impressive new arena, and they were as bloodthirsty and brutal as usual. But a more significant moment arrived with the pre-games execution of petty criminals, which included the fugitive slave girl Diona (Jessica Grace Smith) that Naevia had helped escape (Lesley-Ann Brandt). Adding to the torment was the presence of the perverted Roman nobleman who took her virginity and set her down this path, who took great delight in seeing her current circumstance, and the fact Batiatus relented to having her slaughtered in public simply because he didn't recognize the girl and was in a foul mood. That's the horror of this ancient era, encapsulated right there: life is cheap, death is but an entertainment, and your end may come simply because someone's having a bad day.
What impressed me about "The Bitter End" was how it reached its conclusion in ways I didn't expect, while also laying groundwork for season 2 of Blood & Sand. The climactic fight between the outnumbered gladiators of Batiatus and the inherited might of Solonius's fighters was a thrilling spectacle (not least because it took place in a literal ring of fire), but it shook off predictability in some key ways. I'm sure most people were expecting the last man standing to be Crixus (Manu Bennett), given we know he becomes the Champion of Capua and Gannicus isn't in Blood & Sand, but the fight took an interesting turn; with Gannicus knocking Crixus out of the fiery circle, then winning the championship and his freedom. The latter was an especially clever move, seeing as Solonius suggested this show of mercy as a means to remove Gannicus from future competition, making the whole event something of a hollow victory for Batiatus. He may have won the primus, but he's lost his most trusted friend, turned him into a great rival, and his God Of The Arena has become a free man. On a lesser note, Ashur (Nick Tarabay) received the fateful leg wound that ended his days as a competitive gladiators, but it was a nice surprise to realize the deed was done by Crixus. Their frosty relationship in Blood & Sand is thus more understandable.
And as I said, quite a few things feel like they'll be returned to when Blood & Sand resumes its story next year: given his parting words to Solonius, Vettius is likely to return and reclaim his ludus; I get the feeling there's unfinished business between Naevia and the smug Roman who crushed her friend's spirit; Gannicus will undoubtedly return to help Crixus and Spartacus in their quest, as the history books show he was a general in their army; and the denouement confirmed that pregnant Lucretia wasn't slain, so she'll be out to avenge her husband's death. It remains to be seen if Gannicus will ever reveal to Oenamaus that his wife was unfaithful before her death, but he wisely kept the matter a secret here.
It remains to be seen if Spartacus: Vengeance will soar or flounder without the ludus as a backdrop, but hopefully it will broaden the show's ambition. As much fun as it's been, I'm not convinced the writers could get more mileage from the existing premise, so a change is probably for the best. Just as long as they continue to give us big emotions, treachery, shocking deaths, fizzing melodrama, buckets of blood, vicious violence and plenteous nudity, they should be fine.
- Yes, I'm aware now that Gannicus's fate should have come as no surprise if you know your Ancient history. I actually made a point of avoiding too much real-life information on Spartacus's uprising during Blood & Sand, and I'm glad I did. I spent these past six weeks thinking Gannicus could be killed at any moment, which gave the show added life.
- Showrunner Steven S. DeKnight was interviewed by Entertainment Weekly, giving his thoughts on the successes of prequel Gods Of The Arena and the return of Blood & Sand next year. Well worth a read.
- Spartacus has hardly shied away from graphic violence, but Gannicus's victorious final move (shoving an arrow into his opponent's mouth and snapping the man's jawbone and face in half) was surprisingly graphic even for this series!
- I'm not sure why, but I only just realized that Lucretia is wearing Gaia's red wig, in honour of her late friend. Isn't that a little ghoulish, though?
- The fact Solonius fancies Lucretia was hinted at again, with him offering her sanctuary at his home, but nothing really came of this late development. I can't remember his secret love ever being alluded to throughout Blood & Sand, either, so I'm not sure why the writers bothered to include it. Maybe just to confirm to a few people that he isn't homosexual?