Sunday, 6 February 2011

'SPARTACUS: GODS OF THE ARENA' - "Paterfamilias"

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Any concerns I had that Gods Of The Arena wouldn't be able to recapture latter Blood & Sand's glory were utterly quashed by "Paterfamilias", which was another great episode in what's proving to be a terrific prequel series that's avoiding the traps George Lucas fell into. In this halfway episode, Quintus Batiatus (John Hannah) was further explored through his relationship to ageing father Titus (Jeffrey Thomas), whose reputation casts a shadow over his only son, while Crixus (Manu Bennett) turned a corner in his steely quest to become a celebrated gladiator.

The "daddy issues" of Batiatus were hardly original, but they were nicely handled; Titus painted as someone who doesn't have much faith in his comparatively young son's ability to run their family's ludus, and doesn't agree with his progeny's underhanded methods to rise to the top. He has a point in the sense that Quintus has an almost pathological desire to become powerful figure in Capuan society, and we know from Blood & Sand that his ambition will extend towards Rome and politics. The irony is that everything Titus dislikes about his son's methods is born from the fact Quintus ultimately wants to exceed the accomplishments of his illustrious forefathers and, with the help of Gannicus (Dustin Clare), secure his place in history.

Tellingly, Titus sees Gannicus as nothing but a cocky playboy (a handsome rock star of his era), lacking the discipline and prowess of his own favoured gladiator Oenomaus (Peter Mensah). The only thing I'm having difficult accepting is how Titus clearly believes he's still a big deal, as the House of Batiatus is clearly underperforming with him in charge, but maybe this is intentional and we should be viewing Titus as a self-delusional patriarch in the autumn of life. A man unwilling to accept that it's a dog-eat-dog world and his ludus will only ever regain its former eminence with his son at the helm, driven by vigorous determination.

Very interesting to note how the rot's beginning to seep into the upstanding House of Batiatus, as Roman nobleman Varros returned seeking more debauchery to impress his sexually-deviant friend Casutius, putting Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) and Gaia (Jaime Murray) in a very awkward position. Unable to risk offending the man who's arranging for Gannicus to compete in his illustrious primus, Lucretia was forced to allow Casutius to indulge his sick fantasy of watching a slave girl lose her virginity to an squalid gladiator, then joining them in a threesome. Impressive work from Lawless throughout this episode, but particularly in her twitchiness when it became clear she's allowing the ludus to become a brothel. The ensuing sex scene was another of the show's haunting moments, nicely handled by director Michael Hurst, particularly when fellow virgin Naeva (Lesley-Ann Brandt) saw her friend's traumatized expression after Casutius left, which screamed "there but for the grace of God, go I."

"Paterfamilias" was also the episode where Crixus rose above his position, thanks in part to Gannicus's combat advice and an inspiring pep talk from Batiatus, who desperately wanted his Gaul to win because a match that was essentially a gladiator of his father's choosing versus his own unproven slave. The Batiatus father-son power struggle enacted with Crixus and Auctus as their muscled proxies. It's been very interesting seeing Crixus in Gods Of The Arena, as he's far from the Alpha Male that dominated the ludus throughout Blood & Sand, with a curtain of unkempt hair giving him the shy appearance of a teenage boy trying to cut it with the big boys.

The Crixus vs Auctus fights was another of the show's thrilling spectacles, helped enormously by the prequel's contests taking place in a small arena that isn't expanded to gigantic proportions by smeary greenscreens. The action is more claustrophobic and realistic than it's ever been, and seeing Crixus heed Gannicus's words (by taking away the fearsome spear Auctus relies on), and winning the match to secure the branded mark of the Brotherhood he's long coveted, was a palpable thrill. Gods Of The Arena is undoubtedly heading towards a Crixus vs Gannicus matchup at the primus in the finale, and I daresay it's predictable what the outcome will be if you've seen Blood & Sand, but we'll see if the writers have some surprises up their sleeves.

It was also great to see Oenomaus struggling to adjust to his new role as Doctore. He's not yet prepared to use the whip of his predecessors, he still chooses to eat with the men he's supposedly above, and allowed a petty brawl at the ludus to spiral out of control minutes before Titus returned home. Peter Mensah was always a strong presence on the series, but he's getting some real opportunities to shine in this prequel, and I look forward to seeing him cope with the inevitable reveal his wife Melitta (Marisa Ramirez) was ordered to sleep with his former rival Gannicus.

Overall, "Paterfamilias" was another brilliantly entertaining mix of extremes, somehow balanced and given nuance by the actors and the fact the script remembers to give the sex and violence clear and comprehensible context with the characters. There's meaning behind most of its excessive sequences, and when it's there for cheap thrills (Batiatus sucking poured wine from Gaia's breast) there's usually something equally eyebrow-raising for the female audience (such as full-frontal nudity from Crixus this week.)


  • Is Lucretia poisoning Titus, thus explaining his coughing fit while watching the fights alongside Tullius? If you remember, Lucretia was quick to stop her husband drinking some of the wine she offered her father-in-law.

written by Aaron Helbing & Todd Helbing / directed by Michael Hurst / 4 February 2011 / Starz