There are two yawning holes in this third year of Starz's Spartacus: John Hannah's joyously foulmouthed Batiatus, who was brutally slain in Blood & Sand's finale; and the show's eponymous lead Andy Whitfield, who sadly died of cancer last year. It's a rare and difficult task having to replace the protagonist of a show, but showrunner Steven S DeKnight's decision to recast Spartacus with Liam McIntyre is perhaps the best outcome of a tough situation. It helps that McIntyre resembles Whitfield, although it's obviously hard to accept him as the hero of this epic story after we've followed another actor for an entire season. The character may be the same, but the man is not. It will hopefully get easier to accept Whitfield's replacement the more McIntyre settles into this role and gains respect/admiration from his own performances. Hannah's loss could actually be a bigger problem, as there's absolutely no chance of a comeback for Batiatus (beyond the odd surprise flashback?), and his devious character was often more prominent than Spartacus. He was even given a prequel, Gods Of The Arena, largely to himself.
"Fugitivus" launches Vengeance in good form, although for a premiere it didn't feel as strong as Gods Of The Arena's launch. Maybe that's because there's so much here to adjust to; the loss of two major actors, the fact the story's gone cold during an unfortunate two-year wait, and how the show's expanded into an outside world it'll take some adjusting to. However, it certainly didn't hold back with the signature ultra-violence and nakedness to keep fans in no doubt which show they're watching: geysers of blood again erupting from fresh wounds, graphic sex sequences shown in lurid slow-motion, together with full frontal nudity from muscled men and big breasted women.
Away from all that titillation (don't watch this with your parents!), we caught up with the situation after Spartacus' rebellion from the House of Batiatus with his fellow slaves. They've since taken refuge in the sewers of Capua, surfacing only to slay Romans and terrorise the population with their unsettling near-mythical presence. Into this tense situation comes Glaber (Craig Parker), the man who sold Spartacus into slavery and later killed his wife, now promoted to Praetor in the Roman army, assigned to quash the rebellion and restore order to Capua's streets. Taking residence at the abandoned House of Batiatus with his nubile wife Ilithyia (Viva Bianca), they discover that Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) physically survived the uprising in her home, although she's mentally fragile and suffering partly from amnesia. Elsewhere, Oenomaus (Peter Mensah), the now disgraced trainer of the mutinous gladiators, is trying to keep a low profile in the city, knowing there's a bounty on his head.
In terms of laying down firm foundations for this series, "Fugitivus" achieves its aims well enough. There's already a sense that the gladiators aren't quite so unified around Spartacus, as Crixus (Manu Bennett) is particularly anxious to ditch their plan and go find his beloved slave girl Naevia (who was banished from the ludus before the revolt), while others just aren't accustomed to working as an organised group and often question their leadership. Despite how the show has broadened away from its ludus/arena backdrop, it's still oddly comforting when the House of Batiatus is returned to and a typically violent fight at the Capua arena plays out. Hopefully this show will make its new locations feels as iconic, as it may not be wise to venture out into the countryside too often—given the obviousness of the greenscreens at times. (Don't get me wrong, the show does a remarkable job on a comparatively low budget, but it can't quite turn in 300-style exteriors every single week.)
Overall, as a big fan of the two previous seasons, I'm looking forward to seeing where the show takes us. One of the best things about Spartacus is how it pays off everything it sets up, and isn't afraid to dole out gut-wrenching death and pain to characters you come to really like. It may have the surface of a live-action video game crossed with European soft porn, but there's also a playful sense of dark humour and some very charismatic people around. Throw in some of TV's most creative outbursts of archaic profanity, eye-opening violence (bones snap through flesh, knives jab through necks), plus some genuinely shocking twists, and you still have one of the most entertaining shows around right now. I just hope Vengeance has a story arc that proves as engrossing as Blood & Sand's became, develops the new characters into worthy replacements for the fallen ones, and McIntyre wins over fans to prove he's Spartacus.
written by Steven S DeKnight / directed by Michael Hurst / 27 January 2012 / Starz