This review is a number of weeks behind the US broadcast on Starz, so please be mindful of spoilers in any discussion below.
I stopped reviewing Spartacus last season because the show, while still very enjoyable and made with bloodthirsty zest, had drifted away from some of the things I most responded to in its Blood & Sand and Gods of the Arena years. The scope widened and the ambition grew as rebel gladiator Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) ventured out beyond his ludus, but I think I started to realise the show spoke to me more in its tighter focus on the everyday running of a gladiator training camp. Given its clear master and servant backdrop, it was essentially a blood-spattered version of Downton Abbey—only with more bodily mutilation. A lot more, let's be honest.
"War of the Damned" is the last season of the Starz hit, which single-handedly brought the cable minnow to wider attention. The immediate problem I'm envisioning this year is how the writers will cope with the loss of so many popular characters, as Vengeance killed off almost everyone we'd come to love or love-to-hate. There isn't even a villain with a direct connection to the protagonist's past now Glaber's dead, so this premiere wasted no time introducing us to Roman nobleman Crassus (Simon Merrells) as this season's Big Bad. (It helps that Crassus has been mentioned a few times since the show began, too.) Crassus takes daily combat lessons from a veteran gladiator, which makes him more of a match for the mutinous slaves that are causing Roman soldiers so many headaches. He even has respect for Spartacus's army and refuses to underestimate them, which was the root of the problem facing those who have tried to vanquish Spartacus before now.
Elsewhere, Spartacus and Crixus (Manu Bennett) have seen their ranks swell to an unprecedented level as they recruit more freed slaves and edge closer to a full-scale attack on Rome. But do they really have a chance to successfully bring down a mighty Empire, by striking at its beating heart? Or will the legend of Spartacus (which is nearing God-like status in some quarters) crumble in the face of insuperable odds?
One thing I've always liked about Spartacus is the show's look and style, once it managed to overcome a cheap and nasty feel in its first batch of episodes. These days it's an amazingly slick production that does an impressive amount considering the reliance of greenscreen background and CGI augmentation. I remember worrying about the show being able to take these characters into the wider world last year, but it was a concern the creators have answered admirably. There are many large-scale battle sequences in "Enemies of Rome" that approach movie quality, and it goes without saying that no show in the history of television is so shamelessly violence and gruesome. Horses are speared, heads are chopped off, blood spews across the screen like someone's throwing cans of red paint around... it's the best programme in the world for a 14-year-old boy.
And yet, it's not exclusively about the sex, violence and innovative deaths. Spartacus does have its quieter moments, which really help sell the characters and make them more than just beefcake puppets lined up for slaughter. In fact, when a character on Spartacus dies it's quite often a genuinely moving and shocking occasion because you suddenly realise you cared so much. Don't get me wrong, most of the characters (certainly the ones we have left over from seasons past) are pretty thin in terms of personality... but the show works on an operatic level. It's about camaraderie, friendship, loyalty, lovers, enemies, injustices, revenge, politics, death, trauma, grief... and those are all big things the writers know how to capitalise on.
Overall, I'm excited to see where Spartacus: War of the Damned takes the story in its final leg—despite history telling us how this story ends (although I guess there's scope for revisionist writing?) There are less superfluous characters around and obviously the writers can have fun actually concluding the story in clever, shocking ways. I'm also glad the show appears to have given Spartacus a nemesis who feels up to the task of defeating the rebel army, and once again the stakes are incredibly high and the obstacles seem almost impossible to overcome. And that's just as it should be.
written by Steven S. DeKnight / directed by Mark Beesley / 11 February 2012 / Sky1