Warning: the following review contains MAJOR SPOILERS for the Spartacus: War of the Damned finale, which hasn't aired in the UK at time of writing.
As I've mentioned before, the only reason I stopped reviewing Spartacus halfway into its 'Vengeance' season is that the show had evolved into more of a straightforward action-adventure drama with lashings of blood and rampant sex. There's nothing wrong with that, but the first two seasons ('Blood & Sand' and 'Gods of the Arena') were, to me, more interesting because of a narrower focus and smarter political elements. I just wasn't sure what purpose my reviews were serving beyond putting into words a sense of weekly excitement, shock and awe. So I stopped writing about Spartacus, but I never stopped watching. And while the later 'Vengeance' and 'War of the Damned' seasons probably aren't my favourites, they were astonishing spectacles that never forgot to balance character with action.
"Victory" brought the Starz show to the end it richly deserved, never putting a foot wrong and somehow managing the impossible: making you doubt writer/creator Steven S. DeKnight would bow to historical fact, thus keeping a sense of jeopardy alive. I'm no scholar of Ancient Rome, but I know the show has taken liberties with the legend of mutinous gladiator Spartacus (Liam McIntyre), and some of the battle strategies in "Victory" stretched credibility. But who cares? Stories like this need to be as big, bold and brash as humanly possible, because that's how myths are born. Subtleties be damned in the search for the best telling of a tale.
Spartacus has always been supremely good at staging bloodthirsty fights and large-scale battles, but "Victory" was on an even grander level than anything that's come before. I had to remind myself this was a cable television show at certain points, because the sheer scale of everything was rivalling Lord of the Rings at certain points, and certainly eclipsed Braveheart (which this story has obvious similarities to). Spartacus's excellent rallying speech to his men could have come straight from the lips of Mel Gibson's William Wallace.
And yet, despite the obvious need to give fans a rousing and thrilling finale of considerable size, "Victory" managed to balance things with motional character moments. I loved the hilltop meeting between Spartacus and his nemesis Crassus (Simon Merrells), because it showed the two men have a mutual respect for each other. Indeed, part of the reason I much prefer 'War of the Damned' over 'Vengeance' is because of the Marcus Crassus character; who sits in a juicy grey area of villainy. If the story were being told entirely from his perspective, and we lived in less enlightened times regarding slavery, he'd perhaps be the hero.
During the Battle of the Siler River (which had me grinning throughout, once the clever rebel plan to defeat the Roman legions began to take shape), there were also many small moments for individual characters to shine. Gannicus (Dustin Clare) stepped up to the plate to replace Crixus as Spartacus's lieutenant, before finding himself captured and crucified (although his soul escaped the bodily torment by escaping to memories of glory in the Capua arena); grieving Naevia (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) was fatally stabbed by Caesar (Todd Lasance) on the battlefield; and many others (whose names unfortunately escape me) met their ends in surprisingly emotive ways.
But, naturally, it was the death of Spartacus that provoked a real lump-in-the-throat moment. We always knew he was fated to die, but nevertheless I found myself hoping he somehow wouldn't... that the show would thumb its nose at history and find a way around the "facts" of the matter. The Crassus vs Spartacus fight scene was edge-of-the-seat stuff, and I just loved how it kept cheating your expectations. I thought Spartacus may even defeat Crassus at one point (meaning the Crassus of history was someone else all along?), until Crassus performed his signature 'grip-the-enemy-blade' trick he used to defeat his own gladiator in the season premiere. It was a nice if predictable callback, but even better was Spartacus using the same tactic to counter-attack; a brilliant way to visualise how these men are equals in many ways.
In the end, Spartacus was defeated by a gang of sneaky Romans who threw spears through his body to save Crassus's life... painting a brilliantly gruesome visual of Spartacus on his knees with heavy wooden spears weighing his bloodied body down, awaiting a seemingly inevitable fatal blow. Yet this still wasn't the end, as his men rode to the rescue and whisked him away to die in peace amongst friends... a free man, just as the heavens themselves wept for his passing. He really was 'The Bringer of Rain', and I loved how his wife's old prophecy about him dying in front of a red serpent came true, as a snake was the symbol on the battle-worn shield that acted as his gravestone.
I'm getting choked up remember these events. I pity anyone who gave up on Spartacus during its shaky first batch of 'Blood & Sand' episodes, because it improved to become one of the most unique TV shows around. I understand if squeamish people are put off by the ultra-violence (which is often extremely graphic), or perhaps the frequent full frontal nudity, but there was always a lot more going on behind its superficial trappings. It was a show with real heart, telling a simple but classic story of underdogs fighting for a worthy cause in the face of overwhelming odds.
Considering how slight the overall concept is, the show got considerable mileage from the surprises it sprung on its characters and audience. It was never afraid of killing off popular characters like Batiatus, Lucretia, Ashur, Oenomaus, etc. So much so that the roll-call of actors in "Victory" are almost entirely different to those who appeared in the first season. Agron (Dan Feuerriegel) is the only original character from season 1, I believe--although obviously this wouldn't be true if Andy Whitfield had survived his cancer battle, which led to Liam McIntyre stepping into the Thracian hero's sandals.
What more can I say? This was a thrilling end to what's been a very memorable drama; never forgetting to keep things character-based to sell the excitement and tension of its celebrated action. There were many excellent callbacks to the show's past here, too, but my favourite--after the cameo by a ghostly Oenomaus (Peter Mensah)--was probably the end credits appearance for original star Andy Whitfield, bellowing the iconic "I am Spartacus!" catchphrase. How touching.
Spartacus departs leaving behind so many great memories for its passionate audience, and a feeling this is a show you could easily return to and enjoy almost as much a second time. I certainly hope more people will discover it over time, because it's one of the few TV shows in recent memory that maintained a good level of quality throughout and ended on an emotional, satisfying high-note.
Gratitude, everyone. Gratitude.
written by Steven S. DeKnight / directed by Rick Jacobson / 12 April 2013 / Starz