Programming note: I reviewed the series “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” over at The Onion’s A.V. Club yesterday, and will continue reviewing it over there for its short run. But that article was designed to post before the episode aired, which left out a lot of specific detail. What follows is a review of the episode proper. Again, most things “Spartacus”-related will drop over at The A.V. Club in the future.
That “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” exists at all is a blessing and a curse. Sure, it’s fantastic to head back into the bowels (both literally and figuratively) of Capua. But the reasons for this six-episode prequel series are well-documented and quite sad: Andy Whitfield, who played Spartacus himself, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma after the completion of Season 1. STARZ then greenlit “Gods of the Arena” as a stop-gap between the seasons, during which time Whitfield seemed on the mend only to have to pull out of the show entirely when his cancer returned. Perhaps it’s not fair to have real-world events affect the approach one takes to looking at a piece of television, but it’s hard not to feel Whitfield’s absence in every frame of “Arena.”
Then again, the very word “prequel” might have more than a few fans of the show instantly on their guard. Luckily, no one in this initial hour bellows, “You-sa gladiators gonna die???” But “Star Wars” hangovers aside, there’s something mechanical about the nature of prequels as a whole that removes tension from the proceedings. When Tullius threatens to remove the House of Batiatus from ever competing in the gladiatorial world again, it might be a threat that Batiatus takes seriously, but not one that we the viewing audience takes seriously. We KNOW that won’t happen, because we’ve seen “Spartacus: Blood and Sand.” (And if you didn’t, well, the first two minutes of “Arena” probably pissed you off good and plenty. I’m guessing the producers of “Spartacus” assumed no one would use this show as their entry point into this world. )
Since we know where the majority of these characters will end up, a great deal of “Past Transgressions” amounts to a sociological snapshot, capturing people that we know in situations that are unfamiliar. While it’s interesting to see a two-footed Ashur beat up a newly purchased Crixus, I’m not sure it’s entirely dramatic. Much of the episode set up the “rules” of this world more than simply letting these characters exist in it. There were some subtle things that retroactively enhance “Blood and Sand,” to be sure. In particular, Oenomaus’ wife Melitta lends a new air to his speech to Spartacus about the life the Thracian could expect upon Sura’s return to Capua. But these were few and far between in this initial hour.
It also doesn’t help that the champion of Batiatus’ ludus is, well, kind of a huge dick for most of the episode. (Well, Melitta would tell Naevia that she’s seen bigger.) Gannicus is the Lebron James of gladiators, a man preternaturally gifted at whupping ass in the arena yet seemingly unwilling to put forth anything more than the minimum amount of effort in order to maintain his skill level. Spartacus himself was hardly the model of heroism in the wake of Sura’s death, but that was more the case of a man simply shutting down instead of reveling in excess. But for all of Gannicus’ seemingly easy-going nature, there’s at least some core of decency there, as well as potential self-loathing. His musical ode to his penis, followed by a half-hearted suicide attempt off the cliffs of the training ground, provided all one needs to know about this latest champion.
After all, Gannicus doesn’t really want the crown, thinking it should belong to Oenomaus. For his part, Oenomaus agrees, but neither man is in a position to pass judgment on that. Oenomaus’ desire to return to fighting mirrors that of Crixus in “Blood and Sand,” but Oenomaus has the luxury of Melitta to calm his nerves. While set five years before “Blood and Sand,” “Arena” takes place twelve months after The Once and Future Doctore battled Theokoles. In fact, his overall disposition is so different in this era that I’m fairly petrified something awful is going to befall Melitta before these six episodes are done. Given the tight friendship between Oenomaus and Gannicus, plus the few looks Melitta gave the Celtic gladiator this episode, I think it’s pretty clear where this is all going.
Speaking of potential love triangles, there’s another one brewing with Batiatus and Lucretia. But instead of having Crixus at the center, this one features a socialite named Gaia. She’s a mixture of Ilithyia, Anna Nicole Smith, and a slutty Helen of Troy. I’m not saying she and Lucretia went to Wellesley together or anything like that, but there’s a clear sense that Gaia’s still living the life that the two women once lived together. She beds Lucretia in an opium-filled daze as Batiatus gets the holy hell beaten out of him. But it seems clear that Gaia is not unlike Lola: whatever she wants, she gets. Lucretia wasn’t lying about her lack of extramarital affairs at this stage of the game (that all came later, as we know), so falling so easily into old habits shows just how persuasive Gaia can be.
Through Gaia, we get tidbits of information about the House of Batiatus, tidbits that are filled in by Tullius and then-friend Solonius as well. Batiatus’s father Titus lives in the country, leaving his son to rule the house by proxy. That gives Batiatus power, but not nearly enough, as people love to remind him all episode. His brash techniques are old hat to “Spartacus” viewers, but shock the old guard who apparently think the sport of cutting throats for the pleasure of the ovulating herd is a dignified endeavor. Those men speak of “honor”; Batiatus speaks only of “business.” But one thing remains the same from “Blood and Sand”: issues of class dominate Batiatus’ life, with him seeking to ascend ever higher while those above seek to keep him under heel.
“Spartacus: Blood and Sand” took about four or five episodes before it really found its stride, and yet “Gods of the Arena” doesn’t truly play to any of the strengths assembled in the relentless momentum of that season by the prequel nature of this series. While the writers of the show clearly know what works and what doesn’t at this point, they unfortunately had to take their well-developed characters and create them anew. No one can fault them for doing so, and there are moments that really shine. But in so many ways, “Gods of the Arena” is “Spartacus” from scratch, which means it might take a little while for things to get truly cracking.
- If Titus’ Doctore of this series looks familiar, that’s because he’s played by Jango Fett himself, Temuera Morrison. The Prequels Strike Back!
- I used to think the public restrooms in Fenway Park were bad, until I saw the public outhouses used in Capua.
- Not sure if we should be reading anything into Lucretia sporting her own hair throughout the hour or not, but I’m a fan of wigless Lucy Lawless.
- Even though Ashur has dreams of succeeding through brawn, his instant recognition of Crixus’ ambition shows the cunning intellect underneath.
- “You lower your shield when you thrust” is this show’s version of “24”’s constant cry to “establish a perimeter.” It’s always uttered, and almost never heeded.
- STARZ needs to come up with a new rating for the insane amount of nudity and violence for this show. I’m not complaining or anything, but a “Rated O for Orifice” would cover the bases nicely.
What did you think of the premiere? Leave your thoughts below!