After a very lengthy delay, Starz has launched the next chapter in the network's sword and sandal epic: Spartacus: Vengeance. While the program's return is marked by considerable excitement amongst its fans, the circumstances that led to the delay have tempered the event with a note of sadness.
With the untimely passing of Andy Whitfield, his replacement, Liam McIntyre, will certainly be met with hesitation and resistance on behalf of devoted fans of the series. But after watching the second season premiere, all concerns regarding McIntyre's ability to step into the role should be put to rest.
In his role, McIntyre is (thankfully) not seeking to mimic Whitfield's star-making performance as the titular Thracian. Instead, the new lead is making the character his by ever so slightly redefining who Spartacus is in this second season.
Whereas Whitfield played Spartacus as a rage-filled, roguish character who delighted in his own shrewdness, but could also count on his steely resolve to get him out of tight situations, McIntyre is, in many ways, taking the role in the opposite direction. In Spartacus: Vengeance, what we get is a more solemn, woeful hero who is burdened by the responsibilities that come with leadership and in caring for the lives of those he may have thought little of just weeks prior. The turnabout in character coincides well with the current direction of the series, and also provides something of a clever and tasteful reintroduction to the character.
Considering the second season picks up just weeks after the events of the season finale of Spartacus: Blood and Sand – which ended with a massacre at the House of Batiatus – there would be precious little time to give much in the way of a recap – and besides, fans have been waiting almost two years, so series creator Steven S. DeKnight and his team of writers have done what is most sensible for the series, which is to simply push forward.
And push forward the series does.
Given the rebels' current predicament, one might suggest that Spartacus' actions have taken the band of former slaves and gladiators from bad to worse. Struggling to find food and weapons, and living under constant threat of being found, the small party is simply not enough to enact the revenge on the Romans and, to be more precise, Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker, Lord of the Rings), the Thracian so desperately craves.
After his name was found carved into the body of an assassin tasked with ending Spartacus' endeavors, Glaber finds himself sent to Capua in order to deal with the rascally Thracian and put to rest the fears of an all out uprising against the Roman Empire. Glaber is joined by his wife Ilithyia (Viva Bianca), despite her protests against returning to the now bloodied House of Batiatus.
Of course, upon her arrival, Ilithyia is the first to be greeted by Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), who was thought dead – struck down by Crixus (Manu Bennett) during the massacre, although she was carrying the Gaul's child. Lucretia's mental state is almost as much a cause for concern to Ilithyia as is her survival, considering she's privy to secrets Ilithyia would like to keep hidden.
With Glaber and his wife taking the role of villain this season, it will be useful to have Lucretia around to help add some depth to Ilithyia's storyline, as Glaber will most certainly have his hands full with Spartacus and his growing band of rebels.
The fall of the House of Batiatus did more than set up the premise of Spartacus: Vengeance; it created a void in which one of the most exuberant characters was lost to the show. Without John Hannah's Batiatus, there now is a search for a truly commanding presence on screen that the audience can despise, but still find it in their hearts to enjoy. One of the appealing aspects to Batiatus was his desperation to rise above his station in life, and his willingness to do almost anything to achieve such a lofty goal. Perhaps with Glaber being knocked down a peg, and forced to return to Capua to put an end to an uprising he unwittingly created, we will begin to see a similar kind of characterization that made Hannah so intriguing to watch.
Mostly, 'Fugitivus' serves to update the audience on the shifts to the series' status quo, and, as mentioned before, some of the biggest shifts come from Spartacus himself. In the end, we see a willingness on behalf of Spartacus to put aside not only petty rivalries and thoughts of glory, but also his entire reason for living – which, at the moment, is to kill Glaber - for the safety of his followers and to prepare for a long-term battle that will require as much cunning and intelligence as it will brute strength.
It is an excellent set up to a series that has, time and again, proven itself to be much craftier in its storytelling than its onscreen obsession with sex and violence would lead a casual viewer to believe. DeKnight has carefully constructed a program that is not merely a visceral feast of blood and nudity – though there is still plenty of that here in Vengeance. Spartacus often rises above the level of pure pulp by offering some interesting insight into the characters, and especially the world in which they live; often touching upon the Roman political system and its internal dramas and squabbles therein.
It's not Rome, but, then again, with its storytelling roots so firmly placed in comic books, video games and films like 300, Spartacus never intended itself to be any sort of political drama. Somehow, though, the series has shed its campy outer layer and revealed an intriguing tale within. The visual aesthetic of the series likely came first, but the fact that DeKnight is capable of telling a well-written and engaging story simply feels like the icing on a very decadent cake.
Thankfully, that signature visual style has not been lost with the new season. In fact, after the attack on the brothel, Spartacus: Vengeance may have raised its own bar on orchestrated chaos. Everything in the series – from the outrageous blood-spewing battles to the ever-graphic sex – is handled with such an exquisite and deliberate choreography that it is hard not to appreciate the time and effort put in creating and delivering such a spectacle. The gladiator battles of the first season and the prequel miniseries, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, were impressive, to say the least, but these wide-open, multi-leveled action sequences featured in the season premiere have certainly brought something new and interesting to the future of the series.
While the differences may be off putting to some, Spartacus: Vengeance succeeds in staying true to the groundwork laid out in the first season. Let credit fall to McIntyre for his depiction of the title character, but also to actors like Manu Bennett for easing the transition by creating an instant and believable chemistry with his new co-star.
It's been something of a bumpy road, but Spartacus is finally back.
Spartacus: Vengeance airs Fridays @10pm on Starz.
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