“To get attention these days to penetrate the market, you’ve got to be pretty outrageous and prepared to go there!” exclaims Lucy Lawless, one of the stars of the new STARZ miniseries Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
After watching ten episodes of the new series, I would have to agree that the word “outrageous” was one that certainly popped into my head! I had read that the network executives at STARZ had told series producers that they wanted a production with more sex and violence than any network had ever produced and from the looks of things, they pretty much got what they asked for.
In just the first episode, the production team must have had to order fake blood by the tanker truck load as body parts flew in every direction with each violent encounter. At one point, Spartacus finishes off a retiarius, who has had both of his legs hacked off, with his trident while the man pitifully attempts to crawl away. So much blood flew up it drenched the camera lens. At that point, though, instead of being horrified by the stylized screen violence, I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. After all, a trident is a puncture weapon, not a blade, so, although it is truly lethal, it would hardly have produced any blood spatter at all. Still, even in that first over-the-top effects-laden episode, I saw glimpses of a plot and the beginnings of character development that had the potential to intrigue me even if the Romans, who I admire very much for many aspects of their culture, were so unconditionally villified.
I also must give the series credit for including at least a nod to historical sources in regards to Spartacus’ origins. Ancient sources tell us that Spartacus was once an auxilliary officer in the Roman Army and at some point he ran afoul of his Roman commanders and was subsequently sold into slavery.
The series begins with his service to the Romans. His Roman commander is brutally ambitious, and, driven on by an even more ambitious wife, foresakes Spartacus’ village during a fierce battle with the Getae to seek the more politically profitable conquest of Mithradates farther east. Spartacus refuses direct orders to abandon his tribesmen (and wife) and, when the Romans try to force Spartacus and his comrades to march east, the confrontation ends in the deaths of several Roman officers and the near-death of the Roman legatus. Spartacus returns to his village only to find it destroyed but he is reunited with his wife, however briefly, before the Romans capture him and send him back to Italy for execution. This scenario is quite plausible and could have been not far from the actual events although we have no details in the ancient sources.
Spartacus is apparently sentenced to death in the arena where he and a couple of his comrades are pitted against trained gladiators without protective armour and with the full expectation that they will die ignobly. His two comrades fight valiantly but are no match for the highly skilled gladiators and die (with intentionally graphic violence) in fairly short order. Spartacus is knocked about and slashed quite viciously but has a vision of his wife, a prophetess among their people (also historically accurate – the ancient sources tell us she was a priestess of the god Dionysos), telling him to “kill them all”. Emboldened by his vision, Spartacus begins to fight like an historical beserker and the gladiators quickly become beheaded or bivisected.
Watching the carnage is Batiatus, a lanista (gladiatorial school owner) of a once famous ludus in Capua. Batiatus’ family has apparently fallen on hard times and he is desperately struggling to regain past glory. He recognizes a prime opportunity in the purchase of Spartacus.
Batiatus is played by John Hannah. He is probably best known for his comedic capers in The Mummy series of movies with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weiz. He played a treacherous Roman senator in the film The Last Legion but after film editing, most of his performance ended up on the cutting room floor so he didn’t have much chance to display much depth of character in the brief, almost cameo appearances that remained. In fact, I expressed the opinion at the time that he seemed terribly miscast since I had only seen him in the light-hearted Mummy role. But Hannah’s portrayal of Batiatus showcases his true versatility. He comes across as totally convincing as he revels in the gore of the arena or engages in lustful sex with his wife or any slave girls loitering about the hallways of his home that adjoins the gladiator training grounds.
Batiatus is not a cardboard villain, though. He is a complex character that harbors a twisted sense of honor that motivates him to repay Spartacus for saving his life by agreeing to find and purchase Spartacus’ wife for him but then hire bandits to attack the wagon carrying Spartacus’ wife because he senses Spartacus will not submit to Batiatus’ authority if he has a wife to inspire his desire for freedom. As the series progresses we also learn that he and his wife are childless and long for a family. But, his desire for children of his own does not extend to a compassion for others’ children and families. In one episode he orders one of his gladiators to kill a man in front of the man’s son, a boy of maybe eight years old. Then, without a hint of reluctance he tells the gladiator to get rid of the boy as well. People are obviously disposable commodities to him.
Most of all, though, Batiatus yearns for respectability that was beyond the scope of lanistas in the Roman social order. In The Spartacus War, professor Barry Strauss points out that the term lanista is compared to the Roman term for butcher (lanius) or pimp (leno). Batiatus’ dreams of wearing senatorial purple are as fantastical as those of one of his gladiators dreaming of buying his own freedom.
Lucy Lawless, of Xena: Warrior Princess fame, plays Batiatus’ wife, Lucretia. In the first few episodes, she is forcefully manipulative but appears to be not quite as corrupt as Batiatus. She also garners a little sympathy since we see how desperate she is for a child. But, as the series continues we discover she can be as ruthless as Batiatus himself. Lawless also does not seem to flinch from appearing nude despite years of experience in a PG-13 program. She admitted, though, in a recent interview, that she had yet to have to wear a merkin – false pubic hair ordered worn for shots including full frontal nudity.
Viva Bianca, who plays Illythia, the villainous wife of the Roman legate that betrayed Spartacus and devious friend of Lucretia, cannot make the same claim, though. She bared all in the first episode and in the latest episode seduces a 15-year-old boy preparing for his coming-of-age ceremony in a steamy bath scene. Her sultry, petulant character has proved to be equal to any male villain introduced so far, although I don’t know what will become of her if Spartacus finally breaks out of the gladiator school. Historically, Spartacus and the 70 gladiators that escaped with him took only a few slave women with them. Of course the series producers can get a little creative and try to retain their lusty female villains as the gladiators’ hostages. They certainly didn’t hesitate to eliminate Spartacus’ prophetess wife early in the series even though in real life she lived to escape the ludus with him and inspire him throughout his campaigns.
Official trailer courtesy of STARZ Entertainment LLC (Mature content. Viewer discretion advised.)
Another actor who seems to have developed his role well is Manu Bennett who plays the gladiator Crixus. Crixus will eventually become Spartacus’ co-commander of the rebel army if STARZ does continue the series as planned after this first 13-episode season. But Crixus and Spartacus are bitter rivals during much of the first season. I think their mano-et-mano conflict would have grown a bit stale except the two men end up pitted against an “unbeatable” brute of a man named Theocles and must learn to fight together or die separately. Crixus is horriblly mangled but manages to help a struggling Spartacus by using a shield to reflect sunlight into Theocles’ eyes at a crucial moment giving Spartacus the opening he needs to survive. Unfortunately, Spartacus is not as appreciative as we would hope – apparently intoxicated by the hero worship of the crowd afterwards. Crixus barely survives and during his long and arduous recovery, is able to build a relationship with one of the slave women who had previously caught his eye. Where once Crixus lectured Spartacus about giving up dreams of freedom outside the ludus and living for the glory of their ludus familia, now Crixus begins to yearn for a family and a life free of the trainer’s whip. Bennett projects a lot of screen magnetism and can easily dominate scenes in which he appears.
Relative newcomer Andy Whitfield generates a lot of intensity in his leading portrayal of Spartacus and handles the physical demands of the role well despite a reported recent diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. One of his best performances is in episode 10 (the last episode I have viewed as of this date) when he is forced to fight his best friend. Whitfield’s face is truly contorted with agony when Spartacus is ordered by a capricious young Roman nobleman to slaughter his friend and it convincingly reflects a depth of despair we had not yet experienced in earlier sequences.
According to my son-in-law, his friends and the active discussion that has cropped up on the internet, STARZ has apparently succeeded in capturing that coveted male demographic they were aiming for. Viewership has climbed to over 1 million by episode 10. I notice on IGN-TV the individual episodes have been ranked from a mediocre 6.0 for the first episode to a strong 8.5 for the latest episodes which coincides with my overall impression that as the series progresses the characters and storyline are proving to be more and more interesting. With audience numbers building, STARZ had planned to begin filming the second season by now. But, production has been temporarily stalled while Andy Whitfield receives treatment in New Zealand for his cancer. Whitfield’s prognosis is good, though, since the cancer was caught in a very early stage, so production should be able to continue in a few months. STARZ has been able to keep production costs down so far by limiting the action to a confined environment . But, if Spartacus finally breaks out of the ludus in season two, producers may be challenged to rein in budgets while staging major battle sequences. Hopefully the series will not suffer the same fate as HBO’s Rome which was cancelled after only two years of a projected five year production schedule because of expenses topping 800,000 per episode.