Spartacus: Blood and Sand review

Television’s a funny format sometimes. You get your pilot, and if you’re lucky it convinces someone to pay up, which frees you up to make the completely different series you actually wanted to make. Spartacus: Blood and Sand is somewhere in that region, because it starts out a bit crap.

Produced and broadcast by Starz (me neither) in 2010 and predating Game of Thrones by over a year, it instead took its cues from 300 and Gladiator, and boy does it show. The pilot relates the betrayal and capture of the eponymous Thracian not-yet-a-gladiator at the hands of treacherous Roman general Claudius Glaber, and does so with a near embarassing desire to mimic Zack Snyder’s ultra-stylised stabfest. Elaborate sex and slow-to-fast-to-slow motion violence and oddly stark backgrounds team up with cheap CGI and a simplistic narrative to give the obvious impression that the series will be cheesy, mindless popcorn fodder. Which can be fine!

After that uncomfortable start, there follow a few episodes of swords-and-tits fluff as Spartacus is sold to a gladiatorial school owned by the ambitious Batiatus (John Hannah). It’s slightly rubbish but entertaining, but just as I was settling in for more of the same, something odd happened: The series found itself.

Several episodes in it suddenly became apparent that the directors had whittled down the hollow excesses of Snyderism and pushed the “rehash the plot of Gladiator” concept aside. The narrative acknowledges the impossibility of a common slave even encountering, much less killing the distant general who set his torment in motion, and instead scales down to focus on the many dramas going on in the house of Batiatus. Given time to adjust to the strange syntax of the script (among other quirks, characters drop most articles and alter tenses to approximate Latin grammar, a curious effect that will grow on you if given the chance) and recalibrate their standing in the plot, the cast visibly relax into their roles and let rip with the acting. While John Hannah is clearly having fun positively devouring the scenery, the unlikely pairing with Lucy Lawless as his wife Lucretia gives her the opportunity to smoulder delicious evil. Meanwhile, the tragically late Andy Whitfield treads a fine line as Spartacus, butting heads with the honour-obsessed champion Crixus (Manu Bennett) and struggling to reconcile his plans with his predicament as the other gladiators mostly disdain him as an outsider. He’s not the most complex character, but he’s far more than the generic single-minded Revenge Guy he could have been, and only gets more so with time. This is a process echoed by much of the cast, most notably Peter Mensah’s towering, glowering Doctore, also fixated on honour but gradually revealed to have dimensions beyond cracking a whip. Honestly, the casting is top rate throughout. It’s tempting to list most of the main characters, as most grow into a comfortable niche, and the gaps left by many, many deaths are filled with thought and care.

Instead of a generic hero rising from the bottom, surrounded by tokenistic support characters, Blood And Sand leaves Ridley Scott behind mid-season and begins to court 2005’s sorely under-appreciated Rome. What we’re left with is an equally dramatic and silly melodrama charting the rivalries and illicit romances of slaves and masters, while Lucretia and her questionable friends scheme and snide, and we even root for her and Batiatus in their efforts to rise in station, not despite but because he resorts to brutal murder at the slightest provocation, while simultaneously manipulating his slaves to get the most out of them. They make excellent villains, enjoyable in every scene, so that we’re not sorry they’re dead but are sad to see them go when the inevitable happens. And my god, does it ever happen. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say “Spartacus leads a slave revolt”, but I can think of no other series that had the stones to end by having all the poor people rise up and slaughter all the rich people. Make no mistake, it is brutal. And it is glorious. For all their complexity, Blood and Sand makes no bones about it: it is messy and ugly butchery, but these people, even the ‘innocent’ bystanders, absolutely have it coming.

The violence. Oh god, the violence. Spartacus can be easily mistaken for a patronising pantomime of sex and violence, but by god does it do it well. Even after the poor opening episodes settle down (although it takes a couple of series for the effects to look less cheap), almost every episode is a bloodbath. Gladiatoral fights are depicted with liberal use of slow motion, gouting CGI blood, and absurdly over the top leaps and flips and flying kicks. The man himself roars every time he lands a blow, almost everyone attacks by leaping in the air with a sword and landing it in someone’s face, and why have a fighter fall over when they can be flipped end over end instead? It’s loud, it’s ostentatious, it’s silly, and it’s bloody great. Even my slight disdain for slow motion doesn’t change much. The choreography is solid, the camera work is always clear and creative (all four seasons feature dynamic scene transitions as a matter of course, some of which are genuinely entertaining in their own right), and while the plot leaves 300 behind permanently, the fighting never forgets. This works surprisingly well, and means we can enjoy the carnage despite ourselves, because the damn thing’s got its narrative hooks in us.

There is of course much drama centred on the plight of slaves, but instead of mere death, the real cruelty is in their helplessness. Orders given cannot be refused, no matter how unfair (interestingly true even of Batiatus when faced with demands from a social superior, and a major reason why he’s sympathetic despite doing terrible things. Though wrathful and murderous, there’s little indiscriminate sadism in him, and notably, one of his most crucial, reviled acts was an honest mistake). The utter indifference of the upper classes in particular is well done. They don’t hate the slaves or lower classes so much as simply not think about them, and for their part, the latter have mostly swallowed their society’s dogma whole.

It presents an interesting duality, an inherent conflict of two philosophies. The arena-centred plotlines bring to mind a sport film more than an abolitionist tract, and every ring of roman society sings the virtues of honour and glory in the arena. With all the elaborately stylised fights, raucous crowds, and enthusiastic orators it’s difficult not to get caught up in the excitement even as you see the ordeals these victims of a horrific system are put through. Blood and Sand may not be a powerful social commentary, but that it manages to convey what was exciting and appealing about the arena and rightly condemn its inherently atrocious nature is no small feat.

There’s no need to handwring or rely on our modern ideas of innate justice and freedom. No self-congratulatory ritual of the anachronistic hero teaching the primitive ancients our superior modern values. Spartacus shows gladiators and slaves buying into their society’s values, but then subverts them on its own terms: thus, rather than the system being bad because it’s immoral to our society, the gladiators come to measure their masters by their own proclaimed standards, and expose them as corrupt hypocrites soiling even their contemporary ideas of honour. Good stuff.

Then there’s the sex, which is often directly preceded by or intercut with extraneous scenes of combat. Like the violence, it could be tacky (and starts out somewhat so) but rises above it by being kind of self aware about it. The crowds like their arena and the toffs like their orgies, and we superior moderners can tut and tsk at them while we enjoy some simulated violence and constant, constant sex. It’s quite the shaggingest series I’ve ever seen, with every episode finding an excuse for some mostly, but not exclusively hetero trains and tunnels, and many featuring multiple orgies and bawdy brothel backgrounds. The gladiators, of course, are all ultra-toned, meticulously waxed hunky hunks rather than the fattish stocky types you’d likely see, but it actually outdoes even Rome in representation of gay men. It’s no beacon, but the small handful of romances among the gay gladiators are treated much like any other relationship, with affection and sex and childish arguments, and absolutely no conflict arising from homophobia even when facing villainous characters. And people have pubes! This matters, damn it.

I could go on – I’ve only covered the one series, and each of the following 3 is comparably strong. The final season charts the doomed Third Servile War, and bears particular mention as it proves smarter than most rival series (looking at you, Game of Thrones) by presenting the rebels’ nemesis Crassus as no villain at all. Instead of the demonic slave-torturing monster most works would choose as a foil to Spartacus, Cassus is far more dangerous because he’s nice to his slaves. He genuinely respects them (insofar as is possible while maintaining their slavery), building monuments to one and requiring the consent of another (of questionable validity outside fiction, but that’s a conversation for another day). He is, essentially, a man who represents the honourable ideal of Roman slavery as an institution, and as such is a far better foil to the abolitionist rebellion than a slave-eating sadist. This is still, of course, intercut with extreme violence, sex, colourful swear-blasphemy, and yet more gory massacres from our heroes, so don’t go thinking it’s changed on you. Sometimes you can have it all.

All in all, then: Spartacus is well worth sticking with through a shaky start for a delightful blend of demi-historical melodrama and swords-and-tits indulgence. And it’s finished too, so you won’t have to worry about the prospect of another season spent skipping ahead past yet another dreary waste of time with Daenerys Whiteburden, thirty-eight millionth of her name.

Every season of Spartacus is currently available on Netflix in the UK. If you live anywhere else, I can’t help you because apparently we don’t live in the same reality anymore. Sorry. By way of recompense, please accept this complicated jam.

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