So. Spartacus, minus Spartacus. How did you think that was going to turn out?
If you answered in the negative, do not pass go, do not collect 200 Monopoly monies. Sit your arse back down and listen, because Gods of the Arena, the six-part prequel miniseries Starz made in lieu of definitive news on the health of rising star Andy Whitfield, is brilliant. How else to put it, other than bloody, fucking brilliant?
And I mean that quite literally. Sex and dismemberment is what Gods of the Arena has to offer, just as Spartacus: Blood and Sand before it. Not exactly a recipe for success by my accounting, and yet... I couldn't look away. Not for a single, solitary second, over six sumptuous and successively more satisfying hours.
Where Blood and Sand took two or three episodes to find its footing, setting up the larger narrative to come and establishing an identity in terms of form and tone, Gods of the Arena explodes onto our television sets fully formed, revelling in the very ingredients which near put me off the first season of Spartacus before it had properly begun. The showrunners know what they're about, now, and it shows. After a recap of Past Transgressions, Gods of the Arena begins exactly where it belongs: right in the shit, with the blood and the dirt, and the top of a gladiator's head, of late divorced sliced off his jaw.
There was a tendency for the violence in last year's Spartacus to come off as cartoonish; related lessons have been learned. Certain supporting characters seemed to bounce around for months without any particular purpose; not so now. Ultimately, however, the greatest failing of Blood and Sand was that it took far too long to penetrate through the gristle to the thick of it. One can only imagine how many viewers turned away from Blood and Sand in fits of impatience, and justifiably so, alas. But gluttons for punishment such as myself, who stuck it out, discovered to our surprise and utter delight a series of gleeful abandon, wherein anything could happen to anyone - short ol' Sparty himself - and indeed, it did.
Last time on Blood and Sand, John Hannah's fabulously filthy Batiatus finally got his, along with his wife Lucrezia, played to perfection by televisual fantasy's own Lucy Lawless, whom it must be practically impossible not to recall as Xena: Warrior Princess. Spartacus led a slave rebellion against the pair of them; them who had captured, oppressed and brutalised him and his gladiatorial kin. Thus they were stabbed rather a lot.
Now I understand Lucy Lawless is set to return for the second season of Spartacus proper, but by necessity, what with the death of her husband - a bitter, twisted, murderous ass of a man, on pitch-perfect form in Gods of the Arena - much changed, so the notion of another six hours in their inimitable company struck me a gimme. And I'm pleased to report they've never been better... which is to say more awful or conniving or manipulative. The stakes are a little less apocalyptic this time out, what with the end of their story as we understand it written in the indelible ink of their own spilled innards, yet shifting from sterling supporting roles to front and centre of the action and the narrative, Hannah and Lawless, each the other's equal, ascend in Gods of the Arena to the hall of fame of television's best baddies.
Would that we could watch them go at it all over again...
There are other highlights, of course. No short of other lustrous fruits to pluck from this forbidden tree: the growth of the much-changed Manu Bennett as Spartacus' primary rival Crixus, the development of Peter Mensah's Oenomaus, the beginnings of the enmity between good Solonius and bad Batiatus, and the origins of a central character who could share Spartacus' burden in season two, with another actor in Andy Whitfield's place. There's sex and there's death and action and intrigue; as Batiatus and Lucrezia fight a war on two fronts - for a place in the games and a house free of interference - there's politics, Freud and just desserts aplenty. Firstly, however, and foremostly, Gods of the Arena is a rare chance for two of contemporary television's most memorable characters to shine a second time.
Everything in its right place, then. If you can keep it down, and sure enough, some stomachs will suffer at the thought, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is simply magnificent.