“Come. Let us sample a finer vintage.”
-Gaia, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
Episode 2, “Missio”
One might watch any trailer or any handful of scenes from the Starz series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand or its follow-up prequel Spartacus: Gods of the Arena–now two episodes into its six episode run-and perceive it as a little more than an exploitative, testosterone-mongering show with no real substance other than blood soaked combat and well-oiled bodies. It would be in error to judge the two shows based on visuals alone for what is seen is merely the course, earthen vessel by which feeling and truth are carried to the viewer.
As I return to the franchise with Gods of the Arena, I am once again struck by the sheer humanity that these two volumes of Spartacus possess. I can think of no other series currently airing which I watch on a regular basis that move me to laugh, cry, cringe and sometimes curse as consistently as this one. Yes, the series thrives on the illustration of man’s primal nature. It is sensual. It is violent. Lust for power, flesh and blood are part of the series’ DNA, but have these motivations not been with man since first he walked this earth? In this way is Spartacus one of the more honest portrayals of what drives us to do the things we do. Being on a premium cable channel allows the show to do this in a manner most uncompromising.
Yesterday, show creator Steven DeKnight tweeted in the affirmative responding to an individual who asked whether the dialogue in the show was inspired by Shakespeare. I believe the connection to Shakespeare comprises a great deal more than just dialogue. Shakespeare, of course, was exploring many similar questions of morality and psychology more than 400 years ago. Indeed, Shakespeare is credited with bringing psychology not only to the stage but an entire people. We are witness to the dark reaches of the human mind when King Lear says to his foul daughters:
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall-I will do such things-
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth!
In Shakespeare, terrible actions beget terrible outcomes for their doers. Notions concerning the source of the cause of actions sometimes most joyous and often most dire were at the forefront of his work. When those actions are faithfully staged or filmed, they are just as likely to be as seemingly base from an outside perspective as any filmed script of Spartacus. It is a natural consequence of letting women be women and men be men. They “will do such things.”
Spartacus taps into an often ignored well of thought within the-mature-viewer. Week to week, the show proves that the intellect and emotions of an audience can be challenged through the depiction of gore and sexuality. The writers of this series are able to induce surprising reactions that defy common social interaction. I have more than once become an enthused spectator at the gladiatorial games while watching this series, cheering audibly when a combatant makes a mortal blow, but neither these fights nor their effect on the viewer are without purpose. Every battle is connected to a compelling, character driven drama outside the arena.
Strangely, we see ourselves in Spartacus more often than we see an ancient society and this can be incredibly frightening. Over the last handful of centuries, we merely have developed new and different arenas in which to deal with our love, hate, greed and pain. Spartacus seizes the modern edifices that preserves these deep-rooted passions in a socially acceptable form and strips them away. As Spartacus is anything but coy, to strip modernity away is more often than not taken quite literally.
Did You Know?
• Steven S. DeKnight, the creator and executive producer of Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Spartacus: Gods of the Arena held the titles of co-producer, supervising producer, producer, director and writer on Angel over the course of its five season run.
•Maurissa Tancharoen and husband Jed Whedon (Joss Whedon’s brother) took on writing roles on the Spartacus series following their contributions (both writerly and actorly on the part of Maurissa) to Joss Whedon’s show Dollhouse. On Dollhouse, they wrote the episodes, “Stage Fright,” “Haunted” (with Jane Espenson), “Epitaph One,” “Belonging,” “Meet Jane Doe” (with Andrew Chambliss), “The Attic” (directed by John Cassaday) and “Epitaph Two: Return.” In addition to continuing their work on Spartacus, both Gods of the Arena and Season 2 of Blood and Sand, Maurissa and Jed will be writing a Dollhouse comic miniseries called “Dollhouse: Epitaphs” to be released this year.
•John Hannah’s work as Batiatus, head of a ludus (gladiator training school) in Capua and Dominus (master) to the gladiators, is much more nuanced and enjoyable than his work in The Mummy films.
•Spartacus: Gods of the Arena came about as a result of the delay in production of Season 2 of Blood and Sand due to Spartacus‘ titular star Andy Whitfield‘s diagnosis with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. When it was announced that Whitfield’s cancer had gone into remission, pre-production on Season 2 began, but the cancer returned. Less than two weeks ago, Starz officially replaced Whitfield with Australian actor Liam McIntyre. Whitfield will appear briefly in Gods of the Arena sometime during the season’s six episodes.
•Both Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Spartacus: Gods of the Arena are available to stream instantly on Netflix.
•Spartacus: Blood and Sand will return with Season 2 in 2012 on Starz.