Note: The following review contains spoilers for all aired episodes of Spartacus.
The scene: A Roman brothel. The camera pans from a female prostitute taking a man from behind with a large dildo to a male whore going down on a male client to four men violently fucking a female whore. The overweight male head of the harem watches and ferociously masturbates with malicious glee. A moment later, he reaches an even more explosive climax than expected when, just as he begins to come, a sword penetrates his neck from behind, splattering blood and gore all over the sexual debauchery. This can mean only one thing. Starz’ Spartacus is back, baby–just as operatically brutal, twisty, and twisted as ever, and this time bearing the ominous subtitle, Vengeance, a promise which the new season is already beginning to deliver in spades.
As much as the series’ unrelentingly dark tone remains the same, many circumstances have changed since the last time we have been in the “present day” of the series’ ancient Roman world (as opposed to the “past” of the prequel season, Gods of the Arena), both on-screen and off. Having risen up against the once mighty House of Batiatus, slaughtering its occupants and bathing it in blood, Spartacus, Crixus, and the majority of the rest of the surviving slaves are currently living underground, plotting their next move against the Roman society that treats them like animals. Meanwhile, Batiatus’ home has been left to rot for months, a wreck of its former glory, Illythia forced by her husband, Claudius Glaber, into being the new mistress of a place that she’d rather have left to the mists of memory. This first episode of Vengeance reunites us with familiar faces–some of whom common sense might have indicated that we would never see again, such as Lucretia, who after two seasons of mirroring Lady Macbeth’s manipulative brilliance now mirrors her madness, also–and introduces us to new ones, such as a potentially incestuous brother and sister who are cousins to the young man who died at Batiatus’ home after ordering Varro’s death.
The most prominent new face, however, is Spartacus himself. The great Andy Whitfield tragically succumbed to lymphoma last year and this episode marks the unveiling of his successor, Liam McIntyre, who has the unenviable task of taking on a formidable and difficult role inextricably associated with a much-loved actor who died unexpectedly. And while it is initially a bit jarring to see a new man as our Thracian protagonist, by the end of the episode, McIntyre won me over. That isn’t to say that I don’t miss Whitfield enormously, but his absence is unavoidable, and McIntyre’s performance is a great tribute to the man who came before him. Physically, McIntyre is quite similar to Whitfield, and that certainly helps. Like Whitfield, he has kind, soulful eyes through which he transmits his agony, his resolve, his humanity even when at his darkest. Like Whitfield, he carries himself with quiet dignity and imbues the role with gravitas. When he vows vengeance against those who ruined him at the end of the episode, we truly believe him, just as we believed his predecessor. We believe his anguish as well as his anger. His performance feels like a natural extension of Whitfield’s, without ever seeming like a simple impression. He makes the character his own, even while simultaneously capturing Whitfield’s essence, flawlessly maintaining the illusion that he is the one who experienced the events of the first season. It is truly marvelous work to behold.
And speaking of marvelous work, Lucy Lawless is just as dazzling as ever as the remarkably resurrected Lucretia. According to Steven DeKnight, the character was originally fated to die but with the narrative loss of Quintus (and, by extension) John Hannah, and the literal loss of Andy Whitfield, Starz had qualms about sending yet another iconic face away. They finally agreed, however, and then afterwards, DeKnight changed his mind, after arriving at the incredibly juicy idea to reveal that Lucretia had been alive in that house ever since the slaughter, her mind shattered by what had occurred. And I cannot thank the gods and him enough for deciding to go with this plot. On the surface level, it provides a remarkable showcase for Lawless’ talent. As I’ve said before (and will likely say again), one of her greatest skills as an actress is to never be anything less than utterly believable and legitimate, even when undertaking a role that could have easily devolved into camp. And yet even with the soap operatic twist of finding the formerly unflappable Lucretia a pale, filthy, fright-wigged remnant of her former self, Lawless refrains from scenery-chewing or over-acting. She maintains subtlety and grace, making Lucretia all the more chilling for it. There is something truly heartbreaking about seeing her in this state, as well as her look of gutwrenching fear upon locking eyes with Spartacus and then Crixus, even as we know at the same time that she karmically deserves it.
Beyond Lawless’ brilliant performance, however, there are storytelling reasons why Lucretia’s return was such a great decision on the writers’ part, particularly in regards to Illythia. There is a deliciously cruel thrust of irony in this sociopathic woman, who thought herself to have emerged triumphant from the slaughter (and played a role in it, as well, in making sure that the doors remained sealed on her way out), being haunted by most literal ghosts from her past. Lucretia is a living, breathing accusation of all that Illythia had hoped to remain buried. In her current state, believing herself to still be the lady of the house, Lucretia is a bitter reminder of the life that Illythia helped the slaves rob from her. But Illythia faces an even greater danger should Lucretia ever fully regain her memory of what occurred (which has perhaps already been set in motion by the end of the episode), for she knows things that could destroy the woman’s life, such as the fact that she had sex with Spartacus, the slave who has threatened her husband since the start.
Also brilliant is how Glaber decides to use Lucretia as a political tool to further his own ends, presenting her before the citizens of Capua as a miracle, the phoenix reborn from the ashes, a symbol to boast about his own strength and to further galvanize Rome against Spartacus and his band of rebels. He doesn’t decide to allow her to live out of any kindness in his heart but because he immediately sees ways in which he can use her to his own advantage. But Lucretia is not one who will allow herself to be used for long, and once she regains her mind, there will surely be hell to pay, yet another level to the season’s vengeance theme.
But there is, of course, a price to vengeance, which in this episode comes in the form of Aurelia being viciously tortured in order to send a message to Spartacus. The greatest irony is that it occurs in the very episode in which it seems she has finally forgiven him for the very direct (though completely unwilling) role he played in her husband, Varro’s, death. She finally dies with words of anger against Spartacus on her lips. Again, the situation isn’t his fault (his arrival at the scene arguably allows her a slightly less unpleasant death than she would have suffered at Glaber’s hands, though by point, so much of the damage had already been done) and yet by standing up to the Romans, he has sealed her fate. And despite the fact that he is the show’s hero, the writers refuse to manipulate the situation in order to make Spartacus completely right, thus crafting a far more complex protagonist. In this episode, we see that his hatred of Glaber and the Romans blinds him at times. Here, his determination to assassinate Glaber almost costs Crixus and the others their lives, as well as, by extension, threatens Naevia. He went by himself and didn’t intend to involve the others, but that simply put them in a position where they felt that they had to protect him. Unintentionally selfish as it might have been, it was a selfish act nonetheless, and it is fascinating to see Crixus call him on that. Spartacus is also unintentionally callous to his new lover, putting his need for vengeance for his wife’s murder over caring for this new woman in his life.
Whether Spartacus planned on being the leader of an army or not, that is what he is now, a role that he finally comes to embrace by the end of the episode. He arrives in the crowd scene obscured under a hood before revealing himself and nearly taking Glaber’s life, like Robin Hood at the archery contest, and by the end he is truly beginning to take up this mantle of folk hero. And now that he has, with that inspirational final speech, the stage is fully set for what will surely be a brilliant and bloody new season of Spartacus. I can’t wait to see what happens next.