Spartacus creator Steven DeKnight on the show’s tumultuous history and overall legacy

Spartacus creator Steven DeKnight on the show’s tumultuous history and overall legacy

After four seasons on Starz, Spartacus has just completed the final leg of its tumultuous journey. Not all of that tumult was confined to the action depicted onscreen: When the show’s original lead, Andy Whitfield, fell ill after the initial season, Blood And Sand, executive producers Steven DeKnight and Rob Tapert constructed a six-episode prequel season, Gods Of The Arena, in order to allow Whitfield time to recover. Unfortunately, after an initially positive prognosis, Whitfield died from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, at which point the show faced the almost impossible task of deciding how best to proceed. After recasting its lead (with Whitfield’s blessing), Spartacus moved into its second season with as many unknowns before it as the titular hero had before him. 

And yet, after achieving the seemingly impossible and crafting the stellar second season, Vengeance, DeKnight made the surprising announcement that the following installment, War Of The Damned, would be the show’s last. At a time when the show was more popular than ever, the decision raised a lot of questions. Why was the show ending? Would there be enough time to tell the rest of the saga in only 10 episodes? And why was a shaggy-haired, bearded Julius Caesar part of the endgame? Before the series finale aired on April 12, DeKnight sat down with The A.V. Club to answer some questions and put the show’s overall legacy into context.

The A.V. Club: In terms of planning War Of The Damned, what inspiration did you draw from other media that you felt ended in a graceful yet impactful manner?

Steven DeKnight: You know, there are two things that we always talked about in the room that I kept bringing up in terms of series that I thought had fantastic endings. One was M*A*S*H, which I think to this day was such a brilliant, gut-wrenching finale. Surprising, since it’s a “comedy,” even though it had its serious moments as well. But that M*A*S*H finale was heartbreaking, horrifying, and wonderful all at the same time. The other, which might surprise some people, was the ending to Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I thought was brilliantly constructed and had a heart, action, mystery, but also really had a lot of emotion to it. I thought those two series, in terms of series finales, really stuck the landing. And I kept coming back to those. They may seem strange inspirations for Spartacus, but it’s more the feeling, the satisfied feeling, that I got from those endings.

AVC: What was that feeling that you got from those two shows? Plot closure? Emotional closure? What was it that resonated with you?

SD: Yes, both. Plot closure, emotional closure, and also the feeling of a story well told. So many shows stumble at the finish line. It’s really difficult to end a series on a high note and really nail it. Luckily, I had a little bit of history to fall back on. So I couldn’t fall off the rails too far. It’s hard doing season finales, never mind series finales. But one of the things I’m very proud about our show is that we have a reputation for ending strongly in our last episodes, and I didn’t want to stumble at the finish line here.

AVC: How much of that fear of stumbling led you to skip to the end of the Spartacus story and just end the series this season with War Of The Damned, much earlier than many expected the show to run?

SD: This question has been asked of me so many times: “Why now?” And there are so many reasons. I mean, everything from the network, budgets, story, and a bunch of other different elements. Ultimately, if you whittle it down, looking at the history of Spartacus—and I always talk about it being “historically adjacent,” I didn’t want it to just fly off into fantasy land—I realized that it was going to be very difficult to not become very repetitive. Because basically the story starts to be, “Wave after wave of high-ranking Romans go after Spartacus and get defeated.” That was going to become somewhat problematic. I worried that the audience would lose interest after a while in the war years. 

So I thought I’d give the juiciest parts of all those that went after Spartacus and give them to Crassus, really craft one clear antagonist, and end on a high note. And really, this wasn’t just my decision. This was a group decision. Not everybody agreed it was the right time. But ultimately that’s the way it fell out. And looking at the four seasons, I think it was probably the right choice. We probably could have extended it another year, maybe two years. But I think the story would have suffered.

AVC: Last year, you said that 10 episodes was the perfect length for Vengeance. Did that still hold true for War, or did you feel more pressed for space given the scope of the story as well as the host of new characters introduced?

SD: It was definitely a bit of a crunch. That being said, I still think that 10 episodes is the perfect amount. I’ve done 22 episodes a year. I’ve done 13. But 10 felt always to me like the right amount of time to tell a story. Once I get to 13, there may be a few episodes that don’t really drive the story forward. At 22? There are usually six or seven that plain get away from you due to time constraints. But that said, yeah, 10 episodes was a crunch. 

There was also a budget crunch. I had to basically park the rebels where we could shoot what were in effect interiors, even though they were out in the city streets. It didn’t require visual effects for all the backgrounds. So it was necessary to make the decision to take this piece of history in which they capture a city, park them there for a bit, and mine the drama of having taken it over. 

So that was a concern. And other things had to fall by the wayside. Castus was a bigger character historically. We rolled that into one of the pirates, and he doesn’t have the same role. So there were things like that that fell by the wayside. But we hit a lot of the major points of the war with Crassus. The decimation, trapping the army by digging a massive trench, all that we were able to get in there.

AVC: You mentioned earlier wanting to be “historically adjacent” in the final season. Did having that established spine free you up to focus on character, or did you find yourself in the writers’ room constantly contorting your characters toward the historical reality, even if it was adjacent?

SD: It’s a fine balance, honestly. Not in War Of The Damned, but looking back at Gods Of The Arena, it helped. Because Gannicus historically was a free man that joined Spartacus. He wasn’t a gladiator, the way we portrayed him. But we wanted to set him up in Gods Of The Arena. The conundrum we had: He’s a gladiator and a slave, but ends up a free man. How do we rectify that? And that’s how we came up with the story point of him winning his freedom. That’s based on a true story of a gladiator who fought at the opening of the Colosseum. He and this other gladiator fought so gloriously with each other that they were granted their freedom. So I took a page from that and granted Gannicus his freedom. So from that point on, it matched a little closer to history.

As for this season, I didn’t really feel constrained by history. There were some conscious choices where we had to deviate. In those cases, I still wanted to maintain the spirit of history. So anyone who has read about Spartacus would go, “Oh, I recognize that.” With Caesar, he talks about his earlier dealings with pirates. That’s a reference to him being kidnapped by pirates earlier on in his life. The whole foreshadowing of the triumvirate between Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey… a lot of little historical Easter eggs thrown in.

AVC: It feels like Gannicus has the longest journey this season. In one review, I said he was the Cordelia Chase of the series in terms of his overall arc—

SD: There you go! That’s a perfect call! 

AVC: —so how much of this was designed upon his introduction, and how much of that stemmed from Dustin Clare’s performance?

SD: Definitely a little of both. In the first script describing Gannicus, I call him a cross between Achilles and Han Solo. That’s definitely the feel I wanted. And I based a lot of him on Han Solo. The look, the feel… he’s basically the R-rated Han Solo. And much like Han, he comes around toward the end. But yeah, from the start, I had plans to take Gannicus through this journey toward being a hero, and ultimately he makes a huge sacrifice in order to allow others escape. And Dustin plays it brilliantly. He’s a joy to write for.

AVC: The Spartacus in Vengeance is constantly struggling to find his place as a leader. But the Spartacus in War seems much older. Not physically, but in terms of how he carries himself. What advice did you give to Liam McIntyre or the on-set directors in order to present this version of the character?

SD: That was very much a conscious choice from the first script. In that script, I wrote, “This is not the hand-wringing Spartacus from the previous season. After six months, he is hardened by war and there is no doubt in his mind.” Also, I had talks with Liam, the directors, but also Rob Tapert that the Spartacus from Vengeance was always trying to get everyone on the same page and broker an agreement. This Spartacus isn’t doing that. This Spartacus is saying, “This is what we’re doing. It’s my way or the highway,” especially in the first half of the season. I also had conversations that in the first half, he’s somewhat emotionally distant. He’s all about the war, not as much about the feelings. He’s lost some of his humanity. It all comes back around by the end, but there was definitely a cost of war and a serious weight on his conscience. We see it in episode two when they take the city and that mother and her child are killed along with the other Romans. He really gets a sense of the cost of war.

AVC: So much of War Of The Damned is about both sides ensuring the outcome isn’t lost to history. For the rebellion, that takes the form of Spartacus constantly looking to find an appropriate heir for his cause. And yet, neither Crixus nor Gannicus are qualified heirs for most of the season. What does it say about the seismic change that Spartacus is trying to affect that not even two of his top generals can truly sign on?

SD: I think Gannicus eventually comes along by the end and embraces it. Crixus actually embraces it so much he couldn’t let it go. I think there was a beautiful kind of symmetry for Agron to carry the torch. He’s always been Spartacus’ right-hand man, his confidante, the guy who’s always there to help him. And reaching back to season one, with Andy Whitfield, where it was Agron and Duro who were in on the plot to escape with Spartacus. And it felt like a really beautiful kind of symmetry. They had the kind of relationship that was unfettered by antagonism. Crixus and Gannicus both, at one point, had tried to kill Spartacus. Agron is the one who never really tried to kill him. So I thought it was nice to bring that full circle. Plus, they always seemed to have the closer bond on a brotherhood level.

AVC: On the Roman side, Crassus looks forward to his name being in the history books so much that he can’t see the domestic strife before his eyes. How much of his characterization stemmed from research, and how much was you in the writers’ room hacking out what makes him tick?

SD: It was mostly hacking out what made this character tick. I’m a hopeless romantic. I’ve always said from the start that Spartacus, really at its root, it a story about love. Everyone’s driven by love. Whether it’s the love of power or the love of sex or the love of victory or, in most cases, love of another human being. That’s what drove Spartacus. We see it even at the end. We see him driven by memories of his wife. With Crassus, I really wanted to find a way to humanize him, and also have this huge dichotomy where he respects his slaves, unlike a lot of other Romans. Historically, Crassus was one of the largest slave owners, but he had a collection of, I guess you would call them professional slavers. Architects, teachers, scholars that he would rent out to other Romans. These people often had their own homes, weren’t kept in chains… it was more like a corporation with workers than it was a slavery. He had a bit of a different viewpoint. 

So I really wanted to introduce this story of Crassus being love with his slave. And historically, there’s nothing about him being in love with his slave. The other thing is, when you get to the end of the story, Pompey claimed credit and got the laurels. He got the triumphant parade in Rome for killing Spartacus. Why didn’t Crassus fight that? I was always fascinated by that. And I wanted it to be an emotional reason why he didn’t fight this. He had that little bit about turning eyes from the past and looking toward the future. Basically, at this point, with what happened with Kore, he wants to forget this war and just move on. The power and glory that he was after has left a bitter taste in his mouth. He accepts not getting credit for killing Spartacus by turning his eyes toward the bigger prize and away from what had happened.

AVC: This leads us to Caesar, who seemed a somewhat controversial figure to bring in, and his bearded incarnation was at odds with his historical legacy. Was having a character that famous ever a hindrance during the writing process? 

SD: It’s definitely tricky. It’s definitely a little tricky. We wanted Caesar to be a bit of a rogue. And we drew a lot of stuff from history. I remember when we first announced this, a lot of people lost their minds. I was inundated with emails and tweets and Facebook messages saying, “How dare you! Caesar was never part of this war! He wasn’t even in Rome at the time!” Not true. He was a military tribune at the time. We asked our historical consults early on, “How much will we be breaking history by introducing Caesar?” And I was shocked when they said, “Not at all.” A lot of historians think he probably was involved with the Spartacus war, and this is the one little sliver of time in his life that not a lot is known about him. 

That was enough for me. Everything in here is fictional, of course. The shaggy bearded part, that’s because he was coming from overseas. And Crassus nabbed him before he had the chance to shower and shave. I remember early on, I also heard a lot of, “You guys really fucked up the casting! This is terrible! This is nothing like how he looked in Rome!” Well, that’s 30-some odd years later. Historically, he’s around 29 at this point in history. Then I read a lot of complaints about the beard and the hair and that it’s “Surfer Caesar” or “Brad Pitt Caesar.” Then of course, after the Romans retake Sinuessa, Caesar cleaned up. And I heard nothing but, “We liked Caesar with the long hair and the beard! This is terrible! What are you doing?” [Laughs.] I was like, “Aaah! I can’t please anybody!” 

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AVC: In terms of the “historically adjacent” aspects, were there any more or less fears when it came to writing Caesar than other known figures in this war?

SD: I think there was more concern with Caesar, just because he’s the most recognizable figure. Everybody has heard of Caesar. Not everybody’s heard of Crassus. Not everybody’s heard of Pompey. So yes, there was definitely a bit of concern. I’ve read things where people said, “Caesar wasn’t a fighter!” Well, he led quite a few armies. [Laughs.] So we obviously took some creative liberties, but again, we tried to stay true to the general idea of Caesar, specifically in relation to Crassus and the creation of the triumvirate with Pompey, knowing they go over to overthrow the Republic. That was something I was very interested in showing. 

AVC: You also had the perhaps unintended side effects of having fans terrified every time one of their favorite characters sparred with Caesar. We know he’s not going down in that fight.

SD: Yeah, unless I was pulling an Inglourious Basterds, which a lot of people suspect I might do in the finale! That was definitely there. And also, the trickiest part of Crassus and Caesar is that anyone familiar with history knows that we can’t kill them. So it was about putting the right feeling and drama to offset the fact that historically, you can’t kill them. But still, there’s a moment in the finale where you think, “Is he gonna do it? Is he gonna do it?”

AVC: In terms of the fighting itself, how much of the choreography is written into the scripts and how much do you leave in the hands of your directors and stunt coordinators? Because there are particular character moments that emerge through the fighting as much as through dialogue. 

SD: You know, it’s a group effort. There are certain things that are very, very specific. For instance, the Crassus “rope-a-dope” move in the season première was specifically scripted. A lot of times what happens is when I write, I will only put in the important moments and then the amazing stunt team just fills it out. When I have seen what they come up with, sometimes we change stuff. A lot of times they have much better suggestions than I ever imagined. And then sometimes you see something where you think, “Okay, I can use that for character stuff later.” For instance, Saxa, who uses The Egyptian’s daggers throughout this season, that’s something they came up with down there. Ellen Hollman [who plays Saxa] called me up and said, “How about if she takes The Egyptian’s daggers and uses them for her own?” And I said, “Great! We’ll write that in.” So it’s definitely a give and take. But I wish I could dream up what the stunt team does. Because what they do is phenomenal.

AVC: The ninth episode, “The Dead And The Dying,” is both a setup for the finale and an act of homage. The sequence in which the names of the dead are offered up as tribute gives context to the massive losses incurred on this show. Yet they use the names for inspiration to fight one last battle they know they will most likely lose. Do you still view Spartacus as a tragedy? Or does the very act of choosing define victory in the world of this show?

SD: I think it’s a bit of both. I mean, they choose to go back into battle due to love. Love of their fellow man, of those that can’t fight for themselves to give them a chance. And yes, it’s definitely, definitely a tragedy. It’s interesting: historically, after Crixus died, Spartacus captured 200 Roman soldiers and made them fight each other. When we were the writers’ room, we actually broke it that way, with the Romans fighting each other. When we were done, we looked at one another and said, “You know, this is really great. It’s historically accurate. But in the second half of this episode, all of our main characters are standing around watching other people fight.  That’s no good.” So we switched it around.

In terms of the calling of the names, it did two things. We really wanted to honor the dead that had come before this. And we also wanted one last nod to where we started in the arena. Moving into episode 10, one of the things Rob Tapert and I discussed was that we wanted the episode to have a feeling of both doom and hope. Those two things permeate the episode. There’s the sense we are facing overwhelming odds, and we probably won’t live. But just maybe we might. And that’s something we really wanted to infuse the episode with. 

AVC: What stood out in that penultimate episode wasn’t the gladiatorial games, but the intimate conversations between Sibyl/Gannicus and Laeta/Spartacus. Could you talk about the importance of those two women in particular over the course of the final arc of the series? They aren’t fighters, but certainly have reserves of strength that the warriors in the show respond to.

SD: With Sibyl, I think she harkens back for Gannicus to Melitta in Gods Of The Arena. There’s something innocent and pure about her that strikes a chord in his heart. And it’s a sad chord, because he spends the first half of the season telling her, “Stay away from men like me,” because he knows what happened to Melitta. Gannicus’ biggest problem is self-loathing. All through the series, there’s a part of him that he just hates. With Sybil, he finds a way to move past that hate. Ultimately, despite all his swaggering and bravado, he’s a man that really despises himself. Sibyl draws him out of that. It’s not like Saxa, whom he cares for, but it’s a much more carnal. It’s drinking and fucking and more of the same. But with Sibyl, it’s that classic line: She makes him want to be a better man. And it’s not because of anything she does. It’s who she is.

With Laeta, we were fascinated by the idea of whether Spartacus and a noble, Roman woman could fall for each other. I loved that idea, but it’s a tricky balancing act. On one hand, the Romans represent all that Spartacus hates, even if he recognizes not all Romans are bad. On the Laeta side, Spartacus sacked her city, killed her husband, and ran roughshod over her life. So…

AVC: …it couldn’t just be Stockholm syndrome.

SD: Right! So I really wanted to take the time to get together, with some hiccups along the way. And when I did get them together, I wanted it to be very clear that they may care about each other, but they do not love each other. Spartacus is very clear about this, and Laeta is very clear about this. But there is a compassion between them. There’s that line in the finale where Spartacus thanks her for the comfort her presence gave him. But it’s not love. He’s very clear that’s reserved for his wife. 

Also, I think I’d run the course with characters like Lucretia and Ilithyia, who I loved writing for. But I didn’t want to introduce a couple more scheming women. I just felt like it would be a pale shadow. So I wanted to just approach these characters—and I’d throw Kore in there too—from their own point of view, and not trying to make them somebody else. This was also something that came up when we killed Batiatus [in the season one finale “Kill Them All”]. There was a lot of talk of bringing in a Batiatus-like character. And I had a very strong feeling that that was just a losing proposition. He’d be a pale shadow, and the audience would sniff that out in a second. Let’s just leave Batiatus to be Batiatus and move on from there.

AVC: Looking back on the show’s run, are there moments in particular that stick out as ones that epitomize what you set out to achieve with Spartacus?

SD: Oh, yeah. Geez. There are so many moments. Going through the episodes, I’d say in season one, that fifth episode, where Crixus and Spartacus fight Theokoles. And it wasn’t so much the fight but the realization Crixus had that there was more than glory in the arena. The finale of season one, which I was extremely proud of and sent us off in the right direction. The entirety of Gods Of The Arena, which came out of the severest tragedy for us—Andy being sick—and it was created specifically to give him time to recover. And it was very sad when [the cancer] came back. But for something that was born as a stopgap, I think it really changed the show. I don’t think Vengeance and War Of The Damned would have the same impact without that six-episode prequel story to fill in a lot of those blanks.

And I’d have to say the finale. You know, I was sweating bullets, because I just did not want to drop the ball on the finale. There was an incredible amount of work that went into the finale on all sides. A lot of work on the script, and when the script was finally locked down, I thought, “Well, there’s no way in hell we’re gonna be able to shoot this. It’s just gigantic for a television show.” And somehow Rick Jacobson, the director, and Rob Tapert, my other half, the other executive producer down in New Zealand, and the stunt team, cast, and crew, they not only pulled it off, I think they gave 110 percent. And in the finale, I honestly think there are so many people that did the best work of their careers in the finale. They really gave everything they had.

AVC: As you look ahead to your next projects, as different as they may be from this one, what has this show taught you about making compelling television?

SD: This may sound counterintuitive, but I think one of the things that really makes a great TV show is that you can’t create from a place of fear. You can’t create while worrying about what the audience will and won’t like. You just have to concentrate on, “What makes a crackling good story?” Spartacus is a great example of that.  When the show was working so well in season one, there were discussions for around a month saying, “Should we delay Spartacus breaking out of the ludus for another year?” And Rob Tapert and I very strongly felt, “Well, yes, that is the safe choice. But that would be the wrong choice for the story. That would be a false move to get to the very end of that season and have him try to break out and not be able to, and it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re here for another season!’ It’s a bait-and-switch for the audience.  But more importantly it’s the wrong choice for the story.”

So I strongly feel that of course the audience is important—you have to have them watching to keep the show on the air—but on the flip side, you can’t look at what the Internet is saying and people’s reactions and base your storytelling on that. That’s just a losing proposition. I always go back to my mentor Joss Whedon, who said, “I give the audience what they need, not what they want.” I’ve always taken that to heart. And yeah, you’ll get some very vocal people who are very pissed off. I still get hate mail about Varro. Killing Varro was the right choice for the story. But I was flooded with mail from people who were livid and swore they would stop watching the show. 

That’s another thing: You can’t be afraid to kill your characters if the story requires it. It doesn’t matter how popular they are, or how angry people will get. If it works for the story, you should do it. Because at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is telling a good story. If you tell a good story, people will show up. And if you pander, eh, people will smell that out. 

AVC: With that in mind, what do you think the legacy of Spartacus the show will be? 

SD: Well, I’d be lying if I didn’t say the obvious. This show is still dismissed by so many people as being that softcore, violent romp on Starz. And look, it’s very easy to dismiss it. There is a lot of sex. There is a lot of violence. But I hope the legacy is, first and foremost, the story of Spartacus, which I’m sure this will not be the last retelling. I fully expect there will be movies and other TV shows and books. And there should be. I’m very happy that we were able to introduce this story to a new generation. I get this a lot less these days, but in the early days of the show, every time I was on the Internet I would get a couple hundred questions about how I came up with the idea for this show. People didn’t know it was based on history. So just to be able to inform people about that would be a great legacy.

And really, the most important thing is the legacy of the show: It doesn’t matter what the odds are, it only takes one person to stand up against oppression. Ultimately, it doesn’t even matter if you win or lose. Standing up to oppression is the most important thing to do. Because eventually, freedom will win.