To see Liam McIntyre as Spartacus for the first time is certainly a shock. There’s no other way of saying it. For as long as we’ve all known about the behind-the-scenes tragedy of Andy Whitfield’s death, and the knowledge that he gave his blessing for the show to continue, it’s still really strange to see another man playing the role that Whitfield once filled. His absence hangs over Spartacus: Vengeance—but only for a short time. Indeed, just as there is little time for anyone in the show to waste after the events of Blood And Sand, there’s precious little time for the audience to dwell on the new man inhabiting Thracian shoes. It’s a tribute to both McIntyre and Spartacus as a whole that by the end of tonight’s initial hour, we’re thinking less of what happened offscreen and more about what’s happening on it.
As for the onscreen action… well, this is essentially the third time that creator Steven DeKnight has had to reinvent the show’s wheel. The original pilot had to establish the world as a whole. The first episode of Gods Of the Arena had to recontextualize that world via flashback. And tonight’s episode, “Fugitivus,” has to establish the new, bloody world order created in the wake of the Blood And Sand finale, “Kill Them All.” As such, there’s a lot of heavy lifting going on, as both the show and its characters figure out what they want to do next. Interestingly enough, Spartacus and his less-than-merry men and women aren’t terrifically better off now that they are free. They live in the sewers. Food is scarce. There’s a major schism within the freed slaves, with the heavy muscle firmly aligned behind Crixus and the weaker ones behind Spartacus.
It’s a fascinating arrangement, since Spartacus seems to have started a revolution with little more than a vague notion of an idealized existence. He has a strong moral notion, but little in the way of executing that vision. He wants to ensure none live as he does, nor die as his wife did. But there’s an equal lack of knowledge of how to practically enforce this world view. As such, he and his forces strike quickly and retreat back to their hovel. All the while, Spartacus’ eye lays not on freedom for all but death for one: Glaber, the man Spartacus now ultimately holds responsible for Sura’s death.
Glaber finds himself back in Capua thanks to his forced patronage of Batiatus in the wake of Ilithyia’s murder of Licinia. (Everyone got this? Because there’s so gonna be a test later.) Ilithyia’s father, Albinius, puts the screws to Glaber to clean up the Spartacus mess himself. Albinius favors another praetor, Varinius, a man that has the same rank as Glaber but a more inside position in terms of ascension. So quicker than you can say “huge mask-filled orgy that knocked up Ilithyia with Spartacus’ kid”, Glaber drags his wife back to Batiatus’ ludus. The blood on the walls has long dried there, giving the once-lavish place a sense of dank dread. Not helping the mood? Lucretia, who is still living there, with a heaping helping of batshit crazy to go along with her curiously stitched stomach wound. Having spent a prequel season without Ilithyia, it’s fantastic to once again watch Lucy Lawless and Viva Bianca go toe-to-toe. The power struggle between the pair was a highlight in Blood And Sand, and the two haven’t missed a step in the interim.
That those two are great together isn’t a surprise. That McIntyre so ably and so quickly inhabits the role perhaps is. It’s all well and good to see him slo-mo fight as well as anyone else in the cast. But the moments in which he interacts with Varro’s widow, Aurelia, those really sell him as a worthy heir to Whitfield’s role. McIntyre talks of scenes in which he did not personally participate, but it still feels like the Spartacus we remember talking of a friendship that underpinned Blood And Sand. The initial scene between the two, in which he gives her coins to purchase freedom for herself and her son, is the type of gorgeously rendered moment that the show does so well. And their final scene, in which a beaten, bloody Aurelia damns him with her final breath, is even more indicative of the way Spartacus as a show works as an emotional wrecking ball. “Promise me you will stay far from my son,” she hisses. “I would not have him die in your wake. As his father… and mother.”
So, yeah, another season of Spartacus and Company squeezing their Happy Fun Balls. Speaking of balls, that was one hell of a whorehouse slaughter, eh? If Spartacus’ emotional through line is distinct and clear (lure Glaber to Capua in order to kill him), then Crixus’ arc is equally succinct. He wants to find Naevia, who has been shuffled around from house to house after her banishment from Batiatus’ ludus. While Spartacus forages for supplies, Crixus forages for information on the love of his life. Neither men have far-ranging goals at this point, and that’s for the best: dramatically speaking, it would be pretty damn dull if these guys talked about the “greater good” and actually lived up to those lofty goals. Better they talk a good game, than succumb to their desires. Spartacus pays for his arrogance, if you want to even call it that, and ends the episode vowing to leave Capua, regroup, and try to kill Glaber another day.
At least these men have purpose of which to speak. Onomeaus spends the majority of the hour with his metaphorical tail between his legs. Without the ludus, he is without purpose. He attends matches inside the arena the way fat 40-somethings attend high school football games, longing for the day when life seemed to be full of possibility and importance. Onomeaus kills a few cretins seeking to capture him for the reward placed upon his head, but by episode’s end, he vows to crawl back to the only place for an “animal without honor.” I won’t give away where he’s going, but long-time fans probably can guess where we will see him next.
In any case, it’s clear that the freedom established in “Kill Them All” has led to a type of paralysis for all associated with it. Rather than move past the event, all are sucked into the vacuum left in its wake. No one can do anything except deal with that slaughter’s ramifications. There are opportunities, to be sure. But stripped of the simple walls of the ludus, the world is both much bigger and much more complicated than any could have imagined. It’s a tough place for these characters, but it’s a pretty fantastic place for the audience. It’s clear there’s a master structure in place, story-wise. But it’s also clear that said structure is dictated by placing familiar characters in unfamiliar positions and seeing not only what choices they face, but more importantly, what choices they make. Those choices inform the structure, not the other way around. And while we’re just getting started, know that the seeds planted tonight are going to reap a harvest of pain in the near future.
- As big as the scope was in “Kill Them All,” it seems even bigger in tonight’s première. And having seen the first four episodes already, I can assure you this is a chamber piece compared to what’s coming down the pipe.
- There’s a new generation of Roman elite this season, in the form of Seppius and Seppia. They are a brother/sister duo that appear to have a little bit of the House Lannister in them, incestuously speaking.
- It seems a touch too convenient to once again locate a majority of the action inside the House of Batiatus, but Glaber speaks a few lines praising its strategic advantages in order to sell the coincidence.
- Notice Ilythia getting both disgusted and simultaneously aroused upon seeing Spartacus’ mask? Keep that in mind for future reference. Might come in handy.
- “In matters concerning my wife, even the gods fear to speculate.”
- “Place ear to chest, and you will find it absent sound.”