After the brilliance of Blood and Sand, this series had an awful lot to aspire towards.
That was only exacerbated by Gods of the Arena, which is arguably even better than the original series. We were treated to the rise of Batiatus of Crixus, introduced to Gannicus and witnessed more blood and sex than ever before.
The sad news that Andy Whitfield was fighting a losing battle with cancer meant the role was passed on to Liam McIntyre. Big boots to fill - the role of Spartacus suited Andy to the core, and he brought a sophisticated mixture of fierceness, wit and muscle to the character.
At first I was sceptical about McIntyre. In comparison to Whitfield, who is fairly softly-spoken and kind-faced (which creates a great juxtaposition between the man and the warrior), McIntyre's facial expression is often one of seething rage; teeth gritted and brow furrowed. He is also quite noticeably less 'built' then his predecessor. The acting was a little wooden at first, as if he was completely overawed by the magnitude of the role and the calibre of actors surrounding him.
Yet he soon grew into the role. To say he has done justice to Whitfield's Spartacus would be an apt commendation, yet it would also be harsh on McIntyre. To put it bluntly; he comes good by the end of the series. You are made to feel Spartacus' pain, and eventually you find yourself emitting a sigh of relief as he finds his own peace. The moment of deliverance in the season finale is outstanding; easily the best scene from any of the three seasons. Recall season one, where Glaber noticed that the Thracian had 'learnt his place' before him, on his knees? The roles are reversed here as Spartacus enjoys the moment. A man who has for so long felt the emotional scars of his wife's abduction and then murder enacts his revenge, and you feel as if you yourself have scored a victory over those bastard Romans.
McIntyre, as I have said, comes good - but let's not overlook the contributions of others. Manu Bennett is once again brilliant as Crixus. The cold-eyed, harshly-spoken Gaul of Blood and Sand retains the same grit and aggression we would come to expect, yet with the rescue of Nevia he develops a softer side, and the audience becomes to accept him not just as a gladiator, but as a human being. Dustin Clare's inclusion was an excellent move by the producers; Gannicus became a fan favourite, and his relationship with Oenameus (played excellently by Peter Mensah) is a central part of the later episodes in regards to Gannicus' sexual relationship with Mileta, Oenameus' wife from Gods of the Arena.
This sub-plot brings an additional meaning to the concept of 'Vengeance' - yet it is forgiveness that is ultimately employed on this occasion. Again, do not think it is just Spartacus' ongoing feud with Praetor Glaber that is referred to by the show's title. Nick E. Tarabay returns as the scheming Syrian Ashur, and the wrongdoings he did upon Crixus and Naevia in the first season plays a significant role as he assumes a position as Glaber's right-hand.
Lucy Lawless also returns as Lucretia; a superb decision by the producers. Though we thought her dead alongside her husband, Batiatus, Lucretia is revealed to have survived the gladiator rebellion in the Batiatus household. Though her position as a prophetess becomes a little tedious at points, Lawless is flawless (pardon the pun) in the role, and she too has her own score to settle with Glaber and his wife Ilithiya.
Though one assumes this series is solely about Spartacus, the magnificent acting ensemble surrounding McIntyre makes for splendid viewing. We are introduced to new characters - and new gladiators! - and older characters given only a bit-part role in the original series (such as the stunningly-beautiful Katrina Law, who plays Mira, as well as Aggron, who has a romantic relationship with another new character, Nicea) are able to come to the fore. What the producers have done is keep the show fresh at the same time as focusing on the same central characters: Spartacus, Glaber, Lucretia, Crixus, Neavia and Ashur, and their roles in 'Vengeance'.
Starz had a difficult job to do in living up to Gods of the Arena and Blood and Sand, but they delivered with 'Vengeance'.
My only regret is that I have to wait another five months for the physical release.