on 9 April 2013
So, Spartacus nears its ultimate conclusion. We are but days away from the very last episode of what has been - for my money at least - the best of all four series of Spartacus.
The first we saw of Spartacus was the long-haired Thracian who became Capua's greatest champion. Andy Whitfield was perfect for the role; the kind-faced, big-hearted man who was full of such bubbling rage come the end of the series. There was sex, violence, a little more violence, plenty of political intrigue, more sex, more violence, some wonderfully-created characters and most importantly of all, a killer script.
When Whitfield's health declined, a prequel series aired, starring Dustin Clare as Gannicus; the greatest champion that the ludus of Batiatus had possibly ever produced earning his freedom - and title as a "God" amongst gladiators - on the sands of the new arena.
Both seasons were quite frankly magnificent. The casting was superb, and the writing was even better. But the sad news came that Andy Whitfield had tragically passed away, and there was the need for a new Spartacus to be cast. Enter the relatively unknown Liam McIntyre; at first a little wooden, but he soon grew into the role. He portrayed a different Spartacus; a man so utterly hell-bent on spilling Roman blood that he seemed unrecognisable from Whitfield's earlier portrayal.
And so McIntyre lead an ensemble cast in the third series; Vengeance. It was Blood and Sand on a wider scale - there was even more violence, even more sex, and this time we saw countless battle-royales between Spartacus' rebels and the hired mercenary gladiators under the scheming Syrian Ashur. We had villains left, right, and centre - Craig Parker's Glaber was a fitting lead bad-guy, but with his serpent-like wife Illithyia, the psychotic Lucy Lawless as Lucretia, and the aforementioned Ashur at his side, those dastardly Romans were a force to be reckoned with.
But the main thing missing from season three was a PROPER baddie. I'm talking about someone like Batiatus, here. I have never been a massive John Hannah fan, but he played the role perfectly. At first he was in over his head, but this man had an eye for a shrewd political manoeuvre and became increasingly and surprisingly violent in his execution of his plans. It made for good drama, and Spartacus had to overpower his master both physically and mentally. With Glaber and company, it was more of an extended battle sequence, separated by scenes of running through a forest, with a major rebel character being killed every now and then along the way. The inspired decision to bring back Clare's Gannicus abated the fans, but Vengeance - despite being a good follow-up to the refreshing original series and its prequel - lacked the same cutting edge. The dialogue was as good, the acting still as brilliant as ever, but the lack of any real deep plot-line left us feeling very slightly cheated. Yes, it was all about "Vengeance" - the titular character wanted Glaber's head; Naevia and Crixus wanted to address the wrongs Ashur had committed against them; Lucretia desired to assert herself over Illithyia once again; Agron wanted to avenge his brother, and so on, and so on. But that is moreorless all it was - fighting, fighting, fighting.
So with season four announced as the culmination of all that running and fighting, the producers had to make amends. The most important change was to bring back a proper villain of the ilk of Batiatus - or even Tullius in Gods of the Arena. Step forward the man to eclipse them all - Simon Merrells as Marcus Lucinius Crassus. With a supporting arc including his devious son, Tiberius (brilliantly portrayed by Christian Antidormi as the boy you absolutely love to loathe) and the simply superb Todd Lasance as Julius Caesar (in an interesting take on the Ciaran Hinds-played elder Caesar of HBO's Rome, we see Lasance play a far younger Caesar under Crassus' leadership, who promises to elevate the young general by nurturing his own political nous), Spartacus finally has a villain who can match his own under-estimated intelligence. Maybe, on reflection, Glaber and company were dumbed down to make Crassus appear the wealthy genius he supposedly was. Either way, it was a piece of inspired casting and Merrells' portrayal ranks alongside Lucy Lawless' performance as Lucretia as the best across all four seasons.
And so, the scope widens further. Spartacus now has a full-on rebel army, and he is winning battle after battle. The title - War of the Damned - suggests a gut-wrenching finale that is sure to lead to the deaths of so many of our favourites, as the history of the Third Servile War would support, but such is the grandiose scale of this season that you feel it will not have been in vain. Spartacus' ultimate victory is a moral one which has echoed through legend for millennia. It is something that the show manages to capture quite wonderfully and emphatically translates it onto the screen. War of the Damned will quite certainly be remembered as the biggest, most bad-ass, and certainly the best of all four seasons. To give credit where it is due, McIntyre also comes into his own in this season, also, but the most touching Spartacus moment is the very final montage where we see Andy Whitfield screaming "I AM SPARTACUS!" - a most fitting ending.
For the reasons cited above - the return of a brilliant cast (including a match for Spartacus in the genuinely-fantastic triumvirate of villains) and a killer script - this time WITH direction - makes for one magnificent spectacle. It comes with everything you might expect - the CGI is as good as ever, the sets are breath-taking, and quite frankly, this is as good as it gets.
This season is bigger, better, and basically more brilliant in every possible way than the previous seasons. Starz have surpassed themselves, and I don't think they will ever match this effort. 10/10 just about gives this series justice.
I do have to be a little critical of the DVD release in the UK, however. The set is a barebones release with NO extras, and again there are no subtitles. Whether Starz are just being lazy and rushed the release to the UK market (possible as the US release isn't out for a few more weeks) or they really exhausted all possible avenues of special feature on the previous sets, it is a little disappointing.
I would therefore revise this review to suggest 10/10 for the series, and 5/10 for the release.