This review contains spoilers.
It’s been almost two years since Spartacus and his loose coalition of slaves and gladiators killed their masters and escaped the Ludus, and in that time, much has changed, both in-show and in the real world.
Picking up some months after the initial rebellion, Spartacus: Vengeance finds the rebels enjoying some success, living off the spoils of raids against small parties of Romans and generally acting as a thorn in the side of Capua. When the political fallout threatens the career of Gaius Claudius Glaber (the one-time Legatus, now Praetor, who originally captured Spartacus) he is compelled to return to the city and take personal charge of putting down the rebellion. As you’d expect, it’s not quite as simple a prospect as it sounds.
Before we go any deeper into the contents of the episode, we have to address the elephant in the room, and that’s the casting of Liam McIntyre following the untimely death of previous series lead, Andy Whitfield.
Under the circumstances, McIntyre succeeds as well as could be hoped. It isn’t quite a seamless transition, but McIntyre retains the piercing stare, restrained temper and surprising gentleness of the character, if filtered through his own interpretation. Perhaps it’s the amount of time since the original series, or perhaps it’s the knowledge that the show doesn’t rely on the character (it did fine without him in last year’s six-episode prequel, Gods of the Arena) but as sad as the circumstances of Whitfield’s departure were, it’s clear that the show can go on with McIntyre in the lead without too much retooling.
That said, it certainly helps that structurally, there’s almost no similarity between this series and the first. The cast is drastically reshuffled, with a host of new names and faces replacing the many slaughtered favourites from last time. A selection of returnees keep things on even ground, and the elevation of Glaber from secondary to primary antagonist helps to imply a shape for the coming episodes, as does the escapee’s plan to rescue Naevia. Familiar locations such as the Ludus courtyard and the Arena make small appearances, but evidently the decision has been taken to move forward as completely as possible.
That’s not to say a little recap and familiarity wouldn’t have been nice. It’s clear that the writers haven’t wasted too much effort reminding us who the characters are and how they relate to one another. In a world where Wikipedia exists, and where many viewers will have seen the series on DVD far more recently than its initial broadcast, it’s perhaps fair to not waste time explaining who’s who to viewers, but personally, I would have liked a little more of a refresh. The A-listers are of course unforgettable, but it took me a while to dredge up who Mira was, and remember whether Agron was a new face or not.
Complaining about that, however, seems churlish when the series’ true strengths are back in full force. Spartacus: Vengeance serves up the same mix of violent and sexual content as its predecessors, capped off with some charmingly melodramatic dialogue and the best TV-cursing this side of The Thick of It.
It’s Oenomaus who gets the episode’s best fight scene, fending off multiple assailants without breaking a sweat, but the most ridiculous overall surely goes to the raid on a roman brothel, which is almost impressive for the sheer range of perversions it packs into about three minutes. The combination of age and critical acclaim has clearly not impressed any additional maturity on Spartacus: Vengeance, and one suspects viewers would have it no other way – particularly at a point in the series where events have barely begun to warm up.
In terms of ongoing plots, there are plenty of threads already running, though not all as good as each other. It’s clear that the rebels’ difficulty in holding the revolution together will play a major (and enjoyable) part, as will Ilithya’s attempts to cover up her murderous extra-curricular activities.
On the other hand, Oenomaus’ difficulty reconciling his betrayal of Batiatus seems to have an inevitable conclusion (not least because he’s based on a real historical figure) and Lucretia’s re-appearance as a madwoman might grate if she doesn’t snap out of it in the long-term (one suspects she will, as soon as it becomes most inconvenient for those around her) though for now it’s the hook of an interesting question: how did she survive anyway? That wound had clearly been seen to…
Overall, a decent start to the series by any assessment. Perhaps not the out-of-the-gate sprint some might have expected, but certainly it knows where it’s going and will doubtlessly play its audience like a maestro in reaching those destinations. As ridiculous and compelling as ever, Spartacus is truly back, and we know from experience that as good as this was, things can only improve from here.