Ever since the premiere of Spartacus: Blood and Sand on January 22nd, 2010, I’ve been a loyal viewer of this show. I’m not exactly sure how this transpired. I guess it was one of those things in which every time you turn on “On Demand” you would get assaulted by a battery of Spartacus ads. The show was presented just as it is: over-the-top in every way imaginable. Violence? Oh they’ve got plenty of that. Sex? You betcha!
I guess the most accurate thing to say is that I started watching Spartacus ironically. My brother and I would see these ads and I would say something like, “Oh man, Blood and Sand! What more could you want in a TV show?” My brother would play along too: “Absolutely nothing.” Next thing I know I’m watching the pilot in consternation: I don’t like violence in films; I don’t like graphic sex in films. I feel that very often the two are used as a substitute for character development and plot advancement. Now it is three years later and I’m watching the series finale.
In the penultimate episode of this series we are revisited by an old glorious sight: the coliseum. Ok, it’s not actually the coliseum but these former slaves have captured some Romans and have forced them to battle for sport in their own makeshift coliseum. And so you get these shots of sheer brutality followed by shots of the audience roaring in celebration. As I watched this episode I realized something: I am in that audience. I scream and cheer when the show’s namesake stabs a man through both eyes simultaneously with two swords. I thrust my fist into the air with delight.
Again, I’m not sure how this happened. To make myself clear, I do not watch this show with any primordial blood-lust. I am not some latent ruffian. I find myself entertained by these scenes. It’s very amusing. I laugh heartily while Spartacus performs double decapitations. And I’m not laughing condescendingly; I feel like this is how this show is supposed to be watched. The creators intend this to be funny.
The violence in this show isn’t designed to make you cringe. It isn’t hateful. It’s essentially a 21st century iteration of The Three Stooges. This isn’t an Eli Roth film where you watch people being tortured for 90 minutes. The blood looks artificial. They go through no great strain to make this appear realistic. Sure it is incredibly vulgar but you get a sense that the creators of this show are in on the joke. With the sheer amount of bloodshed that gets spilled in just a single episode they would have to be in on it.
Example: A Roman gets bashed on the head and you will see a geyser of blood ooze out. The camera then freeze-frames, rotates 180 degrees, and continues action in slow motion.
The camera is practically laughing with me.
I suppose what I like about Spartacus is that it is very aware of what it is and it is completely content with that. Over the years, you get the sense that everyone involved in this show just found their place and they have been honoring that with great joy. I can imagine how jazzed they are about inventing new, egregious ways to kill people.
The show isn’t a great intellectual achievement and the writing doesn’t hide that fact. Very often seasons of this show just seem like a haze of orgies and killings and that is what we expect from this show: When you purchase a Twix bar you don’t gripe over its lack of epicurean richness; this is the social contract you accept. Sure there are seasonal arcs to Spartacus but often, in their early stages, it feels like just a pretext to revel in the violence and sex this show is notorious for.
Yet there are times when they accomplish cogent storytelling. By the end of the season things really start to dovetail in a fascinating way. It’s not on par with shows like Mad Men, but what do you expect? Invariably, when these threads intertwine—as is the case with this past season’s “Decimation”—I find myself taken aback. “Wait, that was actually good storytelling”, I’ll say aloud. And because they leveled our expectations to seeing one of their patented slow motion jumps punctuated with a violent blow—which occurs at least once per episode—, or dialogue drenched in archaic syntax and vivid sexuality, it always strikes you as impressive.
I would honestly watch this series for the dialogue alone. Remove all the violence, sex, and even plot. I yearn to view a Big Brother-esque 24 hour feed of the ludus and hear the workaday interactions of people like Crixus and Batiatus. Here is the kind of thing you hear every five minutes:
“Never lose focus! Not if Jupiter himself were to rip open the heavens, and dangle his cock from the skies!”
But allow me to cut circle with straightest line: Ultimately, to enjoy this show you must place yourself in the audience at the coliseum clamoring for bloodshed. You will grow attached to these brutes. You will cry out in elation when Vettius says, "Words fall from your mouth like shit from ass!” This may all sound frightening, but as you will see, we are all just a fun loving band of people. Don’t worry; I’ll save you a seat in the front row.
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