Don't read unless you've seen "Victory," the series finale of "Spartacus."
When I try to convey to people who don't watch "Spartacus" why I love the Starz show so much, it comes down to trying to communicate this idea: it makes me feel taken care of.
During every episode, whether all the elements fully work or not, I feel that those making the show are trying their best to entertain me, to move me, to make me care and to even make me think a little. No matter how many bare asses we see, nothing about this show feels half-assed.
I watch a lot of TV, and not much of it is as carefully thought out and painstakingly crafted as this show. And yet, "Spartacus" is cathartic, entertainingly melodramatic and funny as well. For three years now, it's consistently delivered a mixture of escapism, adventure and dramatic ambition that more lauded (and expensive) shows only rarely supply. And through it all, "Spartacus" didn't take itself too seriously, although it has become more measured in this final season, which is only right, given the magnitude of the threat Spartacus faces and how much we have come to care for those leading the rag-tag rebel army.
You know what there wasn't a lot of in the final season? Sex. I respected and enjoyed the show's embrace of sensuality, but I didn't mind the relative lack of sex in this final batch of episodes. "Spartacus" has always been about so much more than that, and the emotional threads that run through the show have always been what kept me coming back for more.
"There's definitely a deeper meaning in all the spectacle that we strive for, and for me, I think it's obvious -- the emotional levels of the show" are the most important things about it, creator Steven DeKnight said in a post-finale interview (which can be found below and here).
Though perceptions of the show have changed over time, a distressing number of people still can't or won't make the mental leap that would allow them to enjoy what this show offers. Too many people still think a show about half-naked slaves encrusted with dirt and mud must be sloppy, lazy, dumb and derivative. There are some who can't wrap their minds around what we "Spartacus" fans have understood for some time. We know that this lusty drama is also tender. We know this violent drama is deeply humane and compassionate. We know that the ornate, profane language is also poetic. We know the violence and the sex are there for specific purposes, and the characters are often smart as hell. We are well aware that this saga of sex, swords and conquest actually has something important to say about freedom, oppression and equality.
We know that, like a gladiator on the sacred sands, "Spartacus" has demonstrated a killer combination of humility (like a true warrior, the show has always aspired to improve itself) and perseverance (the show stuck to its guns, creatively speaking, and it always possessed a fervent, even lunatic desire to get the job done).
In its series finale, "Spartacus" did not leave its job unfinished. It ended the rebels' story in an episode packed with excitement, mourning, dignity and heart-stopping deaths. We could ask for no more than the glorious ending we got Friday night.
To the people who not only didn't get it, but have no desire to try to see beyond their preconceptions, I have several choice words that would make even Batiatus blush. But ultimately, those people are to be pitied. To those who've long known how hard this show has worked to keep us glued to the TV on Friday nights, I only ask: Were you not entertained?
I fucking was.
More than three years ago, I sat on a couch with my husband as we watched the first two episodes of the show. I've recommended "Spartacus" to many people, but I've never told potential fans that they'll enjoy the show's pilot, because it's not very good. I still recall looking over at my husband after the second episode was finished, and we raised our eyebrows at each other. "Should we go on?" we wondered. I wish I could say exactly what made us decide to do so (it probably had to do with how much fun John Hannah and Lucy Lawless were having with their roles as Batiatus and Lucretia). I'm a little vague on what made us keep going, but we did, thank the gods.
Fans who latched on early saw something in this show, but who could have guessed "Spartacus" would grow into the addictive, subversive treat it has been these last three years? The unexpected rigor and intelligence of this show, the soapy enjoyment I've gotten from it -- it all constitutes one of the best and most unexpected surprises I've come across in my career as a critic.
"Spartacus" has taken chances few other shows have taken, and it's something of a surprise it even made it this far. The heartbreak of Andy Whitfield's death is something fans will always remember (and seeing his face in Friday's episode was a very welcome tribute to his unforgettable portrayal of the Thracian warrior). As if in tribute to Whitfield's fighting spirit, the drama came back with "Gods of the Arena," which introduced the fan favorite Gannicus, and against all odds, it found another Spartacus, Liam McIntyre, who was able to fill out the title role in a memorable way. This is a show that had to fight for its place in the world, and it was all the stronger for it.
Did the show go over the top a few times too many? Well, sure, but that was to be expected, especially from a show that was still finding its way in its early seasons. Every year, though, the good stuff outweighed iffy elements, and the drama kept ramping up its ambitions as it went. This season, Sybil didn't really work for me as a character, I wanted more time with Crassus, Caesar, Kore and Tiberius, and Naevia's turn to the dark side early in the season could have been set up better, in my humble opinion.
But those things are essentially quibbles. And what are quibbles compared to the sensational performance Liam McIntyre turned in this season, especially in the last couple of episodes? His battle with Crassus was unbelievable (kudos to both McIntyre and Simon Merrells, who was a great addition to the cast as the obsessive Roman). Spartacus had to be tender, commanding, bloodthirsty and melancholy this season, and McIntyre nailed all of it, and on top of that, Spartacus' death scene was a revelation. McIntyre seemed tentative when he joined the show in "Vengeance," but, like the rest of the cast, he brought his A-game and then some to show's end. Like Whitfield before him, he was Spartacus.
Similarly, Manu Bennett (Crixus), Dustin Clare (Gannicus) and Dan Feuerriegel (Agron) showed tremendous growth from that first season until now. Crixus' send-off in Episode 8 was absolutely heartbreaking and thrilling, as was the speech he gave to the rebels ("We have challenged the idea that a slave must always know his place!"). I'm very glad that Manu Bennett will be a series regular on "Arrow" next season. He's been an excellent addition to that show (and if you're not watching it, give it a shot -- it's the only new show from last fall that I've stuck with).
I loved the physicality of Gannicus' "arena" fight in Episode 9, and the bittersweet intensity of that character's crucifixion in the finale won't leave my mind soon (who didn't tear up a little when he saw Oenomaus in his final moments?). If Dustin Clare does not land a major TV or film role soon, then the Hollywood gods are blind. His portrayal of the wounded bad boy with the heart of gold has been essential to the show's success and one of the best parts of these last few seasons.
The roster of names that were shouted in Episode 9, the surprise in "Pompey's" tent, the reveal of the ditch full of spikes, the epic final battle in which Gannicus rode to the rescue on horseback -- there were just too many wonderful moments to name in the last few episodes (for more detailed episode breakdowns, I recommend the reviews that my podcast partner and fellow Sparty fanatic Ryan McGee has posted at the AV Club. Here's his take on the finale).
I have many more thoughts about the show and the finale, but most can be found in the "Spartacus" podcast here and below. In the first 75 minutes of the podcast, I spoke to DeKnight about his vision for the final season and the finale, about interacting with fans and about the show's history. We spoke in depth about "Spartacus'" evolution, its aesthetics and its core message.
The final episode "was really mostly about the characters… and what this whole rebellion meant," DeKnight said. And in typical "Spartacus" fashion, the episode's title, "Victory," could be interpreted in several ways. After all, in the finale, Spartacus and Gannicus die, but a contingent of slaves get away. And Crassus lives, but he must crucify his lover and his son is dead.
"How do you claim victory when you've been defeated? And how do you lose when you've won? That's really the two sides of the coin," DeKnight said. "I think Crassus feels very much in those final moments, there is no final victory. There's absolutely no victory for anyone in this."
Yet DeKnight wanted there to be some hope in the finale, and he accomplished that in part by letting some slaves escape. Among those heading to the mountains (presumably to establish a goat farm): the fan-favorite couple Agron and Nasir.
DeKnight said the show has "always been a grand sweeping love story, it's about Spartacus' love for his wife and many other peoples' love. And it's a tragedy, it's an absolute heartbreaker."
I don't think fans would want it any other way.
If you don't have time to listen to the entire podcast (which, at the end, has a 20-minute discussion of the finale between myself and McGee, whose separate interview with DeKnight goes up here soon), here are some of the highlights:
- Speaking of battles, DeKnight had many with Rick Jacobson, who directed the finale. There were "some contentious discussions about that final battle," DeKnight recalled. "It was perhaps the darkest moment on the show, but out of that came fantastic compromises and ideas, and I wouldn't have it any other way. ... [Rick] had so many great ideas, and half of them I absolutely hated [at first]. I finally came around and now I think they're brilliant." One example: Jacobson wanted a scene of Crassus practicing with his men before the battle, DeKnight didn't think it was necessary at first, but he came around. Jacobson also suggested the tent scene between Gannicus and Spartacus, which wasn't in the original script.