Spartacus: Blood and Sand starts bad. Very bad.
It’s a little hard to remember the first three to four episodes after four seasons, two Spartacuses, plus a decade on since it first aired, but Spartacus—especially its pilot—seemed like it was everything you thought it was going to be and more.
The episode opens in media res, our hero is hunkered down under the Capua arena sands as some nameless nearly naked ne’er-do-well is being cut up by a clearly better, faceless opponent, before jumping to Greece to show how he got there. The show wastes no time in establishing what it’s there for: a CGI crowd that never looked good but looks worse with age. The show seemed to take its cues from Zack Snyder’s 300: the men are sweaty, dirty, and shirtless constantly, slow-mo is used in excessive and distracting effect, and great spurts of CGI blood fly whenever someone gets so much as a paper cut. If you turned it off and didn’t bother after the first ten minutes, I couldn’t blame you.
But most of what’s striking about the pilot is just how boring it is. The show, as it continues, will tell a lot of very poignant stories about love, but Spartacus and Sura have a number of intimate moments together (mostly for the dramatic irony of Spartacus planning to give up fighting) that, if they’d made up the majority of the show, would have dragged the rest of the season down. The story and characters in this episode are displayed and dispensed with as fast as they possibly can, because we’ll never go to Thrace again during the entire show’s run. Spartacus joins the Romans, then fights the Romans, then he and Sura are captured and taken to Italy. The nameless man getting killed in Capua is actually a nameless Thracian who is first introduced as an aspiring rapist, then shown to be a violent jerk, and finally a reckless drunk. It’s hard to care when he dies (though the show clearly wants us to care) except to be kind of grossed out by the focus on his gaping neck wound.
A lot of this comes down to table setting—the characters we know and love and love to hate either don’t appear or show up too late to redeem the episode. Manu Bennett as Crixus and John Hannah as Quintus Batiatus stroll in a whole 37 minutes into the episode, and Lucy Lawless’ Lucretia appears the minute after that. Viva Bianca’s Illyria admirably vamps in early in the episode, full of giggles disguising cutting, steering remarks to Craig Parker’s Glaber, but the depth of her performance is undercut a little by ending in a gratuitous sex scene. And, of course, the question of why and how she traveled from Capua to an apparently active war zone in Greece (the answer, obviously, is to take her clothes off on camera).
There’s also a plethora of nonsensical writing here. The Thracians specifically join Glaber to fight these tribes in the north that threaten them, not Mithridates of Pontus, so it’s confusing how he thinks he can order them to fight an enemy they’re not enemies with. Or why, having just killed the rest of his crew, Spartacus leaves the unconscious Glaber alive. Or why Glaber apparently leaves off confronting Mithridates to go hunt the deserted Thracians.
It’s a shame, too, because the episode really picks up in those last 16 minutes. Lawless and Hannah are clearly at ease with the faux-Shakespeare Steven S. DeKnight has written for them, and they elevate the show for it. It doesn’t hurt that their storyline isn’t a largely pointless throwaway—we’re immediately introduced to a season-defining professional rivalry between Batiatus and Solonius (which Hannah conveys with literally just a glare) at a party full of politics.
Unfortunately, we’re quickly back to Spartacus in the sands. Once again, the writing makes little sense—putting the captured Thracians in the arena is supposed to win him favor with the crowd and through the crowd, Illythia’s Senator father. But then he puts Spartacus in a 4-on-1 fight that the crowd hates, obviously undercutting all that. And then they lose and Spartacus’ life is spared.
Watching it over reminds me very much why in my first attempt I did not watch past this episode, and only actually finished it when I was really bored doing laundry one day. It is truly a long, ponderous, episode. Actors stumble over their lines, presenting them without much conviction. The best characters either don’t appear until the end of the episode or don’t show up at all (and in Crixus’ case, they show up but don’t get any lines!). Whitfield’s performance, which will get more nuanced and complex over time is lost in a lot of fight scenes and Glaber’s pointless vendettas, which serve to generate plot while coming largely out of left field.
You could be forgiven thinking that the show was softcore porn masquerading as HBO’s Rome’s edgier, lower-budget younger sibling. I write erotica on the side, and at the scene where Spartacus and Sura flee their burning village only to have a protracted sex scene that’s only a hair’s breadth from hardcore, I thought “this is something I would do.” The plot doesn’t demand it, it’s just a good spot for a sex interlude. It makes sense if that’s what you’re selling, but not if you’re actually trying to tell story.
But that overlooks the fairly liberal attitude the show has towards nudity and sex, that was simultaneously both exploitative and progressively libertine. At the same time Game of Thrones was getting criticized for showing nothing women in full frontal nudity, Spartacus: Blood and Sand was, in the common parlance, hanging dong liberally (by comparison). Unfortunately, in another indication of how far removed from the rest of the show the pilot is, that is not what happens in this episode. The most inclusive we get is that, in Illythia’s unnecessary disrobing, Glaber immediately kneels to perform oral and the camera zooms in on her pleased face—a similar choice earned two different feature films X ratings from the MPAA. The bar is set low.
- Man butt: 1
- Lady butt: 1
- Frontal nudity (men): 0 instances, unless we’re counting the dwarf with a phallus mask on their head.
- Frontal nudity (women): 14 instances, at least
As an addendum, when I started these recaps, I had fully intended to track the number of sex scenes, but there are enough encounters in this show where a person uses a slave or gladiator for their own sexual pleasure that might not necessarily be presented as a rape in the context of the show that this became questionable. And there are out and out rapes as well. So, instead, as I’ve done here, I’ll endeavor to describe the sex scenes and just track the cases where actors had to take their clothes off for the camera for equity comparisons. These are presented as a gender binary because the show never even considers the alternative.
- It’s weird to think that Andy Whitfield was Spartacus for less time than Liam McIntyre, yet he’s who I always picture. Tragically, Whitfield died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma not long after season 1 at age 39.
- Apparently there are no barbers among the Thracians, which accounts for why everyone has long greasy hair, except for the Romans who all went to the salon earlier that day.
- Sura is picking apples in the snow. She has also, judging from the distance of the burning CGI village, walked at least ten miles, barefoot, to do so. I don’t know a lot about ancient Thrace, but this seems not right.
- I can’t decide who I’d rather be less at the party: the naked rose petal pool ladies, or the naked fish cradling human statue ladies.