Weirdly, even though it’s been over a year since I did the last Spartacus: Blood and Sand review, what strikes me most about watching Gods of the Arena this time through is how familiar it feels. In many ways, it is a distillation of that first season of Spartacus. Every plot and character seems to be parallel or at least at an oblique angle to a plot or character in Blood and Sand.
Some of that is by design. There’s a dramatic irony built into the prequel miniseries, because it’s a prequel miniseries. We know where these characters must end. Oenomaus tells us quite clearly in Blood and Sand that his wife is dead, so Melitta, here serving in Naevia’s role as Lucretia handmaid, ends unhappily. Solonius and Batiatus are enemies, not the best friends they appear to be. The magistrate is someone completely different. Et cetera, et cetera, to use the Latin. Sometimes the show plays on that irony, either subverting expectations, such as someone yelling “Doctore” only for the camera to focus on grizzled Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett himself!), rather than Peter Mensah’s Oenomaus, or letting us in on the joke, such as when a number of characters, including Batiatus himself, suggest buying Crixus is a waste of money or Lucretia angrily rejects the implication she’d ever have sex with a gladiator.
But in some ways, it’s also quite liberating. We know which characters are sheathed in plot armor and which aren’t, and so instead we can sit back and enjoy the journey without wondering at the destination. And without the pressures to tell the grand sweeping story of how an enslaved Thracian rose to bring the fledgling Roman Empire (still technically a Republic at this time, though it reached from Spain to Syria) to its knees, it can instead tell a tighter, more intimate story about ambition and consequence.
Once again, the show is almost a more blood-thirsty, less clothed, rendition on Downton Abbey, with upstairs plots among the Romans—the ever-familiar desire to climb higher in society by Batiatus, Lucretia’s social life being disrupted by a female friend (this time Jaime Murray’s gold-digging Gaia)—accompanied by downstairs plots among the servile group, Oenomaus longs to return from physical rehab to the arena, a champion (the newly introduced Gannicus, played by Dustin Clare) who seems to find his heights empty of meaning and treats them with disrespect.
But even though we’ve heard this song before, it’s delightful to find it’s just as engaging and feels fresh, and that’s largely because everyone’s been moved down one rung on the ladder. And there’s just enough difference that it’s like seeing two different people pull the same look off. So even though, say, Oenomaus is playing out the Crixus role of wounded champion aching to return to his rightful place, the addition of Melitta, to play out an ostensibly rosier situation of what Crixus and Naevia’s relationship might have been like if they’d been allowed to keep it above-board.
I think one criticism I have of Batiatus’ character in Blood and Sand is that he frequently invented villains for himself. Solonius was a rival, but after he was dead, he made the magistrate into an enemy, and after the magistrate, it was Glaber. In his eyes, they were lessers holding back their better. So here, it’s fun to find Batiatus faced with a formidable rival in the character of Tullius, a wealthy man with investments all across town, including, to Batiatus’ dismay, in his rival Vettius’ ludus and the still being constructed arena of Capua. Batiatus respects Tullius, at least until the man is beating and pissing on him, and it’s clear that Tullius doesn’t necessarily look down on Batiatus as low-class, unlike Solonius, the magistrate, and Glaber who frequently found him a plebian climber, but rather views him as an equal. When Vettius gloats and sneers about Batiatus being set up and reaching beyond his station, Tullius tells him to shut up, throwing in, “the grown ups are talking.” That’s a dangerous man, because Tullius sees the threat Batiatus poses and anticipates it in the way Batiatus’ antagonists from Blood and Sand failed to. So when the trap is sprung and Batiatus is being beaten within an inch of his life with a sack over his head, it feels like he’s in profound danger, even though, for plot reasons, he’s not.
Beyond the traditional plot of “Batiatus’ scheme explodes in his face,” we’ve got a lot of stage setting here. Ashur and Crixus are introduced, this time with Ashur playing Varro to Crixus’ Spartacus, schooling him in his fate in Batiatus’ ludus. Barca returns, but this time his boyfriend is one of the other gladiators, Pietros nowhere in sight. Oenomaus and Gannicus slot into Crixus and Barca’s roles as senior gladiators. Gannicus is introduced as a carefree ass, a drunk who likes to fuck and fight.
The show’s not without its normal sex-and-gore. We open with a couple of fights in the old arena (so small that at one point Gannicus literally leaps out of it, which seems like a major security risk in a culture where slaves have swords). There are no less than four sex scenes, including Gannicus with two women we’ll never see again. Some, like Lucretia and Gaia or Melitta and Oenomaus, feel somewhat relevant, if not necessary, to the plot and character building. And there’s a truly spectacular fight sequence in which Gannicus has to fight blindfolded, thanks to Batiatus’ big mouth, which neatly establishes his bonafides as champion while also delivering the action the show is famous for.
Welcome back to Spartacus, everyone!
- I’ve dropped the sex and nudity tracking entirely for this season, and probably going forward as well. I’ll mention them where I think they’re relevant (or well done), but for now let’s say that the show is quite lopsided in its nudity, but it’s still better at objectifying men and LGBTQ representation than most TV.
- The show takes place roughly five years before the events in Blood and Sand (so 78 BC, for those interested), so it’s not like they needed to engage in Michael Douglas in Ant-Man-esque smoothing for John Hannah, but there’s something about his caesar cut that makes him look like an older man playing at being young.
- Doctore, referencing Gannicus, presents what might as well be the thesis for the entire show: “Hubris, a fine quality. Often possessed by c**** who perish from it.”
- The pseudo-Shakespearean style of DeKnight’s writing gets a wry little form vs. content joke in. Vettius: “Words fall from your mouth as shit from ass.” Tullius: “Let us not become mired in base exchange.”
- Vettius, in addition to being a worse lanista, is also a less eloquent man than Batiatus. He fails to give the match in the arena any introduction, and prior to the blindfold fight, after Batiatus delivers a pumped up resume for Gannicus, he blithely states “I have no tongue for overripe embellishment, nor is it required.”
- The street fight is so good that Lucretia gives ostensibly Batiatus (but really it seems like Lucy Lawless direct to the viewer) a look of “HOLY SHIT, did you see that?”
- Dustin Clare is a very pretty man.
- One of those things that drives home these are slaves: despite being husband and wife, Melitta and Oenomaus are allowed only scheduled visits, unless Batiatus is feeling charitable, and even then, Melitta has to go back upstairs after they’re done.