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After a perfunctory recap of season one, the very first shot of Gods of the Arena assures viewers that they’ll be getting exactly what they’re expecting, in the form of the top half of a man’s head being separated from the rest of him and landing in the sand while scores of barely clothed commoners cheer from the bleachers. Spartacus is back, and for people who grew to like the show despite its many flaws, it’s fun to be back in its ridiculous world.
In case you don’t know about the troubled production history of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, here’s a quick recap. Star Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with cancer after the first season of the show ended, and to keep the show in the viewers’ minds while he recovered, the producers came up with this prequel miniseries, which expanded on a story that was originally supposed to be told in one episode of season two. Whitfield recovered and was set to get ready for production, but unfortunately his cancer returned and he decided to bow out permanently. The show probably wouldn’t have continued if he didn’t give the producers his blessing in finding a replacement, who they recently announced to be Australian actor Liam McIntyre. So we get six episodes about what things were like before Spartacus arrived now, and next year his story continues with someone else in his sandals. Got it? Okay.
I’ll admit to hating Spartacus when I saw the first episode last year, and if that happened now I would have just stopped watching it there. But back then I had a lot of free time, so I kept watching and found that the series actually grew on me, partly because they toned down the more ridiculous elements and partly because the stories just got better. I wouldn’t say it was exactly a great show by the finale, but it was good enough that I felt no shame in admitting to liking it. At first, the battle scenes were laughably poor looking with ridiculous computer-aided blood effects and the sex scenes were totally gratuitous, hardly definable as anything besides softcore porn. But as things went on, they let the fights rely more on their simple brutality and inherent danger rather than some cheesy cut-rate 300 stylings, and they at least integrated the sex into the plot more. And what was truly interesting about the series, the constant backroom dealings and conspiring and political backstabbing became a bigger part of the show, which is generally a recipe for success. I’ll admit to having a soft spot for watching rich people in old cultures fucking each other over constantly while their heads occasionally get chopped off.
So it was nice to see Gods of the Arena jump right back into that. I believe it takes place about five years before Blood and Sand begins, and most of the cast is made up of familiar faces in unfamiliar situations. John Hannah and Lucy Lawless are back as Batiatus and Lucretia, lower on the political totem pole but still ambitious eager to prove their ability. Crixus’ position is probably the most surprising, starting his journey towards being future champion as a worthless and downtrodden slave that Batiatus only buys as a gesture of respect to someone of higher station. Barca, Ashur, and Crixus’ future lover Naevia all return, more or less in the positions you’d expect. Peter Mensah’s Oenomaus is not Doctore yet, but rather fills the same niche Crixus did in the latter half of season one – former champion who’s been hence overshadowed by the new hotness.
That new hotness is Gannicus, current glory boy in Batiatus’ house, and judging by the fact that he’s never mentioned in Blood and Sand, probably doomed to an ignominious death. The other important new character is Gaia, a recently-widowed socialite who probably killed her husband, judging by the way she speaks of him. She’s played by Jaime Murray who will be recognizable to pay cable viewers as Lila from Dexter’s second season, and if you know her it’s no surprise that she’s having an opium-fueled topless love scene with Lucy Lawless by the end of the first episode.
I just gave you a whole lot of setup, and that’s because that’s mostly what this episode is. We establish where everybody we recognize is, and see how the new characters fit into that structure. The real arena is being built, Batiatus wants more power, and Gannicus is pretty good at killing guys. The show has the elements that made it successful last year, though something about the prequel thing makes it feel more obvious in what it’s doing. We know exactly where most of these people are going to be in a few years, so the only way the show can surprise us is by subverting expectations on how they get there. Crixus will find success despite expectations, probably initially by defeating Gannicus to earn his mark just as Spartacus did to him. Ashur will probably end up in his crippled state before the show is over. Something bad will happen to the current Doctore.
A recap of the actual events is hardly necessary, but here’s a quick one. Batiatus tries to curry favor with the man who’s behind the building of the arena, though he’s rivaled by a younger man who he’s not very fond of. He challenges him to a duel of gladiators, and Gannicus still wins the duel despite being forced to do so blind-folded thanks to some ill-timed boasting. Meanwhile, Oenomaus is displeased by continually being passed over for fights, Crixus joins Ashur and the other gladiator recruits and is mocked for his smaller stature, and Gaia begins Lucretia’s journey towards true decadence and eventual slave-screwing. And that’s basically it. People die dramatically, there’s some drinking and sex and cavorting, and people drop articles when talking shit to each other. It’s standard Spartacus, and for right now that’s enough. I just hope the remaining five episodes do more to justify existing as something other than filler until the real story can get going again in 2012.