Like the character himself, a slave who rose up to defy an entire nation, Spartacus has a lot going against it. Perhaps out of fear that it might be mistaken for the schlocky Grecian television shows of yore (Hercules and Xena), Starz trumpeted this show as 300 with a dash of Gladiator. And while visually (and viscerally) that isn’t off the mark, the advertisements might have initially turned off all but the most orgiastic of viewers; who would have thought to take all those perky, blood-soaked breasts and raging cocks so seriously? In other words, Spartacus has been underestimated from the start, and while you don’t need to have seen the first season, it’ll certainly help you to appreciate the layers of scheming that creator Steven S. DeKnight has put into it. If we learned anything from last season, it’s that while battles in the arena are bloody, the politics behind them are equally if not more so.
Since Spartacus is based, albeit loosely, on actual history, it won’t be much of a spoiler to reveal that season two, tersely and accurately titled “Vengeance,” picks up only a short while after last season’s finale, with Spartacus and his fellow fugitive gladiators eking out a living in Capua’s sewers and countryside. Although Liam McIntyre has stepped into the title role (after the unfortunate death of actor Andy Whitfield), the show doesn’t skip a beat (given the show’s momentum, it’s likelier to cram a second beat in than it is to miss one), and the opening sequence, in which Spartacus’s not-so-merry-men savage a few soldiers who’ve been hired to hunt them down, immediately raises the bar. Spartacus carves a message into one corpse’s entrails, an act that speaks to the show’s bloody and intelligent pedigree, as he knows this defacement will draw his mortal enemy, Gaius Glaber (Craig Paker), back to Capua. But if this sounds too chess-like for a more action-minded viewer, it’s at least of the speedy variety: By the end of the first episode, not only has Glaber been pulled away from his senatorial aspirations by the father of his wife, Illithyia (Viva Blanca), not only have the two set up house in the ruined house of Battiatus (home to last season’s final massacre), and not only have these two have found a survivor (Illithyia’s frenemy and fellow schemer Lucretia, played by Lucy Lawless, stabbed through her womb during the revolt), but they’ve already been attacked in the agora by Spartacus and his volatile, tightly wound ally, Crixus (Manu Bennett).
Although the season begins back where it all started, and where last year’s prequel, “Gods of the Arena,” took place, DeKnight takes full advantage of our heroes’ liberation to show us even seedier locations than before. The second episode, “A Place in this World,” follows the disgraced doctore (trainer) of the fallen House of Battiatus, Oenomaus (Peter Mensah), as he attempts to gain a fighter’s death in the Pits. Along the way, director Jesse Warn wrings parallels out of Brent Fletcher’s script by making sharp and brutal cuts between Oenomaus’s struggles to find honor and those of Spartacus, who’s attempting to hold his fractious freedom fighters together. Likewise, the episode makes good use of flashbacks, reminding us not only of the depth these characters possess (which only makes us mourn their inevitable deaths even more), but also of the ways in which we’re shaped by our past choices and mistakes.
By the third and fourth episode, we’re comparing the claustrophobic conditions of the mines, where Spartacus is attempting to free Crixus’s lover, Naevia (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), to the tortuous passageways of the human heart, as Glaber’s wife, Illithyia, plots to divorce him for a man with better prospects (and smoother fingers), Varinius (Brett Tucker). You wouldn’t expect to find contrast between the gray and dusky forests around Capua and the ashen prisons beneath Battiatus’s home, and yet a cage is ultimately wherever you choose to build it, be it through the bars built by the suggestive tongue of the wicked master-traitor Ashur (Nick Tarabay), once more plotting for his life, or in the actual bondage of chains and whips.
Yes, there’s sex aplenty (to put it mildly), but Spartacus isn’t gratuitous; the orgies show the worst of our excesses, not the best, and all of the major parties in both the first and second season have led to massive bloodshed. Nothing attests to the grim relation between pleasure and pain than a moment toward the end of the fourth episode in which a captured member of Spartacus’s troupe is tortured (for sport) by partygoers with whom Glaber is attempting to save face. When he’s finally killed, it isn’t even to teach him a lesson: It’s so that Illythia can prove to her prospective mate, Varinius, that she’s a strong woman who’s unafraid to dirty her hands. But that’s the glory of Spartacus: Nothing is ever just one thing, and passions always lead to ruin.
There’s more, so much more, but to be more specific would ruin the surprises that lurk in every episode: It’s enough to point out that Katrina Law is doing fine work as Mira, Spartacus’s tough-as-nails new love, as is newcomer Pana Hema Taylor, who plays one of the newly liberated house slaves, Nasir, but who makes his own choice to take up both as a warrior and as the lover of Agron (Daniel Feuerrigel). In this way, Spartacus shows that it’s able to continue the threads of the past while building new paths toward the future, and it’s exciting to be caught up in a show that’s unafraid of the chaos this ultimately causes in the present. Well written and acted, almost perfectly paced, and entirely unlike anything else on television, Spartacus isn’t just bloody good, it’s bloody excellent.