Review: ‘Starz’s ‘Spartacus’ Completes Strange, Blood-Soaked Journey’

Spartacus

What a strange, bloody journey it was for “Spartacus,” whose latest iteration, subtitled “War of the Damned,” completed its run on Friday night.

Before getting to the merits of the finale (with spoilers), a brief history of all that’s transpired in the last three-plus years: Starz launched the show in early 2010, when the pay channel was taking baby steps into such productions, and Bill Hamm was running original programming for the network.

As a huge fan of the 1960 movie starring Kirk Douglas, I can honestly say I couldn’t have hated it much more, dismissing it as a weak “300” knockoff and giving it “a big, very bloody thumbs down.”

By that April, as the show was wrapping up its successful first season (to be filed under “shows what I know”), Hamm was out, replaced in a reorganization under then-new Starz CEO Chris Albrecht.

“Spartacus” nevertheless became a building block for the channel, charting an escapist direction. But then things took a tragic, unexpected turn: Star Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with cancer, and production was halted. Finally, the producers decided to go with a six-episode prequel to the series. Whitfield, however, was unable to return, and the role was recast, with Liam McIntyre taking over as Spartacus. Whitfield died in 2011 at the age of 39.

Still, the producers chose to build toward the ultimate slave revolt, and Starz — realizing that would be hard to drag out — no doubt grudgingly decided to end the series. Although that’s a perfectly logical move from a creative standpoint, it’s also a bold one given TV’s reluctance to discard anything that appears to be working, much less something that’s out-rating almost everything else on the network.

That brings us, finally, to the episode itself, written by series creator Steven S. DeKnight and directed by Rick Jacobson. As expected, it was blood-drenched, and featured a massive battle between the forces of Crassus (Simon Merrells) and Spartacus. Of course, there’s really no way to do that without killing off most of the characters the audience has come to know, which included crucifying some of them.

Mostly, though, the finale represented a giant mash-up of past genre films, including “300” (one shot in particular, where Spartacus springs toward Crassus, felt virtually lifted from that film), “Gladiator” (choral music + dead wife) and “Braveheart” (much of the tactical aspect of the last encounter).

Still, it’s hard not to view “Spartacus” more charitably, both in its improved quality — such as the pre-battle exchange between Spartacus and Crassus — and the inordinate number of hurdles the show itself survived. (Besides, as I wrote in my most recent review, it “even has educational value, causing viewers to wonder things like, ‘Wow, does a human head really contain that much blood?'”)

“We decide our fates,” Spartacus says to Crassus, knowing he’s leading his slave army toward almost certain death.

Given the liberties taken, Starz’s “Spartacus” still owes an apology to fans of the original for appropriating the name. Yet in terms of meeting the end with head held high and deciding its own fate, damned if it didn’t.

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  1. Galen says:

    Im canceling my starz channel cant believe they took best show ever off the air are they crazy over there at starz what a great show OMG stupid loved the show loved it.

    • Brian says:

      Periods, dude. PERIODS. Learn to use them. What you write is unintelligible, all because you don’t use any punctuation whatsoever. A COMMA here and there would be nice too. Just trying to give you some advice in case you fill out a job application or somethin. No one will hire an idiot.

  2. Rachel says:

    Gratitude to writers for gripping plots, gratitude to the directors for excellent viewing and gratitude to history for all the stuff I didn’t know. I for one have been looking up on Google things like ,where is Thracia? who was Tiberius? Did any gladiators win their freedom in the ring?. I hope and pray they do a spin off series about Cesar ASAP.

  3. bobbi says:

    I cried the whole last episode realizing how cruel and brutal the romans were. How anyone can miss treat another human being like that is horriffic. Loved the show!! It will be sadly missed!! Looked forward to each season!!

  4. It’s TV not movies…. and as far as I am concerned this was an excellent ending of a tragic “slavery” story. When Spartacus says “my names not Spartacus” I thought how much the Romans had taken away from him…even his own name. Love the show and shall miss it.

  5. Ezinwanyi says:

    At first, you seemed like you were being a neutral writer, but soon your words betrayed your unflattering view of this beloved show. I supposed you are entitled to your opinion, but this show IS the best I have seen. I enjoyed all four seasons and I am just so thankful that writers and producers still invest time in making such epic television when we are inundated with crap like the Kardashians and real housewives shows.

    This show owes no apology as it gave proper respect and due to the name of Spartacus. I’ve seen the original, and it doesn’t not measure up to what Andy Whitfield and Liam McIntyre has done with this show.

    Heart pains at the thought of the end of Spartacus. Gratitude to Starz, this show will be missed.

  6. its a sad ending for me to this beloved starz original series Spartacus not only to see the series end but thinking of my late father who introduced me to the series shortly before his passing….lol when he got his first hd flat screen tv i remember him yelling upstairs to me to come down and watch it with him Season 1 and look how clear the picture is and the effects with the gory bloody fight scenes. When the final season was announced it was tough for me because i knew once this series ended one of my final moments of watching this series with him every friday night would be sort of a finale as well. thanks to starz and everyone who worked on this series and brought it to us allowing myself one of the lasting memories and images of my late father. love you dad! great series one of the best ever!

    • Vanessa says:

      Harold, I echo your sentiments. My father (God rest his Soul) also watched this series. Although it came recommended by a friend, the ending of this wonderful series made me cry not only because of the wonderful acting but because it represented the end of something I think my father and I would have loved to have discussed. I shall miss it not only for how wonderful it was but that it was a shared experience that my father and I had!

  7. Caramel31 says:

    I loved the series and thought that Spartacus was a fantastic story about a mans fight for freedom. Although the finale was a bit tame it was good. I for one did not like the fact that there was no remembered scene of Crixus, especially since Naevia was killed by Ceasar. (We could have at least seen an image of him!) I knew Crassus was not going to let Kore get away with killing his son but damn he was a cold blooded bastard despite knowing that she was a victim of his sons abuse and yet he still crucified her! Even Cesar looked at him like whoa!

  8. This series captures the eternal struggle between freedom and tyranny by those who think they are your betters. We are fighting this very struggle today and this series brilliantly reminds us that “There is no greater victory than to fall from this world a free man.”

    • gene says:

      Exactly my sentiments. It became our struggle as the series moved towards it’s end. It touched us all because deep down inside, we know with certainty that freedom is right. And for those of us who have been born into a free nation, we realize the depth of it’s meaning and that we ALL would stand by Sparticus – for if we are to die, we may as well die fighting for our freedom [rather than their entertainment].

  9. TechFan says:

    I watched all four seasons of Spartacus and became a big fan of some of the actors because of it. John Hannah, Manu Bennett, Anna Hutchison, and Liam McIntyre who I’d never seen before. Lucy Lawless and Jaime Murray were excellent–two performers I was already well-familiar with. At times, the series resembled a Roman version of the TV show Dallas as the principals schemed for favor and position–it worked best for me on that level. There was plenty of bloodletting but you missed a great story if the battles were all you saw.

  10. Lee says:

    I have not seen the 1960 film, but I can tell you Starz Spartacus is the best series I have EVER seen. To each its own, but you are biased and should not writing blogs. Thanks

  11. Miles says:

    > Given the liberties taken, Starz’s “Spartacus” still owes an apology to fans of the original for
    > appropriating the name.

    In the final paragraph you mention this, I hardly think that the original film can claim ownership of the essentially historical figure “Spartacus”, even if the historical accounts are conflicting in some matters.

    To think that it’s a remake of the film seems to suggest that you believe the film invented the story, which reflects a striking ignorance of the subject matter to say the least.

  12. Jeff says:

    I am sorry, but the Movie Spartacus mainly featured Kirk Douglas staring. I fell asleep. And I will admit, the first few episodes in season 1 did feel like a bad “300” rip-off, but to dismiss the excellent growth and story-telling from then on is not reflective of good reporting. Keep your charity, the rest of us received a far greater gift from the show.

  13. Joe says:

    Just because there was a previous film doesn’t mean the show had to be a remake of that. As the series evolved, the tension was ratcheted up and so was the storytelling. Even though there was a lot of sex and violence, there was an increasing depth to the characters we currently see lacking in a lot of shows. It was a terrific show and I’m sad to see it go.

  14. This is what you get when you have an air-headed amateur hour writer cover shows just for the sake of completing an assignment without having a slight clue about the show. I’m pretty sure this guy saw two episodes of the first season and stopped. Watched the finale last night and now pretends to have followed the show.

  15. Pk Madsen says:

    What this series did was pull off a miracle. Deciding to do a prequel while figuring out how to move forward was brilliant and added depth to characters. The season following that featured an amazing ending to a Lucy Lawless’s character. It was more than blood, violence, and sex: characters had to face emotional choices that were heartbreaking at times — Spartacus having to kill his best friend, Gannicus forced to have sex with his best friend’s wife to amuse the slave masters and then facing the emotional consequences just to name a couple examples. The themes of having the choice of one’s fate and freedom are the same we’re facing now. To trash it on the undeserved claim of being a 300 ripoff is ridiculous.

  16. Best Series Ever Made! Period. The original Kirk Douglas movie was decent, but this show was beyond great. I’m so glad I did not dismiss it, and gave it a chance.

    • gp wede says:

      I am 50 year old man and have watched every episode and have been glued to the TV every Friday night.. A leader such as Spartacus is what the people of United States need. No amount of coin should determine a mans fate… Truly an amazing series with resembles todays mighty empire. Yes this series made a grown man cry many times… We need men of honor, loyalty, conscience, forgiving, compassionate, loving, trustworthy, honesty, dedicated and walk the talk for freedom for us the common man. What a great history lesson and hats off to Starz for an amazing show…It made my relationships with my wife and kids stronger………………A+++ to all the characters and people involved with getting this show created. Now if only our leaders can learn and do something amazing for the common man too. May the god of rain arrive one day again.

  17. Chizamo says:

    Agreed with J

  18. j says:

    I couldn’t disagree with your review of Spartacus more–this show was much more than a pilfered 300, and I don’t think it intended to satisfy Kirk Douglas fans in any fashion. It was a raucous, gut-gripping drama that had a spectacular finish. I think your review is the thing that’s “strange”

  19. Mychal says:

    Fantastic Series! Must do a Julius Ceaser Series Spin-Off!

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