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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