At the beginning, “Spartacus” felt like a weak “300” knockoff — Starz’s attempt to exploit a presold name, albeit one associated with a classic 1960 movie — to peddle buckets of blood and bare flesh, two surefire ingredients to attract males to pay cable. Yet as the program comes to an end with this final season, subtitled “War of the Damned,” it’s hard not to admire its improved quality and heightened sense of purpose. Heck, it even has educational value, causing viewers to wonder things like, “Wow, does a human head really contain that much blood?”
“Spartacus” the series has survived its own set of ordeals, including the illness and death of original star Andy Whitfield, who was subsequently replaced by Liam McIntyre. Yet this last season feels more assured than previous ones in part because it has reached the point of resolution — building toward an epic showdown between Spartacus’ bloodthirsty band of escaped slaves and the legions under calculating Roman commander Marcus Crassus (Simon Merrells), who seeks to secure power for himself and his heir by crushing the uprising.
At times, the Romans have often felt like window dressing, there mostly to be sliced into smaller parts (violence) and illustrate the decadence of the empire (sex). Now, Merrell’s Crassus (if no Laurence Olivier) is a splendid addition, providing Spartacus with a worthy adversary, and setting up an elaborate chess match that begins to unfold over the first two hours of this 10-episode march toward war.
The success of “Spartacus” also has provided the show with something it initially lacked — namely, a true sense of scale, using CGI to create the illusion of massive armies, while still reveling in artful slow-motion blood splatters and demonstrations that sexual debauchery was popular long before movies, TV or the Internet were around.
Admittedly, “Spartacus” has painted itself into something of a corner in terms of expectations, creating an inevitable can-you-top-this element in terms of sheer gore. Even in this stylized, confined-to-pay-cable fashion, that’s perhaps not the most helpful image for the industry right now.
As for Starz, the program clearly served its purpose, boosting the channel’s then-nascent original programming efforts and guiding them in an escapist direction, before the network began trying to expand its profile with more character-driven fare.
Created by Steven S. DeKnight, “Spartacus” certainly has provided critics (OK, this one) with an easy punch line, especially in the early going. Like its namesake, though, the series will meet its end unbowed, on its own terms. And hey, as Spartacus himself could attest (if the series’ final chapter bears any resemblance to the movie, anyway), we all have our crosses to bear.