It's been almost two years since Spartacus and his fellow gladiators slaughtered the house of Batiatus and escaped slavery on Starz's hit Spartacus. Season two, subtitled Vengeance, will follow Spartacus as he starts the slave rebellion that will eventually throw Rome into upheaval.
The first episode of season two, "Fugitivus," takes place a couple months after "Kill Them All." Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) along with former rival, the Gaul Crixus (Manu Bennett), and Mira (Katrina Law), Aurelia (Brooke Williams), and Agron (Dan Feuerriegel) make up Team Spartacus, which has been terrorizing Capua for weeks and killing as many Romans as possible. The city is in a panic, but Team Spartacus is no closer to figuring out long-term goals, and they're living in the sewers. Spartacus is all for killing Glaber (Craig Parker), newly elected Praetor in the Roman Senate, but Crixus favors leaving Capua to gain larger numbers, and to search for lost love Naevia. Glaber, along with pregnant wife* Illythia (Viva Bianca), is dispatched against his will back to Capua to clean up Spartacus's mess, and he brings with him a Roman legion to calm the citizens. He's got a big task ahead of him, because not only is one of them being killed violently every five minutes or so, but there's also that niggling doubt in their minds: If Batiatus's slaves can do that, what about mine? (Not a good idea to mistreat the slaves you've spent years teaching to fight and kill, is what I'm saying.)
*Ten bucks says it's Spartacus's baby. That would make me so happy.
While Team Spartacus scuttles about the sewers, skewering every Roman they can find and scrounging for food, Illythia is cleaning up the Ludus and the villa. The blood from all those dead Romans still coats the walls (but where are the bodies?) and the place is full of nothing but bad memories for her. Well, that and the crazed, cow-eyed Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), who appears like Gollum from the shadows. Lucretia's appearance solidifies an already great episode. Lucy Lawless's performance of this character is pure genius, and she's such a delightful performer it's a crime she hasn't been recognized for it.** Lucretia has been living in the ludus alone for months, and as Lawless put it in an interview yesterday, she's "lost her marbles." Illythia at first mistakes her for a ghost, but Glaber finds other uses for her. (And if you watch this episode for nothing else, watch it for the moment(s) when Spartacus and Crixus first learn that she's alive.) The only person missing from our circle of friends is Doctore, alias Oenomaus, who is shamed by the freeing of the slaves, and feels nothing but dishonor over his newfound "freedom." And, more than that, the ludus was his life. Being a gladiator and training gladiators was his raison d'etre. Without it, who is he?
**I also highly recommend checking out the special features on the Gods of the Arena DVDs (or you can just YouTube it). Lawless is infamous for her deadpan DVD features, in which she seems to relish playing outlandish, yet straight-faced versions of herself. She did it for Battlestar Galactica, too. I will cherish the image of her eating food whilst sitting in a dumpster until the end of my days.
But let's talk about Liam McIntyre, because everyone else is. Andy Whitfield, who originated the title role in 2010, passed away on September 11, 2011 from Non-Hodgins Lymphoma, and McIntyre has gamely stepped in to fill some pretty big shoes. Whitfield, already beloved, was made even more so in the minds of his fans by his tragic death, and attempting to fill that hole he left behind must be daunting McIntyre, who is relatively young and inexperienced. But he steps into the role with relish, and any misgivings about his performance must be entirely personal. It's jarring to see him called Spartacus by the other characters, who don't seem to realize anything has changed, and McIntyre brings an entirely new sensibility to the role. Where Andy was soft-spoken with a hard edge, Liam has a low melodious, but firm voice. Where Andy was all sharp edges tempered with soft emotion, Liam is tall and gangly and a little bit undefined, but forceful. He actually reminds me more of Kirk Douglas physically than Andy Whitfield. I know it's going to take me a while to stop missing Andy's face, but I think eventually Liam McIntyre will become Spartacus in my mind, and in viewer's minds. It's just going to take some time. I actually had a glimpse of what that might feel like at the end of the episode, that fire and defiance, and it looked good.
In the mean time, the rest of Spartacus has lost none of its potency. It's still chock full of blood and sex (there's a whorehouse massacre in this episode that is particularly indicative of the show's ethos), and it still pairs that pulpy graphic novel sensibility with extremely detailed plotting and nuanced character work. All of our favorite characters are back in fine form, and others like Naevia, Gannicus (my boyfriend Dustin Clare), and Ashur (Nick Tarabay) soon to make an appearance. And we've got new characters: a new magistrate, and powerful aristocratic twins Seppius (Tom Hobbs) and Seppia (Hannah Mangan-Lawrence), who are sure to make trouble for Team Spartacus. If the threads set up in "Fugitivus" are any indication of what's to come for the rest of the season (and Lord knows they might not be, you never know with this show), we can expect more clashing between Spartacus and his team as they draw lines and boundaries and build their army. We can expect Illythia to come unglued, and Lucretia to be a large part of that. We can expect the animosity between Glaber and Spartacus to reach an unbearable level. And we can expect to see Rome tremble. From interviews and from the past history of the show itself, showrunner Steven DeKnight doesn't seem to be shy about exploring issues of power and responsibility, and I can't wait to watch as he deconstructs the perils and nuances of a civilization built on slavery. As Thomas More said in his Utopia:
"For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them."
Or, as my mother would say, you reap what you sow. It's not often you get to type "whorehouse massacre" in close proximity to a Utopia reference, but that's Spartacus for you: smart AND disgusting. The ten episode run of Spartacus: Vengeance begins tonight on Starz (and you can stream the first episode online for free for a limited time on Starz.com).