The Spartacus series will always have a ‘what-if’ feeling about it. The tragic illness and death of Andy Whitfield, who played Spartacus in the show’s first season, interrupted plans for the series and the significant early momentum it had built up. It wasn’t always clear they would even re-cast the part and continue the show, and the fact they did so seems to have been at least partly down to Whitfield’s own insistence.
I thought the first season, and the ‘prequel’ second season they did while Whitfield received treatment, were very good. One of the important things about the show was that it went much further than most TV entertainment to depict what it’s like to live as a slave. This is quite brave and not something you ever really see on entertainment television, because it’s not very entertaining. The degrading, inhuman treatment endured by the gladiators and other slaves was hard to watch, but a necessary dramatic precursor to telling the story of Spartacus’ rebellion. In that context, the lurid violence and sexual exploitation made sense, as such were part and parcel of ancient Rome, particularly in the shadow of the gladiatorial arena.
The fourth season of Spartacus covers the second half of Spartacus’ rebellion. I think it suffered from a lack of budget, as there are relatively few large-scale military confrontations until the last couple of episodes, most of the rest of it consisting of small skirmishes and raids. The stylised violence makes less sense, as well: while it is well-suited to arena combat–which was designed for entertainment–the slow-motion and gushes of blood feel out of place in a military setting. The best fight scenes of season four are those which take place in makeshift arenas. The way they film the gladiators entering combat–jumping in roaring in slow motion–also got old very quickly and felt quite juvenile.
Most of the focus of this final season is on the way Spartacus’slave army is being chased and harried by the Roman legion of Crassus. Crassus is a fairly good character and one of the more interesting in this season, but the show suffers greatly from the absence of so many main characters from earlier seasons (especially Lucretia, played by Lucy Lawless). Screen time is fairly evenly divided between the Romans and the army of ex-slaves, with Crassus and Spartacus intended to mirror each other; but the supporting cast is quite weak. A young Julius Caesar is played by a smirking Todd Lasance, while Crassus’ fictional son, Tiberius, was probably the most annoying part of the series, presumably introduced to provide some more narrative intrigue in the Roman camp.
Essentially, the writing shows itself unable to rise to the task of adequately conveying the importance and majesty of the Spartacus rebellion, with the story spending too much time mired in personal rivalries and intrigues. For a couple of episodes the story makes a point of focusing on the slaves slaughtering captive Roman hostages, and I was concerned it would start to fully equate the two sides of the conflict. It stops short of this, thankfully, and later episodes make more of a point of highlighting the barbarity and cruelty of the Roman Empire, and are more sympathetic to the rebellion. But I never had the sense the writers fully grasped, or at least communicated, the gravity of this episode in human history as a whole, or even its wider role in the history of Rome.
The early and middle parts of the season feel quite uneven, and the last two or three episodes go a long way to ensuring things end on a relative high. Much of the credit for this needs to go to Liam McIntyre. Taking over the role of Spartacus from Andy Whitfield was a difficult task, and he gave an understated performance that showed a great deal of respect and reserve; meaning he was at times overshadowed by some of the more bombastic performances. But by the end of the series, I felt that McIntyre’s Spartacus conveyed a powerful sense of dignity and moral justice that raised the overall level of the show and, in the end, was the best element of this final season. He deserves some recognition for that.
Ultimately, this iteration of the legend of Spartacus is a story of what-might-have-been. It felt like the ambition (and I would guess, budget) that was evident in the first season was scaled back significantly by the time the show was drawing to a close. That’s understandable given its history, but unfortunate nonetheless. I would still recommend seeing the first season for its depiction of Roman slavery, as well as its entertainment value; but other than McIntyre’s dignified portrayal of Spartacus, the last season is a largely forgettable affair. Given the subject matter, that’s not really good enough.