The path to the second season of "Spartacus" was not an easy one. The show itself was like a scarred, determined gladiator, in that "Spartacus: Vengeance" (premiering Fri., Jan. 27 at 10 p.m. on Starz) had to battle its way to the small screen.
After falling for its bold, graphic and emotionally compelling first season, the show's rabid fan base learned in 2010 that Andy Whitfield, the star of the first season, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," had cancer. While Whitfield was treated for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Starz produced the 2011 prequel season "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena," but eventually, Whitfield had to step away from the lead role permanently. Given how vital and charismatic he was in the show, it came as a tragic shock when Whitfield passed away last fall.
Could "Spartacus" go on? How do you recast a lead role that an up-and-coming actor had so commandingly made his own? And once you've found your new lead, would the writers need to rethink the role in order to tailor the character to the new performer's talents?
Those were just a few of the behind-the-scenes challenges "Spartacus" creator Steven S. DeKnight faced, but there were other big-picture issues he had to confront as well.
A new leading man -- Australian actor Liam McIntyre took over as "Spartacus" one year ago -- and an essentially rebooted premise: That's what fans will find in "Vengeance's" 10 episodes. But don't fret: I've seen the first four hours of the season, and I don't think fans will be disappointed.
The show's trademark intensity is back, McIntyre disappears admirably into the lead role, and if anything, the character journeys are even more pleasingly complex this year. Old enemies Ilythia (Viva Bianca) and Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) face off in new and twisted ways, and Ilythia's husband, Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), finds that his hatred for the Thracian named Spartacus has only grown since they last met. As I said in this recent piece comparing "Spartacus" to "Downton Abbey," the Starz show expertly sets up a series of interlocking conflicts while taking the character's emotional lives seriously.
In the Q&A below, DeKnight talks about the casting process that brought McIntyre to the show, the external threats and internal challenges the escaped slaves face and the more "epic" scope of the new season. DeKnight, a veteran of "Buffy" and "Angel," also talked about where he sees the show ending. Of course, nothing is definitive yet, but he sounds like a man who doesn't want to continue Spartacus' war against the Romans for a dozen seasons.
What do you feel that Liam is bringing to the role to make it his own?
Well, when we were starting the recasting process, the most important things for us were the same things we were looking for the first time around, which were a strength and a presence. But even more than that, we needed a compassion and a sympathy for the character because Spartacus, even at his most violent, is never acting out of just pure anger. He is acting out of a wounded heart.
He is a man who has been deeply, deeply emotionally injured and to get that sense of pain and loss was so important for us, and for the character of Spartacus to have an innate compassion for other people. It was more important than a chiseled physique or fighting skills or anything like that. We know we can build that, but you can't build compassion into a person.
Do you think there will be some different qualities that you'll be able to write to, as you did with Andy? You really tailored that role for him as you went through the first season.
The strange thing is, we talked about, "Should [we] tinker with how the character is written to play up to Liam's strengths?" And we all decided, no. We need to be true to the character we have set up. We will write it as the Spartacus we've always been writing, and Liam will bring his own sensibility to it.
He'll bring what he naturally has.
I mean, Liam is naturally a very vivacious, funny guy. Unfortunately, that part of his talent doesn't really fit into our world. Spartacus isn't going to start cracking jokes. It just wouldn't feel right.
That is Season 5. That is the funny season.
The animated series will be a little more jokey.
How much more money did you get, because you have presumably many more sets, many more places for the escaped slaves to go?
It was more expensive this time around. Our budget isn't much bigger than it was in the past two seasons. Part of that is, [some of the past budgets included money that was] not actual production-side money. It [was related to] the delays we had. All that stuff adds to budget and it costs money. But we definitely have quite a bit more money than we did in the past seasons, and it shows. I mean, just look at the trailer. That one shot of a mine with a thousand people working in it gives you an idea of the scope that we're going for.
I was thinking, in some ways you as a writer are like the gladiators freed from the ludus [i.e. gladiator academy]. You're out of your little confined cage of the House of Batiatus. As a storyteller, is that kind of daunting or awesome?
It's both, actually. By the end of "Gods of the Arena," we were pulling our hair out. My writers that had hair [Note: DeKnight is bald] were pulling it out, because within the ludus, especially on the hero side, [the characters] could be in their cells, they could be eating, they could be training. You didn't have a lot of places to go.
On the plus side, it forced a lot of conflict because the villains and the heroes were constantly in contact with each other. Now that we have gone outside, there are a lot more stories we can tell, but it is a lot more difficult to have the villains and the heroes cross each other, because when they do, they will try to murder each other. So it takes a very inventive kind of structuring and that was a bit of a learning curve for this season.
Do you find yourself inventing reasons that they would be in the same area, or does the conflict have to come from within each camp?
They definitely cross paths. Like I said, though, when they cross paths, they'll ultimately try to kill each other, so it's a little tricky. And you hit upon it: The secret is there is a lot of conflict in both camps. Within the villain camp, there are people who are really, really bad and not so bad and people just trying to get by, and everybody is trying to out-maneuver each other. On the hero side, one of the things I love about the show is that we can exist in a gray area. Not all the people on the hero side are good people, and there are good people that do the wrong thing for the right reason, but it is still wrong.
Well, there are so many alpha males in the group, and there's also the fact that Spartacus never wanted to be a leader. It just kind of turned out that way.
Exactly. And historically, that is the way it was. Spartacus’ army broke apart many, many times and they came back together and broke apart, and there were factions. There was a lot of infighting, and we knew from the beginning that we didn't want Spartacus to be the golden-boy leader. In Season 1, he goes down a couple of bad paths. He is not the leader that he becomes, and in "Vengeance," he has taken a big step towards that, but there is still a lot of conflict and there is still a steep learning curve.
Looking at the bigger picture, I as a viewer really appreciate the way you structure things so well. In Season 1, things that happened in episode 3 were paying off in episode 12 or 13. Is that really important to you as a writer? It seems like you're very meticulous about overall structure and where things lead to and tie together.
I think the word you're looking for is anal. I am extremely anal when I structure these [seasons]. Yeah, I love very complicated stories.
If you look at Season 1, Batiatus' father, I think, is mentioned. I knew at some point, I wanted to explore that [character], probably in a flashback, and then it became a six-episode miniseries ["Gods of the Arena"]. But all of that stuff -- the way it ties together, the way you find out that a necklace that Gnaeus wears in Season 1 or that Crixus wears is actually Gnaeus' -- I love that kind of stuff.
In fact, without giving anything away, in the finale of "Spartacus: Vengeance," there is a callback to something that happened in Episode 2 of Season 1. I love the way that stuff all interconnects.
Would it be more helpful to you to know how many seasons you have left so there is not lots of false jeopardy? You know, "We all could die!" "Oh look, we didn't die. Onward to Season 8!"
Knowing how many seasons you have will definitely help. I have a bit of an advantage because I know how the story ends.
But isn't it hard not to know if you have three more seasons to fill or nine?
It is. We're getting very close to the point where, for the next season, we'll probably have that discussion. Because now we're getting into a bit of a tricky area where I have to start planning the endgame.
As a writer and as a showrunner, I've always felt -- and this is just my personal opinion -- that five years is the perfect number of years. And that is five years of 10 to 13 episodes a year.
As a viewer, my overall satisfaction often comes down to seeing the characters get what they want or what they need or deserve, good or bad. Obviously these characters no longer want to be slaves, but in your worldview, is happiness a goal, or is it just survival?
Happiness is definitely a goal. I mean, this entire show is built around the idea of love -- everybody wants it, everybody needs it and everybody longs for it. So that is really what it is all about. The sex, the violence, the double-crossing, that is all really just coming from a place of love.
Or wanting it. Or being denied it.
Exactly. I think the best stories are based on love.
But can love flourish when you're a slave on the run from angry Romans?
That is the question. That is the kind of thing I love looking at and playing with. We get to really explore the relationship between Claudius Glaber and [his wife] Ilithyia, which was something you only saw a bit of last season.
Do they have a real love -- Ilithyia and Glaber?
At one point they did. At one point yes, absolutely. Things have gotten away from them. And I love exploring that kind of relationship that here is two people that at one point in their life were deeply, deeply in love with each other and then, just the forces of society and then fate has just kind of turned them against each other. Is there any way to get back to what they were?
One of the things I see running through the show is this idea that a society founded on something as dehumanizing as slavery must fail. The idea seems to be that that the chickens will eventually come home to roost. They can't just get away with that forever.
There is certainly that feeling. Now, that said, when we introduce Marcus Crassus, you're going to get a different view of slavery altogether. He doesn't appear in "Vengeance," but he will [be introduced] down the road.
Marcus Crassus was one of the richest men in history and he was also one of the biggest slave owners at that time, but it's a different view of slavery than we have seen up to this point. There were a lot of [different kinds of] slaves that Marcus Crassus had: He had craftsman; he had teachers; he had artisan. He had architects and they were slaves, but they were allowed to come and go. They had their own houses. They had their own families. They weren't chained up. They weren't beaten. They were more like employees. It was more like a corporation.
So it's this weird thing. Without slavery at that time, the Roman republic would not have been able to build the way it did and civilization would not have advanced the way it did. So again, it's that gray area. Was it horrible? Was it wrong? Absolutely. Did it have a positive affect? In the long run of history, yes. So he is going to present a different viewpoint.
Check out the HuffPostTV interview with Viva Bianca (and look for our interview with Liam McIntyre on Friday).
Also, Ryan McGee and I talk about the return of "Spartacus," as well as David Milch's "Luck" and Kiefer Sutherland's "Touch" on this week's Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast. You can find the Talking TV podcast here and on iTunes.
"Spartacus: Vengeance" airs on Fridays 10 p.m. E.S.T. on Starz.