"Spartacus" is ending? That sound you hear is a loud "Nooooo!" from the collective consciousness of the "Spartacus" fandom.
Starz has revealed that the next season of the hit gladiator drama will be its last. Season 3 of the show, titled "Spartacus: War of the Damned," will arrive in January 2013, and once those 10 episodes are done airing, that's it. No more twisted betrayals among Romans and their oppressed gladiators and slaves; no more sweaty, muscular warriors wielding an impressive array of sharp implements; no more epic battles featuring creative dismemberments and oceans of blood.
It's shocking but true: "Spartacus," which garnered a passionately devoted following and impressive ratings for Starz, will be over for good by the spring of 2013.
"Steven DeKnight, Rob Tapert, Josh Donen and Sam Raimi have made one of the most groundbreaking shows we have ever seen," Starz CEO Chris Albrecht said in a statement. "We are in agreement with our partners in the decision to conclude the story after ‘War of the Damned,’ as we believe it is the best way to maintain the integrity of the series and secure its legacy. While everyone may know the fate of Spartacus, we believe this will be a spectacular season that will startle, amaze and honor the legions of fans.”
As you can imagine, I had a lot of questions for "Spartacus" creator Steven DeKnight about why it made sense to end the series now. (Among them: "Will you be wearing body armor to Comic-Con?")
DeKnight, a veteran of "Angel," "Smallville" and "Dollhouse," laughed when I asked him that question and reminded me that the history of "Spartacus" has featured many announcements that fans weren't fond of at the time. But as he noted, in most cases, the fans eventually came around to whatever changes they'd been wary of or curveballs they'd been thrown.
Will "Spartacus" viewers be as forgiving about the end of their favorite show coming so quickly, after three full seasons and a six-episode prequel arc? That remains to be seen, but DeKnight spoke candidly about why it makes sense to end the quest of the rebellious slave now, instead of a few years from now. He may have been mildly amused by my Comic-Con comment, but it's clear that the decision to end the show wasn't an easy or lightly considered one.
DeKnight also spoke about what to expect from "Spartacus: War of the Damned," which features Spartacus' growing army of former slaves taking on the Roman elite. Characters in the new season include the the slave owner Marcus Crassus (Simon Merrells), a young Julius Caesar (Todd Lasance) and "Cabin in the Woods" actress Anna Hutchison as a wealthy Roman named Laeta.
This interview with DeKnight has been edited and slightly condensed.
The ratings for "Spartacus" were growing, the show is gaining traction in the media, it has more fans than ever -- so what's the thinking behind ending it with the next season?
I think that is actually part of the thinking ... in true Starz fashion, with this show, we've always zigged when people thought we were going to zag. There was a lot of conversation about how long do we take the show and, really, more of a meta conversation about series in general -- how long do you take a series? Do you take it as long as possible and squeeze out every penny of revenue you can get out of it, which is often very much the network way? Or do you end when you're on top and leave the audience actually wanting more, instead of leaving the audience feeling like, "Well, that's one less show I have to watch now"?
I would never want any show that I do to become a chore to watch, and I've watched and loved shows like that, where, honestly, towards the end, it was more of a test of wills than actually appointment television. So that was part of it. There were many, many factors that weighed in on the decision to make this the final season. Obviously, Andy Whitfield's passing influenced how long we wanted to continue the show. And, you know, there's always economic factors with a show moving forward, especially a show like this that gets more and more massive.
But really, ultimately, we looked at the story and, you know, "Spartacus" is one of those rare instances where there is a definitive end to the story that we knew about going in. We looked at the history, and the history is very interesting, because it's a little hard to put a narrative together with everything that happened with the history of Spartacus. If you look at the scraps of information [in the historical record], it seems like Spartacus and the rebels never had a clear plan once they broke out. The rebellion started rolling and they went north, they went south, they went east, they went west, they went back north, they split up, they came back together. It was a really chaotic, contentious rebellion.
And on the Roman side, Roman senator after Roman senator went after Spartacus, got defeated, went after Spartacus, got defeated. So we thought, why not condense the best elements of the story, condense some characters, condense events and just give 10 of the best rip-roaring episodes we could to bring the tale of "Spartacus" to a conclusion?
OK, forgive me, but now I'm going to do that journalist thing where I'm going to quote back to you something you said to me last year.
Sure. "Guilty as charged!" [Laughs.]
We talked earlier about whether it would help you to know how much longer the show would have to run. And in the course of that conversation, you said, "As a writer and 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." Has your thinking radically changed from last year, in terms of this show or in general?
No, absolutely not. I think, generally speaking, five just feels right ... It feels right, storywise --you can tell a story that's long enough, but concise enough to be satisfying.
With "Spartacus," like I said, we've faced some very unusual challenges and some tragedies -- that definitely influenced the thinking. Could we have gone five seasons? Quite possibly ... Could we have gone longer? Absolutely. Would it have been satisfying? Would we have started to lose viewers? Probably after Season 5. I also think it has to do with just plain attention span. I know with me and a series, even series I love, you can only go so long before you just get a little tired of the story.
So I do think five is the perfect number. That's not to say that four can't work or six can't work. It kind of depends on the situation and what you're dealing with. Because, originally, going into this show, my plan was always five to seven seasons, but events definitely altered that thinking.
A few months ago, you announced an overall deal with Starz to develop other programs. Is that part of it for you, that you want to kind of stretch other parts of your storytelling brain? Is that one of the factors that's going into this?
Well, I'm always interested in stretching the old brain. But, nah, not really. We had discussed, at one point, "Spartacus" continuing on and me continuing on as a consulting but not day-to-day [producer]. You know, there were many permutations looked at, but, ultimately, it was decided that the best thing for "Spartacus" was to wrap it up in grand fashion. But, yes, admittedly I do have other projects in the works.
Can you talk about those yet, or are those still under wraps for now?
Oh, I wish I could. I sold an idea to Starz last August that we've been working on, and hopefully it will be announced later this year. But, yeah, in my spare five minutes every other month, I chip away at that.
Are you going to wear body armor to Comic-Con? Will you be expecting to hear "Kill them all!" from up there on the stage?
Well, you know, I figure fans have got about six weeks to absorb the information. And the thing I think is important to remember is that, at any other studio, any other network, when Andy fell ill, I think they would have canceled the show. They wouldn't have risked the prequel. They wouldn't have risked recasting the lead [due to Whitfield's heath problems, which led to his death in 2011]. They just would have cut their losses and protected their bottom line. But Starz felt very, very strongly that it would be a disservice to the fans not to conclude this story. So I'm incredibly grateful that they've given us this opportunity to finish the story, instead of just saying, "Well, you know what, the ratings are good, but let's move on."
But are you worried about the fan reaction, or are you just kind of thinking that they'll get it once they really have time to sit with the logic of the decision?
Well, I'm always concerned and interested about the fan reaction. But the interesting thing about this show is tracking the fan reaction through the seasons. When the first episode aired, [the reaction was] universal hate. You know, we got off to a rocky start. By the end [of Season 1], everybody loved it. Then, when Andy took ill and we announced the prequel, everybody hated the idea of a prequel. By the end of the prequel, they loved it. Then, of course, when unfortunately Andy passed away and we had to recast the role, everybody hated that idea and then, by the end of the season, seemed to be on board. So I fully expect a repeat of history and everybody will hate this idea and then at the end of the season they will say, "Hey, that was pretty good." At least that's my hope.
[Warning: There are some very mild spoilers for the next season of "Spartacus" in the next part of the interview. Nothing big, just a few factoids about "War of the Damned." We also discuss details of "Spartacus: Vengeance."]
I was looking at some information on Spartacus' rebellion and realized that it only lasted about three years. It wasn't like it lasted a decade.
It was very, very brief. And we'll jump ahead at the beginning of next season. A bit of time has passed between "Vengeance" and the next season because we wanted to [jump in at a new point in the story]. I'm sure we could have spent a whole season telling the story of how Spartacus gathered thousands and thousands of people but, ultimately it seems, in the storytelling arena, that it was much more exciting to jump in with Spartacus winning the war and having a massive slave army. It just gave us more to play with and, basically, we cut out the shoe leather. [Note: According to Starz, when the new season begins, Spartacus will have more than 30,000 escaped slaves in his army.]
Having said that, though, I think you face a huge amount of pressure because, in true "Spartacus" fashion, you killed off a lot of people in the most recent finale, including, I think, most of the Romans that we knew.
I believe we may have murdered all the Romans.
You did -- you cleaned up every last scrap. But one of the things the show does well is create these very twisted, complex relationships between the oppressed and the oppressors. And then also, over time, you transform people like Glaber and Batiatus into multifaceted human beings who do terrible things, but who you also root for. So you've got a lot to set up this season, with several new characters coming in as antagonists.
It's definitely a challenge. It's a challenge the way Batiatus was a challenge. With Batiatus, I had 13 episodes -- introducing the villain, getting you to love and hate him and then wrapping him up at the end. Now ... we've spent three seasons whispering about Marcus Crassus. We've set up the idea of Marcus Crassus and then we realized, "Holy shit, we better cast somebody extraordinary to live up to this thing we've set up." And when we found Simon Merrells, well, he's just phenomenal. We loved his audition. And I remember watching the first day of dailies with him as Crassus and I thought, "Yes, we 110 percent got that one right." He is just electrifying as Crassus. He's a very different type of villain than we've had before, and we really hit the ground running with him.
And then, we introduce Julius Caesar and it's a different take than I think most people are used to, since he's 27 at the time. He doesn't have two coins to rub together, but he is very, very ambitious. And we really see the germ of the idea between him and Crassus to eventually overthrow the Republic along with Pompey. So I think we have two incredibly strong, magnetic villains to introduce in the story. And in true "Spartacus" fashion, I want the audience to both hate them and hope Spartacus wins and kills them, and on the flip side, see their humanity and kind of maybe wonder if it wouldn't be better if they won the war.
I'm already picturing in my head the big Crassus speech where he says, "So you're saying it would be better for this guy over here not to be a tradesmen, an artisan with a skill, but to be back home, like, you know, living in a ditch with nothing?" Obviously slavery is a horrible concept, but as we were talking about last year, it's not the worst deal in the world to be an artisan working in his overall corporation.
Exactly. If you were in the Crassus Corporation, you had a better chance of it. Unfortunately, not everybody was in the Crassus Corporation.
You always find ways to up the ante and make things more insane and more intense. Is there a huge amount of pressure to do that with this season, given that it's the last one?
The only difference that I feel this year is that I really, really am striving to have every single episode be all it can be. We do that every season, since, with 10 episodes, you really get to concentrate on them. But this season especially, I would hate to waste an episode since we only have 10 to wrap up the story. And I can tell you, production-wise, it's a huge challenge because every single episode is just gigantic. I don't know how my amazing partner, Rob Tapert, does it, but this season is on a scale that you just can't even imagine. The opening scene of the new season is just phenomenal.
[Note: According to Starz, production on the new season, which is currently shooting in New Zealand, involved the creation of city sets, a Roman villa and the setting for an epic battle along the Appian Way.]
The show does such a good job creating these supporting characters, but if I had one issue with "Spartacus: Vengeance," there just wasn't a lot of time for the subsidiary characters. I guess, being greedy, I wanted more time with the new and the returning characters, people like Agron and Nasir, Gannicus and Saxa. Is there going to be enough time for that this season, given all the stuff that you’ve just said you have to establish?
Yes. As a matter of fact, it's funny you should mention that because I look at "Vengeance" as really setting up a lot of ["War of the Damned"] stuff. Like, we introduced the Agron-Nasir romance. What I love about that romance -- and I think it's really the first time we've really done this on the show -- is that it's romance that we took the time to develop very, very slowly. We explore that more this upcoming season with those two. And with Saxa; we just introduced Saxa and we will explore her character more moving forward. One of the standouts that I've seen in dailies this season is Naevia. I think people will be very, very surprised at Naevia because we started her big transformation with Crixus training her [in "Vengeance"] and, of course, with her chopping Ashur's head off. And when you see who she's become this season, I think fans are really going to dig what Cynthia [Addai-Robinson] is doing with the character.
Yeah. I was on the fence about Naevia for a lot of "Vengeance." But then the progression of the character and how Crixus allowed her to work through that trauma ... Ultimately I had to agree with the fan who wrote about how "Spartacus" was one of the most feminist shows of all time.
There was the scheduling conflict -- Lesley-Ann Brandt had to drop out and we had to recast the role -- on top of introducing a new Spartacus, which I knew was going to be a challenge. And I think the [Naevia] challenge, unfortunately, was made more difficult because of where the story had to start and end. I know a lot of people were complaining about, "Why is Naevia acting so differently? She's not acting like she used to and she almost got him killed in the woods." If it had been Lesley-Ann Brandt who you suddenly found and was bruised and abused, you'd feel sorry for her. Because it was a different actress, you just kind of felt annoyed. But I think it would have been just disingenuous to have, "Oh, Naevia is fine after being raped and beaten for four months." She definitely had to take that journey and hopefully, by the end, when she chopped Ashur's head off, people were starting to come around. But if they didn't, I think they definitely will next season, because she is amazing and just kick ass.
Last season, people in the media who just kind of dismissed the show in Season 1 seemed to be giving it more of a chance this year. I got the sense that people were taking the show more seriously. I feel like there's an edginess to what you've created and I think there are some people who just don't want to go to the places your show goes, and that's fine. But does the increased validation matter to you? Or do you feel like, "Well, we're going to do what we're going to do and if we like it, that's enough"?
Of course it always matters. You always want to be recognized by your peers. But, ultimately … because of the subject matter, people just assumed, "This is targeted for like 14-year-old boys." And it's like, "No, we actually didn't target it for anybody," and that's what I think makes the show really cool and interesting. We are not trying to go for the male audience. We're not trying to go for the female audience. We're not trying to go young or old. We just wanted to tell the story we wanted to tell, and it's very satisfying that people are coming around to it.
But on the flip side, at no point did we decide, "To be taken more seriously, we should have less blood or less sex or less sensuality." For us it was always, "Let's tell the best damn story we can tell and hopefully people will like it." So often you can't find that in network television, because there are so many cooks in the kitchen and it's just designed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. I always think when you try to do that, you have a bigger chance of just appealing to nobody.
Yes. You've described a lot of the fall pilots that just landed on my desk.
It just becomes beige. Network television has been very, very good to me, I was very lucky to have worked in network television. But one of the things that always drove me crazy that they really didn't want you to do is they don't like grey areas. They don't like their heroes to get a little dirty. It's very much [the goal to] keep things cut and dried. The thing I love about Starz is that they let us have our heroes do something wrong and let things be morally ambiguous, especially going into this new season. There's a lot of moral ambiguity on the hero side. There's a lot of good people doing bad things. And on the villain side, there's bad people doing good things, which I just love having that opportunity.
You like the twisty.
I do like the twisty. I wonder who I got that from.