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'Spartacus: Vengeance' Finale Review

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Don't read this unless you've seen the March 30 season finale of Starz's "Spartacus: Vengeance."

Holy shit, right?

A few days ago on Twitter, after I said that fans would be yelling "Holy shit" after the "Spartacus: Vengeance" season finale, a fan responded to me with a question: Could anything in the season's final episode top the moment in which Ilythia killed Seppia and then had sex with Glaber?

I'm going to say the answer is yes.

Let's review, shall we? "Spartacus" killed off Oenomaus (NO!); "Spartacus" killed off Glaber by shoving a sword down his throat (okay, so he had it coming, but damn, I loved that character this season); "Spartacus" killed off Ashur (OK, so I saw that one coming -- nobody who predicts a golden future for themselves ever lives long on this show, but damn! Ashur!); "Spartacus" killed off Lucretia (Noooooo!); and not only that, the show killed off a newborn baby, gods help us -- Spartacus' own son, according to Ilythia, who herself was mortally wounded in the closing minutes of the episode. (And by the way, if you want to know if Ilythia's really dead and how Lucy Lawless feels about the demise of Lucretia, read my interviews with Lawless and "Spartacus" creator Steven DeKnight here.)

It was completely insane, and yet it made complete sense. And you know what I mean, because you're a "Spartacus" fan. That's what I love about this show: Love, logic, vengeance and mercy combine in ways that seem chaotic and nuts, but deep down, we know that everything that happens makes sense on both an intellectual and emotional level.

These "Holy shits!" are earned, my friends. Am I right?

Another thing I love: The show leaves everything on the table. They don't save plots and characters for a rainy day. Everyone is vulnerable and everyone's on the chopping block, all the time.

This season, "Spartacus" killed off major characters that any other show would have held onto for several more seasons. There's no bigger fan favorite than Oenomaus, but he was sent to his beloved wife in the afterlife. Thanks in part to great writing and in part to Parker's terrifically committed and nuanced performance, Glaber emerged as the guy you loved to hate this season, but he's now gone too. We have loved Miss Twisted herself, Lucretia of the House of Batiatus, for two seasons and a prequel, and Lawless has established the character as one of the most memorable small-screen women in recent memory ... but she's gone too.

And all that happened amidst the well-choreographed chaos of battles, sneak attacks and flying balls of fire.

Actually, that's the best way to describe this show: well-choreographed. It is one of the most structurally sound and well-crafted shows on television, and thus there was an almost beautiful symmetry to everything that went down, all of which the show was the culmination of themes and stories that displayed the show's meticulous attention to detail.

At the end of Season 1, Ilythia locked Lucretia in a house full of murderous slaves, and Lucretia nearly lost her life and the baby inside her was killed. Symmetry: At the end of Season 2, Lucretia locked Ilythia inside that same villa, killed all the servants and put a knife in the belly of her "best friend." And of course, the biggest parallel of all was that Lucretia took the baby with her to the afterlife; neither woman ended up getting to raise the children they desperately wanted. Although you could look at it as Lucretia finally bringing Batiatus the son he'd always wanted.

If Glaber hadn't taken Spartacus as a slave and set this whole story in motion, Spartacus' wife wouldn't have died. And as any action-movie hero will tell you, karma is a bitch: Glaber had to die at Spartacus' sword. But Glaber is gone for more than one reason, though of course, Spartacus' revenge was important. It just wasn't credible to keep him around any longer. As my husband said when we were watching the "Spartacus" finale, "How many times can Glaber fail?" Rome doesn't smile on praetors who don't carry out their orders, and it would have strained believability had Glaber spent another season chasing the army of former gladiators around the countryside.

More symmetry, more karma: Ashur had been an oppressed (if crafty) slave, but then, he turned oppressor with Lucretia. In the end, however, he was killed by a vengeful Naevia, whose life he had ruined. News flash, Ashur: Sometimes karma is a bitch with a sword and a long memory.

(Sidebar: As far as the Lucretia-Ashur story line goes, I can't fully articulate why I didn't love it, but it didn't quite work for me. I know this is a show that embraces melodrama, but that storyline was just a little too overheated for my tastes. In previous seasons, Ashur was the conniving guy I kind of loved to hate, but this season, he might as well have been twirling a mustache. His mad dream of power -- including ownership of the villa and his former mistress -- just seemed a little too preposterous of a goal for the shifty Syrian. Having said all that, I'm sorry to see Nick E. Tarabay go. A season of "Spartacus" just won't be the same without his sly machinations.)

Honorable Oenomaus! How am I going to watch this show in the future without him? Peter Mensah always imparted such dignity to the character and had such a commanding presence in the role. In a show with so many ugly and self-serving authority figures, Oenomaus was a true leader of men, a thoughtful and intelligent person who could also kick some serious ass. It's going to be hard to watch the show without him, but I understood why he had to go. I'm just glad he made peace with Gannicus and could go to Melitta in the afterlife with his soul finally at rest.

There was a lot of death, but let's look at the positive side of the ledger. Agron and Nasir made it through, and I hope we see a lot more of them in future. (Sidebar: I almost love that I'm able to make this complaint about a bloody, occasionally crazy gladiator show: It wasn't gay enough! I loved the romance of the super-tough Barca and the sweet Pietros in Season 1, and one of the problems with the shorter, 10-episode "Vengeance" season is that there wasn't enough time to develop relationships among the supporting characters. I heard from a lot of fans who loved Agron and Nasir and enjoyed their relationship -- what little we saw of it. Let's hope for more of the Syrian-Germanic love story in Season 3.)

Another positive: Crixus is still with us! Thank the gods. Manu Bennett just gets better each season, and this year, he faced some serious challenges -- he had to make us care about Crixus' love for a radically different Naevia (whom I called Newvia because she was played by a different actress). I found it hard to get into Naevia's plight at first -- it had been a long time since we saw her, she was much changed and more passive and glum when we met her, and of course she was played by a new person -- but Crixus' grief and helplessness made me care about the story. And of course, when Naevia exorcised her demons by killing Ashur, I was completely into it. In any event, Spartacus needs a strong ally and second-in-command, and I'm glad the big Gaul is around to provide that support.

Great as it is to keep those familiar faces around, there's no doubt that the revelation of the season has been Dustin Clare's performance as Gannicus. The party boy we had known was still a complete badass in battle, but there was a sadness inside him, an emptiness left by the death of Melitta and his unwilling betrayal of his best friend and mentor. With subtle skill, Clare made the character's well-hidden grief incredibly compelling; the heartbreak underneath Gannicus' bravado was impeccably portrayed and made the character even more charismatic and complex. Even his dry, sarcastic wit ("I am for wine and the embrace of questionable women") was one of the season's high points.

Even as he tried to seem cynical, we knew he retained the sense of honor that he had absorbed from his mentor and friend, Oenomaus. The death of the sweet prostitute he'd known disturbed him deeply, and just through the character's demeanor, we knew how much it troubled him. In addition to having morals, his brain rages on as well: His attack on Ilythia's carriage was not only badass, it was an unexpected and wise strategic move. With Gannicus and Crixus backing him, Spartacus' chances of evading the Romans are much better.

All right, I can't write this much about the "Spartacus" finale and not say something about Liam McIntyre as the title character. As I said in a Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast Ryan McGee and I recorded in the middle of the season, the Season 2 version of Spartacus was fine, but the character had not truly grabbed me on an emotional or visceral level -- up until the finale, that is.

I think there are a few reasons for that, and quite a few of them have nothing to do with McIntyre (who, let me state for the record, has been quite competent in the role). First, "Spartacus: Vengeance" is much more of an ensemble piece: The man is a symbol at the head of an army, but the idea of freedom is almost as important and prominent as he himself is. Second, there wasn't as much time to explore Spartacus in depth, especially in a season that had to re-establish Ilythia and Glaber's relationship, introduce fairly major story threads for several other returning characters (including Lucretia, Crixus, Mira, Ashur and Gannicus) and introduce new players like Varinius, Seppius, Seppia and Ilythia's father. There was simply a lot going on, and not as much time to devote to the title character.

But more than that, "Spartacus" was a different show this season because the slaves and the slave owners simply weren't in contact that much. Some episodes were less driven by the pressure-cooker tensions we've seen in the past, and though there were terrific psychological pressures on the characters -- the villa scenes late in the season were coldly scary -- there was less of a visceral, visual sense of their oppression. We didn't see it right in front of us much, because we didn't have the dynamic of slaves living in the same house as their masters. It was just a different dynamic, and I think it was easier to create big, dramatic moments for Spartacus when the slaves and slave owners were closer together. Not that this season didn't have its share of amazing moments (including the destruction of the arena in Episode 5, the crazy events of Episode 9 and the wonderfully bonkers season finale), but there was just less of that kind of material to be mined. That had an effect, at times, not just on the momentum, but on the lead character as well.

Having said that, I think the season as a whole was excellent and I enjoy this damn show as much as ever. And as the season gained steam, McIntyre showed how good he could be at playing the more emotional moments, and if he was cast mainly for that reason, that was a wise choice. But in the finale, as he directed the genius sneak attack on the Romans, he was truly commanding in a way he hadn't been before. His stature had risen, he had grown as a man and a leader, and that's how it was meant to be, I think. Perhaps he hadn't been as commanding before because he wasn't sure how to conduct himself as a leader.

By the end of "Spartacus: Vengeance," he certainly did. Friends, Romans, countrymen: If you're not yet trembling in your villas, now is a good time to start.

A few final thoughts, in bullet-point form, before I turn the discussion over to you:

  • We also said farewell to Mira. I hope she found someone to love her madly and deeply in the afterlife. And I love how the show didn't just make her the typical "I love him more than he loves me" pining, whining girlfriend. She kicked a lot of ass, in more ways that one. RIP, Mira.
  • Between Mira and her awesome team of archers and "The Hunger Games," who else wants to bet that archery schools nationwide are packed this year?
  • My goodness, Spartacus' gang wove together four huge ropes in almost no time at all. Lucky there were so many vines laying around! Ha.
  • Damn, I'm going to miss Lucretia. How much of her plan was that of a crazy person -- the wild-eyed, mad survivor we saw in the first episode of Season 2 -- and how much of her plan was coldly calculated vengeance? The brilliance of Lucy Lawless' performance was that both scenarios are equally valid. To understand the depth of Lucretia's madness and for more in-depth reporting and analysis of the finale, I recommend these four pieces: My interviews with DeKnight and Lawless, the long first part of Ryan's excellent interview with DeKnight at the AV Club, Part 2 of the DeKnight interview, and Ryan's writeup of the finale as well.
  • I couldn't quite understand why someone as cunning and calculating as Ilythia would tell Lucretia that her baby was Spartacus'. It helped motivate Lucretia to take the baby with her as she jumped off the cliff, but I just can't buy that she would fully trust Lucretia with that information. But the show needed Lucretia to have that information, so she got it. Don't get me wrong, this is not a show that takes storytelling shortcuts all that often, but that one small aspect of the end of the season seemed a bit rushed to me
  • Speaking of that kind of minor issue, in general, I would have loved to see more time pass between Ilythia's return from Spartacus' encampment to her new persona as blood-spattered vengeance monster. That transition could have used a little more time and development, though of course Viva Bianca played everything she was given with great verve and conviction. I will miss that charming blonde menace.
  • Talking of symmetry, "We are friends, are we not?" "The very best." That Ilythia-Lucretia exchange was heard in both the season premiere and the season finale.
  • The true lesson of "Spartacus: Vengeance": Don't mess with German chicks.
  • The true value of "Spartacus: Vengeance": My German swearing has improved greatly.
  • Declaration: "Spartacus" is one of the most feminist shows on television. It has so many different kinds of female characters, and though it doesn't shy away from showing the restrictions they operate under, and it continually depicts their resilience, their strength, their flaws and their overall complexity. To the people who don't watch this show and pre-judge it in annoying ways, I always say: It's not only one of the best-constructed shows on TV, it depicts all kinds of sexuality in a truly equal and honest fashion (unlike many HBO and Showtime shows, "Spartacus" doesn't put naked women in random scenes just because it can), it's gay-friendly, it's multiracial and it's full of so much lady awesomeness. So the people who dismiss "Spartacus" without taking time to at least sample some of those aspects of the show? I have many choice German curse words reserved for them.

Lastly, the show has cast two new characters for Season 3 (and look away if you don't want to know who they are): Simon Merrells will play Marcus Crassus, one of the richest men in Rome and a major slave owner, and Todd Lasance will play a young Julius Caesar. According to a Starz press release: "Gaius Julius Caesar is a handsome young rogue from an esteemed lineage. His deadly intelligence and skill with a sword will be brought to bear against the rebellion. And Caesar will begin his ascent towards the all-powerful ruler he will one day become. Marcus Licinius Crassus is the richest man in the Roman Republic. Envied and despised by the highborn among the Senate, he craves the power and respect that defeating Spartacus and his rebel army would bring."

Don't forget to check out my post-finale interviews with DeKnight and Lawless here.

And if you've read this far -- gratitude!