Don't read unless you've seen "Victory," the series finale of "Spartacus."
When I try to convey to people who don't watch "Spartacus" why I love the Starz show so much, it comes down to trying to communicate this idea: it makes me feel taken care of.
During every episode, whether all the elements fully work or not, I feel that those making the show are trying their best to entertain me, to move me, to make me care and to even make me think a little. No matter how many bare asses we see, nothing about this show feels half-assed.
I watch a lot of TV, and not much of it is as carefully thought out and painstakingly crafted as this show. And yet, "Spartacus" is cathartic, entertainingly melodramatic and funny as well. For three years now, it's consistently delivered a mixture of escapism, adventure and dramatic ambition that more lauded (and expensive) shows only rarely supply. And through it all, "Spartacus" didn't take itself too seriously, although it has become more measured in this final season, which is only right, given the magnitude of the threat Spartacus faces and how much we have come to care for those leading the rag-tag rebel army.
You know what there wasn't a lot of in the final season? Sex. I respected and enjoyed the show's embrace of sensuality, but I didn't mind the relative lack of sex in this final batch of episodes. "Spartacus" has always been about so much more than that, and the emotional threads that run through the show have always been what kept me coming back for more.
"There's definitely a deeper meaning in all the spectacle that we strive for, and for me, I think it's obvious -- the emotional levels of the show" are the most important things about it, creator Steven DeKnight said in a post-finale interview (which can be found below and here).
Though perceptions of the show have changed over time, a distressing number of people still can't or won't make the mental leap that would allow them to enjoy what this show offers. Too many people still think a show about half-naked slaves encrusted with dirt and mud must be sloppy, lazy, dumb and derivative. There are some who can't wrap their minds around what we "Spartacus" fans have understood for some time. We know that this lusty drama is also tender. We know this violent drama is deeply humane and compassionate. We know that the ornate, profane language is also poetic. We know the violence and the sex are there for specific purposes, and the characters are often smart as hell. We are well aware that this saga of sex, swords and conquest actually has something important to say about freedom, oppression and equality.
We know that, like a gladiator on the sacred sands, "Spartacus" has demonstrated a killer combination of humility (like a true warrior, the show has always aspired to improve itself) and perseverance (the show stuck to its guns, creatively speaking, and it always possessed a fervent, even lunatic desire to get the job done).
In its series finale, "Spartacus" did not leave its job unfinished. It ended the rebels' story in an episode packed with excitement, mourning, dignity and heart-stopping deaths. We could ask for no more than the glorious ending we got Friday night.
To the people who not only didn't get it, but have no desire to try to see beyond their preconceptions, I have several choice words that would make even Batiatus blush. But ultimately, those people are to be pitied. To those who've long known how hard this show has worked to keep us glued to the TV on Friday nights, I only ask: Were you not entertained?
I fucking was.
More than three years ago, I sat on a couch with my husband as we watched the first two episodes of the show. I've recommended "Spartacus" to many people, but I've never told potential fans that they'll enjoy the show's pilot, because it's not very good. I still recall looking over at my husband after the second episode was finished, and we raised our eyebrows at each other. "Should we go on?" we wondered. I wish I could say exactly what made us decide to do so (it probably had to do with how much fun John Hannah and Lucy Lawless were having with their roles as Batiatus and Lucretia). I'm a little vague on what made us keep going, but we did, thank the gods.
Fans who latched on early saw something in this show, but who could have guessed "Spartacus" would grow into the addictive, subversive treat it has been these last three years? The unexpected rigor and intelligence of this show, the soapy enjoyment I've gotten from it -- it all constitutes one of the best and most unexpected surprises I've come across in my career as a critic.
"Spartacus" has taken chances few other shows have taken, and it's something of a surprise it even made it this far. The heartbreak of Andy Whitfield's death is something fans will always remember (and seeing his face in Friday's episode was a very welcome tribute to his unforgettable portrayal of the Thracian warrior). As if in tribute to Whitfield's fighting spirit, the drama came back with "Gods of the Arena," which introduced the fan favorite Gannicus, and against all odds, it found another Spartacus, Liam McIntyre, who was able to fill out the title role in a memorable way. This is a show that had to fight for its place in the world, and it was all the stronger for it.
Did the show go over the top a few times too many? Well, sure, but that was to be expected, especially from a show that was still finding its way in its early seasons. Every year, though, the good stuff outweighed iffy elements, and the drama kept ramping up its ambitions as it went. This season, Sybil didn't really work for me as a character, I wanted more time with Crassus, Caesar, Kore and Tiberius, and Naevia's turn to the dark side early in the season could have been set up better, in my humble opinion.
But those things are essentially quibbles. And what are quibbles compared to the sensational performance Liam McIntyre turned in this season, especially in the last couple of episodes? His battle with Crassus was unbelievable (kudos to both McIntyre and Simon Merrells, who was a great addition to the cast as the obsessive Roman). Spartacus had to be tender, commanding, bloodthirsty and melancholy this season, and McIntyre nailed all of it, and on top of that, Spartacus' death scene was a revelation. McIntyre seemed tentative when he joined the show in "Vengeance," but, like the rest of the cast, he brought his A-game and then some to show's end. Like Whitfield before him, he was Spartacus.
Similarly, Manu Bennett (Crixus), Dustin Clare (Gannicus) and Dan Feuerriegel (Agron) showed tremendous growth from that first season until now. Crixus' send-off in Episode 8 was absolutely heartbreaking and thrilling, as was the speech he gave to the rebels ("We have challenged the idea that a slave must always know his place!"). I'm very glad that Manu Bennett will be a series regular on "Arrow" next season. He's been an excellent addition to that show (and if you're not watching it, give it a shot -- it's the only new show from last fall that I've stuck with).
I loved the physicality of Gannicus' "arena" fight in Episode 9, and the bittersweet intensity of that character's crucifixion in the finale won't leave my mind soon (who didn't tear up a little when he saw Oenomaus in his final moments?). If Dustin Clare does not land a major TV or film role soon, then the Hollywood gods are blind. His portrayal of the wounded bad boy with the heart of gold has been essential to the show's success and one of the best parts of these last few seasons.
The roster of names that were shouted in Episode 9, the surprise in "Pompey's" tent, the reveal of the ditch full of spikes, the epic final battle in which Gannicus rode to the rescue on horseback -- there were just too many wonderful moments to name in the last few episodes (for more detailed episode breakdowns, I recommend the reviews that my podcast partner and fellow Sparty fanatic Ryan McGee has posted at the AV Club. Here's his take on the finale).
I have many more thoughts about the show and the finale, but most can be found in the "Spartacus" podcast here and below. In the first 75 minutes of the podcast, I spoke to DeKnight about his vision for the final season and the finale, about interacting with fans and about the show's history. We spoke in depth about "Spartacus'" evolution, its aesthetics and its core message.
The final episode "was really mostly about the characters… and what this whole rebellion meant," DeKnight said. And in typical "Spartacus" fashion, the episode's title, "Victory," could be interpreted in several ways. After all, in the finale, Spartacus and Gannicus die, but a contingent of slaves get away. And Crassus lives, but he must crucify his lover and his son is dead.
"How do you claim victory when you've been defeated? And how do you lose when you've won? That's really the two sides of the coin," DeKnight said. "I think Crassus feels very much in those final moments, there is no final victory. There's absolutely no victory for anyone in this."
Yet DeKnight wanted there to be some hope in the finale, and he accomplished that in part by letting some slaves escape. Among those heading to the mountains (presumably to establish a goat farm): the fan-favorite couple Agron and Nasir.
DeKnight said the show has "always been a grand sweeping love story, it's about Spartacus' love for his wife and many other peoples' love. And it's a tragedy, it's an absolute heartbreaker."
I don't think fans would want it any other way.
If you don't have time to listen to the entire podcast (which, at the end, has a 20-minute discussion of the finale between myself and McGee, whose separate interview with DeKnight goes up here soon), here are some of the highlights:
- Speaking of battles, DeKnight had many with Rick Jacobson, who directed the finale. There were "some contentious discussions about that final battle," DeKnight recalled. "It was perhaps the darkest moment on the show, but out of that came fantastic compromises and ideas, and I wouldn't have it any other way. ... [Rick] had so many great ideas, and half of them I absolutely hated [at first]. I finally came around and now I think they're brilliant." One example: Jacobson wanted a scene of Crassus practicing with his men before the battle, DeKnight didn't think it was necessary at first, but he came around. Jacobson also suggested the tent scene between Gannicus and Spartacus, which wasn't in the original script.
- The ideas of Laeta being pregnant at the end of the show, or Naevia living and perhaps being revealed as pregnant, were never really considered. "I did not want to go down that path -- to me that felt like a very [cliched] television thing," DeKnight said. "It just didn't feel like the show to me."
- We talked quite a bit about the epic journey of Gannicus, and I asked him if he'd always envisioned the heroic path the character eventually embarked on. "When we were doing 'Gods of the Arena,' it was definitely there -- the broad strokes of the grand plan," DeKnight said. "Was it our plan to have him end up like that [i.e. crucified]? No. During the final season, there were many discussions about who was going to end up on the cross," and ultimately they decided to make it "a man who had resisted for so long being part of this movement." Gannicus is a man who "deep down hates himself, and even though he [knows] Oenomaus forgave him, he has to forgive himself."
- DeKnight said one of the hardest aspects of every season was thinking up those big twists and shocking moments. That kind of thing was a challenge, but one of the things he enjoyed most was structurally tying the final season to the first. Fans probably have noticed the huge number of callbacks to show's early days in the final seasons, and DeKnight talked about a number of those references in the podcast. "I'm a huge fan of the kind of stories that reference back to themselves and [where] everything ties together and folds in on" itself, he said. "That kind of intricate storytelling is what really excites me the most."
- The original plan for Episode 9 had been for Spartacus and his crew to force the Romans to fight each other (as allegedly happened in history). But DeKnight realized it wouldn't be enjoyable for the audience to watch their favorite characters sit on the sidelines for half the episode, so they changed it to gladiators fighting the Romans, and thus recalling the glories of the arena days.
- On the passions of fans: "I love the fans dearly, I interact with them all the time but I would never make a creative decision based on fans liking somebody or not liking somebody," DeKnight said. "I think that is such a slippery slope. You have to just tell a good story. If I was listening to the fans, I never would have killed Varro" in Season 1, but we discussed how that moment was a pivotal turning point for the show and for Spartacus as a character.
- DeKnight pointed out something that I hadn't thought about: Both Crixus and Spartacus were stabbed in the back by Romans. The similarities of their deaths was intentional, and the idea was that "Rome is a neverending ocean that will eventually get you. They might not be able to take you head on," and the only way they could beat the rebels is by stabbing them in the back, DeKnight said.
- I agreed with DeKnight that another whole season of senators taking on Spartacus would have probably become too repetitive. He and the writers condensed many of the historical events involving those Roman foes into the final season, and though DeKnight said he's a "fan" of 10-episode season, I think a couple more episodes, which could have been used to flesh out the Roman side a bit more, might have been advantageous. While it sounded as though he wouldn't have minded a 12-episode season, "you do what you can with what you've got," he said, and added that "it's not a bad thing at all leaving fans wanting just a little bit more."
- There's a veiled reference in Episode 9 to the blacklisting of Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the 1960 Kirk Douglas film "Spartacus." The blacklist era was marked by the kind of "naming of names" that could ruin lives -- so DeKnight made the naming of the fallen in "The Dead and the Dying" "a positive naming of names."
- He hears this much less now, but in the first couple of seasons, "I was inundated with mostly guys saying, 'I love the show, but can you cut it out with the gay shit?'" DeKnight said. "And my reply was always 'No. If you don't like it, stop watching the show.'" DeKnight talked at length about how he and executive producer Rob Tapert felt strongly about depicting gay characters who were no different from any other characters. "The same-sex characters on our show were just as much manly men as anyone else," DeKnight said. "The only difference is they love someone who's not the opposite sex."
- He wanted one couple to survive and walk off into the sunset together, and because no other couples made sense, given the demands of various characters' stories, in a "de facto" way, the surviving pair ended up being Agron and Nasir. "It was important to me -- we had to have a ray of hope at the end of this very sad story," DeKnight said. He is pretty sure "Nagron" fans will be happy that they lived, given that he has been "pelted" with fans who wanted the couple to end up happy and living on a goat farm somewhere. "I think people will be happy to know, they will get their goat farm," DeKnight said.
- He has not heard anything about a spinoff for Caesar, and his work schedule would not permit him to be part of such a show, should one come to pass (and to be clear, Starz hasn't said anything about a spinoff). "I'd watch the hell out of that" if it happened, DeKnight said. "I say, 'Godspeed.' I would love to see this world continue. I think it's a fantastic world Rob and I were able to build. and I personally would regret if there wasn't something [more] told in that world."
- To learn more about DeKnight's new show, the military drama "Incursion," check out this recent story.
- "Spartacus"-speak is hard to write -- each script took him twice as long as non-Sparty scripts he's written. DeKnight said he was glad Starz had the "intestinal fortitude" to stick with the show's "language experiment," which he thinks paid off. "I think the payoff is, I've never been quoted so much," DeKnight said. "I've even seen people with tattoos of lines from my scripts. There's nothing that's a better validation that we did the right thing than to see somebody with your words tattooed on their body."
- The question he was asked most by fans: What is Spartacus' real name? "I always respond, what name would make a difference?" DeKnight said. "The great thing about the story is that nobody knows his name. In that way, he becomes everyone. He stands for every man who stands against oppression."
- The idea to feature Andy Whitfield saying "I am Spartacus" at the end of the finale came from Tapert. "I thought it was brilliant. ... We definitely wanted to acknowledge Andy's contribution to the show, and his absence is felt every day we worked on the show." That image, by the way, came from a scene in the seventh episode of Season 1.
- Tapert also came up with the closing montage of "Spartacus" characters from every season.
- My colleague Laura Prudom has been posting exclusive video interviews with "Spartacus" cast members every week. Don't miss this week's final installment, featuring Liam McIntyre. The other videos can be found with the rest of HuffPost TV's "Spartacus" coverage.
- The entire podcast interview with DeKnight can be found here, on iTunes and below.
- One last thing -- here's a short list of things I'll miss about "Spartacus:" Crazy eyes; Sparty-speak; slow-mo blood; incisive critiques of multiple forms of oppression; gay love; people jumping down from or up to things (often with crazy eyes); committed performances; badass feminism; entertaining profanity; the Undefeated Gaul; oiled torsos; crazy surprises and twists; rousing speeches; Syrians; so much hot damned manflesh; the tender romance of it all; epic deaths; lunatic Germans; inventive violence; and of course, "Jupiter's cock!"