Created as a six-part stopgap while Andy Whitfield, the actor playing Spartacus, underwent cancer treatment, Starz’s Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is a prequel to the events that precipitated the gory season one finale of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. As a result, there’s so little angst that the results are even trashier than in the first season.
Here, of course, trashy is a good thing—never more so than in Dustin Clare’s performance as the arrogant, horny gladiator Gannicus, on whom Batiatus and Lucretia (a remarkably younger-looking John Hannah and Lucy Lawless) have staked their ambitions. Gannicus is carefree; he delights in showing off in the arena, slaughtering the men presented before him with glee and none of the gloom and doom that consumed Spartacus and left him an honorable but dull character. Nope, Gannicus is there to fight, fuck and drink—and not necessarily in that order.
But while Clare saunters across the screen, the fascination in this installment has firmly shifted from the arena to the House of Batiatus. Season one found schemers Hannah and Lawless a perfect match for the heavy-handed plottings of Spartacus; now, they’re at centerstage. Batiatus remains the same ambitious, lethal, clumsy man from season one, but with even less to back up his outrageous claims and still forced to live in his father’s shadow. A high point of the first episode is Batiatus blithely telling his rival that any gladiator from his ludus could best one of his rival’s, even blindfolded. Batiatus is then shocked, of course, that his rival insists on blindfolding Gannicus, who is simple-minded enough to triumph.
Even more interesting is Lawless’ Lucretia. A flame-haired vamp carrying on an affair with one of her husband’s gladiators in the first season, earlier years found her to be both mousier and disgusted by the thought of taking a slave to bed. Her friend, however, points the way for Lucretia’s future transformation: Gaia (Jaime Murray) is a sexually omnivorous tease, bringing out vials of opium with a wicked smile under the unnaturally red wig that Lucretia will one day adopt as her own. No doubt the copious amounts of blood and sex that filled the first episode of Gods of the Arena were eagerly saying, “Look, we’re still the same show, even without Spartacus!” but it’s Lawless’ impending metamorphosis that promises to be most fascinating.
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