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Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Ep. 1.01: “The Red Serpent” draws first blood

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Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Season 1: Episode 1 – “The Red Serpent”
Written by Steven S. DeKnight
Directed by Rick Jacobson
Originally aired January 22nd, 2010 on Starz

A Short Introduction

Five years ago, Starz premiered Spartacus: Blood and Sand. The series was originally written off by most viewers and critics as being gratuitous, lacking quality storytelling and employing a juvenile aesthetic (or a borrowed one, in the case of the 300 comparisons). During its run on Starz, Spartacus garnered a respectable viewership by the network’s standards, but the number of people who went back to re-evaluate the series and see what was actually there was simply too small in the end. Fast forward to now. Netflix has released the entirety of Spartacus (which features three full-length seasons and a prequel mini-series, all with different subtitles), and subscribers to the streaming service now have a chance to take part in one of television’s most underrated and misunderstood series of all time. The ability to binge-watch that Netflix allows lends itself ridiculously well to Spartacus, since the somewhat slow start can be plowed through (give Blood and Sand a good four episodes before you decide how you feel) and because once the series gets going, it’s just far too difficult to have to wait to see what happens next. To call Spartacus merely underrated, though, is to do it a great disservice. Let it be known: overall, Steven S. DeKnight already has his name penned to a legitimate masterpiece, and Spartacus deserves nothing less than to be called one of television’s best series of the last decade. To give it the weekly review treatment now that it is more widely available only begins to acknowledge the kind of care that goes into each episode, allowing for in-depth analysis and discussion. First-time viewers will hopefully stick around and see the treasures that Spartacus has to offer, while long-time fans will probably all agree: you can’t watch this series enough times.

Review

During a typical Roman celebration in Capua the night before the gladiator games, Quintus Lentulus Batiatus (John Hannah) tells his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) that “That man has fingers in all the proper assholes.” Batiatus is referring to Solonius, a rival lanista, but the sentiment is one that defines Spartacus. Regardless of what one’s class might be–from senator down to slave–you have to know the right people to have any chance of survival. Down on the battlefield, that survival becomes much more literal, but the power plays that the Romans make in “The Red Serpent” are similarly there to secure a kind of safety, albeit social and financial.

Our hero, who is given the name Spartacus by the episode’s end, knows little of this world yet. He hails from the land of Thrace and is thrust into the land of Spartacus through a series of great and unfortunate events. At first, Spartacus observes in a recruitment proceedings as Gaius Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker) tries to enlist the Thracians in one of his campaigns, but as he sees how Glaber manipulates language like a true Roman orator, Spartacus steps in to make demands of behalf of his people. The details of the skirmishes that follow with the Getae are far less important here than getting a feel for who Spartacus is. Early on, he’s defined by his loyalty and devotion. He is not willing to go back on his word once it is given, an immediately sympathetic and admirable quality for a television protagonist who is likely to learn that other people prey on those who possess the quality. Similarly, his devotion to his wife Sura, while relatable, is and always will be an Achilles’ heel for people like himself.

When push comes to shove, the characteristics we see in Spartacus that make him an endearing protagonist in “The Red Serpent” are the same ones that get him in trouble, allowing Spartacus to establish a status quo: hold your tongue or else be prepared to deal with the severe consequences. What happens to Sura, we’re not quite sure. Though it’s said that she’s been sold into slavery, one can never trust a Roman, and Spartacus surely won’t give up on those thoughts until he has a definitive answer in front of him. In the meantime, he finds himself in a situation that could be much, much worse. Getting a good dose of last-second inspiration from his wife’s words (“Kill them all…”), he earns himself some more life–to the chagrin of Glaber–by besting four gladiators and impressing the crowd. Another important thing to note: even the senator cannot ignore the favor of the crowd, and while he holds position much higher than Glaber, all characters must acquiesce in certain circumstances. It’s not that the senator thinks his tenure is jeopardized by having Spartacus executed; it’s that a smart politician knows the long game and how to use the peasants below him to his own advantage. Glaber, too, knows this, but his childish outbursts of frustration paint him as someone who might be better suited to military tactics than political rhetoric.

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It’s Glaber’s wife, Ilithyia (Viva Bianca), who understands this best, yet wants her husband to succeed in every way imaginable. For a series that received much criticism regarding sex and gender, it’s incredibly important to pay attention to both Ilithyia and Lucretia in these few scenes. Neither is degraded and both are presented as parts of a pair. Glaber and Ilithyia have a synergy that defines their collective success, just as Batiatus and Lucretia exchange words like business partners as much as husband and wife. One can see a wonderful amount of Shakespearean influence in DeKnight’s work, and here is where Macbeth and Lady Macbeth come to mind most easily. If either of these couples is to progress, it doesn’t appear that it can be done while divided. That sense, even in spite of how poorly the Romans are presented on the moral scale, makes that side of the episode and series–the one separate from Spartacus and the gladiators–wholly engaging. Even if the viewer has trouble liking certain characters, all of these Romans are at least interesting.

The same idea can be adapted to Spartacus as a whole. Even if the viewer has trouble adjusting to certain parts of the experience, such as the visual aesthetic or the language (which will be referred to as Sparta-speak from now on) with all its inversions and profanity, the heart of the show is still something to behold. If I have learned anything from watching and writing about television–if all lessons could be boiled down to one thing–it is that there is a right way and a wrong way to watch a television series. The right way to watch Spartacus is to embrace its quirks so that there’s no barrier to the smart, emotion-driven things it is doing with its writing. The story being told here is one based on history, but like most works of historical fiction, it comes down to the interpreter to present something digestible and thought-provoking for the consumer. Measuring Spartacus by those standards is about the easiest thing in the world: it’s a massive success. And even if “The Red Serpent” chugs along quickly like most pilots, trying to cram in as much to hook the viewer as possible, these quieter interactions show promise enough to check back in for the next episode.

Denarii for Your Thoughts

– Welcome. To. Spartacus. It has been a privilege to write for Sound On Sight these past couple years, but being allowed to cover Spartacus on a weekly basis now that Netflix has done the sensible task of acquiring it is by far the greatest honor. This is an incredibly special show in so many ways, and I look forward to finding new things on this, my fourth viewing of the series. Since the series dropped yesterday, it will be treated as a Sunday show, so expect reviews to go up Monday night at the very latest from now on.

– Speaking of the aesthetic, first-time viewers will probably need some time to adjust to Spartacus‘ visual storytelling. Moments in this first episode, such as Spartacus’ final kill in the arena, are actually kind of funny in how ridiculous the level of blood is. If I recall correctly, this gets toned down a little bit as we go along, or else it just becomes something you stop noticing after a while.

– Note on spoilers: there won’t be any in these reviews. There might be overall, general claims about the series, but there will be no details about future episodes. This can actually be a very spoiler-y show, so if you’re watching for the first time, stay away from other articles unless they’re also clear about their spoiler policies.

– I have to say this at the outset as a warning: Viva Bianca as Ilithyia turns in possibly my favorite performance of anyone in any television show ever. There may or may not be copious amounts of praise for her and the character as these reviews continue.

– Starz was fortunate enough to nab John Hannah and Lucy Lawless for the roles of Batiatus and Lucretia. Both performers come from popular series (the The Mummy film franchise and Xena), and both give Spartacus that added incentive for those on the fence about checking it out.

– Sura tells Spartacus of the vision she has about him bowing before a red serpent, which is the emblem on one of the gladiator’s shields during the final fight. He’s also apparently destined for great and unfortunate things. Store it all in the memory bank.


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