First off, my article on Greek mythology in the Chronicles of Narnia has just been published - it's free to view online and you can find it here.
And so, on to Spartacus. Hmm. Well, last week I was concerned that too many unpleasant and depressing things happened for the episode to be funny - but that was nothing compared to this week (a week in which even John Hannah's character says he's had enough death). This week, most of the action was so deeply unpleasant that even Spartacus was unwilling to show it on screen and it somehow managed to be even more depressing than last week. In a way this is a good thing, since the characterisation and action was much, much more realistic this week. Watching it with friends in the city, though, we found ourselves disappointed because we'd got used to switching our brains off and having some fun when we sit down to watch Spartacus together, and this wasn't that sort of episode. It also means that most of this review, unfortunately, is rather more serious than usual, though luckily we still found a few things that amused us over the course of the episode.
This episode revealed something interesting about Spartacus - there is a line between what they will and will not show. They'll show just about any act of violence, but they draw the line at some, very few things. Specifically, the show is perfectly happy to depict the rape of slaves by or at the behest of their masters, but not rape between slaves or between free people. When John Hannah has sex with his slave while talking to Xena, or Neighbours Reject is forced to have sex with another slave, or Xena orders Crixus to have sex with her, that's all rape, but because it's rape conditioned by Roman slave laws, they're willing to show it. Presumably, because this is something that we like to think (incorrectly, I suspect) doesn't happen in our own society, the producers are quite happy to put it on television. In Episode 1, however, the rape of Spartacus' wife by a gang was not shown and here, the repeated rape and violent abuse of Barca's young boyfriend was also not shown. Because these are things that we all know can and do happen within our own society, they are discreetly passed over by the cameras. Slavery, in the minds of the TV producers, is Roman and therefore fair game, but horrific crimes not occuring because of a Roman law are not.
That wasn't all that was uncomfortably real and depressing in this episode - the suicide of Barca's boyfriend was equally depressing, and shot in the same sort of way as this sort of scene is usually shot in serious detective or police dramas. We are also swiftly reaching the point where Drill Sergeant Guy is the only character I care about. Neighbours Reject is no longer on my goodies' list because when his wife told him she was raped by a friend his response was 'Why didn't you stop him?'. Right. Even the Romans were aware of the rather important difference between consenusal sex and rape. (They might have suggested that his wife should commit suicide to erase the shame, as Lucretia did, and she would certainly be damaged goods, and like many modern men they might suggest it was her fault for wearing too much make up or something, but they were aware that a woman cannot stop it from happening). I was very happy to see Crixus recovering, but then he spoiled it by telling Spartacus off for pushing the rapist guy off a cliff, which was one bit of the episode I really liked.
If Spartacus had been this sort of show from the beginning, all this would be fine - we would be conditioned to expect gritty Roman drama and a good heap of misery. But we've been led to expect ridiculous arcing spurts of bright red blood come straight out of a comic book and even more over the top Roman orgies than usual, along with lots of lingering shots of muscular men with no clothes on and Xena's cleavage. Suddenly being presented with gritty drama distinctly short on either the blood or the tits of Spartacus' common name (Spartacus: Blood and Tits) is a bit of a shock to the system, and we missed our weekly opportunity to realx with some very over the top Romans.
Luckily, it wasn't all doom and gloom - there was still some amusing stuff in there. Starting, oddly enough, with Spartacus' wife's funeral, where we were left to wonder why the gladiators don't appear to have access to so much as a cloak to cover their muscly, oiled bodies with for such a solemn occasion. Don't they get cold in winter? (Romans didn't wear black for mourning either, I think it was white they wore). Xena appears to have nicked Rose's kimono form Titanic and, just like her husband, looks really constipated when she's trying to keep a secret. One friend's reaction to Neighbours Reject's plan to be a gladiator for 'only a year' to pay off his debts was 'yes, only a year fighting shaven-headed lunatics in nappies with big swords', which seemed a fair summary. NR's child, meanwhile, was unbelievably creepy - I'm sure the poor child actor looks perfectly nice normally but something about the lighting, or the make-up, or something was really off and he looked like a demon-child of some kind. And the splatty death of the nasty bald rapist was very satisfying.
Paris Hilton turned up again as well. She didn't do anything interesting.
Crixus got some great lines - 'I have awoken to a world of shit' had a nice pathos to it (I think it was like that already, mate). I was also especially fond of 'Have you been making friends again?' Perhaps if he keeps this up I'll forgive him for wanting the horrible bald rapist to get an 'honourable death'.
We weren't quite prepared for the gloom to come at the beginning of the episode, as we were plunged straight into some steamy flashback sex. We were aware that it would need to be fairly sad though, due to Wifey's recent death - Spartacus was always likely to 'spend the whole episode making a dreadful fuss' as one friend put it. At the end of the episode, though, things really started to pick up again. The fight in the arena was historically plausible (gladiators don't always fight each other to the death, but condemened criminals are - well it's in the name!), the comic-book arcing blood was back, the ridiculous, over the top sex was back (loved the couple randomly shagging in the audience - and some pretty decent CG on the audience, by the way, they've got one up on the BBC there!) and most importantly of all, Spartacus himself is starting to really pick up as a character. John Hannah's evil plan has worked - he is no longer focused on getting his wife back and escaping, and has thrown himself into his new life (and will, presumably, 'go Spartacus-y' as my friend put it, i.e. rebel, when he finds out JH did it). Comments during this sequence included the usual 'ew!', 'oooooo!' and 'Finally, a throat cut!'
Spartacus' story is still developing though. The moment where he sees the condemned criminal dressed as a Thracian as himself and then chops his head off ('Don't!' pleads the man - and then he does) is very effective. Meanwhile, Drill Sergeant Guy's warning that next time Spartacus tries to escape, he'd better kill him first was a nice bit of foreshadowing, and we're left to wonder whether Spartacus will, indeed, kill him, or get him on side (which might be possible of Crixus' girlfriend ever tells the truth about Barca's death). Finally, we ended with a very interesting play on the famous 'I am Spartacus!' line, as he declares his identity as a champion gladiator. Whether or not this line - which is totally unhistorical, the real Spartacus was killed in the final battle - will be included when the show finally comes to an end remains to be seen bit this was an intriguing and effective use of it.
All in all, then, things are looking up for the next episode - with Spartacus looking more alive than we've seen in in weeks (and having acquired some nice armour, always a good sign in a fictional - which at this point, he is - gladiator) and the hope that the next few episodes will start to gain momentum as we get ever closer to rebellion, and it starts to become clearer which gladiators are more or less likely to survive to rebel with our hero (if any of them do...).