Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) and his band of former slaves and gladiators declare war on the rich and powerful of Rome. Glaber (Craig Parker) and Ilithyia (Viva Bianca) take control of what is left of the House of Batiatus, which doesnít sit well with Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), former domina of that ludus and the only survivor of Spartacusís first act of open rebellion. Schemes are schemed, the wants of the flesh are satisfied, and some poor bastard gets his face sliced off.
Letís go ahead and get this out of the way: Itís impossible not to miss Andy Whitfield. The producers of this series faced an uphill battle in their quest to replace the late actor, and while Liam McIntyre acquits himself nicely as the new lead, Whitfield was an extremely strong presence, and his absence hangs over this season. McIntyre grows into the role as the season rolls along, and Iíve no doubt heíll be able to call it his own during the upcoming third (or fourth; depends on how you choose to view Gods of the Arena) season (which will be the showís last), but there it is.
But what of the season as a whole? Well, much like the first season, it takes a little time for things to get rolling. The first three or four episodes are largely concerned with setting everything up moving all of the retuning players into place and introducing new characters. This probably could have been achieved in two installments. A lengthy setup isnít a problem in a first act, but seeing as this is the second act, slowing things down this much is likely to make a few viewers feel antsy.
But once it gets going, it cuts loose and goes nuts (the breakneck fifth episode is packed with wanton destruction), which is what everyone wants. The sex and violence may be even more over-the-top than in the previous season(s), which I know is hard to imagine but is nevertheless true. The characters go out of their way to inflict the bloodiest, more horrific wounds imaginable on their opponents (why settle for a simple stab through the heart when you can stab through the heart and slash the throat?), and the sex is presented in just about every legal-on-pay-cable permutation imaginable (thereís even a MMF threesome in which the female isnít the one in the middle).
As fun as that stuff is, though, itís not enough to carry the series, so creator Steven DeKnight and his collaborators make sure to give you a healthy dose of double-crosses, backbiting, nefarious dealings, and other assorted bits of palace intrigue. As with earlier episodes, thereís nothing to this you probably havenít seen before, but the actors make it work (Parker makes for an excellent villain, and Lawless and Bianca are obviously having a hell of a lot of fun), and eventually all of the various schemes become so thick and twisty that their sheer volume renders them somewhat fresh. And this of course leads to even more opportunities for revenge, which are of course carried out in the bloodiest, most horrific ways possible (one character has her throat slit and expels what looks to be thirty gallons of blood, which is a neat trick considering she appears to weigh no more than ninety-five pounds), so the showís two big selling points dovetail nicely, creating a satisfying experience.
Iím assuming the budget for this season was increased, as the show looks a little more polished than it did in the past. Some (but definitely not all) of the visual effects are a little slicker, and thereís even some location work, which helps erase a bit of the soundstage-bound feel of the earlier year(s). The blood sprays and gore effects look better, too. When that guy in the first episode tugs on that other guyís entrails, itís realistic enough (Iím assuming, of course) to induce serious squirming. And when that aforementioned poor bastard gets his face sliced off, itís undeniably spectacular.
As I mentioned above, the third proper season of the show (subtitled War of the Damned) will be its last, which is probably a good thing. DeKnight and his comrades undoubtedly could have milked a few more years out of this tale, but eventually the series would have started eating its own tail, and what was once entertaining would have grown stale and tiresome. Besides, what happens in the final episode here (which is maybe even more gonzo than the finale of the first season) sets the stage for all-out mayhem, and DeKnight has said the final year will be epic, filled wall-to-wall with breathless mayhem, to say nothing of what will in some way be a bummer of an ending (unless the producers choose to deviate wildly from history).
But the fact that it will be a bummer is a testament to the showís ability to create characters you enjoy following. No, it never probes dead or really gets into the charactersí heads, but it uses archetypes in a way that works on a fundamental, primal level--villains to hiss, heroes to cheer. When one character here finally gets what heís had coming for a long, long time, itís immensely satisfying, and in a way you only get from something that has no loftier goal than sheer entertainment. Conversely, thereís a late-season death that seriously pissed me off. But had it not pissed me off, that would have been a failure on the part of everyone involved. If a show that was originally marketed largely on the promise of boobs and blood can create that sort of reaction, someone is obviously doing something right.
Note: Nearly all of the episodes here are presented in extended cuts. They run roughly five or ten minutes longer than the broadcast versions, reinstating bits that had to be trimmed for time or perhaps were too extreme even for pay cable.
The show is once again presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio; the 1080p transfers have been encoded with AVC, and this seasonís ten episodes are housed on three 50GB discs. The look of this season falls in line with that of the previous iterations, mixing various visual schemes to create a highly stylized look. Earth tones and swaths of gold and sepia still dominate; all of that blood and the bright primaries of the Romansí more ornate and ostentatious clothing provide good contrast. Blacks are deep and inky, and they hold steady. Detail and clarity are striking. Some extremely minor moirť and judder can be glimpsed, but thereís nothing else around to compromise the image.
Lossless audio comes in the form of Dolby TrueHD 5.1 tracks. The audio here is more refined and better balanced than the mixes found on the first two Blu-ray sets; in fact, Iíd say thereís nothing here to complain about. Dialogue is given perfect placement in the mix; itís always natural-sounding, forceful when it needs to be, and never gets obscured by the action. Depending on the intent of any given scene, atmosphere is either thick or subtle; interiors are given a good sense of enclosed space, while exteriors create a wide, enveloping field.
The big battles and swordfights once again go for broke, with swords clanking, blood spurting, and shots from catapults exploding from every corner. The low end, as you might expect, is thunderous. Spanish mono dubs are also included; English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
Commentaries (which are exclusive to this Blu-ray release) are included for eight of the ten episodes. Participants vary from episode to episode, but thereís a good selection of members of the cast and crew. DeKnight and Lawless appear on roughly half of the tracks; McIntyre, Parker, and Bianca also appear, as do a few of the directors. Iím not sure listening to all eight is necessary, but sit through a few and youíll get a good sense of what went into creating this season.
The following video-based extras (all of which can be found on Disc Three) are presented in high-def:
Starz Studios-Spartacus: Vengeance (12 minutes) is essentially a long promo spot for the series, with the cast and crew talking about the tragic loss of Whitfield, the casting of McIntyre, and what this season has to offer.
The Making of Spartacus: Vengeance (5 minutes) quickly touches on several aspects of production, including visual effects, costuming, stuntwork, fight choreography, etc.
Behind the Camera: Directing the Rebellion (4 minutes) offers a look at the work that goes into blending the showís live-action and digital elements.
On Set with Liam McIntyre (6 minutes) shows the new lead being fitted for his costume, undergoing training, and appearing on the showís Comic-Con panel.
Burning Down the House (12 minutes) breaks down the visual effects used to bring the fifth episodeís major setpiece to life.
The Legend of Spartacus (11 minutes) offers info on the real Spartacus, separating fact from fiction.
Famous Last Words (7 minutes) is a compilation of clips of characters spouting witty rejoinders or bits of wisdom before taking a dirt nap.
You also get a bloopers reel (3 minutes).
Closing things out is a teaser for Spartacus: War of the Damned.
Itís still a hell of a lot of fun.