28 February 2012

TV Review: Spartacus: Vengeance – ‘Libertus’

Wow. That was quite an hour of television. ‘Libertus’ is easily the greatest episode of Spartacus: Vengeance so far and may be the most spectacular instalment of the series ever. The episode is packed full of action, has shocking twists and turns and brings about the awesome return of Gannicus from Gods of the Arena. In so many ways, this episode looks and feels like a season finale (it is certainly as violent and gripping as ‘Kill Them All’), yet here it is right in the middle of Vengeance. I truly think last night’s episode was one of the most impressive episodes of television that there has been in 2012, and with five episodes remaining, there’s more of this yet to come.

In ‘Libertus’, Spartacus learns that Crixus (or, “the undefeated Gaul”) remains alive and that he (along with Oenomaus and Rhaskos) is set to be executed in the arena. For the first time, we start to see something of a logical approach to leadership from Spartacus; he knows that he must save them and send the Romans a message but he cannot simply stage a rescue attempt at the arena (as that really send no message at all) so he decides to make what is certainly his biggest move in this rebellion so far by literally burning down the arena and killing numerous spectators.

Not only is Spartacus forced into making a big decision in ‘Libertus’, multiple characters are put in difficult positions and end up compelled to take action. Oenomaus is once again faced by Gannicus (after not seeing him since Gods of the Arena) and questions him about whether he slept with Melitta - this leads him to attempt to kill Gannicus (as they’re facing each other in the arena, this was bound to happen anyway). Also, Glaber learns of his wife’s scheme to marry Varinius (Viva Bianca’s perfect reading of Illythia’s line “Because you are not worthy of an heir” is utterly chilling) and in the aftermath of Spartacus’s attack on the arena he makes a cruel choice that’ll keep Illythia close to him as the story progresses by murdering her father.

It’s impressive that I’ve managed to get this far without mentioning just how absolutely fantastic it is to have Dustin Clare return to the role of Gannicus. With this season’s current interest in exploring Spartacus’s leadership qualities and the actual meaning of freedom, it will only get more interesting as we now have someone who is very different from Spartacus and someone who is truly free (at least in the physical sense, Gannicus is far from free from his emotional guilt). Furthermore, Gannicus is simply a lot of fun, he’s a highly entertaining onscreen presence and perhaps the greatest fighter (certainly the most exciting) that there has been on the show. Gannicus’s approach to combat embodies the spirit of the arena, he’ll always put on a great show and make it look effortless. It’s great to have his character return to the show, and I’m intrigued to see the conflicts that his presence will bring (beyond the obvious ones in this episode).

This episode also puts some final pieces into place towards making Glaber an interesting and worthy opponent to Spartacus. Craig Parker is doing a really great job with the material that he’s been given this season and his barely concealed anger at the games feels like a bomb just waiting to explode. When Ashur (who is also backed into a corner and has to take action to secure his position) hints that Illythia may be attempting to abort their child, Glaber confronts her in what is possibly the couple’s best scene yet. Before the episode concludes, though, some key slave owners are dead (the deplorable Cossutius being one of them, as he is skewered by a spear thrown by Spartacus) and the arena has burned to the ground. In the confusion, Albinius is left trapped by a wooden beam and Glaber decides to take drastic action and smash his face in with said wooden beam, thus ending Illythia’s option of dissolving their marriage (and, you know, killing her dad... which is pretty evil).

Amongst all this, there are some simply incredible fight scenes. The violence is not necessarily what draws me to Spartacus as a show, but I highly respect it when it gets it right (unlike last week, which was incredibly repetitive). This time round, we get to see a showcase of gladiatorial combat styles in the lead up to the execution and then some amazing stuff as Agron, Crixus, Oenomaus, Rhaskos, Gannicus, Spartacus and a whole load of Romans do battle while the arena burns around them. It’s just awesome, and so charged with anger and passion that you can really feel it. Not only that, but we got to see Mira lead the side of the operation that was responsible for the fire.

Speaking of the fire itself, I’ve noticed that some commenters on certain sites are complaining about the use of CGI in this show and I just wanted to provide my thoughts on that. In short, if you’re finding special effects of this level disappointing then your expectations are way too high. This stuff does not have the budget of a huge film like Lord of the Rings and what Spartacus is managing to pull off is actually really remarkable. The series itself has a very distinctive style which is not designed to look realistic, but to evoke a certain mood and atmosphere. In fact, I have found the CGI used so far in this season—especially the mines in ‘The Greater Good’ and the arena fire here—to be rather breathtaking and very impressive.

Anyway, an hour like ‘Libertus’ is really some of the best of Spartacus so far. Not only that, it is one of the greatest episodes of television that I’ve seen in a while. I really feel for those viewers who judged this show too quickly and have missed out on what it has become. This was simply glorious, and it is without doubt the most absorbing episode of Spartacus since ‘Kill Them All’ and may be the greatest one altogether. What’s most impressive is that this is only the fifth episode of the season, we’ve still got five more to come and with the destruction brought about here, there’s no telling where we’re headed next.

Spartacus: Vengeance continues next week on Monday at 10pm on Sky1