One of my friends has been wary because “commercials make it look like nothing but gratuitous violence.” Although Spartacus has ample portions of blood, sand, and skin—one could argue its most spectacular special effect is the aforementioned Ms. Lawless “nekked”—series creator Steven S. DeKnight deserves kudos for dramatizing ancient history in a way that might make your high school teacher alternately blush and cringe.

The circumstances of star Andy Whitfield’s valiant battle with cancer have become somewhat legendary. Determined to keep the crew and some of the cast working during Whitfield’s treatment, DeKnight created the prequel series Gods of the Arena to serve as a defacto Season Zero. Sadly, Whitfield ultimately succumbed to the disease after briefly going into remission.

The season premiere begins with a new subtitle Vengeance and a new lead actor… Liam McIntyre. Since the events of the season one finale “Kill Them All”—never was an episode title so apt, BTW—Spartacus, Crixus (Bennett), and the other gladiators have been wreaking havoc in Padua. Spartacus’ motive is simple: revenge for his wife’s death. Meanwhile the target of his wrath, the newly-minted praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), is under pressure to quell the rebellion and clean up the mess at the House of Batiatus since he was the one responsible for bringing the Thracian to Roman soil. Ilythia (Viva Bianca) is loathe to accompany her husband because she is still haunted by her brutal murder of Licinia during season one.

Two characters are soon revealed to be proverbial wild cards: Oenomaus (Mensah) formerly known as Doctore, who finds himself on the run and adrift after the rebellion of the gladiators he was responsible for training, and Lucretia (Lawless), who managed to survive the massacre at her house. By episode’s end the audience is left to wonder, is she truly addled by her harrowing experience or is she “playing” Ilythia to advance a hidden agenda? In either case, her continued existence complicates the lives of her former lover Crixus—who seeks to find his soulmate Naevia—and Ilythia, who fears her misdeeds could be exposed.

Perhaps the most salient question about the season premiere “Fugitivus” is “How does the new guy fare as Spartacus?” After all, Whitfield’s unexpected passing left big sandals to fill.

I’m pleased to report McIntyre does a fine job. He slightly resembles Whitfield and wisely does not attempt to imitate him. DeKnight’s clever script and Michael Hurst’s energetic direction rely heavily on the characters’ previous relationships—especially Spartacus’ bromance with “frienemy” Crixus and the Thracian’s antipathy toward Glauber—to ease McIntyre into the role. Although his relative youth (he’s about a decade younger than his predecessor) doesn’t quite allow him to master the world-weariness Whitfield could project with a glance or a scowl, McIntyre possesses the requisite charisma to make it believable that men would follow him to the bitter end. In short, Spartacus: Vengeance is off to a bloody good start.

[Tag: Spartacus, Liam McIntyre, Steven DeKnight, Lucy Lawless, interview, Manu Bennett, Katrina Law, Peter Mensah, Craig Parker, Dan Feuerriegel, Viva Bianca, Tom Hobbs, Nick E. Tarabay, Peter Mensah]

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