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Saturday, August 25, 2012


When we last saw him at the end of season one, Spartacus had just ignited a bloody slave revolt against the house of Batiatus, supplier of gladiators to the arenas in Rome.  Now, with Anchor Bay's 3-disc DVD set SPARTACUS: VENGEANCE--THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON, we join the slave rebellion already in progress as Spartacus struggles to unite his disparate followers in a common purpose over the span of ten incredibly action-packed episodes. 

The biggest change since SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND--THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON, of course, is the absence of the late, lamented Andy Whitfield in the title role.  Newcomer Liam McIntyre takes some getting used to but eventually suffices as a replacement, even though watching him in the role is a little like watching George Lazenby in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE and wishing it were Sean Connery instead.  Also taking some getting used to is Cynthia Addai-Robinson as Naevia, awkwardly replacing Lesley-Ann Brandt as the love of Crixus' life. 

Manu Bennett as arena champion Crixus and Peter Mensah as former gladiator trainer Oenomaus resume their roles with all the usual soulful intensity.  There's an exciting subplot involving Crixus' attempt to free Naevia from the mines to which she's been banished, and a series of flashbacks shows us a young Oenomaus being discovered and groomed as a gladiator by the elder Batiatus, after which we see him in his current fugitive state, fighting incognito in the horrific arena known as "the pit." 

Craig Parker returns as Spartacus' arch-enemy Glaber, now a Praetor sent by Rome to quell the rebellion.  His expectant wife Ilithyia, once again played to perfection by Viva Bianca, is in her usual fine form as the ultimate scheming status-seeker who will do anything to advance herself.  Reluctantly taking up residence in the abandoned house of Batiatus, they're shocked to find his wife Lucretia (the always awesome Lucy Lawless), thought dead after the slave revolt, still alive and haunting the place like a ghost. 

Now seemingly out of her mind, Lucretia becomes Ilythyia's closest friend and conspirator even as her eyes flicker with their own ominous secret intent.  The two actresses play their roles like virtuosos, reveling in a heady concoction of sexually decadent melodrama and two-faced political intrigue.  These are soap opera machinations on a gut-wrenching level, often with a visceral intensity that makes "The Sopranos" look relatively tame.

Things get really interesting when Ilithyia plans to dump hubby Glaber for the up-and-coming Praetor Varinius (Brett Tucker), forcing Glaber to take drastic action.  His reaction to Ilithyia's later kidnapping by Spartacus' forces is to take beautiful young Seppia (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) into his bed after murdering her brother, with whom she had incestuous relations.  And lurking in the background all the while is the traitorous Ashur (Nick Tarabay), now more monstrous than ever as he schemes to take revenge against his former gladiator brothers and acquire both Batiatus' house and his wife Lucretia as rewards for service to Glaber.

Meanwhile, Spartacus and his followers continue to cut a swath of violence across the countryside in a series of battles which, more than anything, give the show its distinctive look and appeal.  Filmed in highly impressionistic, almost fetishitic style, these incredibly entertaining action scenes are often slowed almost to a halt in order to highlight certain violent tableaux as though they were ornately-rendered comic book panels drawn by the likes of Jim Steranko or Barry Smith.

Blood is the main motif here, and it would be an understatement to say that there's buckets of it.  Even optical-wipe transitions between scenes are often composed of splashes of blood.  Gorehounds will be in seventh heaven as the screen is filled with more blood 'n' guts than most horror movies, including one sword slash by Spartacus that ends an altercation with a rowdy German ex-slave in jaw-droppingly decisive fashion, and another incident in which Naevia proves that it is indeed difficult to remove a man's head with a single sword thrust.  Crucifixions, eviscerations, and other atrocities abound, many committed by the Roman upper class for their own amusement or as an example to others.  

Of these ten episodes, two stand out as especially thrilling.  The first is episode five, "Libertus", in which captives Crixus and Oenomaus are to be executed in the arena while Spartacus sets a plan into motion not only to rescue them but also to bring calamity on a scale that will shock both the Romans in attendance and the viewers watching it all on TV.  When a group led by Spartacus' current love interest, the warrior woman Mira (Katrina Law), sets fire to the bowels of the arena, it starts a chain reaction of destruction that gives the show's SPFX team a real workout.  "Libertus" also heralds the return of Dustin Clare as Gannicus, the most memorable character from the prequel mini-series SPARTACUS: GODS OF THE ARENA.

The other episode is, naturally, the season finale, "The Wrath of the Gods", which features not only the epic confrontation between the forces of Spartacus and Glaber but also the startling resolution to the whole Ilithyia-Lucretia business that's had us guessing throughout the previous episodes.  Other subplots are resolved in highly dramatic fashion as well, as the season is drawn to a satisfying close.

The 3-disc DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 English sound and Spanish mono.  Subtitles are in English and Spanish.  Extras include seven behind-the-scenes featurettes, a blooper reel, a teaser for season three's SPARTACUS: WAR OF THE DAMNED, and a DVD-ROM extra, chapter one of "Spartacus: Swords and Ashes."  The Blu-Ray also has nine extended episodes plus audio commentaries.

With its fierce, furious battles between gladiators, soldiers, and slaves, SPARTACUS: VENGEANCE--THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON is intoxicatingly action-packed--that's a given.  But it also overflows with giddily decadent drama that had me rooting for one human monster over another and celebrating the utter deviousness of whoever manages to outwit their equally monstrous opponent.  Some developments--such as Ilithyia's surprisingly pointed handling of a romantic rival--go beyond shocking into being downright flabbergasting.  This is just the kind of thing I want from a show like this and it really delivers.

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