I wonder what Doctor Who would do if he steered his TARDIS toward Ancient Rome and landed in the gore-drenched dirt of the gladiator camp where the first season of Starz’ breakout hit Spartacus: Blood and Sand has unraveled its salacious, graphic, endlessly lurid and unexpectedly addictive melodrama. Methinks he’d take the measure of all of this bloodlust—at one point, I jotted in my notebook “decapitation porn”—and scamper away in bemused horror, opting to let these mad foods fight it out among themselves.
Which, as it turns out, is exactly what happens in Friday’s incredibly eventful and (even by its own wild standards) shockingly explicit season finale. When last we saw Spartacus (the sturdy Andy Whitfield) in the penultimate episode, the champion of the gladiators declared to his fellow slaves, “There is but one path: We kill them all.” Those last three words are the title of this week’s episode, and they’re not kidding. I can honestly say that not since Dynasty’s notorious Moldavian wedding massacre have I seen a climax this extreme—and this one actually earns it.
It’s a marvel any scenery is still left standing at this point, given the voluptuously savage chewing that’s been going down these past few weeks. John Hannah and Lucy Lawless have been having the time of their lives as the ambitious, conniving slave masters Batiatus and Lucretia, who run the “lutus” where Spartacus and his fellow bloodsport heroes toil, often to the death. Spartacus is the ultimate “upstairs/downstairs” saga, with overripe (and usually blood-drenched) intrigues ensnaring all the characters, highborn or low. Political chicanery, twisted sexual liaisons, bonds of friendship forged through deep devotion and often shattered by cruel deceptions have brought things to a deadly boil.
“I have made many mistakes since becoming champion,” Spartacus admitted last week, still reeling from recent unhappy twists of fate and the revelation that restored his sense of purpose: learning that Batiatus, his master and patron, was responsible for the murder of his beloved wife. “Know that I intend to rectify [these mistakes] shortly.”
In a cannily constructed cesspool of mad plotting, the finale finds Spartacus battling his own brothers-in-arms to convince them to follow his potentially suicidal lead, while the treacheries among the Romans continue unfurling at a rapid clip.
This is the most fun I’ve had lately while covering my eyes and gasping at the outrageousness of the carnage afoot. It’s all so unreal and over the bloody top you can’t possibly take it seriously, and yet the earnestness of Whitfield’s warrior hero somehow compels you to root him on. Like the spectators in the arena, I find myself giving Spartacus a shamelessly loud thumbs-up cheer.
(Spartacus: Blood and Sand season finale premieres Friday at 10/9c on Starz)