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Spartacus: Blood and Sand: The Complete First Series DVD

By Mark Clapham on 16 May 2011

The first season of ‘Spartacus: Blood and Sand’ starts out as something of a shallow, guilty pleasure, but gains depth and complexity across the thirteen episodes in this season box set.

Based on the first couple of episodes I wrote a review that summed up the initial impact of the show as a cartoonishly violent and sexually explicit sword and sandals series in the vein of ‘300′, and indeed the gleeful commitment to nudity and blood splatter runs through the entire series. Regardless of what else is going on in the show, it’s always ridiculously entertaining, and the studio-bound, highly stylised green-screen visuals add a distinctive aesthetic.

As the first series progresses, it grows beyond cheap thrills into something more complex. The series is set largely within the walls of the ludus of Batiatus (John Hannah), a villa complex with an upstairs/downstairs division between the pampered scheming of the Romans and the brutal struggles of Batiatus’ gladiators as they train and fight. The ludus is a boiling pot of rivalries and tensions.

There’s the twisted relationship between Batiatus and his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless). There are also Batiatus and Lucretia’s schemes to advance the family reputation and finances, and their conflicts with Roman citizens who can help or hinder those ambitions. There’s theĀ  rivalry between the gladiators, who all have different desires and motivations: some for freedom, others for profit, some for glory. Then there are the house slaves, used and abused by their Roman owners, who have desires of their own.

The wild card that disrupts the ordered tension of the ludus is of course Spartacus himself. Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) is brought to the ludus as a slave after being betrayed by a Roman general who enslaved both Spartacus and his wife. Spartacus doesn’t respect the existing order of things or the ambitions and expectations of those around him, and just wants to escape to be reunited with his wife, but his potential as a gladiator is clear from his first fight. Much of the series is about the relationship between the slave and his owner, as Batiatus schemes to turn Spartacus into a champion who will bring esteem to his house.

Spartacus is a surprisingly complex character who goes through a lot of changes across the first season, and Whitfield really grows into the role. Batiatus is also interesting, acting both ruthlessly and with occasional honour, and it’s only a few episodes in that we discover exactly the kind of man he is and what this means for Spartacus’ fate. Hannah plays the role of Batiatus at full scenery chewing tilt, as does Lawless as Lucretia.

As the series progresses relationships and motivations become more nuanced, and as betrayals occur and secrets are kept, so the conflicts between those within the ludus begin to build. We learn more about characters like the champion Crixus and henchman Ashur, taking potentially one-dimensional roles and revealing surprising depths.

By the end of the first season bloodshed – yes, even more than usual – is inevitable as secrets come to light and enmities reach boiling point. The season finale doesn’t disappoint either as dramatic payoff or a gory spectacle, with a sequence of shocks that pretty much constitute a ticklist of things I never thought I’d see anyone be allowed to do on television.

‘Spartacus’ is a highly watchable show, violent TV popcorn, but it’s also a well-structured drama with solid plotting and great characters. This box set has a few featurettes as extras, but these are mainly behind the scenes shorts used to promote the series and nothing terribly revelatory. It’s the episodes themselves that are the draw, and if you can stomach the strong gore, nudity and swearing throughout then these come highly recommended. Just beware – with the whole season at hand, it may be very tempting once the series gets going to watch the lot back-to-back. It’s that kind of show.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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