Spartacus Blood and Sand
The “best shows in the history of television,” the avatars of “TV is the new cinema,” The Wire, The Sopranos, and Deadwood (all of which I love and re-watch obsessively) lost their nerve at the finale. None had the commitment to die as they had lived, and all succumbed to that invidious enemy of art: kitsch. All, in their last minutes, indulged in a sentimentality they had for the most part avoided over their various lengthy unfolding narratives.
Deadwood is perhaps the most innocent offender. Its finale reeks of dashed hopes for one season more. Taken before its time, Deadwood made the grave tactical error of basing Season Three’s pivotal villain on a real historical figure who we all knew damn well didn’t die in Deadwood. So the villain never got his comeuppance—he rode out of town with blood up to his elbows looking all peevish—and we never got our catharsis. Which, even someone as poorly educated in the classics as myself understands, is the entire point of drama.
The Sopranos just plain cheated. That show seldom achieved a traditional season-ending climax. Composed as it was of small life-observances set against the larger backdrop of never-ending power struggles, The Sopranos’ telling payoffs were all in the nuance, with an occasional bloodbath to remind us of the true stakes. With its tricky jump-to-black ending, the producers simply admitted that they had no friggin’ idea how to end the thing. They resorted to gimmick rather than letting the story play out as it always had, another day in the life. The result was intense coitus interruptus. Shockingly, folks hailed this as innovation. Believe me, thus far in this century lazy-ass narrative is the opposite of innovation.
The Wire failed not only in its final episode, but in all the finales of all its seasons. The creators painted themselves into a corner with their obvious montage-of-key-characters/moments/cityscapes-set-to-all-too-on-the-nose-music. Here’s a show renowned, and rightly so, for a hard-headed naturalism that permitted it to showcase the most egregious violence and heart-rending hopelessness. The realist style kept the nihilism from seeming exploitative or cheaply utilized. Then, in the last five minutes of every finale, they chucked the realism and served up a heapin’ helpin’ of sentimental nonsense to which, one assumes, we are all supposed to nod along in grave agreement: True dat! HBO subscribers foot tap as one and although what I know of Aristotle filters through various David Mamet rants on theatrical purity, I’m pretty sure that when the old boy cited the necessity of climax followed by denouement, he did not then call for a Avid sequence set to the anthems of John Cougar Mellencamp.
These failures of nerve or creativity were disheartening in ways beyond the usual frustration suffered at the hands of self-undermining lazy screenwriting. These shows were bastions of quality and afforded us the rare experience of not being insulted every second by the drama of our choice. So the letdown at their failure to maintain their own standards bleeds outward; we’re reminded that the world is crappy in general and mediocrity is the most that our best creative minds can achieve.
This is not what we need to hear, especially after the weekend I just had.
The Shield, which never ever got the credit for dramatic cogency it deserved, suffered no such loss of nerve. The Shield proved to be the most consistently nihilistic public entertainment in the history of such. And its crushing cynicism found a welcoming demographic; The Shield ran for seven unrelenting years. Seven years of corruption, violence, malfeasance, racism, venality, dysfunctional families, thwarted love, murderous self-interest, and hypocritical self-righteousness. True dat, indeed. All told with a dissonant camera and editing hyperactivity that would give Godard whiplash and leave Marcel Ophuls crying out for Dramamine. Even more than The Wire, The Shield developed a visual language that perfectly metaphorized its narrative content: no sanctuary, no peace, no point of orientation, and no firm ground on which to take a stand. Its antihero, Vic Mackey, was no antihero: he was a straight up sociopath and proved himself so in the very first episode. That he could get all high and mighty about the sociopathy of others made him all the more realistic. His appeal was that of all the great sociopaths in drama. We watch Vic Mackey as we watch Richard III, thinking, Damn—look at what that sociopath got away with! Could I get away with that if I had the guts?
We waited seven years for Vic to get his comeuppance or escape scot-free. And as the final season built to its climax, either seemed possible until the last 15 minutes of the last episode. I won’t play the spoiler, but suffice to say that as Vic sowed, so did he reap. The Shield ended as it began: unregenerate, hysterical, meanspirited, and demonstrative of the inherent unimprovability of the species. What a relief! And what an inspiration—the creators had the courage to stick to their guns and never once devolved into sentimentality. It became clear in the last fifteen minutes of the last episode that The Shield was never, at root, a cop show. It was a Shakespearean tragedy.
Character is fate, thought the Greeks, and the creators of the sublimity that is the finale of Spartacus Blood and Sand agree. Sarahjane Blum admirably deconstructed Spartacus in March’s Rail and noted its addictive, futuristic blend of ultraviolence, one-hand-in-the-air declaiming, shaved scrotums, and Lucy Lawless. As Ms. Blum made clear, Spartacus don’t play. What might have seemed camp in Episodes One through Seven turned deadly serious and, as the season progressed and the blood went from ankle to knee deep, only became more seriouser. Horror/gore/humor genius Sam Raimi and his co-creators painstakingly revealed the genuinely classical motivations underlying what before had seemed their heroes’ post-modernly self-aware retrofitting of classical stereotypes.
While the first half of the season seemed like Cinemax meets The Colossus of Rhodes, the finale brought genuine emotion and an avalanche of previously only-hinted-at classical themes: star-crossed lovers, star-crossed allies, triple-crosses, and lethal comeuppances. The language always worked as well. My tattoo is in Latin, and when I told my translator that I wanted it in as strong a command form as possible he said, “You’re in luck. Latin is a language made for giving orders.” That aspect of the culture was ever-present in Spartacus; no character ever spoke to another without each acknowledging the hierarchy that enveloped them both.
And you had to admire the way they cursed. Verbally chaste films set in bygone eras lulled us into thinking that “motherfucker” is an utterance as new in human history as Superfly. The version of Seven Samurai we all enjoyed for decades had subtitles that depicted dueling Samurai spitting out the Japanese equivalent of Robin Hood’s “Saracen pig!” “Saxon dog!” exchange. Then along came contemporary uncensored subtitles and guess what? Those noble warriors were motherfucking one another other up and down the Shogunate. Well, in Spartacus never did you hear “unbefuckinglievable.” It was all more like “I’m going to cut your fucking head off,” which is, I’m pretty sure, what Menelaus said to Achilles when the latter refused to fight once again. That’s what Menelaus said in the uncensored Illiad, anyhow. Plus Spartacus showed uncanny timing and precision in deploying foul language, used almost exclusively by those who were in power but didn’t have quite the power they desired. Those above the cursers in social station never once bothered to sully their tongues. They didn’t have to.
Hubris, as it so often does, proved the downfall of the villain, who, true to Homer and whomever, was revealed as far too duplicitous for his own good. As in the mythology of the age, the winner was the one most consumed by vengeance, even if his satisfactions came after everything else that made life worth living had been destroyed. While anyone with any sense loves a good swordfight—why else, indeed, were movies invented?—Spartacus grew increasingly mind-blowing as the finale neared by amping up both the gladiatorial snicker-snack and the human-driven drama that, astonishingly, made the swordfights utterly secondary. In the finale, bloody swords were wielded in service not of exploitation, but of character and motivation. Everybody that wanted revenge got it in the most explicit and gruesome way, and everybody that deserved disemboweling got that too. Save one, of course, the infinitely adaptable feminine trickster of every ancient culture. Well, Spartacus needs someone to obsess about in Season Two, and look who it turns out to be.
The last act of the last episode is as groundbreaking and paradigm-shifting as the final gunfight in The Wild Bunch. It raises the stakes not so much on gore, though there is so much gore, but on an idea. The idea being that once you put certain forces in motion, as the ancient myths demonstrate again and again, there is only one possible outcome. Unlike the makers of The Wire, Deadwood, and The Sopranos, the creators of Spartacus embraced that outcome and even embellished it. They demonstrated what is possible when there is sufficient commitment to an aesthetic ideal, even if that ideal garnered viewers with more frontal nudity than the director’s cut of Caligula. Spartacus offered the virtue of shameless consistency, and elevated itself from pulp to profundity.
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.