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October 9, 2012

Aw, for the Luvva Jupiter: Spartacus: Vengeance!





Good Cossutius: Redefining "good" since 75 B.C..


We love us some Nerve.com around here and all, especially their irresistible lists (“Eight Celebrity Crushes Ruined by Scientology,” anyone?). But recently, merrily skimming our way through “HBO Dramas from Worst to Best," we were rudely slapped upside the retinas by this tidbit:

In fact, if this were a list of almost any other cable network’s original dramas, [In Treatment] would definitely be higher... Unfortunately for Dr. Weston, he isn't competing against Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

I really don’t get this compulsion on the part of critics to take gratuitous shots at the Spartacus franchise, as though it were some hapless combatant in the Pits of ancient Capua, doomed to have its face cut off and worn triumphantly around the ring by its vanquisher. It makes no more sense to compare Spartacus to, say, Mad Men or Game of Thrones than it does to compare the Special Olympics to the regular Olympics, or Mitt Romney to a mammal.

Spartacus resides at an intersection that didn’t even exist until Spartacus itself came along and built it, presumably with topless slave labor, and that is the intersection where high-concept cable drama and pro wrestling meet. Think Game of Thrones and the WWE make a baby. Elements cadged from the former include an Iron Age setting, a Hobbesian lot for the poor, morally bankrupt nobles, unaccountably fine dental hygiene, treachery and shifting alliances, and tits. From the latter, Spartacus takes baroque and gory arena conflicts staged in front of not terribly reflective crowds, steroids, improbable comebacks, unaccountably fine dental hygiene, treachery and shifting alliances, and pecs. On one score, though, Spartacus has proven more progressive than either Game of Thrones or pro wrestling: Its gay warriors are unabashedly out of the closet. Take that, GoT junkies.

Anyway, allow me to spare you a plot summary of Spartacus: Vengeance (Wikipedia offers a serviceable breakdown of all ten giddy episodes here) in lieu of sharing some of my favorite moments.


Best line

“Tiberius! I would finish! Place cock in ass! ”

Sometimes I think Spartacus’s principle narrative isn’t so much “free slaves waging war on their former masters” as it is “characters of all social classes waging war on possessive pronouns,” as this utterance attests.

It falls upon a nameless patrician in an isolated villa to deliver the line while huffing and puffing away atop a very pretty and very bored slave named Chadara (the exquisite Bonnie Sveen, more about whom anon). The remark is addressed not to her, of course, but to a second slave of the cock-having variety.

I mean, it’s all well and good to leave out your pronouns when you’re dealing with slaves who apparently have been through the drill before and presumably know their roles and their orifices. But trust me on this, “Put cock in ass” is NOT the kind of thing you want to mutter aloud while, say, speaking to an official at the Department of Motor Vehicles. In such circumstances, it is only proper courtesy to specify which cock and whose ass. Adding a simple "please" is not too much to ask for, either. Otherwise, the potential for tragic misunderstanding is just too great.


Outstanding New Cast Member

Did you know that they brought in a new actor to play Spartacus because the old one died? Well, they did. I knew that, but it had slipped my mind until around mid-season, when one of the teachers whom I supervise at college informed me, to my amazement, that he just wasn’t able to “get into” Vengeance all that well because he found the replacement actor disconcerting. In yet another moment of conduct unbecoming a tenured faculty member, I sputtered, “What? Spartacus isn’t about Spartacus, man! It’s about tits!”

That’s not really fair, of course. Spartacus aspires to be about more than just tits, and occasionally it succeeds in being about more elevated matters, like kinky sex, e.g. a guy who can’t manage to ejaculate into a breathtakingly beautiful woman unless he is simultaneously getting cornholed. But it is a fact that substitute martyr Liam McIntyre scarcely registered with me throughout his debut season. I mean, the switch scarcely compares with bringing in a new Darren on Bewitched, let alone having some interloper actually attempt to replace Suzanne Somers on Three's Company. Talk about an abomination in the eyes of Jupiter…

Or fobbing off a new Naevia on us, for that matter. As soon as the long absent Naevia appears deep in the mines to which she has been banished as a sex slave, I muttered to myself, amid especially rancid beer farts, “That’s not the Naevia I ejaculated to,” and sure enough it was not. Naevia’s obsessed boyfriend Crixus, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to notice the difference. Understandable, I suppose, it being so dark in those mines. Plus, the horrors of sex slavery in the mines have obviously taken their toll on the girl, transforming her from a mocha-skinned supermodel into…well, another mocha-skinned supermodel.

Thing is, the old Naevia, Lesley-Ann Brandt, never really warmed to the Spartacus ethos of easy nudity. This made rubbing one out in her honor a tedious affair, and one imagines that the crew also grew weary of building dimly lit sets solely for her rare moments of disrobery. Then again, it turns out that New Naevia, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, is just as parsimonious with her treats, so WTF?, as the youngsters say nowadays.

All that said, I did warm to New Naevia in the final episode, however, and will explain why anon, but did not quite like her enough to…


Most Welcome New Tits

…give her this award.

Vengeance provides us a surprisingly thin field in this category, unless one wants to count "Arena Tits" girlsTM as well, and I’m beginning to suspect that the producers recycle many of those from season to season, throwing us off balance by switching their seat assignments. There’s also a bracing rebel raid on a brothel early on, in which a naked sex worker enthusiastically disembowels her employer, which is nice work if you can get it. But I digress.

The early favorite here was Seppia, a patrician naïf visiting from Rome who makes the always lethal mistake of crossing Ilithyia. And she delivers admirably in scenes with Ilithyia’s husband but… Well, the actress (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) is just so cherry-cheeked and youthful-looking (particularly in her frequent scenes with Ilithyia and Lucretia) that I had to hustle over to imDb to gain reassurance that, yes, she must have been at least twenty when shooting took place. Still, once one feels obliged to check on such things, it rather takes the wind out of the old sails, strumming-the-old-banjo-to-patrician-sex-scenes-wise.

So I’m going with the aforementioned Bonnie Sveen here. Alas, she only managed to squeeze in three exposures—two of them largely obscured by the blocky, roided-up gladiator that she opts to rut with—before the envious Mira (Katrina Law) dispatches her with an arrow through the throat.


Best Comfy-Like-a Pair-of-Old Slippers Tits

There are really only two contenders here, and, while Ilithyia pitches some quality innings in the early going, her tits go on the Disabled List for much of the season due to a silly pregnancy which, to my mind, is every bit as gratuitous as most of her nude scenes and which, needless to say, ends badly.

So I’m going with Lucy Lawless’s tits here. And let's be honest here: Lucy Lawless’s tits are the Brett Favre of tits. No matter how many times you think, “Oh, those things are done for. Oh, no, no, no, no, no. We aren’t going to be seeing them around anymore, no sir, not after the way last season ended,” well, before you know it, the blasted things pop out of retirement for one more tour of duty.

For those who don’t keep up on these things, here is a brief history of Lucretia’s tits (aka Lucy Lawless’s tits) in Spartacus.

1. Spartacus: Blood and Sand. At least four quality displays of Lucy Lawless’s tits, according to the indefatigable Mr. Skin (and who am I to doubt Mr. Skin?). In the climactic Crips-in-the-liquor-store scene, the gladiators overrun the House of Batiatus, of which she is the Lady, killing all of noble birth in attendance. Lucretia’s personal sex toy Crixus does the honors for her, running her through with his sword so as to kill both Lucretia and her (and his!) unborn child with one stroke. Goodbye Lucretia, goodbye Lucretia’s tits.

2. Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. With the illness and subsequent passing of original Spartacus Andy Whitfield, the producers opt to expand a series of flashbacks into a full-blown season while they consider their options, Spartacus-replacement-wise. Suddenly, Lucy Lawless is back, at forty-two, playing a younger and perkier-bosomed version of her Blood and Sand character, and somehow pulling it off. If I may speak for the average Spartacus fan (and I think I have earned that privilege by now), her tits’ appearances in Gods of the Arena were greeted with glottal stops of no small volume.

3. Spartacus: Vengeance. So here we have poor Ilithyia and her Spartacus-huntin’ hubby Glaber trying to set up house in the supposedly deserted place where Lucretia and her husband and numerous illustrious guests were dispatched in luridly Raimi-esque fashion, a house so drenched in stale blood and puke as to make a Sunday morning frat-house basement seem fragrant by comparison, when out pops… Well, here is Wikipedia on the case:

Glaber, Ilithyia and his soldiers return to Capua and take up residence in the ludus and are shocked to find Lucretia alive but seemingly insane and she remembers very little, to Illithyia's relief.

Yes, this was Lucretia’s Favre-to-the-Vikings moment, though hardly Lucy Lawless's fault. Really, producers? You expect us to swallow this? But unlike Favre, who has only one wobbly appendage to photograph, Lucy/Lucretia has the double-barreled means to nullify our logical objections to her ongoing participation.



Insane though she may be, Lucretia still remembers where the villa's bathroom is and the dress code that pertains therein, so we get a number of chances to reacquaint ourselves with good ol' Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee, as I like to call them; ultimately, we gradually find that we're really quite fine with the continued presence of Lucretia and her tits--indeed, can hardly remember what life was like before we had them around--right up to that unfortunate occasion when Lucretia, on a wild-hair, opts to scoop up Ilithyia’s newborn child and do a reverse-quadruple-pike-with-baby-in-arms (Degree of Difficulty: Medium) off the same convenient cliff from which many a Spartacus character has bid farewell to the series ere now.

I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m guessing that this is the absolute and irrevocable end of Lucretia, and therefore, by Transitive Property of Tit-having, of her tits as well. Vaya con dios, Lucretia’s tits. If there is a Tit Heaven, and oh, how I believe there is, Lucretia's tits lounge there at the right hand of Jesus.

So, okay, Lucy Lawless, you win. You put in the hours, you made the effort. But just to make things clear: In the staring-at-the-lumbering-naked-bosoms-of-a-statuesque-redhead-of-a-certain-age category, you remain our go-to girl only because Kate Winslet formally retired from nude scenes.*

And don’t you get cocky! Don’t you ever forget that Christina Hendricks could obliterate you at any moment by tossing aside her dignity and flicking a wrist.


Most Exhilarating Death

No shortage of candidates here, which sort of underscores that Vengeance was more about gore than tits.

One could go with a scene at the Pits, as seen through flashback, in which Oenomaus scores a comeback over a seemingly indestructible adversary. (The actor playing young Oenomaus, his face obscured by some sort of tribal warpaint, is so wiry and so focused that one half suspects a stealth cameo by a bored President Obama. Then again, Obama has not proven to be quite so spirited in unrefereed combat of late.)**



I was also tempted to go with one of the sundry murders committed by Glaber, a character who would be insufferable were it not for the outbreaks of superb toplessness that tend to follow in his wake. After the collapse of the Arena (more about which below), Glaber encounters his toad-like father-in-law, Senator Albinius, trapped under rubble and begging for help.

I suppose most men have relished the notion of killing their fathers-in-law, and not a few men have relished the idea of killing their senators, so you can appreciate how, in Glaber’s mind, this emerges as a sort of two-fer. Throw in the fact that Senator Albinius has endorsed the whole notion of Ilithyia’s divorcing Glaber in favor of a more ambitious (and taller and blonder) dude, and it’s hard not to applaud Glaber’s decision to help his enfeebled relative find the exit. So this very gratifying killing was in the running.

But then the season finale comes along, and it’s just not possible to overlook the demise of three-season villain Ashur, who loses a fight to a girl (albeit a very, very motivated girl) and then suffers a horrific decapitation that goes on and on, longer than it takes me to boil water or complete a sex act.

The slow (though not for lack of effort) hacking off of Ashur's head is depicted here, but not recommended for the delicate of spirit. This is nightmare-inducing stuff, and therefore Spartacus at its best. And it is here, at long last, that we find out why the actress playing Naevia had to change. No way, the lovely but fragile Lesley-Ann Brandt was ever going to pull this off. As a body slave, Lesley-Ann’s character had to be skilled at giving head but you could hardly imagine her ever taking one.

As for New Naevia, I don't know Cynthia Addai-Robinson personally, so I can’t speculate as to how she would react to this compliment, but it seems to us here at joshmuggins.com that this girl was born to hack off heads. I can only hope and pray that one of my female students will find the strength to do me this service when my times comes.


Most Welcome Cameo

“Good Cossutius…,” mutters Glaber, in the tone you would expect him to use upon finding a Baby Ruth bar floating in his tiled bathing pool, when our old friend from Gods of the Arena slithers into the Batiatus villa just in time for an orgy. The fact that many of his social peers died screaming in a bloodbath here not long after his last memorable visit has probably only whetted his appetite to return. That's just the sort of guy he is. And wheresoever good Cossutius goes, there goes that smirk of his—a grin that seems quite literally designed for the consumption of fecal matter.



In happier days with Jessica Grace Smith


He cheerfully resumes his slave-abusing career, only to have his run of episodes cut short by that meddling Spartacus and his crew in the season’s climactic arena scene. Here’s the YouTube of the excerpt where he takes a spear to the chest. My favorite part—and this is something I failed to catch on my first viewing, what with the frenetic pace and nonstop carnage of this long scene—is the anguished cry of “Cossutius!” as if any human being were capable of feeling sorry for the man. Then again, maybe a gambling debt was involved.

Various online episode summaries will try to convince you that good Cossutius “is killed” in this scene, but don’t you believe it! Watch that scene again. Sure, he slumps down grumpily like Joe Biden at a State of the Union address, but we never see him expire, do we? And unless his reptilian organs are arranged differently from yours and mine, the entry point of the spear is not necessarily a lethal one.This is Spartacus, after all; these characters gash themselves worse in the course of a morning shave than what Cossutius absorbs here.

More to the point, check out some of the droll comments on that video. The Cossutius fan base is by no means limited to readers of this site. Our good man is coming back, I tell you. I see a spin-off in his future--maybe involving a twelve-step support group packed with zany eccentrics of various ethnicities and lifestyles, including a retired body slave who becomes a love interest.


Best Scene

I’ve been dancing around this for a couple thousand words now, so no surprise that this prize goes to the Demolition of the Whole Consarned Gladiatorial Arena scene in Episode 5.

This is Spartacus wearing its pro wrestling genes proudly on its sleeve, if in fact genes can be worn, on a sleeve, or anywhere else, which I’m guessing they can’t be, but never mind. It’s still a way cool scene. Yes, the castle siege scene in Season 2 of Game of Thrones has its charms as well, and so does the time Lane hanged himself in his office and the rest of the Mad Men just left him there to stiffen, but there is simply nothing in either of those storied series that flaunts as much writerly chutzpah as this genuinely stirring chunk of Spartacus: Vengeance.

The set-up here is that a number of Spartacus's comrades have been captured, and now are to be trotted out into the arena for one more appearance, with the odds stacked very much against them. If you’re like me, you’re expecting Spartacus to lead a sort of Seal Team Six assault on the arena to extract his captured friends—and to pull it off, of course, albeit with a few grisly casualties.

But no, neither the gladiators themselves nor the writers who forged them are going to settle for half measures, and so down comes the whole arena to a thundering sountrack in a miasma of ash and flames and blood and tits. Here's the official Starz teaser for the thing, complete with good Cossutius taking that spear again, but minus the tits because, well, YouTube.

Like Shelley, I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy.











* No, seriously: She formally retired from nude scenes. With a "luckiest man on the face of the earth" speech and the whole nine yards.





** This is a good example of the kind of borderline tasteless riff that I can get away with because I'm, like, a writer and stuff. Don't you try this at home, though.