Spartacus: Vengeance: “Empty Hands” Review

I’m not sure what to make of this one. How the tides do flow.

In the beginning, “Empty Hands” was a mess. The CGI forest setting for Sparty’s first life-or-death battle versus the Romans went beyond the pale of “stylistically faux,” and by the time I hit the halfway mark in the latest Spartacus: Vengeance episode, I was feeling the beginning stirrings of what might have been despair.

Part of this had to do with that unfortunate CGI, but the other part was, surprisingly, a script that really felt forced. And that’s probably the first time I’ve said that about any script for any episode in the Spartacus library.

It didn’t help that the episode was weighed down with some surprisingly bad acting. The weak links right now seem painfully obvious; many of the newcomers to the show appear to have difficulty acclimating themselves. Whether this is just newcomer jitters or bad casting—that’s too early to tell. But this unease seems to assert itself in the “overacting” bug, in the case of young Seppia (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) and her habit of over-en-un-ci-at-ing ev-ery sin-gle word that she says, or an underacting bug in the case of wooden Varinius (Brett Tucker, who seems to have been hired for his close resemblance to an Aussie Ken doll).

I’m not going to pull the judgment trigger too quickly on the new Naevia (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), but her role wasn’t helped by “dirt” makeup that appeared to be horrible mascara and the worst wig since… well, I don’t know when. She wasn’t given much to do besides play blind panic. All the new Naevia seems inclined to do is scream hysterically, which is a far cry from Leslie Ann Brandt’s quiet-but-smart portayal. It didn’t help that the New NaeNae was given some very physical tasks on her first (full) episode, when it’s quickly and painfully obvious she’s not a very physical actress. Really—she runs like a drunk runway model on 7″ heels.

(Yes, I know, Naevia was a pampered bedroom slave, which essentially makes her the Roman equivalent of a runway model. Still…)

There were parts of “Empty Hands” that felt extremely unnatural. That’s all I’m saying.

That said, the more experienced actors were there to clean up much of the mess. As usual, Lucy FLawless, Viva! Bianca, Craig Parker, and Nick Tarabay were standouts, chewing their way through a maze of difficult dialogue and handling turn-on-a-dime emotional switches like pros. Katrina Law improves with every episode too; she’s making Mira’s growth a physical thing (bitch fights like a peevish she-cat!) and her action sequences look pretty damned natural.

But overlooked in what seems to be an expected level of proficiency is Spartacus himself, Liam McIntyre. It’s a credit to his skills that he seems so overlooked by everybody thus far this season, yet here’s a bloke who had to step with near-flawless precision into Andy Whitfield’s brilliant role, and by gum—he’s done it. I applaud the man, and hope when all’s said and done (with hopefully a few more years of Spartacus under his belt) McIntyre will get the credit due him.

The second half of the episode pulled things together—the last 15 minutes especially—and the final exhausting woodland battle with the Romans, shadowy yet sharp in the haze of coming night, was pretty damned good. The political machinations playing out at the ludus will hopefully bear sweet fruit, and that’s some of the interplay I like best. I think I giggled with glee as Ilithyia (Viva!) skewered that poor nameless gladiator.

(Or as my wife called him, the “nameless redshirt gladiator NPC.” Seriously, who didn’t guess he was going to be the one to die? Alas, redshirts.)

I’m still going to say this was the weakest episode of the season thus far, simply because it felt like some of the believability was lost… and it feels a little like they’re going to the well a bit too often with certain visual tricks. Certainly we expect our usual gratuitous gratuity with our Spartacus: Vengeance, but I prefer it delivered artfully. Death is great, sex is awesome, but find a new way to deliver it, or I fear the audience will start losing patience. Bullet-time gyrations can only hold the eye for so long.

If you want to revel in the mindless slaughter of more redshirts, follow me on Twitter! That’s @Axechucker, you plebes!