Spartacus: Blood and Sand premiered a year ago on Starz, and over the course of the first season became the networks first huge breakout hit. The series was violent, sexual, gratuitous in every way possible, and was held together by character stories that intrigued and infuriated. The six-part prequel series Spartacus: Gods of the Arena came about due to star Andy Whitfield’s current bought with cancer. Rather than put the show off another year, the rise of the house of Batiatus (John Hannah) serves as a minor appetizer to keep fans satisfied until season two comes along.

Gods of the Arena is every bit the prequel story. Batiatus has only just been given control of the ludus, and the city of Capua is in the process of building a coliseum for the fighting of gladiators. From the start the story is reflective of what happens to these people later on. Batiatus is friends with his future rival Solonius (Craig Walsh Wrightson), but comes into conflict with a noble man. The great thing about Spartacus is that while you root for the heroes to win, you also want the villains to overcome their obstacles. You want Batiatus to take down the haughty jerks messing with his life. And so it is with Gods of the Arena.

The biggest issue the prequel has is that we already know the scheming will eventually lead to Batiatus having a successful stable of gladiators, and he’ll get so far as to have an eye on the steps of the Senate. As for the gladiators, we see a few of our favorites get a chance to return and shine. Oenomaus (Peter Mensah) is in the final stages of recovery from the wounds suffered at the hands of Theocoles; Barca (Antonio Te Maioha) is one of the many underutilized gladiators at Batiatius’ disposal; and Ashur (Nick Tarabay) is seen in full health ready to begin his training. Crixus (Manu Bennett) is all but unrecognizable with a scruffy and disheveled look.

But as he observes the champion Gannicus (Dustin Clare), an ancient Roman rock star who’s all show, flash, charming smiles, and natural talent, Crixus knows immediately that he can be the better man. When Ashur tells tale of the women Gannicus is given (which is shown in the first orgy scene of the season) Crixus remarks that he desires neither women nor riches. Long before we meet the man in Blood and Sand his ideals and worldview are set. As long as there is honor and glory to be had, Crixus can stand tall. It’s clearly a lesson Batiatus will come to learn as he steps out from his father’s shadow.

Gods of the Arena is not required viewing for fans of the original series, nor do you need to have seen Blood and Sand to get what’s going on here. The prequel stands alone as its own story, but the characters are just too good to pass up on viewing. Watching as Batiatus gets his first real lesson on being betrayed and humiliated helps you to understand the reasons he desires power and notoriety at any cost. The hedonistic nature of Spartacus is intact for the prequel, with naked slave girls tied together in the market, orgy sequences, lesbian encounters, dirty and grimy bared flesh everywhere you look. The style is the same as before, the characters are familiar, and Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is full of all the jump stabbing glory you’d want.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena premieres Friday, January 21 at 10:00 pm ET on Starz.

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