'Spartacus' Series Finale: Creator Steven DeKnight Talks Rebel War, Deaths And 'Victory'
In the first 75 minutes of the podcast, I spoke to DeKnight about his vision for the final season and the finale, about interacting with fans and about the show's history. We spoke in depth about "Spartacus'" evolution, its aesthetics and its core message.
The final episode "was really mostly about the characters… and what this whole rebellion meant," DeKnight said. And in typical "Spartacus" fashion, the episode's title, "Victory," could be interpreted in several ways. After all, in the finale, Spartacus and Gannicus die, but a contingent of slaves get away. And Crassus lives, but he must crucify his lover and his son is dead.
"How do you claim victory when you've been defeated? And how do you lose when you've won? That's really the two sides of the coin," DeKnight said. "I think Crassus feels very much in those final moments, there is no final victory. There's absolutely no victory for anyone in this."
Yet DeKnight wanted there to be some hope in the finale, and he accomplished that in part by letting some slaves escape. Among those heading to the mountains (presumably to establish a goat farm): the fan-favorite couple Agron and Nasir.
DeKnight said the show has "always been a grand sweeping love story, it's about Spartacus' love for his wife and many other peoples' love. And it's a tragedy, it's an absolute heartbreaker."
I don't think fans would want it any other way.
If you don't have time to listen to the entire podcast (which, at the end, has a 20-minute discussion of the finale between myself and McGee, whose separate interview with DeKnight goes up here soon), here are some of the highlights:
Speaking of battles, DeKnight had many with Rick Jacobson, who directed the finale. There were "some contentious discussions about that final battle," DeKnight recalled. "It was perhaps the darkest moment on the show, but out of that came fantastic compromises and ideas, and I wouldn't have it any other way. ... [Rick] had so many great ideas, and half of them I absolutely hated [at first]. I finally came around and now I think they're brilliant." One example: Jacobson wanted a scene of Crassus practicing with his men before the battle, DeKnight didn't think it was necessary at first, but he came around. Jacobson also suggested the tent scene between Gannicus and Spartacus, which wasn't in the original script.
The ideas of Laeta being pregnant at the end of the show, or Naevia living and perhaps being revealed as pregnant, were never really considered. "I did not want to go down that path -- to me that felt like a very [cliched] television thing," DeKnight said. "It just didn't feel like the show to me."
We talked quite a bit about the epic journey of Gannicus, and I asked him if he'd always envisioned the heroic path the character eventually embarked on. "When we were doing 'Gods of the Arena,' it was definitely there -- the broad strokes of the grand plan," DeKnight said. "Was it our plan to have him end up like that [i.e. crucified]? No. During the final season, there were many discussions about who was going to end up on the cross," and ultimately they decided to make it "a man who had resisted for so long being part of this movement." Gannicus is a man who "deep down hates himself, and even though he [knows] Oenomaus forgave him, he has to forgive himself."
DeKnight said one of the hardest aspects of every season was thinking up those big twists and shocking moments. That kind of thing was a challenge, but one of the things he enjoyed most was structurally tying the final season to the first. Fans probably have noticed the huge number of callbacks to show's early days in the final seasons, and DeKnight talked about a number of those references in the podcast. "I'm a huge fan of the kind of stories that reference back to themselves and [where] everything ties together and folds in on" itself, he said. "That kind of intricate storytelling is what really excites me the most."
The original plan for Episode 9 had been for Spartacus and his crew to force the Romans to fight each other (as allegedly happened in history). But DeKnight realized it wouldn't be enjoyable for the audience to watch their favorite characters sit on the sidelines for half the episode, so they changed it to gladiators fighting the Romans, and thus recalling the glories of the arena days.
On the passions of fans: "I love the fans dearly, I interact with them all the time but I would never make a creative decision based on fans liking somebody or not liking somebody," DeKnight said. "I think that is such a slippery slope. You have to just tell a good story. If I was listening to the fans, I never would have killed Varro" in Season 1, but we discussed how that moment was a pivotal turning point for the show and for Spartacus as a character.
DeKnight pointed out something that I hadn't thought about: Both Crixus and Spartacus were stabbed in the back by Romans. The similarities of their deaths was intentional, and the idea was that "Rome is a neverending ocean that will eventually get you. They might not be able to take you head on," and the only way they could beat the rebels is by stabbing them in the back, DeKnight said.
I agreed with DeKnight that another whole season of senators taking on Spartacus would have probably become too repetitive. He and the writers condensed many of the historical events involving those Roman foes into the final season, and though DeKnight said he's a "fan" of 10-episode season, I think a couple more episodes, which could have been used to flesh out the Roman side a bit more, might have been advantageous. While it sounded as though he wouldn't have minded a 12-episode season, "you do what you can with what you've got," he said, and added that "it's not a bad thing at all leaving fans wanting just a little bit more."
There's a veiled reference in Episode 9 to the blacklisting of Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the 1960 Kirk Douglas film "Spartacus." The blacklist era was marked by the kind of "naming of names" that could ruin lives -- so DeKnight made the naming of the fallen in "The Dead and the Dying" "a positive naming of names."
He hears this much less now, but in the first couple of seasons, "I was inundated with mostly guys saying, 'I love the show, but can you cut it out with the gay shit?'" DeKnight said. "And my reply was always 'No. If you don't like it, stop watching the show.'" DeKnight talked at length about how he and executive producer Rob Tapert felt strongly about depicting gay characters who were no different from any other characters. "The same-sex characters on our show were just as much manly men as anyone else," DeKnight said. "The only difference is they love someone who's not the opposite sex."
He wanted one couple to survive and walk off into the sunset together, and because no other couples made sense, given the demands of various characters' stories, in a "de facto" way, the surviving pair ended up being Agron and Nasir. "It was important to me -- we had to have a ray of hope at the end of this very sad story," DeKnight said. He is pretty sure "Nagron" fans will be happy that they lived, given that he has been "pelted" with fans who wanted the couple to end up happy and living on a goat farm somewhere. "I think people will be happy to know, they will get their goat farm," DeKnight said.
He has not heard anything about a spinoff for Caesar, and his work schedule would not permit him to be part of such a show, should one come to pass (and to be clear, Starz hasn't said anything about a spinoff). "I'd watch the hell out of that" if it happened, DeKnight said. "I say, 'Godspeed.' I would love to see this world continue. I think it's a fantastic world Rob and I were able to build. and I personally would regret if there wasn't something [more] told in that world."
To learn more about DeKnight's new show, the military drama "Incursion," check out this recent story.
"Spartacus"-speak is hard to write -- each script took him twice as long as non-Sparty scripts he's written. DeKnight said he was glad Starz had the "intestinal fortitude" to stick with the show's "language experiment," which he thinks paid off. "I think the payoff is, I've never been quoted so much," DeKnight said. "I've even seen people with tattoos of lines from my scripts. There's nothing that's a better validation that we did the right thing than to see somebody with your words tattooed on their body."
The question he was asked most by fans: What is Spartacus' real name? "I always respond, what name would make a difference?" DeKnight said. "The great thing about the story is that nobody knows his name. In that way, he becomes everyone. He stands for every man who stands against oppression."
The idea to feature Andy Whitfield saying "I am Spartacus" at the end of the finale came from Tapert. "I thought it was brilliant. ... We definitely wanted to acknowledge Andy's contribution to the show, and his absence is felt every day we worked on the show." That image, by the way, came from a scene in the seventh episode of Season 1.
Tapert also came up with the closing montage of "Spartacus" characters from every season.
My colleague Laura Prudom has been posting exclusive video interviews with "Spartacus" cast members every week. Don't miss this week's final installment, featuring Liam McIntyre. The other videos can be found with the rest of HuffPost TV's "Spartacus" coverage.
The entire podcast interview with DeKnight can be found here, on iTunes and below.
One last thing -- here's a short list of things I'll miss about "Spartacus:" Crazy eyes; Sparty-speak; slow-mo blood; incisive critiques of multiple forms of oppression; gay love; people jumping down from or up to things (often with crazy eyes); committed performances; badass feminism; entertaining profanity; the Undefeated Gaul; oiled torsos; crazy surprises and twists; rousing speeches; Syrians; so much hot damned manflesh; the tender romance of it all; epic deaths; lunatic Germans; inventive violence; and of course, "Jupiter's cock!"