One of my all-time favorite television shows was Rome. The friendship between Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, the dysfunctional family dynamics among the upper and lower classes, the fall of Gaius Julius Caesar and the rise of Octavian, Antony and Cleopatra, the casual bloodletting and English accents. Great stuff.
The show lasted two seasons, and in my disappointment at its finale, I turned to Spartacus (or, as I think of it, Spartacus: Blood and Tits). What it lacked in Rome‘s historical accuracy it made up for in cartoonish violence, naked people of both genders, and very uneven writing. The dialogue is at times lyrical and witty, at other times ludicrous (one memorable scene has a wealthy Roman rogering one of his house slaves, and in the throes of passion, grunts to a nearby male slave, “Ungh. Put cock in arse.”). For reasons I haven’t bothered to research, none of the characters in the show use possessive pronouns in conversation.
The hero, Spartacus, is in large part a vanilla do-gooder, lacking depth. His best friend Crixus is an unremittingly unlikable jerk. Every Roman woman is a manipulative, deceitful, wig-wearing harpy two steps away from murder.
For me, the best part of the show was Ashur. I’m one of those people who roots for the bad guy, and if you want to see a great bad guy, Ashur’s your man. He’s cleverly written, but what elevates him is his performance by Nick Tarabay, who invests depth and humor into a role that would typically be thankless. As loathsome and horrible as he is, you want him to come out on top, to frustrate the good guys’ aims. His death in the show, especially at the hands of a terribly-written victim-character included to satisfy PC requirements, was particularly painful.
It’s the sign of a good story that it excites an emotional response in the reader or viewer (other than contempt for the entire enterprise). I cheered when Glaber died with a gladius down his throat and mourned at Ashur’s loss. So Spartacus: Blood and Tits isn’t an entire waste of time.
One of the reasons why I’m writing my Armageddon trilogy the way I am is that I want the reader to see what the bad guys are up to and why. Who would want to fight on the side of Hell when the world’s at stake? What motivates them? One reviewer said of The Blessed Man and the Witch, “It was sometimes hard to know the good guys from the bad guys.” Not because the bad guys weren’t bad, but because the bad guys had realistic motivations, like real people do.
It’s okay to root for the bad guy, as long as he’s an interesting bad guy. At least that’s what I tell myself.