The upcoming third season of Starz’s Spartacus will be its last.
The premium cable network and showrunner Steven S. DeKnight agreed to conclude the Liam McIntyre starrer with a 10-episode run titled War of the Damned, which will kick off in January. Production is underway in New Zealand, with DeKnight already having penned the series finale.
Spartacus stands as the first original scripted drama the network developed in-house and has proved to be a valuable property for Starz, with its most recent season — Spartacus Vengeance — averaging more than 6 million viewers each week. In addition, the period drama that featured the shocking deaths of six major characters including Lucy Lawless‘ Lucretia in its Season 2 finale airs in more than 150 countries worldwide.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with DeKnight to discuss making the decision to end the series and how it factored in the bloody end to Vengeance, the franchise’s value to Starz and what’s next.
The Hollywood Reporter: Why end it now?
Steven S. DeKnight: Shocking, isn’t it? It’s a bit unheard of to end a show when it’s doing better than ever. It’s a bold move, and we talked about it with Starz. How long do you run a show? Do you run it until you can squeeze every last bit of revenue out of it, or do you end it on a high note? That was part of the decision to wrap up the show: The idea of ending the show when you’re on top and the audience still wants more instead of dragging it out until it starts to wane and you kind of limp to the finish line. I’ve always thought that five seasons was the perfect number; you’ve got enough time to tell a great story, but there’s not so much real estate that you start to get a little flabby in the middle. This is ending a season early. Spartacus is a bit of an unusual duck. We’ve always had an ending — it’s written in history — so we knew where we were shooting for. My original thought was that this show could go five to seven seasons, but we realized the actual history is very scattershot: The rebels went north, south, east, west, then back north, then broke apart, came back together. We thought, instead of repeating ourselves with one wave of Roman senators after another going after Spartacus, getting defeated, going after Spartacus, getting defeated, why not really condense the story, give the juiciest parts to Marcus Crassus (Simon Merrells). It’s like The Princess Bride: Cut out all the boring bits and just make the best, most rip-roaring-est tale we can to wrap up the series.
Did you know when the show was renewed in November that this season would be its last?
We were 90 percent sure when we were working on the last couple episodes last season that this would probably be the last season. It was one of the factors in the wholesale slaughter at the end of last season. Where the story was going, for instance Lucretia and Ilithyia (Viva Bianca) really didn’t fit in world of Marcus Crassus and Julius Caesar (Todd Lasance) in any kind of natural, organic storytelling way. There was a bit of housecleaning at the end of that season to prep for this final season. We were still kicking around, “Do we do two more seasons? Do we do an extended 16-episode run?” Ultimately, a combination of story and production concerns made us decide to do 10 of the strongest episodes that we can.
Do you have a specific scene in your mind for the final frame?
I didn’t quite have the very specific final moment until we started working on this season. The tricky thing about this series is it’s very well known in history; things don’t end well. It’s one of the amazing things that Kirk Douglas did in his production of Spartacus — to end with a defeat but with a ray of hope. That certainly is our goal. It’d be a disservice to the audience to spend four years watching the struggle, murder everybody and say, “Well, they lost.” You definitely need to end on some sense that the struggle was worth it, whether win, lose or draw; that it’s worth standing up to oppression.
What haven’t you done with the series that you’d like to before it ends?
I’m trying to think if there’s anything we haven’t done at this point! We’ve taken babies over cliffs, burned down an arena, massacred people in just about every way imaginable. I can’t say that there’s one thing I wish we had done or wish we could do. It’s a testament to Starz; they let us do whatever we feel the story requires. The perfect example is when Lucretia took the baby over the cliff — we were convinced we would have a big fight over that. [Executive producer] Rob Tapert and I are used to working with networks, and [Starz] said: “This is great. Of course she takes the baby over the cliff!” Also, any other network when your lead actor falls seriously ill would have canceled the show, but Starz was very committed to finishing the story. They thought it would be a disservice to the memory of Andy [Whitfield, star of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, who died in September of lymphoma] and to fans to just stop the show. They wanted to wrap it up to its conclusion.
Lost being a tipping point for series that have announced an end date, will you seek advice from anyone for the series finale, maybe Damon Lindelof or Joss Whedon?
We actually just finished breaking the series finale. I sought the wise counsel of my writers room. One of the things that makes this different, I think Damon was faced with an impossible challenge with Lost because it was a show built on so many mysteries that it’s very hard to give a satisfying ending to a mystery, especially one that was as epic as that. It’s the same thing with Battlestar Galactica; there were certain mysteries built in that not everybody is going to be happy with the answers. Thankfully with Spartacus, we’re not built on mysteries, and we have some form of historical guidepost to help us.
How did the series change for you after Andy’s death? Was it more of a challenge to write?
It was very difficult working on the show knowing he wouldn’t be part of it. We really wanted to honor him as much as possible to continue the story; he wanted us to continue the story. He felt very strongly that it was a story that needed to be told, that should be told in this day and age. And it was an inspiring story; that certainly helped. Liam McIntyre always talks about how he hopes his performance honors Andy. We all just loved the guy so much.
What does War of the Damned represent?
War of the Damned was actually one of the first ideas we came up with. We came up with some more stuff and came back to that. We wanted to have a title that was epic but also carried that slight sense of doom and foreboding, that it was definitely a dark title. We thought that that really encompassed what the whole season was about, not just on the hero’s side. One of the things I love about War of the Damned is, how do we find victory in the face of defeat? And the flip side of that, what happens when you win but you lose? Those are two things we really explored this season.
How has the Spartacus franchise helped shape and define Starz?
We were incredibly fortunate to be the show that put a network on the map. You always dream about having that opportunity, and obviously that comes up once in a blue moon. To be the first original Starz production that they produced and to have that show actually hit and really help define the network, it’s an amazing feeling. We’re extremely grateful for the opportunity and very happy that it worked out so well for everyone.
You’re also a bigger part of the network’s future too, signing their first overall deal there. Will you stick with the swords-and-sandals genre?
I’m moving out of the historical drama. I wish I could tell you what I’m working on, but it’s super top secret at the moment. I think we’ll be announcing later this year. I went in and pitched an idea to Starz last August as part of my overall deal that they liked, and I’ve written a pilot and we’re developing it. I have various concept designers hard at work, and hopefully late summer or early fall I’ll be able to tell everyone about it. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do.
You’ve brought in a slate of new characters for Season 3, including Julius Caesar and Marcus Crassus. Any chance we could see a Julius Caesar spinoff?
You never know. In the halls of Starz, we often whisper about a spinoff. We’ve set up a world that is just perfect to spin off into other areas during this time period. I would never want to do anything without Rob Tapert; he is without a doubt the other half of this show, and it wouldn’t be a success without him. We are open to, down the road, revisiting this world, whether it’s Julius Caesar, whether it’s set in the same time period or whether it’s a little later in the time period. The look and the feel of the show would be a natural candidate for a spinoff down the road. [Update: DeKnight’s mysterious project is described as a Halo-like video game crossed with HBO’s Band of Brothers, according to EW. It’s expected to be similar to Spartacus in its use of green screen and is in the early stages of development.]
Starz’s development slate also includes a supernatural drama (The Brink), a period drama (Da Vinci’s Demons), 13th century drama Marco Polo, period miniseries Harem and a Treasure Island prequel (Black Sails). Do you see Spartacus as having set the tone for the future of Starz?
I would like to think that we had some amount of influence on looking at [development] slates and looking at what works and what doesn’t. They’ve got some great stuff coming up. I just finished reading the pilot for the Treasure Island prequel, and I could not have loved it more. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t create it; it’s just so much of what I love about that particular time period. Starz has some stuff coming up that’s going to be absolutely fantastic and really carry on the torch after Spartacus wraps up.
Hit the comments with your thoughts on Starz’s decision to wrap the show after Season 3. Spartacus: War of the Damned will premiere in January. Check out a teaser, below.