Two battered, tragic warriors meet face to face before their climactic skirmish, and there's at least one thing they can agree upon (besides the desire to kill each other): "There is no justice. Not in this world." What, you were expecting a happy ending to Starz' bloody breakout hit Spartacus? (Apologies if that's a spoiler.)
The series finale (Friday, 9/8c) justifies this last season's subtitle, War of the Damned, with a truly epic clash of historic titans. It's up to its bared knees in graphic gore as usual, but the finale is steeped even further in stirring demonstrations and declarations of honor, sacrifice and a willingness to die for the cause of freedom. "Whatever happens ... we decide our fates, not you," proclaims Spartacus (Liam McIntyre), leader of the outnumbered slave army, during his secret meeting with Roman "Imperator" Crassus (Simon Merrells). Unlike past seasons, when the Roman antagonists were mostly craven dupes, neither Crassus nor his second-in-command Julius Caesar (Todd Lasance) are fools — but neither is Spartacus, who still has some bold and unexpected maneuvers up his shield during this primal and visceral encounter of fire, blood and literal and metaphorical guts.
With the departure of the strangely addictive and outrageously lurid Spartacus, Starz re-imagines another chapter of world history in the cheesy new Da Vinci's Demons (Friday, 10/9c), which presents the legendary genius and very model of a Renaissance man as an action hero. You won't need a special code to deduce that this over-the-top send-up of costume-drama melodrama is less than a masterpiece. On the plus side, Tom Riley cuts a dashing figure as the arrogant, lusty young Leonardo Da Vinci, an impatient and oversexed visionary who captures the attention of 15th-century Florence with his imaginative inventions. These gizmos (which we often see take animated shape in his mind) acquire a more militaristic bent when the powerful Medici family enlists him to fend off threats from the corrupt Vatican. Demons is possessed by pretentiousness when it tries to be serious and by silliness whenever Leonardo becomes an instant swashbuckler.
If you're seeking a slightly less cartoonish period drama, Showtime launches the third season of The Borgias (Sunday, 10/9c), where the fate of poisoned Pope Alexander (Jeremy Irons) is in jeopardy while his many enemies scheme to fill the possible (but don't count on it) papal void.
Chances are more likely you'll opt for the grand fantasy of HBO's Game of Thrones (Sunday, 9/8c). This triumphant hit continues to pick up narrative momentum in the season's third episode, titled "Walk of Punishment," which refers to one of the more grim aspects of Slaver's Bay, where Daenerys is reminded, "There's a beast in every man, and it stirs when your put a sword in his hand." Or maybe a dragon. Regarding swords in the hand, Kingslayer Jaime Lannister may have met his match with his latest captors.
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A LITTLE LOUIS ... Is way better than nothing. It will be a long wait, until sometime in 2014, before Louis C.K. returns to FX with a new batch of Louie episodes, but we'll manage if it means more displays of comic brilliance like his new HBO stand-up special, Louis C.K.: Oh My God (Saturday, 10/9c). Filmed in February before a Phoenix audience in the round, this concert performance shows the caustic philosopher slob in a cheerfully curmudgeonly mood. He's 45 now — "I'm either halfway through a healthy life or about done with a not-so-healthy life" — and while his hour-long set is laced with outrageous and melancholy observations about dating, divorce and the cruelty of the planet's food chain, the takeaway is that even if the ordeal of putting on your socks is "the worst part of any day," life is good as long as "you get to put bacon in your mouth!" Considering how difficult the other species (including the source of bacon) have it, Louis figures, "It must be awful to be other kinds of stuff. I'm glad I'm this." We are, too.
GOLDEN GIRLS: We're referring to Emmy gold, bestowed on the lead actresses of two pay-cable comedies returning for new seasons on Sunday night. The longer-running and better of the two is Showtime's dark hospital dramedy Nurse Jackie, which opens its fifth season (9/8c) on the eve of Jackie's birthday. Not that she has much to celebrate. Just watch the nuances on Edie Falco's weary face as she is told, "You're an angel," after once again taking charge of a medical crisis. "Far from it," she mutters. And it's true, because burning a hole in the pocket of her scrubs are some ill-gotten pharmaceuticals, tempting this barely recovering addict to escape from the wreckage of her marriage, with a hostile ex-husband and a rebellious daughter, and the stress of working in an understaffed and under-equipped hospital. New to the staff: a sexy resident (Betty Gilpin) who uses her body to make up for her shortcomings — Jackie's not a fan — and a tough trauma doc fresh from the Army (Morris Chestnut, making a strong impression) who treats every case like combat triage. He may yet earn Jackie's respect. Nurse Jackie's fourth season earned our allegiance, dramatizing the consequences of Jackie's bad behaviors. Recovery won't be easy, but so far it's an enjoyably bumpy ride.
Last year's comedy actress Emmy went to Julia Louis-Dreyfus for her bravely unsympathetic, boisterously bumbling performance as HBO's insecure Veep, Selina Meyer, a female Rodney Dangerfield who can't get respect from the unseen POTUS — and in the second-season opener (10/9c), she locks horns on the night of a going-south midterm election with a diabolical senior strategist (Gary Cole, sensational) who's described as the "Pol Pot of pie charts." He takes one contemptuous look at the dithering VP, who's as worried about her lipstick as she is about poll numbers, and declares, "I wouldn't dispute your title. I might question your role." The way she treats her hapless staff, who wouldn't. The satire is vicious, the behaviors of all parties reprehensible, which makes for a bracingly unsavory series but also one that's ultimately sour and predictable. When a running gag repeatedly shows the veep's secretary rudely turning down interview requests from all of the morning shows, it's beyond obvious where the episode's final humiliating punch line is heading.
THE WEEKEND GUIDE: Michael Chiklis directs an episode of CBS' relocated Vegas (Friday, 9/8c), in which Nikita's Melinda Clarke makes a surprise appearance as Mia's mother, long presumed dead. ... In case you've fallen behind (as I have) on ABC's Once Upon a Time, the revisionist fairy-tale fantasy presents a catch-up retrospective, "The Price of Magic" (Sunday, 8/7c). ... What would a weekend be without an awards show? At least the MTV Movie Awards (Sunday, 9/8c) takes an irreverent approach, starting with the choice of Rebel Wilson as host, who reunites with her Pitch Perfect co-stars for an opening production number. Other highlights: Will Ferrell gets the first-ever "Comedic Genius Award," while Jamie Foxx takes home the "Generation Award." ... We now know the new season of AMC's Mad Men (Sunday, 9/8c) is unfolding in the decade's most savagely memorable year, 1968. We can only hope the rest of the season is less turgid and ponderous than the disappointing premiere. At least it's an hour shorter. All we know of the storyline is that Don will clash with a client while Peggy deals with her less-than-motivated staff. Go, Peggy! ... Discovery's Naked Castaway (Sunday, 10/9c) is survivalist Ed Stafford, dropped on the uninhabited tropical island of Olorua (in Fiji) with no supplies, clothes or even food and water. For 60 days. Take that, Survivor. ... In an odd coincidence, Fox's Family Guy (Sunday, 9/8c) crash-lands Peter and his buddies in the Canadian wilderness, and when Peter is discovered after two months, he's gone feral. (Will anyone even notice?) ... A more celebrated world traveler, the outspoken Anthony Bourdain, launches his new travel/cultural lifestyle docu-series on the ever-evolving CNN. First destination for Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown (Sunday, 9/8c): Myanmar. ... National Geographic Channel looks back at The '80s: The Decade That Made Us in a three-night cultural retrospective of big hair and Reagan-era trends, starting Sunday at 9/8c and continuing through Tuesday. Reformed Brat Packer Rob Lowe narrates. ... The final season of mun2's I Love Jenni (Sunday, 9/8c) is intended as a tribute to singer Jenni Rivera. Six episodes were filmed before her death in a December plane crash, and the series will also follow her family as they cope with the loss.