Just because Netflix viewers don’t live in a world where it’s acceptable to strip to the waist, smear ourself in blood and send a spear whistling through the neck of our enemy, doesn’t mean that we don’t want to watch other people doing it. We very much do.
Brutal historical TV drama is a holiday from our small lives. Olden-days mud and guts are an antidote to hours spent worrying about whether we offended Justin in accounts with that .gif, or if our dog is eating a sufficiently iron-rich diet. To the modern person, the life of a warrior has an attractive simplicity: Fight. Drink. Orgy. Usurp Enemy’s Throne. Drink. Fight. Die on your feet, in the rain, screaming in slow-motion. None of us, with our daily step goals and Deliveroo orders, can dream of such an existence. When we die, we know it’ll be at normal speed.
Hence our escapist need for Barbarians, a new German historical drama that fills the gap left by the end of Vikings while we wait for the next season of The Last Kingdom. Being a mini, six-episodes-only deal, perhaps it won’t so much fill the gap as keep the wolf from the door of the gap.
Wolves are a massive deal in Barbarians, which is set among the tribal villages of Germania in 9 AD. Along with the eagle (also a big thing), wolves are symbolic of the invading Roman Empire which was at the time shaking down the struggling Germanic tribes for all their cows, sheep, goats and oversized beer mugs. (They drink from such big mugs. It must be a warrior thing.)
Roughly three times an episode in Barbarians, somebody mentions a wolf that is going to devour the world, or the wolf that raised Rome-founding twins Romulus and Remus. Every so often, a real wolf shows up to stalk ominously through a forest, portending either doom or glory, depending on who’s watching.
The best wolf though, is the one in the name of swordsman Folkwin Wolfspeer (David Schütter). I mean, come on. That’s a name. Folk-win Wolf-speer. Just typing it makes you feel powerful. Folkwin… Wolfspeer. A chef’s kiss of a name. Folkwin Wolfspeer is one of the few characters in Barbarians not taken from history (if Folkwin Wolfspeer didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him). His lover, tribal leader, childhood friend and deadliest enemy though, are all big enough historical players to each have their own Wikipedia page, as does the climactic battle that takes place in episode six.
The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (if you want to look it up) was a decisive moment in Germanic/Roman history. Barbarians tells a jazzed up version of the countdown to the battle, in which a leader attempts to unite the warring Germanic tribes to revolt against their Roman oppressors. There’s historical basis for a great deal of what happens, with added personal conflict, emotional tangles, and shagging in the Dye Hut.
There’s also – fair warning – a very retrograde disability storyline, which would be hard not to find distasteful and offensive, an instance of attempted sexual assault, and the whole thing is whiter than milk (apart from the bit where some of the warriors – no doubt with historical accuracy – seem to black up for battle).
Conversations must have been had about all of the above, to judge by the level of discussion in the New York Times about the show’s attempts to reclaim the battle in question from its adoption as a symbol of Far Right European groups. (Arminius, played by Laurence Rupp, was deliberately made brunette to distance the character from previous depictions as a blond, blue-eyed nationalist Germanic hero.)
Speaking of blonde heroes, Barbarians has its very own Lagertha in the form of Jeanne Goursand’s Germanic noblewoman (and real historical figure) Thusnelda. She’s a proud daughter of the Cherusci tribe and fights with the best of them. We meet her being sized up by a potential groom and making no secret of her antipathy for him and the horse he rode in on. Five horses is what he’s willing to pay for his bride, but spend six episodes with her and you realise she’s worth a whole herd. Thusnelda’s a rock star, and Goursand gives a great account of her, from witchy incantations all the way to the battlefield.
The battles are full of squelchy goodness, as are the many beheadings, immolations, whippings, crucifixions and axe fights. If the idea of a man eating a set of severed human testicles to celebrate a victory is a turn-off, then you should probably turn it off. The action doesn’t have the scale of Game of Thrones – what does? – but it’s sizeable enough and the final conflict gives it some welly.
Yes, it’s largely humourless, and you’ve definitely seen most of it before, but what really recommends Barbarians (a title that ironically adopts the Roman’s derogatory name for the Germanic peoples) is its sheer distance from the world of now. With its seers and sacrifices to Thor, heads on spikes, ornate Roman armour complete with handy nipple clips, and hearts ripped still beating from traitor’s chests, it’s nothing like our everyday. It’s history with a sprinkle of storytelling glamour, a six-episode, subtitled break from the world outside your window. Praise Wodan. And did I mention? Folkwin Wolfspeer. Come on.
Barbarians is streaming now on Netflix.
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