Barbarians is a six-episode German historical drama from Netflix. It focuses on the build up to one of the most infamous battles in history – the Battle of Teutoburg Forest which took place in 9AD between the local Germanic people and forces of the mighty Roman Empire.
Barbarians plays it safe with its story and plot points. The tribes of Germanic people squabble and argue between themselves as they struggle with life under the rule of the juggernaut that is the Roman Empire which demands crippling tributes and taxes. Barbarians builds the Germanic tribes as plucky underdogs who must band together and set aside their own differences to fend off a bigger, much stronger enemy. It is clear from the first episode that the series is leading to the infamous battle and so we wait for the explosive incident that will unite the tribes and truly paint the Romans as the evil conquerors who must be stopped. That incident arrives when lovers, Folkwin and Thusnelda steal the precious Roman eagle standard one night and the Romans respond with no mercy – an act that eventually leads to a rebellion.
The six episodes of Barbarians do not really allow enough time for the characters to be fleshed out and memorable. Arminius, childhood friend of Folkwin and Thusnelda is the only character that really stands out as the dust settles on the final episode. The son of one of the tribe leaders for the Germanic people, he is taken and raised as a Roman by the ruthless General Varus. He acts as a link between the two warring peoples, born of Germania but raised as a Roman and with the knowledge and skills of each to draw upon. This role has been done well before in shows such as The Last Kingdom with Uhtred and it is a shame that Arminius doesn’t have as much time given to explore the challenges and the internal battle that such a life would have caused.
Barbarians shows flashes of brilliance and excitement even if it is lacking the depth of plot and character seen in shows such as Vikings and The Last Kingdom. Arminius’s father, the weary tribe leader, Segimer, really helps the audience to understand the weight of leadership as he is torn between wanting to help his people fight for freedom but knowing the risks involved with taking on the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, the poignant character moments are fleeting throughout the series and one wonders what could have been if more time was given to this first season. Segestes is a prime example of this. He is a sleazy, slimy character looking out for himself and throughout the series, the audience is waiting to see this Wormtongue/Peter Baelish type character get his comeuppance. However, his tale feels unfinished and fades into nothing. Hopefully the promise of a second season fixes this error.
From the very first episode, you will be waiting for the expected battle. Thankfully, it does not disappoint. The setting of the forest gives a claustrophobic and chaotic feeling to the whole episode and Barbarians ramps up the blood and gore to create a spectacle that makes the whole thing worth it. Though most of the plot points are tied up neatly, there is obvious room for the second season to expand upon what has been done and to follow the fallout of the battle.
It is not the best historical drama out there, but Barbarians, for all its faults, is an enjoyable romp through the Germanic woods that delivers a dark and bloody tale of the underdogs finding strength in unity to stand up to the bullying Roman Empire. I may not have been engrossed through every episode but each one finished with me wanting more. Recommended, but not essential.
Catch Barbarians over on Netflix.