A character-driven and highly binge-able historical drama, Barbarians casts its native tribes as the heroes in a battle against a brutal occupying force to simple but enjoyable effect.
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Netflix has a seemingly infinite supply of handsome international historical dramas to occupy us during these trying times, and the latest is the much-anticipated Barbarians, a German period piece dramatizing the famed Battle of Teutoburg Forest, when the world’s greatest fighting force, the Roman Empire, were embarrassingly brutalized by an alliance of Germanic tribes. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history will have a rough idea of where this is going but across six highly binge-able episodes the Big N’s latest offering roots the history in character drama, with the so-called “barbarians” — the disparaging name given to the Germanic people by the Romans — being cast explicitly as the heroes against a cruel occupying force.
The hook is that the representative of that force we see the most of is Ari (Laurence Rupp), now known as Arminius, a barbarian by birth who was offered as a pledge to the Empire by his father, Segimer (Nicki von Tempelhoff), the Reik of their tribe. He was a tribute for peace, but the region’s new Governor, Publius Quinctilius Varus (Gaetano Aronica), has decided that more offerings are required to maintain that peace, something which causes division among the various disparate tribes of the Germanic peoples. Driven to desperation, lovers and Ari’s former childhood friends Thusnelda (Jeanne Goursaud) and Folkwin (David Schütter) perform a risky act of rebellion which leads Ari back to their village and sets the barbarians on a path of inevitable war against Varus and the Roman legions.
At just six episodes, Barbarians doesn’t struggle for pace, and even though it’s condensing a lot of history it’s easy to follow without any broader contextual knowledge thanks to clear plotting and characterizations. Thusnelda and Folkwin have a doomed Romeo & Juliet-style romance — she, the daughter of the ambitious Segestes (Bernhard Schütz), has been offered up as the bride of Hadgan (Sergej Onopko), the Reik of another tribe — and unwavering loyalty to their people that is complicated by their longstanding friendship with Ari, who is himself torn between his roots and his cushy new station as a Roman officer. This is the core triumvirate, to use a fitting term, around which the show revolves — there is less depth and complexity in the characterization elsewhere, but figures like Varus, who for all intents and purposes is a cartoon villain, and Berulf, a hulking barbarian warrior, are utilitarian, used to inform this key dynamic.
That dynamic should be enough for most viewers, since the action promised by the trailers doesn’t arrive for a while, and even then only in small doses. Barbarians is much more character-driven than first appearances suggested, and much better written and acted than you might have thought. There is generous violence, to be sure, but the show doesn’t rely entirely on it, smartly building its conflicts over time and ensuring that its bloodletting is meaningful rather than facile. This is a solid, good-looking, handsomely-produced historical drama with a fair helping of evocative imagery, and it’ll be an enticing binge-watch this weekend for anyone with even a passing interest in this period of history.