Binge Review 5: Britannia

For a little while now I have reviewed Netflix exclusives when something got my attention. Recently, Amazon has caught my eye with their selection of latest additions, and I wanted to cover what I found. Instead of starting a new review series, I chose to reboot Netflix Reviews into Binge Reviews. Be on the lookout for more in the near future.

***

Game of Thrones was both a gift and a curse when it premiered. It took a simple fantasy setting and injected medieval realism into the mix while inspiring audience mania by killing favorite characters. Thrones also perpetuated the spread of intrigue and cloak-and-dagger tropes ad infinitum. Soon a host of new programs saturated the market with stories of scheming, secrecy, and twists you could guess with little effort. Vikings and Walking Dead are the worst offenders and even though I love it to death, The Expanse is sometimes just Thrones in space. Normally I avoid these kinds of shows, but when I heard about Britannia, I was interested to say the least.

Obviously I have a massive bias for Ancient Rome, but the way Brit approaches its subject with repetitive tropes is different. The intrigue is just one part of the complete narrative and it plays into the real meat of the story. We follow what I assume is a young Queen Boudicca, a Druid outcast, Roman invaders, and a Celt clan locked in conflict with another. That sounds like Thrones 101, but it is all tied up in a unique bow.

Brit deconstructs the ideas of fate and prophecy. The Druid characters are powerful religious figures. They oversee marriage, decide who succeeds royalty, and forbids reading and writing. The leader Veran, played by veteran character Mackenzie Crook, is seemingly prescient and manipulates others to go along with what he sees. Given the historical realism of Brit this raises an important question: do the Druids really know the future or are they asserting control over the masses through deception?

As the series goes on, you realize there is more to the Druids than you once thought. They force a clan leader into sacrificing himself, appoint an heir they control out of the line of succession, and keep a hoard of wealth in secret while living in squalor. We also see Veran use his position to make deals with the Romans to shift the balance of power. Basic intrigue/cloak-and-dagger stuff, but what makes it different from Thrones is the ambiguity.

On the one hand the Druids appear to be fantastical beings that know more than everyone because of magic. Veran is said to be the First Man and he looks like living zombie. His prophecies are on point and how he plays others against their interests is masterful. However, because the Druids have a monopoly on literacy, they use that power to trick the masses into thinking they speak the truth of the Gods. They also consume hallucinogens that inspire visions perceived as prophecy, remaining in a constant trancelike state. The enigmatic facade the Druids put on further compounds this point in regards to how the Celts believe what they say. They appear weird and dangerous, inspiring curiosity. And when they start ranting about the Gods and predicting the future, they seem credible to the ignorant. Brit uses these ideas to break down religion and the idea of believe to ask its questions on fate and prophecy.

What really got me into the show was how it approached the Romans. Brit takes place during the second invasion of Britain after Caesar failed a century prior. For the first time since HBO’s Rome, we see how the Romans fought pitched battles, and approached the nuances of ancient warfare.

In combat they were all about crowd control after learning a harsh lesson at Cannae. The first episode has a scene where legionaries march into a village in columns. They are charged by Celts, but no one scatters or moves out of formation like they did in real life. When a smaller force is attacked, they move into formation against the attackers. The last episode has a siege scene where the Romans use all of their artillery before moving in, exactly like they did to bring Europe into compliance.

However, combat was only one part of the Roman war machine. Rather than slaughter their enemies outright, they would make allies with a faction in a disputed region, and use them as leverage for a greater conflict. During their cold war with Parthia, Rome gained control of Armenia through political negotiation to establish a buffer zone. In Egypt, Caesar allied with Cleopatra and used her supporters to take the throne from Ptolemy, securing the region as a vassal. The same occurred in Gaul before the rise of Vercingetorix and later in Israel before the First Jewish-Roman War. In Brit, the Romans stoked the conflict between the warring clans to gain a better foothold and keep the natives compliant, playing the intrigue game.

Aside from all the themes and history, Brit is a pretty fun show. It is very gory and violent with people losing their heads, skin, and thoroughly dissected post-sacrifice. In the large battle at the end, multiple warriors are skewered by ballista, something I have not see depicted on film until now. Then you have the character dynamic between young Boudicca and the outcast. They both hate each other, but can’t help staying together, making for nice moments of levity. The best character and performance comes from David Morrissey’s Aulus, a Roman general. He is cunning and knows it, relishing in his ability to lead his men and make others bend to his will.

I would not go so far as to call Britannia a Game of Thrones killer, but it takes the same tropes and does them better. It also deconstructs and explores the meaning of fate and prophecy where other shows have not. For history buffs, get ready for something as good as Rome, but you may complain about the leather lorica segmentata and lack of centurions. If you have Amazon Prime, it is worth a look if you are missing Thrones.

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