Regarded by many as the greatest military force of its time, the Roman Empire stretched up to 5 million square kilometers at its height of power. Back in 9 AD, the Roman Empire was a fearful, unstoppable machine.
As this machine rolled into Germania however, the Romans found themselves written into the history books thanks to a fight that changed the course of history forever.
This pivotal moment serves as the backdrop for Netflix’s latest historical epic Barbarians. While the event itself is epic, Netflix’s 6-part German series is anything but. Instead, this series is enjoyable enough but also pales by comparison to historical juggernauts Vikings and The Last Kingdom, which both surpass this one in terms of scope and storytelling.
It’s a shame in some ways because the claustrophobic setting of the Teutoburg Forest does do quite well to hide the lack of set variation and could have proven to be a great veil to play out a more dramatic story than the one we’re served. The same locations crop up time and again, juxtaposing the otherworldly supernatural and seer elements which are never expanded on fully.
Having said that though, Barbarians thrives with its bubbling conflict between the Roman and Germanic forces. In the midst of this simmering cauldron of tension lies one of our central characters, Arminius. The adoptive son of new Roman senator Varus has quite the history with the Germanic people. Across the 6 episodes, he finds himself conflicted over where his allegiance really lies.
While the line between enemy and friend blurs for him, for everyone else this is very much a black and white story. The Romans are very obviously the bad guys with the Germanic people serving as the plucky underdogs striving for freedom.
The story – and the conflict to follow – really begins with a simple mischievous robbery. Lovers Thusnelda and Folkwin steal a golden Roman eagle statue from the midst of a Roman camp, which eventually sees everything escalate to a big, climactic battle on the edge of the forests in episode 6.
Along the way, the show explores an underwhelming love triangle, shaky allegiances between clans and simple archetypal characters that never really grow.
Those aforementioned problems with character growth ultimately hinder this show and hold it back from the aspiring heights it could have achieved. There’s not a single memorable character here, with both Thusnelda and Folkwin feeling like shadows of the central protagonists in Vikings.
In fact, the entire time Barbarians feels like it’s living in the shadows of Amazon Prime’s historical series and never pulls the trigger to allow you to embrace and empathise with any of these characters.
Segestes for example, remains slimy and despicable right the way through the show with no comeuppance. Varus doesn’t have a lot going on and despite a tease for one final one on one fight – it never arrives. That’s to say nothing of the cliffhanger ending either which serves as a cherry atop this formulaic cake.
For all of its problems, there’s definitely something compelling with Barbarians to keep you hooked to watch more. To be honest, a lot of this driving force comes from the desire to get to the good stuff at the end; knowing the epic Battle of the Teutoburg Forest is on the horizon. This expectation does come with a bit of disappointment, despite how effectively the battle is shot and played out.
This is ultimately one of those shows that’s very enjoyable in the moment but also instantly forgettable once you’re finished with it. It’s certainly a shame because there’s definitely potential with this – especially with a possible second season to expand the setting and ideas.
Given Netflix’s trigger-happy cancellation rate though, it’s hard to say whether this historical drama is good enough for Flix to give the green-light to for season 2. For now, we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, Barbarians is an enjoyable enough series but unlikely to be regarded as one of the better historical dramas this year.