You can’t have escaped the promo material for Britannia, and yet there were very few clues about what to actually expect, beyond the whole ‘Romans invading Britain’ aspect and Druids looking creepy. Here’s a reminder of the trailer:
The initial buzz for this show was all about it being ‘the new Game of Thrones’, and I can see why. There are a lot of well-known British actors, ranging from immediately recognisable to ‘ooh, where do I know them from?’ There are a lot of characters. There’s a mix of history and fantasy. There is violence. And there are boobs, though the vibe is more ‘drugs and demons’ than ‘tits and dragons’. (Advance warning: Some spoilers follow for the first episode.)
Taking more inspiration from Thrones, we have feuding families, power struggles, an ominous invading force, a Hound/Arya style pairing, a girl with no name, dialogue that veers from grandiose and pompous to sweary and mundane, and a mini Red Wedding. Our nameless girl also has to follow Maester Aemon’s advice to Jon, and ‘kill the girl so the woman can live’. All of this is in episode one.
The trouble is, all of this is in episode one. As an opening, it’s a bit…extra. On Thursday, when Sky made the episodes available for streaming, it seemed like that buzz was going to backfire, and suddenly the genre was described as “anarchic romp” rather than GoT-adjacent, perhaps in an effort to try and reshape expectations. It definitely is anarchic. One of the notes I made while watching the opener was that there isn’t an abundance of exposition; there isn’t much to orientate the viewer. At the end of episode one, I barely had any idea what the characters’ names were, and had to get them from IMDb. The exposition that we do get is muddled because it either gives us information we don’t seem to need, or not enough to put things together. Do we really need to know about Britain’s “legendary tin deposits” in the opening titles? Why tell us that a scene happens “40 miles inland” when we don’t know where on the coast the previous scene took place? Islands don’t exactly have a shortage of coast…
Some of the exposition is deliberately misleading, like trying to decipher who’s married to whom in the Cantii tribe (they are the ones with the red hair and smudged eyeliner, as opposed to the ones with the blue cloaks and funky blue face paint). There are moments that are possibly amusing nods to this — such as when General David Morrissey is asked which chieftains he will approach for his grand invasion plan, and he says, “Give me a chance, don’t even know the names of the bloody tribes yet.” Neither do I, David. I feel your pain. Well, we know the names of the tribes, but it takes forever to find out which name belongs to which tribe. It’s especially weird when you finally learn a character’s name, only to have that character suddenly declare he is someone else instead. (He’s possessed by a spirit, I think. Or really high. It’s not quite clear.) Or when a character literally doesn’t have a name yet because the naming ritual was interrupted by a massacre. It’s bad form to attack when your opponents are high and there’s an orgy going on. Or good sense, depending on your point of view.
That’s another disconcerting aspect of the first episode — not knowing who you are supposed to like. This is probably a deliberate way to portray the characters as complex, but it means that when Big Violent Things happen, it’s tough to care. Again, the show is taking the Thrones model of ‘no-one is safe’ but doesn’t seem to be doing the groundwork to get the audience emotionally invested first. The Red Wedding worked because it was a slow build and you cared about the characters. So far, most of the characters seem to be pretty unpleasant. You can’t feel too sorry for
Red Tribe Leader Emperor Palpatine King Pellenor for the wedding fiasco, when he is really mean to Merida Kick Ass Ginger Lady Cantii Princess Kerra 10 minutes after she saved his life. Were we meant to? I have no idea.
Whose side might we be on? The character who seems to be the emotional anchor of the show is the nameless girl, caught in that limbo between Girl and Woman after the solstice coming of age/naming ritual was interrupted and her family was killed or enslaved. Let’s call her Britney.
The Druids, far from the hippy Glastonbury stereotype, are mainly characterised by bad skin, crazy eyes and weirdness. Their leader, Mackenzie Crook as
Voldemort Veran, is pretty damn unpleasant so far. They are high a lot. Like, off their faces.
The Outcast Dude, reluctant protector of Britney, is also high most of the time. When he’s not rubbing himself with dead animals, he tries to drown himself to get advice from the Underworld, and sees the eye of Sauron over Britannia. Oh, and he also has Jedi mind control powers. Riiiiight. Outcast Dude has a rather big plan, and it’s going to be hard for him to get that done if he doesn’t sober up a bit…
A few characters stand out so far: Zoe Wanamaker is having a marvelous time as Queen Antedia of
the Blue tribe the Regni, styled with electric blue eyeliner and mad hair, and getting to screech, “I shit on the souls of your dead! I’ll drink your blood before I let it pollute mine!” The captured bride from the Red Wedding (Blue Wedding? Henge Wedding?) seems enigmatic and interesting. And Kerra (Kelly Reilly) is very much the maverick superstar of the Red tribe.
The Romans fall into the ‘strutting about wearing furs’ or foot-soldier categories. General David Morrissey, whose name I misheard as Ball-less and is actually called Aulus (thanks IMDb, though my one is funnier), is tough and unforgiving, and weirdly obsessed with dragging his reluctant legion to “a cursed land ruled by the dead”, whose natives “feast on human flesh.” One of those reluctant soldiers,
Regretful Deserter Dude Antonius, has an eventful episode; lectured by Ball-less on the importance of going for a ‘dump’ (I wish I was kidding), he goes for a squat in the woods, praying to Mars as he does so, in what I can only imagine is a Poop Prayer for the Terribly Constipated. (Dude, have you tried more fibre in your diet?) Unfortunately, he’s concentrating so hard on praying for the Important Dump that he’s captured by a moss-faced Druid. Voldemort gets him high, throws him off a waterfall and he’s possessed by the spirit of Grandpa Ball-less (I think) to issue a warning to the Romans, which they ignore before burying him alive with a letter stuffed in his mouth. All because he was told to go potty in the woods. This is all Ball-less’s fault, you know.
That’s just how batshit crazy this opener is. If you are watching for a historical take on the Roman invasion of Britain, and you are a history pedant, you will get annoyed. If you want to let the weirdness wash over you and enjoy the visuals (which are stunning), you will probably enjoy it. If you like your ‘anarchic romps’ trippy, like a parallel universe nightmare version of 2004’s King Arthur if everyone who made it was on mushrooms, then you will probably like it, and the use of Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man as the theme tune will make perfect sense to you. If you were expecting Mists of Avalon meets Game of Thrones, it might put you off. Unfortunately that’s what I was expecting. That’s not the show’s fault, but I can’t help comparing it to the first episode of Thrones, which I watched with a similarly vague idea of what to expect, and was so into it that I immediately started reading the books.
So, fair warning: If you are trying to get a clear read on what is happening and who everyone is, it might take a while. Having been assured that ‘all will be revealed’ as the series goes on, I persevered. But I spent most of the first episode looking like this:
The good news is, everything calms the chuff down in episode two. The pace is mellower, we get some humour, the characters are fleshed out a bit, and there aren’t so many trippy sequences. The first episode often mistook obscurity for mystery, and seemed a bit too pleased with itself, but the second has sobered up a bit, and takes the time to do some storytelling, rather than just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. It’s less anarchic and less disorientating, and those characters who stood out in the first episode are given a bit more space to breathe. It’s a relief.
Those first impressions stand: Britney’s had enough of Outcast Dude’s stories, which both develop the mythology of the show and add much-needed humour. Kerra gets to do her maverick thing. Queen Antedia gets to shine, even as she tells us a few things about Kerra that might make some viewers wince. General Ball-less is still very much in psycho-Governor mode, but thankfully not talking about toilet habits this time — instead he imbues every conversation with an air of menace. There’s less craziness, and the show is better for it.
Like Game of Thrones, this is going to be water-cooler talk for a while, and the people I’ve spoken to so far seem to either love it or hate it. I’m going to hope that the rest of the season is more like episode two than episode one, and that at some point in the show’s run, someone will get to ask, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’
The Romans really did think that Ancient Britain was full of “trees and nightmares”. It takes a lot to scare off Julius Caesar, but he really did take one look at the assembled Celts and nope the hell out of there. General Aulus was a real guy who volunteered to lead a legion back to take the territory for Rome. Why did he volunteer to go back to those “really fucking terrifying islands”? In the show, I’m pretty certain it’s got nothing to do with those legendary tin deposits… Maybe something about magic and chickens?
Britannia is a land at war with itself, and therefore vulnerable to attack. Oh crap, does that mean we need to stop arguing about Brexit?
Britannia — which is filmed in the Wales and the Czech Republic — is available to stream on Sky now, and from 26th January on Amazon Prime.
What did you make of it? Let’s gather by the virtual water-cooler below! In the meantime, if you hear someone in the bathroom praying to Mars, maybe hold it and go back later; they may be in there for some time.