TV Review: Is Netflix's 'Barbarians' A Worthy Genre Void-Filler?

Barbarians Thusnelda Jeanne Goursaud Netflix
Image by Katalin Vermes / Netflix

If you require something to whet your appetite in between battle-driven costume dramas, “Barbarians” is a prized opportunity. The German-language Netflix original series is a powerfully presented TV show more worthy of comparisons to Ridley Scotts 2000 classic, “Gladiator,” than even the finest-crafted television shows.

Yes, I am looking at you “Game of Thrones,” “Vikings,” and “The Last Kingdom.” “Barbarians” is brilliantly constructed on a production level. The costuming, cinematography, music, set design, and direction are stunning. If it feels as though a “but” is coming, it is. Well, sort of. While everything about “Barbarians” is profoundly delivered, the story it has to tell is troubling to off-putting results.

Based on the events leading to the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, “Barbarians” gives viewers the daunting context of Germanias occupation under the Roman Empire circa 9 AD. It especially zeros in on the Cherusci tribe. A group thats fate is tied to the Roman Empire through a living thread wound ever tightly around its fist and through its heart. Speaking of which, the heart is a tricky thing to find in “Barbarians.”

In this Netflix series, there are so many heartless characters that there is no one to root for and many to root against. Arminius (Laurence Rupp) is at the center of the action, although it takes the entire premiere to prove how much. He is a complex figure, not entirely given the emotional depth he deserves. Perhaps, like Uhtred on “The Last Kingdom,” that will come with time.

Barbarians Arminius Laurence Rupp Netflix
Image by Katalin Vermes / Netflix

To its credit, “Barbarians” boasts a story of Biblical proportions (think Moses) long before any battle, and it is a meaty one. If you are looking for a story filled with heroes and villains, you will only find the latter with various shades of depravity. There is no Jon Snow to be found here. “Barbarians” is a barbaric and brief binge. Season 1 is only comprised of six episodes.

It is roughly six intense hours as the chronicled tension between the Germanic tribes and their shared enemy, the Roman Empire, rises to an explosive boil. The first episode ends with a wonderful twist better left unspoiled. Personally speaking, Netflix's trailer gave too much away in that regard. So, if you are reading this and considering watching “Barbarians,” do not watch the teaser to further help you decide. 

It is better to go in without the foreknowledge it provides. What I will say is that the character of Thusnelda is one of the more loathsome personas to cross my TV screen in a while. What makes her all the more disturbing is that “Barbarians” presents her in a manner that does not exactly spell out that it thinks she is horrible. Or at least, not a moral center. 

Unlike Lagertha on “Vikings,” there is not a single moment Thusnelda engenders likability or empathy. She is incorrigible. Thusneldas selfishness, entitlement, and inability to see she is only a tinge different than her parents is hard to watch. “Barbarians,” having her so omnipresent, draws away from its entertainment value. She creates havoc and fails to take the blame or concede the consequences.

Why one man would vie for her, let alone three, is a mystery. That said, the actress who brings Thusnelda to life (Jeanne Goursaud) does so vividly, and her co-stars are equally matched. “Barbarians” is heavily impeded by the character akin to the Tokyo effect in “Money Heist.” A person adored for no reason and rallied around for even less. She is “Barbarians’” greatest reach in terms of reality.

As female heroines have gone in the genre, Thusnelda may be the most personally unlikable. She lacks the tenacious majesty of Daenerys Targaryen (“Game of Thrones”), the emotional fortitude of Lagertha (“Vikings”), and the enigmatic charisma of the quietly contemplative Sansa Stark (“Game of Thrones”). These women would consume Thusnelda alive, and I would welcome a crossover that gave them the opportunity.

“Barbarians” is worth watching despite her. It is a gritty and disturbing genre piece that charts a little known part of history. At least, for this American. You will find yourself Googling Battle of the Teutoburg Forest and wondering how historically accurate it is. It follows relatively closely except for the overt presence the show gives Thusnelda and Folkwin Wolfspeer.

A cursory look at Wikipedia indicates Thusnelda was a real player in the events surrounding Arminius. Her role gets extrapolated on quite a bit here, and “Barbarians” would have benefited from making her more likable. Folkwin Wolfspeer, on the other hand, is entirely fictional.

The largest battle that “Barbarians” faces is that it is an excellent show in terms of presentation, acting, production caliber, et cetera. However, the characters it presents with one exception (the Cherusci’s leader) are entirely unsympathetic. “Barbarians” is both riveting and revolting in that way.

Rating: 7/10

Season 1 of “Barbarians” is currently streaming on Netflix, and the streaming giant has renewed the series for Season 2, per its Twitter page. History indicates that it is a gold mine ready to get explored. More on that on Eclectic Pop later.