The new Netflix show Barbarians has gotten a bit of buzz since its premiere last month. I was asked to watch and review the first episode to see if it is worthy of being added to your Netflix queue. And my answer is: Maybe! Let’s take a look at the first episode of Barbarians on Netflix and figure out if this show is for you. Spoilers for the first episode of Barbarians to follow.
Barbarians On Netflix Is Another Gritty Historical Drama
Image via Netflix
Barbarians is a new Netflix series that revolves around Germanic tribes fighting back against Roman conquerors in 9 AD. The show is also in German (with a smattering of Latin) and the English dub is not great. I watched the first episode with subtitles and my own meager knowledge of the German language. So that is one strike against this show being truly binge worthy. As much as I love to read, many people won’t want to watch a historical drama with subtitles for hours on end.
This isn’t like the German-language show Dark that was also better with subtitles. Dark was easy to binge because of the intricate mystery at its core that kept viewers like myself watching multiple episodes in a row. Barbarians is a little bit different. Although it has plenty of sex and violence, it is still a historical drama. And the pilot didn’t really compel me to watch the next episode immediately.
Barbarians seems to be leading up to a famous battle that occurred between the Romans and the Germanic tribes. The battle in Teutoburg Forest saw the Germanic tribes banding together to fight back the Roman forces. So there are some real world historical elements at play here amidst the fiction. That means we know where the series is going to end up. But we don’t know who will survive, or how the main characters will play into that final battle.
A Female Protagonist Takes Center Stage In Barbarians
Image via Netflix
The first episode of Barbarians on Netflix introduces the main characters of Thusnelda along with her lover Folkwin. Thusnelda is a fierce character. She has a warrior’s spirit, but she is also unfortunately a woman in a historical drama. This means that her introduction includes an arranged marriage subplot with a man who inspects her teeth like she is a horse. However, Thusnelda is a compelling character. Her fiery spirit is clear from the first moment onscreen. She has a fierce love and loyalty to her family and her tribe, even though she disagrees with many of their decisions.
Thusnelda is spirited, independent, and sexually free. She has all the makings of a great protagonist. When the Romans come to her village to demand tribute and submission from the Germanic tribes, she reacts in anger and outrage. This unfortunately leads to her younger brother being seriously injured. Thusnelda blames herself for this tragedy. She swears revenge against the Romans and sneaks into their camp under cover of darkness with Folkwin and friends to steal the symbol of Roman power across the world: their golden eagle.
The episode ends with a bit of a twist that reveals that one of the Roman officers is actually one of Thusnelda’s long-lost brothers, who was taken by the Romans years earlier as part of a peace treaty that is now broken. This wasn’t an incredibly surprising reveal given all the hints that pile up over the course of the episode. But it will certainly lead to family drama and divided loyalties as the series goes on.
More Pagan Elements In Historical Dramas Please
My favorite moment of the episode came when Thusnelda knelt by the river and prayed to the ‘Sisters of the Wood’ for the strength to strike back against the Romans. Her grief and rage in that moment is electric. And I personally love the pagan elements of the series. I would like to see more about the battle between the pagan religions of the Germanic tribes at the time and the Roman domination with Christianity. This is something that Vikings delved into quite a bit over the course of that series. And it is one of the more fascinating historical elements of these shows for me personally.
Barbarians Feels A Bit Too Much Like Other Historical Dramas
Image via Netflix
Barbarians is reminiscent of other violent historical dramas like Vikings and Brittania. It takes the same conceit of a fierce female warrior in Thusnelda (who is strikingly similar to Lagertha – the best character on Vikings). Even though it feels a bit like pandering, I enjoy seeing women in ancient times rise up above the patriarchal constraints of their society. Vikings made it a point to reinforce that women were often warriors in those times however. Barbarians unfortunately falls back on the cliche ‘woman who acts more like a man to be accepted by men’ trope.
The show is shot well enough, but the flat desaturated color palette exhausts me. It seems to be the default for gritty historical dramas like this. But it also makes the world feel less alive than it should. I know that color grading has become shorthand for certain genres. But after awhile it makes all the shows look the same. Give me the lush green of Teutoburg Forest, the bright reds of the Roman uniforms, the shining gold of the eagle. Give me some contrast between the Germanic tribes and the Roman invaders, instead of painting them all with the same brush.
All the sex and gory violence in the first episode also felt a bit too much like Netflix was trying to draw in Game of Thrones fans. Now there is nothing wrong with that, but I felt like it came at the expense of characterization and plot. The first episode of Barbarians drew a sharp line between the Germanic tribes who are perceived as the good guys, and the Romans who are clear-cut baddies. This lacks the nuance of other historical dramas that attempt to give multiple perspectives. This may of course change as the series progresses, but it left the first episode feeling a little flat.
Should You Watch Barbarians On Netflix?
Image via Netflix
So let’s get down to the question of whether or not you should add Barbarians to your Netflix queue. If you like gritty historical dramas then yes, definitely add it to your queue. If you are a fan of Vikings or Britannia then you will certainly find a lot to enjoy here. Are you a proficient German speaker? Then you might find the show more bingeable than others.
The first episode of Barbarians certainly set up the major characters and conflicts we can expect from the series. But it may hew a bit too closely to historical fact at the expense of tension. Although I found the character of Thusnelda to be compelling, other reviews say that the series shifts focus from her to her long-lost Roman brother. And just thinking about that makes me yawn.
In the end, the first episode of Barbarians on Netflix was not compelling or unique enough to make me want to keep going. I might watch a few more episodes to see if it really draws me in. But unfortunately it feels like another run of the mill generic historical fantasy. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a bad show, but it definitely won’t be for everyone.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.