Saturday, December 26, 2020

Television Reviews: Britannia Season One

produced by Pippa Harris and Sam Mendes

Season One previously aired on British television and Amazon prime almost three years ago but just started running on American cable channels this past year. Some people made an immediate positive comparison to HBO's Game of Thrones. I don't think that was an accurate comparison. Britannia's writing is not as high quality as that of the first few seasons of Game of Thrones. Britannia does not convince the viewer to see one group as the protagonists or good guys. It's more of a descriptive show.
The show's sets weren't that extravagant though it makes up for that drawback by spending as much time possible outside-to be fair the narrative often requires it. I liked the lush outdoor camerawork. If you are an outdoors nature loving person you will enjoy this aspect of Britannia. The show was shot on location in the UK and the Czech Republic. 
Britannia concerns the Roman invasion of the titular island in or about AD 43. It's a historical drama with few battles though there is violence. This could be because of budget or just because of where the writers and producers wanted to direct the viewer's attention. This is NOT an action packed drama full of swordfights. Those happen rarely.
Britannia is coy about magic. The show smartly flips back and forth between depicting magic as superstition and fear, something that only seems real because of copious psilocybin mushroom consumption, con man/con woman tricks, or (later in the season and definitely in second season) as something very real and dangerous.
About a century before the events in Britannia take place, Julius Caesar invaded the island but failed to make a lasting conquest. Caesar went home and ended up getting himself murdered. The Roman Republic transformed into the Roman Empire after some civil wars. Now that the intra-Roman squabbling has been settled the Romans are back. 
Led by General Autus Plautius (David Morrissey), a well read forceful pragmatist who will order crucifixions or banquets with equal nonchalance, the Roman legions are intent on forcing all the British tribes to get down or lay down. The British can either accept Roman overlordship, pay taxes and keep a tiny bit of self-respect OR they can get beat down, die, get raped, and get sold into slavery. 
The British tribes are not united.  The Canti are led by King Pellenor (Ian McDiarmid). The Regni are led by Queen Antedia (Zoe Wannamaker). There's bad blood between the two groups because in a previous marriage pact King Pellenor's beautiful redheaded and headstrong daughter Kerra (Kelly Reilly) castrated her would-be husband, Queen Antedia's only son. 
The tribes have agreed to try a different marriage, one between Pellenor's nephew and Antedia's niece(?). This wedding goes even worse than the first. The tart-tongued Antedia is a woman who holds grudges--not that we can really blame her.
Kerra's brother and Pellinore's presumed heir is Prince Phelan (Julian Rhind-Tutt). Phelan gets little respect from anyone in part because he can't stop his wife, the attractive and ambitious Amena (Annabel Scholey) from sleeping around, particularly with the Canti top general. Kerra and Amena get along about as well as the Hatfields and McCoys. The viewer will need to decide whether Phelan is as feckless as he appears or is instead playing some sort of long game.

The Britons revere the Druids, led by the inscrutable Veran (Mackenzie Crook), as their all purpose priests/sages/judges/morticians/magicians and last but certainly not least, fortunetellers. Initially it looks to the viewer as if the Druids do little besides endure painful body piercings and etchings, have gender fluid orgies and mutter to themselves in caves. 
Neverthless one man whom the Druids rejected before he got all his cool tats and piercings has returned to the Druids to tell then all of the horrible dreams he's been having of the Sun not rising in Britain after the solstice and the upcoming death of the Druids. Though his given name is Divis, everyone just calls him Outcast (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). From Veran on down, no one is happy to see Outcast again. Because Outcast doesn't have his duly authorized Druid made member decoder ring, none of the Druids listen to Outcast or give Outcast's dreams of doom any credence. He's kicked out. Again.
As with many groups the Canti have special rituals for children's transition into adulthood. The ceremony for women is apparently based on the first period and occurs on the solstice. A girl named Cait (Eleanor Worthington Cox) will drop her childhood name and take up a new woman's name. Unfortunately it's just before this happens that a Roman legion attacks this small Canti gathering. The mostly unarmed Canti are slaughtered (Cait's older sister) or captured and enslaved (Cait's father). Cait herself is rescued and spirited away by Outcast, who believes that she might be the key to a prophecy that claims Britain will be saved by a nameless girl. Most people who know Outcast think he's been crazy for a long time.
I liked how this season showed that a major part of any imperialist success is not just, only, or always superior numbers, organization, and weapons technology, but also the internal divisions of the indigenous peoples. Although it would make all the sense in the world for the Regni and Canti to put aside their feuds long enough to confront their common enemy, neither group seems willing to do that. People tend to be self-interested. Some members of British tribes are more concerned with getting personal or group advantages over their British rivals than building a united front of resistance.
Compared to other stories set in ancient, medieval or dark age times, Britannia never lets you forget that this is a time when such things as deodorant, washing machines, hot running water, toothpaste, toilet tissue, or antibiotics either hadn't been invented yet or weren't widely in use.
It becomes apparent that General Plautius has his own agenda while Kerra has a love/hate relationship with her father and the Druids. These storylines will intermingle. Britannia uses modern music to great impact, most hauntingly Donovan's Hurdy Gurdy Man. This is an entertaining show but not quite must watch tv. Cox and Kaas provide a fair amount of humor and pathos. A fair number of the Roman soldiers would just as soon get high and laze about while others are scared of what they think of as demon haunted Britain.
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