Contains spoilers for Britannia: the whole series.
Britannia, a co-production between Sky in the UK and Amazon for the rest of the world, dropped onto NowTV at the end of last week, and I’ve, um, watched the whole lot.
Which must mean it’s good, right? Because in the Platinum Age, nobody needs to sit through mediocre TV. So, yes, spoilers: it’s watchable, enjoyable, sometimes too gruesome, but interesting enough to sustain my interest over its run.
Inevitably, even if it wasn’t trying to be, it’s going to be unfavourably compared to Game of Thrones, which is the last half decade’s flagship show, the one to which all others must aspire. Game of Thrones is big budget, epic, painted on a vast canvas, with a huge cast of characters and a multitude of storylines. So can Sky money and Amazon money compete? Not really. Let’s get that over with: Britannia is faster-paced, not afraid to skip “four moons” to get to the point, and in terms of locations seems to offer a limited range, with some characters seemingly sitting around in tents, others running around in the same woods, and a few others hanging around in some unlikely looking gorges. And, oh, Stonehenge, or something very like it. Filmed in the Czech Republic and Wales, it manages to look quite expensive, but without anywhere near the expansive geography and world-building of Game of Thrones, and without giving you a sense of where places were in relation to each other, or how long it might take to travel between them. And no dragons.
The Romans are in Britain. Led by David Morrissey, who plays Aulus Plautius who historically did lead the (second) Roman invasion in 43 CE, and who became Britain’s first governor. He faces the divided tribes of Britain, led by King Pellanor of the Cantii (Ian McDiarmid) and hate-filled Zoë Wanamaker as Antedia of the Regni. The Cantii were historically based in Kent (hence Canterbury, I guess), while the Regni were next door in Sussex. Alongside these two warring monarchs are the druids, led by mystic in makeup Mackenzie Crook, who plays Veran. Presumably we’re supposed to believe the druids are all over the place, though if it is meant to be Stonehenge, then that’s Wiltshire, and the druids’ last stand against the Romans was in Anglesey.
So that’s the historical geography, westward from Kent to Wales, which is after all the route of Watling Street: all the way from Canterbury to Bangor. But this isn’t really a history, nor meant to be enjoyed as a historically accurate drama. Instead, it contains mystics and magic, prophecies and hallucinogenic visions; and at least one character who straddles the land of the living and the dead. The dialogue is salty, with enough modern idiom to make it clear that the showrunners (the Butterworths et al) don’t give a shit about accuracy. You just don’t get much of a sense that these people are spread all over Britain. It sometimes feels as if the Romans set up camp on the Medway and that was it.
It all begins with an interrupted naming ceremony, as a tweenage girl, Cait, is about to choose her adult name. She’s already broken a taboo by speaking to her badass sister, and then the Romans arrive, and brutally kill or enslave almost everybody in the village. Cait’s captured father is blinded by one of the Romans, which leads all and sundry to freak out when they hear of a prophecy about a blind man and his small daughter. Cait herself knocks around in various places, but usually ends up teaming up, like Arya Stark, with a grumpy hypno-mystic, Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who variously tries to drop her, kill her, and protect her.
Meanwhile, Pellanor (who’s name is lifted from the Arthurian legends) is in conflict about how to deal with the Romans with his two kids, Julian Rhind-Tutt as Phelan, and Kelly Reilly as Kerra – who is supposed to have some Roman blood. There are complicated marriages, jealousies, spies, deserters, sieges, and gruesome, gruesome death ceremonies, with way too much gory detail.
Rhind-Tutt doesn’t have much to do at first except act as go-between for his sister and father, but it’s when he goes off on his own quest with captive tatooed bride Ania that he comes into his own, producing an entertaining turn, full of sardonic invective reminiscent of The Hound in Game of Thrones.
There is a lot of pointless running around in the woods, and a great deal of splashing around in chilly-looking water, and it does sag a little in the middle of its nine episodes, but the final three are great, and the ending of the siege in the season finale is spectacular. What the show needed was a tenth episode, Thrones-style, to set people up for what comes next, but instead a little of that was tacked onto the end. As I said, it doesn’t have the pacing quite right, but it is bonkers enough to win my approval.
Season 2 is reviewed here.