The Dark Herald Recommends with Extreme Reservations: Britannia Season 1The Dark Herald
I will shortly be streaming Britannia Season 2. I had originally given this show the Does Not Recommend rating. However since I’m going to be watching it, I felt I should bump up the rank I originally gave it, in order to justify my stupidity in continuing this act of self-abuse.
Ghost of Iselene: The dead are singing your name, sister! This night, the dead are singing your name!
Screaming Chick in the Picture: What is my name, sister? What is my name?
The Dark Herald (screaming at his TV): It’s Boudicca! We all know it’s fucking Boudicca!
The Herald’s Lady: Dear. Please?
First the background. Prior to first contact, the Romans viewed the isle of Albion as something close to Atlantis. A near mythical place on the edge of the unknown world. A secret land of mystery and magic whom some argued didn’t even exist.
Gaius Julius Caesar’s expedition was for its day comparable to Neil Armstrong’s. That is really the only reason he did it. By the time he had been in Gaul for a few years, he knew that Britannia was not only real but a valuable source of tin. However, the motivation for the expedition was political. He wanted to one-up, his son-in-law Pompey who had become famous in Rome for extensively traveled the lands of mysterious east when he was younger.
The first expedition to Albion in 54 BC did little more than establishing a beachhead (probably in Kent). In 55 BC Caesar managed to install a client king, Mandubracius, (or whatever his real name was because it sure as hell wasn’t that). Then he forced the submission of that king’s rival tribe. Mandubracius promised tribute, and since a thorough pacification of the island would take years and his entire army, Caesar called it good and left, as he definitely had bigger fish to fry.
When the Roman Civil Wars* started up, Mandubracius correctly assessed the Roman strategic situation and stopped paying his taxes.
It wasn’t viewed as any big deal. After all, there was more money to be had in customs and duties than could be raised by direct taxation due to the expense of permanent military occupation. So Rome let it slide… Kind of.
You see, the proper conquest of Britannia was kind of an itch the early Caesars couldn’t quite scratch .
Once the Civil Wars were over, Augustus planned three major expeditions to force subjugation but there was always a good reason to call it off. Usually trouble on the Rhine.
Tiberius couldn’t be bothered because he was too old by the time he became emperor. However his successor, Caligula planned a major offensive. Facilities were built up, seven legions were assembled, and then once he had them at the shoreline of Proto-France, he had the entire army collect seashells as tribute from Neptune.**
The Legions were not amused.
There is little doubt that the entire army was disaffected by the time Little Boot’s Uncle Claudius seized power.
Claudius appears to have been respected within Rome prior to his becoming emperor. When his house burned down during the reign of his uncle Tiberius, it was nearly rebuilt at public expense. When Caligula became emperor there was no serious objection to Claudius’ elevation to Consul. Despite the fact that he had never held any other office on the cursus honorum. Clearly, he was held in favorable esteem by the city.
However, Claudius was now the supreme leader of a nation that prized military virtue above all else, and his resume had a complete zero on that score. He needed a win and he needed it fast. So when the decedents of his (official) ancestor’s erstwhile British allies showed up in Rome begging for help, he didn’t think twice.
The conquest of Britannia was on. Although it says something of Claudius’ tenuous political situation that he could only scrape up four legions when his nephew had managed nearly twice that just a few years before.
Aulus Plautius was given command of the expedition. He established a beachhead moved inland and after the major operations were done, he called for Claudius to come and take command personally. For only Caesar could lead what was at that point, clearly, just a cleanup operation to total victory.
Claudius showed up, took credit for the win, then got to hold a Triumph. Thus cementing his rule.
And Britannia was established as a Roman province pretty much until the legionnaires on Hadrian’s Wall discovered that the empire had collapsed behind them. “And the last Centurion laid down his shield in the heather and took a barbarian bride.”
That is the historical background and it was a complete waste of your time to read about it because the people who wrote this series chucked the history books out the window.
There is actually a lot that I liked about this show but there is definitely more that I disliked.
We will start with the worst indictment I can think of; fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon will love it. That nearly says it all but I’ll say a little more
This series is light on Roman history and heavy on Celtic mumbo jumbo. Although I will grant they played fair. They didn’t seem to make up too much stuff. A lot of it is accurate to known records and archaeological data. They did their research… On the Celtic stuff.
Despite my Bradley comment, the show is a lot lighter on sex and gore than Game of Thrones. However, that is clearly the audience this show wants a part of.
Britannia is a nine-episode series that was co-produced by Amazon and Sky. The nine-episode part maybe the one it’s bigger problems. This shows most glaring weaknesses appear to be the result of it having run out of money. I will elaborate. There is a prophecy that is central to the show…that they forgot to mention until the end of episode six of a nine-episode run. Not a lot of build-up for what should have been something that was getting hyped over the course of the whole series. There are a lot of plot holes like this. Princess Kerra of the Canti was married to the prince of the Regni to seal the peace between their tribes but she castrated him on their wedding night. They never got around to saying why she did that and since we are supposed to like Kerra, a better motivation than, ‘I sort of felt like it,’ should have been provided. There were lots of plot points that were only half set up and the thing is these writers are actually pretty good, they wouldn’t have made mistakes like that.
Almost no money was spent on the music and what little there is, is just awful. The opening credits are a chore to get through because you have to listen to Donovan’s stoner anthem; Hurdy Gurdy Man while watching a sixties psychedelic kaleidoscope of scenes from the show.
Like I said, this show clearly ran out of money but that isn’t it’s biggest problem.
Anyway, the premise.
There are four distinct factions in this series. The Romans have invaded under Aulus Plautius and I don’t know why they even bothered to use the name. None of the known British participants in that invasion are present. No Togodumnus, no Caratacus, and no Cunobeline. Instead, we have Queen Madam Hooch (Harry Potter reference) of the Regni and King Palpatine of the Canti and boy do they hate the unholy fuckity, fucking fuck out of each other. I mean this is some serious Celtic type hate. It was actually pretty compelling. And sitting on the sidelines are the stoned out their minds (very historically accurate), all-powerful Druids.
The Druids are actually magical in this iteration but their magic doesn’t alter reality. Extreme hypnosis is sort of their deal and they can talk to both the dead and the gods and that is portrayed as being a real thing. They can track, the untrackable, make people not see you if they are looking at you, and make them think you are somebody else entirely. I liked this. It doesn’t make magic a deus ex machina plot shredder. The rule of thumb seems to be, you can always claim it was all in that person’s mind. And the Druids make better use of their magic than the Jedi ever did with the Force.
The leader of the Druids is Veren, the Second Man. Supposedly the Second Man ever. He’s alleged to be the oldest man in the world and he claims to have spoken with Julius Caesar. Mackenzie Crook puts his comedy past behind him in his portrayal of this anti-Merlin. It’s an excellent performance, he comes across as a vulturine husk of a man. One that you cannot use for your own purposes without great peril.
The major subplot is the trials of Cait (the screaming chick in the picture).
During a womanhood ritual, she becomes one of the Betwixt. She is formally stripped of her girlhood name and has not yet received her woman’s name. During this period a girl is forbidden to speak. Cait’s (her dead-name, I suppose) sister Iselene tricks her into talking to her during this time. Later during her womanhood ceremony (which surprisingly doesn’t actually look like made-up bullshit, they seem to have again done their research here) the Romans attack. Her mother and sister are killed, while her father is taken, prisoner. Since the ceremony isn’t complete, Cait is left without a name (which will be Boudicca, I don’t know why they are even pretending) and feeling horrendously guilt-ridden because she spoke when she was a Betwixt. She feels that she brought down destruction on her family by breaking this taboo.
She meets up with an outcast Druid named Divis who does nothing to convince her otherwise. In fact, he also blames her for the Roman Invasion. The interplay between the two is sharp, the dialog is tight, humorous, and well structured.
In fact, all of the dialog in this series meets this description. The dialog is all superbly written and kept me watching. Even after I became convinced I should quit.
The Good. The acting and the dialog. These are all well-seasoned professionals and they brought the goods. The writers built a reasonably smooth plot structure (albeit with major holes see the above) that integrated the Celt mumbo jumbo into the plot. When the Druids command that King Palpatine has to be sacrificed it actually does work within the established framework.
Also, I loved King Palpatine. Ian McDermott can still bring the goods. That guy just loves being evil. So does Queen Madam Hooch. They are such great enemies I was really sorry when King Palpatine was sacrificed.
Aulus Plautius was an interesting construct as the brutal but intellectual Roman killing machine. Although (for reasons that I am willing to bet were once again due to budget cuts,) the show completely fails to mention WHY he let himself become possessed by the Celt Arch-Devil Lochaa.
Ninety-pound Celtic women can beat the shit out of 250 pound heavily armored, combat-hardened Roman Legionnaires. Did you know that? Of course, you did. We are now building our national defense policy around this fantasy.
As I said they chucked the history books on this one. Which means it’s fantasy. So, I can grudgingly grant that there was one point in the show where I forgave the Woke History thing. When the Druids had captured the black Roman Antonius and Veren was perched like a carrion eater on his chest and looking at his eyeballs with a little too much interest. Veren said, “you were praying to Mars when we found you but you have a secret protector, don’t you? One that you aren’t supposed to pray to anymore. What is his name?”
Antonius, “Bomaza.” Saying the name against his will
“You will now pray to Bomaza to forsake your soul.”
I admit it. It kind of worked for me.
The Bad. The failed plot lines. This thing was tacked together out of tatters due to a slashed budget and it shows just about everywhere. There are scenes in the opening credits that weren’t used in the show for crying out loud.
But the big fail is Nihilism. Nihilism is the beating heart of this series. Ultimately, that is the reason I am giving it a thumbs down.
I suspect if you looked through the lists of who commits suicide, and who performs self-destructive behaviors as a slow substitute for suicide, such as drug abuse, divorce, and indulgence in sexual deviancy, and compared it to the list of married couples with children who regularly contribute to charity, you will find the Christians living much more meaningful lives and toying with self destruction far less.
“However, the meaning that most people can get without faith in the eternal is thin gruel as compared to what they can get with it. ”
Thin gruel indeed, and it will not nourish.
Without God, you either end up as a Stoic, a man who is bitter but does his duty without complaint, or as a Hedonist, a man who seeks every fewer false pleasures with ever more fervor and ever less reward. At the end of either the Stoic road or the Hedonist treadmill is the same void, which can be filled only with wrath or sorrow. Read Homer. Read the writings of the Buddhists. Pagans are a grim people. They talk about resignation, renunciation, loss, sorrow, defeat, and the futility of pride. Atheists have not even the comforts of paganism.
“It is clear to me in these and many other examples that modern man with weak faith lacks greatly in drive, courage, ambition and much else.”
I think the case cannot be made that an atheism logically implies nihilism, but I do think it is easy to make the case that atheism is gray and damp and sad compared to the bright scarlet and dazzling white of the martyrs and saints, the gleaming gold of halos and crowns, the savor of the bread, the heady scent of wine, the flowers in a bridal bouquet, the laughter of the feast and lamentations of the fasts, the clatter of prayer beads in the solemn stillness, the peal of the bells in the steeple. Even their crusades are bland and inquisitions are dull compared to ours.
Britannia has a lot of pluses but the Nihilism is the deal-breaker for me. Ultimately I kept hoping this show would be better than it ever really could be.
And I’m still going to watch season 2.
*First between Caesar and Pompey. Then Caesar and Pompey’s faction. Then Octavion and Marc Antony.
** That bit isn’t well documented, so grain of salt there guys.