Much like “‘Die Hard’ on a…” became the popular action movie pitch of the 90s, “‘Game of Thrones,’ but…” has been the basis of a number of TV ploys over the past half-decade. The latest attempt at capturing the rugged, racy appeal of the HBO behemoth might just be the best so far. “Brittania,” a Sky import that’s been available on Amazon since late January, is built from some of the same DNA, even if it takes its cues from history rather than tomes of fantasy source material.
Right from the top, it takes an obscene amount of confidence to use “Hurdy Gurdy Man” as a theme song, a track that should’ve been retired forever after being used to perfection in David Fincher’s “Zodiac.” But if “Britannia” was a song, it would be much closer to prog rock than the eerie strains of Donovan. A psychedelic mix of brutality, witchcraft, and mental gamesmanship, there’s far more here than just a simple knock-off.
But if you’re looking for something to tide you over for the rest of the calendar year as the final season of “Game of Thrones” approaches, there’s no better time to look at this drama set on the shores of Britain in the heart of the first century.
Here are some of the best reasons why the show feels familiar and wildly different at the same time:
Shaky Family Dynamics
Where some shows get the opportunity to build for seasons and show the importance of family names to their story, “Britannia” subverts that almost instantly. Showing a rift in the Cantii tribe’s ruling philosophy from the outset, it captures a family on shaky ground. It connects with the overwhelming feeling of destiny that the characters of “Britannia” bind their identities to or spend every waking moment railing against. As Kerra (Kelly Reilly) grows into her role as a key decision maker in this operatic power struggle, her desires put her in conflict, one by one, with every member of her family. Her combined successes and failures help form the backbone of the series.
Very Fragile Alliances
In the early going, before a widespread conflict is guaranteed, the maneuverings between Roman general Aulus (David Morrissey) and his potential comrades in invasion make for a murky sense of whose side everyone is on. There’s a lot of testing of allegiances — even for people who make tremendous physical sacrifices and do unspeakable things in the name of proving their loyalty, there’s no guarantee that that translates into a get out of debt free card. With royal palace intrigue on one side and brute military force and the other, the show gets to investigate both of those ideas in strategic ways. There are scenes of brutal conflict, to be sure, but much of Season 1 is given over to secret negotiations. It’s convoluted at times, overly convenient at others, and a welcome alternative to oppressive brute force, especially when those demands verge on petty.
Whether as a means of pushing what’s acceptable on Sky standards or as a way to fully embrace the brutality of 46 AD, the “Britannia” brand of torture is very distinct. Whether it be soldiers getting arrows shot straight to their skull (Chimney-style) or people getting flayed alive in pursuit of information on the enemy, there are ruthless players on each side of this historical divide. (Connoisseurs of people shrieking in pain will find a rich tapestry in these characters’ treatment of prisoners.) The more intense the violence becomes, it finds a certain level of horror in how commonplace it becomes. Dismembered limbs and heads and torsos on tree branches and stakes and spears? By Episode 5, you’re barely batting an eye.
Ye Olde Magicks
If burning leeches didn’t get enough of your blood flowing, the Druid mysticism of this show puts antiquated medieval perceptions of magic to shame. Between, smoke-induced hallucinations, mind control, a couple guilt ghosts, and a solstice celebration that looks like Ancient Britain’s hedonistic Coachella, this is a series that’s not afraid to plant itself in a realm beyond the living every once in a while. Whether it’s Aulus or the wandering Druid exile Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), “Britannia” busts out the fish-eye lens and blurred frame edges for a visual style bent on sharing its characters disorientation. It’s a messy, unpredictable look that can be chaotic at times, but when unseen mystical forces are guiding the fates of entire kingdoms, it somehow makes sense.
The Future is Female
While the warring sides threaten to war themselves into oblivion, “Britannia” has a Season 1 storyline on the outskirts that’s probably more compelling than all the backchannel negotiations. Cait (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), trying to avenge the loss of a family member, goes on a quest through unforgiving terrain for answers and revenge. That sequence of events may sound familiar, but few shows have a character quite like Cait, a fierce warrior in the making who is not defined by her own vulnerabilities. She more than holds her own against her countryside-traversing counterparts and once the show makes it clear what part she plays in this power struggle, “Britannia” becomes a far more cohesive story.
Bringing in veteran British actors lends a certain amount of gravitas to your period piece. But aside from the era-specific costumes and the added layer of regal authority to any potential battle scenes, “Britannia” gives some of its most worthy performers a chance to deliver some classic olden putdowns. “I shit on the souls of your dead” is an unimpeachable insult, delivered with absolute perfect glee by Antedia, Queen of the Regni (Zoe Wanamaker, who gets her fair share of triumphant screen-stealing moments throughout Season 1). Also, David Morrissey deserves an Emmy for making “You’re not really in the territory until you’ve had a good dump!” sound like something that a conquering Roman general would happily tell a member of his legion.
Actors Playing To/Against Their Own Image
Morrissey, probably best known to American audiences for his stint as The Governor on “The Walking Dead,” plays another character who his adversaries see as something not quite human. Even with a few extra scenery-chewing moments, he’s still a well-chosen genre heel. Meanwhile, Mackenzie Crook is downright unrecognizable as the enigmatic, timeless figure Veran, a shaman-like figure in the Druid camp whose pierced fingertips are the only thing more unsettling than the eventual power he wields over the Cantii’s collective consciousness. And anyone who ever basked in the glory of Ian McDiarmid delivering a sinister “No” to past onscreen underlings, there are a few surprises in store for you there as well.
(Playing on Amazon is a true blessing for this series. The streaming service’s X-Ray feature not only gives actor names and filmographies for anyone appearing in a particular scene, it gives character names as well. Having characters address each other by name often feels like a cheap TV shortcut to familiarity, but for a show like “Britannia,” where putting a literal name to a face can help an audience wade through each successive plot machination, that extra resource is definitely a welcome one.)
Blind Polytheistic Adherence
The metaphysical parts of the show often tie religion to fate. How do the desires and ambitions of the individual come in conflict with the health and future of a community, especially in a time of great political upheaval? In stories and actions, that sense of sacrifice is something that runs deeply through the hearts of leaders on both sides of this fight. In Westeros, the old gods and the new are more of an invocation of history rather than a deep examination of religious beliefs. Mystical forces are more an extension of individual cults of personality than conduits for the connective tissue that can guide an entire people. Here, there is a sense of subservience that makes for a more dynamic show, one that hues closer to crises of faith even Kevin Garvey might appreciate.
Love on a Chessboard
Even as it shows people getting carved alive, “Britannia” strategically pulls back on its love scenes (well, as much as a show with an orgy tent can realistically do). There are few delusions about sex being anything other than power in this universe, as a means to forge alliances, control male supplicants, or even possibly bring about the heir to an unseen deity. In the process, marital alliances can be as fleeting as the ones on the battlefield. One satisfying way the standard sword-and-shield script gets flipped: Amena (Annabel Scholey), a fiery member of the Cantii royal family has two husbands, whose affection she plays against each other for her own benefit.
Anything Can Happen
Like “Game of Thrones,” that sense of pervasive danger also rears its head when no characters, regardless of how central they may seem to the story, are safe. Characters you’d expect to be ongoing beacons of hope find themselves on the wrong end of a blade more than once in the opening handful of episodes. Untethered from any guiding index of pre-established works (except for maybe recorded history), there’s a liberty to these characters that lets the magic, mercy, and ambition of its major players waver with each passing meeting. As far as the Romans’ involvement, those familiar “SPQR” legion banners from epics past have an air of inevitability to them. But the way this show plays with timelines and a very specific scope means that even though the history books are written, “Britannia” is free to plot a course at any speed it wishes.
All nine episodes of “Britannia” Season 1 are currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.