Many “famous figures” make up the roster here, from Gaetano Aronica’s General Varus to Jeanne Goursaud’s Thusnelda to Laurence Rupp’s Arminius. Barbarians looks decent enough, production-wise, for a series that more or less takes place between a village, a camp, and the trees between the two, though it never rises up above a modest roar from a story standpoint.
The most interesting element in Barbarians is Rupp’s Arminius. The viewer enters the tale after the Romans have already been in control of the surrounding area for years. Arminius, long ago, as the child of a local tribal chief, Segestes of the Cherusci, was given away by Segestes to Varus in order to “keep the peace” – much like you’ve maybe seen on this season of Fargo. Varus takes Segestes’ sons as hostages for the good of the land and raises them as his own. So here’s Arminius, now a grown man, who doesn’t quite belong in either world, having to decide what to do when the Romans begin squeezing the Germanic people for all they’re worth and essentially starving them.
Complicating Arminius’ crisis of conscience even further is his childhood friendship with Cherusci maiden Thusnelda and local rogue Folkwin Wolfspeer (David Schütter). The dynamic between these three, even as Folkwin is a made-up character for the show, gives Barbarians its best and most emotional material. Because while Arminius exists as the only one left behind (or taken away, to be specific) he also might be the only solution to everyone’s dire needs. So resentment, jealousy, confused allegiances, and hard sacrifices all come into play when these three are the central part of the saga.
When they’re not at the heart of the story, however, and when Barbarians chooses to be about other things, it all-too-easily slips into mediocrity. The show can quickly get overrun by a rogues’ gallery of tropes and tediums that make it rather indistinguishable from most other sword-and-sandal costume dramas: from conniving side characters, supernatural teases, and overbearing speeches. Nothing is altogether new here.Barbarians delivers a few cliches decently, but the rest of them just sort of hover in a fog. On top of this, the narrative shifts quite a bit over the course of this first season to the point where you’re never quite sure, from one episode to the next, what the focal point is. Eventually, Arminius rises up through the ranks to become, more or less, the central figure, though it’s at the expense of a more interesting story sometimes. Granted, this could also be because the story follows an actual particular course of history and you can’t exactly abandon that just because other themes are working better.