Warning: contains spoilers for Barbarians Season 2
In 2020, Netflix’s Barbarians gave us the story of a boy who was taken from his Germanic tribe by the cruel and capricious Romans to be raised as one of their own, only to return to his homeland in adulthood to orchestrate one of the most audacious betrayals and shocking military victories in world history. Here was a hunk of history – unknown to many outside of Germany – that was fascinating and epoch-making; beautifully and bloodily realised across six punch-packing episodes; a banquet of battles, betrayals, bromance, romance, retribution and revenge that left us ravenous for more.
Yet, we worried for season two. The real Battle of Teutoburg Forest – in which the Barbarian tribes roundly trounced three Roman legions – was a truly seismic historical event, and this stout little series had burned through the build-up and the battle in a single season. Had Barbarians peaked too soon? Thankfully, season two rewards our appetites with a wider, bolder, more exotic feast. It deepens the relationships between the characters, introduces a host of compelling new ones, and ties it all together with strong themes of family (especially fatherhood), friendship, leadership, and reckoning with the consequences of your actions. The direction remains kinetic, creating a feeling of constant movement that builds and maintains tension throughout. Fans can also rest assured that the new season hasn’t scrimped on the blood, guts, bodies, or brutally efficient fight choreography.
Arminius the Underdog
Had the first season of Barbarians been a movie or a limited series, we would’ve left Arminius frozen in time at the apex of his triumph, having both united the disparate and fractured tribes of his homeland, and delivered a humiliating knock-out blow to the mightiest empire on earth. But for a second season to work, Arminius had to lose his heroic status and once again become the underdog. The reset button had to be pressed. And it is. Season two – set a year after the events of Teutoburg Forest – tells essentially the same story as the first.
The Romans are preparing to strike, and Arminius knows only too well that their military machine won’t make the same mistake twice. Last time, the Barbarians had the advantage of surprise: this time, a Roman fleet laden with a sufficient soldiers to reduce Germania to an empty wasteland is on its way to rendezvous with the Roman camp. The Barbarians need to destroy the camp before the invading force can make landfall. Unfortunately, the tenuous unity that afforded the Germanic tribes their victory a year earlier has buckled under the weight of inter-tribal mistrust, suspicion of Arminius’s motives, and the machinations of the newly-installed Roman commander, Tiberius, and his adopted son, Germanicus.
The stage thus set, the cycle begins again, with Arminius having to prove himself anew to his kinsmen, rally the tribes from their fear and greed, and rustle up pledges of military support in order to fend off a far superior fighting force. Towards the end of the season, Thusnelda’s weaselly father, Segestes, again blows the whistle on the Barbarians’ battle plans, just as he did in the first season. There’s even a replay of season one’s daring raid on the Roman encampment by Folkwin and Thusnelda, with Arminius himself rather than a ceremonial golden eagle being the object of retrieval this time. Arminius and the eagle are connected both by their great symbolic importance to the Romans, and the grave, inexorable consequences that follow their removal.
Rome Ramps Up the Pressure
The big difference this season, however, is that the stakes are now extinction-level high; both for the people of Germania, and Arminius’s soul. Season two really hammers home the duality of Arminius’s heart and history, and the many ways in which they collide. To illustrate this, each of the show’s new characters holds up a twisted mirror to Arminius, showing him the man he once was, or the man he could have been. They force him to reckon with his past and his future.
His brother Flavus – who pursues Arminius across Germania like a clanking, antique Terminator – is the man and soldier Arminius once was; the Arminius he could have been had he remained loyal to his adoptive Rome. Flavus is also a living consequence of Arminius’s ‘patricide’. When Arminius set in motion the events that led to Varus’s death, he cast Flavus to the wolves, robbing him of his patronage and protection, and forcing him to fight against allegations of guilt by association. Flavus needs Arminius to die to win back his tenuous status in the Roman world.
Marbod, leader of the 70,000 strong Macromanni tribe – whose military support is crucial to repelling the Romans – is another man whose fate echoes Arminius’s own. Both men were plucked from their Germanic childhoods and raised by Rome, returning later in life to head their respective tribes. Marbod, however, shows the road not taken; the man Arminius might have been had he chosen to continue his Varus-sponsored reikship, and appease the Romans instead of taking up arms against them. Did Arminius choose too high a price for his people’s freedom? The main man of the Macromanni proves a slippery sparring and negotiating partner, even more so once Arminius learns just how deeply Marbod is in Tiberius’s pocket, and that it was Marbod who arranged Arminius’s brief capture.
Arminius’s son, Gaius, born and raised in Rome, embodies the anger and hatred Arminius felt towards each of his own two ‘fathers’. Gaius blames his father for abandoning him and bringing shame upon him, so much so that even in the midst of their bonding, Gaius betrays him with a cold ferocity equal to that which was dealt to Varus. The treachery brings Roman archers to the folkmoot where Marbod is to be made King (at Arminius’s tactical blessing), leading to a massacre in which Marbod’s wife is killed. This violent act, carried out by Flavus and Germanicus, finally brings the Macromanni into the fight against Rome. Flawed fathers play a significant role here. Flavus acts to avenge his dead father, Germanicus to win his mercurial father’s approval, both actions precipitating death and defeat respectively.
Friends, Fathers and Sons
If it is too late for Arminius to be a good son, then he at least manages to be a good father, by giving Gaius the love, forgiveness and understanding that was always absent from his own childhood. Gaius’s arc, from spoiled and angry Roman child, to reluctant Barbarian, to enemy agent, to future-warrior of the Cherusci feels earned and convincing despite the season’s short run-time, which is to the credit of the actors and writers.
Ultimately, Arminius’s world-view and the choices that sprang from it are vindicated. He can plainly see, through the fates of Flavus and Marbod, that to have remained the soldier he once was, or to have become Varus’s client king, wouldn’t have saved him or his people from the wrath of Rome. Arminius knows that the Romans are ruthless, relentless, wholly without honour in their dealings with non-Romans, and convinced only of their own cultural and ethnic superiority. Simply put: you are useful to the Romans, or you are dead. Sometimes both.
The shining light at the heart of Barbarians, though, is the triumvirate of Thusnelda, Folkwin and Arminius. Three childhood friends whose bond has endured across time, war and empire; friends who would have been dead, many times over, if not for each other’s love and fealty. Folkwin loved Arminius, despite losing Thusnelda’s love to him. Arminius loved Folkwin, despite learning, as he cradled his dying friend’s body on the battlefield, that Folkwin was the true father of Arminius and Thusnelda’s child, Thumelicus.
Now that Thusnelda and Thumelicus have been kidnapped by Tiberius and taken to Rome, a potential (as yet unconfirmed) season three would show us just how good a friend, and father, Arminius really is. It might be a long wait, but, on the basis of what Barbarians has shown us so far, it’ll be more than worth it.
Barbarians Season 2 is available to stream now on Netflix.