UK TV review: Britannia Season 2
James R | On 10, Nov 2019
Does anyone in Britannia really know what’s going on? Sky’s historical epic, which focuses more on the “epic” and less on the “historical”, is a bold, bewildering and unabashedly bonkers piece of TV that seems expressly created to ensure nobody can ever sum it up in a single sentence. If Season 1 was a mind-bending, impossibly indefinable trip, Season 2 is even more so, refusing any urge to distill or define its particular brand of madness and instead just piling more silliness on top.
It’s an approach that’s undoubtedly distinct in this age of peak TV, and, even more crucially, it’s an approach that’s absurdly fun to watch; when dark and brooding is the default tone of many a box set, Britannia is a gloriously garish burst of colour and excitement. There’s brutal violence and some dark political machinations too, but there’s also magic and mayhem – and they’ve even improved the theme tune, replacing Hurdy Gurdy Man with the knowing, catchy and stylish Season of the Witch.
Diving headfirst into that season is David Morrissey, who returns as General Aulus, leader of the Roman invasion of Britain. In AD45, the empire’s main opposition came in the form of Celtic tribes, but with them largely put to waste or bulldozed into cooperation, there’s a rising threat in the form of the druids. They’re led by another returning figure, Veran, played by a sinewy, sinister Mackenzie Crook. Within the opening episodes, we’ve seen both men of power threatened by the arrival of others: Aulus sees off the challenge by Claudius, played with authoritarian relish by a sweary, bawdy Steve Pemberton, and Veran finds himself surrounded by whispers of The Dead Man, aka. Veran’s brother, Harka, who is readying to make a comeback.
In between them are a host of colourful supporting characters, from Claudius’ watchful minder, Domitius (Paul Chahidi), Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a druid outcast trying to train up Cait (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), who may or may not be the young powerful girl of a prophecy to save Britain, if only anyone could remember how the prophecy ends. Stealing scenes are Phelan (the always-entertaining Julian Rhind-Tutt), a former Celt prince who runs from his past but ends up dragged back into said prophecy by Harka, and Amena (an excellent Annabel Scholey), the calculating Cantii ruler who works with Aulus, not to mention the endearingly earnest Love, who is chosen by Harka to throw an obstacle in Cait’s path.
But the joy of Britannia primarily lies not in piecing together the web of fates that govern the narrative’s structure, but in simply letting creators Tom and Jez Butterworth throw their ideas at the wall and see what sticks. A copious amount of blood and mud helps a surprising number of them to stay stuck, as they weave everything from Icarus to Jesus’ resurrection into the mythology of their show. Morrissey and Crook are the galvanising anchors that keep everything barely comprehensible, and they enable the show’s constant lurching between tones, from funny to scary and from operatic to gritty. A quick glance at the directors given the chance to roam free through these creative lands is reason enough for the series to exist, from Lisa James Larsson (who has helmed some of Victoria’s strongest episodes) and Luke Watson (who worked on Ripper Street at its peak) to Rob Savage, whose Dawn of the Deaf and Salt shorts have made him one of the most visually interesting British helmers working today.
The end product is bizarre and ambitious, striking and atmospheric, weird and recognisable, and, most of all, compelling. Where else on TV can you see a rambunctious tyrant amusingly holding court in a swimming pool, a man terrifyingly stroll into a fire with no regard for his own well-being, someone emotionally bid at an auction for the severed head of a relative, or Caesar himself have some squirm-inducing surgery on his piles? Does anyone in Britannia really know what’s going on? Probably not. Will you have any clue? Not likely. Will you enjoy watching it anyway? Absolutely.
Britannia Season 1 and 2 is available now on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of a £8.99 Sky Entertainment Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial.