With Game of Thrones still standing as HBO’s most ever viewed series, and as Bridgerton, Outlanderand various fantasy adaptions enjoy sizable audiences of their own, it is clear that audiences enjoy watching historical fiction. Part of what’s great about history in fictional storytelling is the high stakes, can’t-make-it-up drama already baked in. As such, many of the historical dramas that get overshadowed by the more expensive competition are historical thrillers. Here are eight of the best, ranked.
8. Troy: Fall of a City (Netflix)
Did the Trojan War actually happen? It could either be a mostly-invented composite tale, or a jumbled truth, taking many 11th to 13th century BC sieges, and forming them into neat tales. Stories full of action and life lessons. The most famous of these are from Homer, in the form of his Iliad and Odyssey. Troy: Fall of a City doesn’t really want you to care about any of that. It’s a remix of the parts scholars find interesting, and that fans of Greek mytholgy find inspiring.
It tells the story of a stubborn young man, Prince Paris (Louis Hunter), who falls in love with a married woman, Helen of Sparta (Bella Dayne) and drags two nations into a 10-year war as a result. Troy is all sex and violence and big declarations about all-consuming love. It’s romantic in the sense of love being used as an excuse for all ill-thought behavior. It is pulpy, twisty modern fiction made from murky, contested history and legends, and it’s here to have a good time.
7. Marco Polo (Netflix)
Born in 1254, Marco Polo was an explorer who was also the first European to chronicle the customs, culture, and resources of China, India, Japan, and other Eastern states for Western consumption. The Netflix series bearing his name is among the first original dramas the streamer ever released, developed as part of the historical-drama arms race kicked off by the success of Game of Thrones. As is often the case, our protagonist isn’t necessarily the most interesting character. He finds himself in the Mongol Empire as ruled by Kublai Khan, played by Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange) as a temperamental ruler with unwavering ambition.
Khan is not above cruelty or retaliation, and Polo’s time in his court is tempered by the understanding that, at any moment, violence may erupt, and he may be killed, or imprisoned. The show is full of graceful martial-arts action that comes across as half the point — even Polo gets in on it, as Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy is clearly no stranger to choreography. But the stories are driven by political power plays, as Khan’s sons compete for favor and, they hope, their eventual place in the ruler’s chair.
6. Barbarians (Netflix)
Produced by Netflix and Gaumont (producers of Hemlock Grove and NBC’s Hannibal), Barbarians leans more toward the action-oriented end of the historical thriller spectrum. The German-language series dramatizes events leading up to the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, where Germanic Tribes unite and wage war to end Roman oppression and expansion.
The show’s entry into this history is the story of three friends, Arminius, Thusnelda, and Folkwin, who find themselves with different beliefs about the Romans and their own tribes (the titular Barbarians) and find themselves in a bit of a love triangle as the story starts to fracture their relationships as they know them. The lushness of its coloring and lighting—even when things are meant to look dreary—make it absolutely pleasant to watch, and it’s a corner of the history of Western civilization that is seriously under-discussed.
5. The Spanish Princess (Starz)
Starz as a network and streaming service is best known for the for 50 Cent-produced crime drama Powerand the Netflix-licensed fantasy romance Outlander. But before the latter, the network started laying the groundwork for a universe of historical thrillers based on novels about medieval English politics and court intrigue.
The first is the War of the Roses drama The White Queen. The fact that the showrunner and creator of The White Queen is a writer named Emma Frost (really), is just one of its delights. This was followed by the Jodie Comer (Killing Eve) and Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) drama The White Princessalso from Frost. Together, they create a near-supernatural tension around cursed wombs and a game of musical chairs with royal heirs.
The final entry in this trilogy is The Spanish Princess. It stars English actress Charlotte Hope as Catherine of Aragon and Ruairi O’Connor (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) as King Henry VIII, who famously upended England’s religious establishment just so he could divorce the titular princess-turned-queen. It is the most polished of the trilogy, with the most diverse cast, and feels the most indebted to the modern pulpiness of streaming television. The supernatural feint of the crown’s cursed difficulty in producing male offspring, along with the doomed Catherine as our connection to the story, makes the machinations of plot gripping, and the romances feel worth rooting for, as they are the only respite from the pressures of her world.
4. Vikings: Valhalla (Netflix)
A spinoff of the History Channel’s own Vikings series, Vikings: Valhalla does a lot of the same stuff. It occupies a similar “Sons of Anarchy with swords” masculine spiritual space, takes very seriously how skillfully it depicts violence, and is very interested in the Nordic clashes with England, in those formative years of the country. But Valhalla does just about all that better than its elder sibling, with the well-oiled adroitness of experience. This shows the most in the dialogue, which is not quippy, but measured, like the heightened pontification found in many Viking novels. The original Vikings had no writing staff. Creator Michael Hirst wrote every single episode of that show himself, and it showed in (lovingly) repetitive speeches, saved by how excellent and enjoyable the actors were. Valhalla has charming and enjoyable actors too, but also a writers’ room, making it so that, episode-to-episode, a sense of relative variety is felt, especially in the elevation of female characters (and the inclusion, controversially, of actors of color). It’s got the brooding lustiness that Netflix loves so much, and fight choreography worth keeping one’s eyes on—it’s often hard to tell which shots are performed by the stunt personnel and which by the actors themselves.
3. Maximilian (Starz)
Besides the Emma Frost-verse and OutlanderStarz has the pirate drama Black Sailsand the Tony Scott/Ridley Scott executive-produced The Pillars of the Earthabout the 12th century English civil war known as The Anarchy. Above them all, the limited series that flexes the most filmmaking muscle — from its cinematography to its atmosphere, to its costuming and sets — is Maximilian. It tells the story of the contentious rule of Maximilian I of the House of Habsburg, who ruled as Holy Roman Emperor from 1508-519. It also tells the story of his wife, Mary of Burgundy, and how their marriage of power consolidation turned into one of genuine love. At 18 (Maximilian) and 20 (Mary), the pair had not met before they were urged to wed. The shifts this marriage caused in the structure of European power would culminate in the bloody War of Spanish Succession, almost 300 years later.
Filmed in German and French—no characters speak English—it’s got the requisite scenes of battles in flashy armor, villainous intrigue, sophisticated tongue lashings, and tasteful lovemaking. This entry (along with Netflix’s Dark) is a great example of how the German film and television industry can produce top-tier offerings that are refined and bursting with entertainment value.
2. Gunpowder (HBO Max)
Maximilian’s tone is a bit grim, and Gunpowder’s tone is a bit grimmer. In place of romance, there is dread, and in place of large depictions of battle, there are frank depictions of bloody, public executions. It takes place during the post-Henry VIII tilt away from Catholicism in England, and toward Protestantism. Catholics were outright persecuted, in a medieval culture where ideas like “unlawful search and seizure” did not hold water against a charge of treason or heresy. Gunpowder stars Kit Harrington as Robert Catesby, one of the principal organizers of the Gunpowder Plot, an assassination attempt against King James I that saw plotters attempt to blow up the House of Lords, in 1605. Harrington is descended from Catesby and is a producer on this limited series, which is less about Catholicism against Protestantism and more about violent tyranny against the freedom of non-conformity. Another big name in the plot is Guy Fawkes (played here by Welsh actor Tom Cullen), and so the series is one of the few dramatizations of his true role in Western history.
1. The Last Kingdom (Netflix)
Maybe not the most sophisticated, maybe not dripping with historical accuracy, The Last Kingdom is an effective collection of all the things that keep fans of historical fiction—and historical thrillers especially—hooked. For most of its run, the writing is well above average, sometimes with dialogue bordering on poetic. It’s based on a 13-book series written by English author Bernard Cornwelland was originally created for the BBC before being commandeered by Netflix for its final three seasons. It tells the story of England’s birth up to the 10th century, following a series of successful Danish raids.
Of the series on this list, it’s got the greatest balance of action, compellingly motivated schemers, palpably felt romantic tension, and gut-clenching plot twists. It’s even got a sense of humor, which not all these series are interested in possessing. It recently wrapped up its run (adapting 10 books in five seasons), and is now a complete story with a brisk, bingeable pace to the action and a breezy, laid back feel to some character interactions, suggesting a genuine chemistry between the actors on set.
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