With a plethora of Norse mythology across contemporary pop culture, it’s miraculous that Netflix’s Ragnarok has any surprises in it at all. Through no fault of its own, the show from writer Adam Price and director Mogens Hagedorn is operating on the back foot from the very beginning, as anyone with even a passing interest in this mythology will put things together quickly, thanks to the general popularity of Marvel’s Thor films and even video games like God of War. What Ragnarok does have going for it is its concept, caught between American Gods, Riverdale, and Todd Haynes’ latest film Dark Waters, with a bold mixture of teen drama, grotesque depictions of ancient religion, and anxiety and fear over the climate crisis and environmental degradation.
The series follows the lonesome teenager and serial do-gooder Magne (David Stakston, resembling a more square-jawed Ansel Elgort), moving with his family back to the town of Edda, a fictional location named for the Poetic Edda, the books believed to first tell the story of Ragnarok. After a strange encounter with an elderly convenience store employee, he soon shows an uncanny connection to the weather, ridiculous strength, speed, and sharpness of senses before becoming embroiled in a conspiracy, covered up by the murder of someone close to him. If you’re vaguely familiar with Norse mythology, you’ll guess the show’s direction from the second Magne’s eyes crackle with lightning in its first few minutes, and likely stay a step ahead of the big picture plot throughout. At least the show has no interest in prolonged mystery boxes, doling out a steady series of reveals in each slow-burning hour.
While the broad strokes of the narrative are exciting and peculiar, the details of the characters are a bit more clumsy – Magne’s characterization mostly established through what other people say about him, his isolation, and his learning difficulty. The most we get from Stakston’s screen presence is that Magne is the quiet and righteous type, preferring to hang out with the more unpopular kids like himself, such as Isolde (Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin), a young climate change activist who clashes with local business leader Vidar (Gísli Örn Garðarsson), head of the local Jutul family and typically sleazy venture capitalist running one of Norway’s biggest companies.
It very quickly becomes clear that the “Ragnarok” of this story is climate change, which lines up extremely well with the traditional depiction of the Norse Apocalypse, the death of the gods, and the submerging of the earth due to the work of the giants. Better still, it positions the real “enemies of civilization,” as the rich – the adults that have been ruining the world for their own gain, now suppressing the new generation that wants to try and undo the damage, or approaching it with selfish apathy. The giants no longer need violence to thwart those who would oppose them, because they control every system of authority in the area, using it to suppress and demonize activists. It makes for a surprisingly strong and urgent message about fighting for the preservation of our environment, against those who would gut it in the selfish pursuit of capital. It’s a pertinent setup that makes so much sense that it’s a surprise it hasn’t been done sooner – details like Norse prophecies of the apocalypse occurring due to the moral negligence of man and god are eerily fitting.
With all this, the show should feel more timely, but it’s undermined by some pretty archaic (and honestly, inadvertently funny) touches, like an Avenged Sevenfold t-shirt or a series of slightly embarrassing needle drops (the season is bookended by M83’s “Outro,” which has been played out for at least half a decade now). These decisions aren’t based in a kind of nostalgic timelessness in the same sense as something like Riverdale, it simply feels archaic, which is odd for a show so concerned with ancient and forgotten history. That said, it does share some similarities with that show’s often salacious and highly stylized depiction of high school.
The young-adult part of Ragnarok can be fairly compelling in this respect, Magne’s quiet sensibility clashing with the brasher members of his peer group, such as Fjor (Herman Tømmeraas), who might have the season’s most complicated personal arc. The rest of his family, the Jutuls, are great to watch as they become more wild and adversarial with every episode. Magne’s isolation often works as a hindrance to Stakston’s performance, working best when bouncing off the likes of his study partner Gry (Emma Bones) and his tricky, dark-haired brother Laurits (Jonas Strand Gravli), who holds more gothic taste and ambiguous motives, quietly undermining Magne at school and at home.
The show sometimes struggles to dig into the psychology of any of the characters, which would be fine if Ragnarok’s priority was the spectacle, but it’s not. Ragnarok leans on its most interesting idea, a retooling of traditional myth into an exploration of the relationship between capitalism and the environment, through the lens of a teen drama. The town of Edda (actually Odda, Norway) is an insular location where everyone either knows everyone or is related to them, the area itself feeling contained by its surroundings of intimidating mountain peaks. In fairness, Price and Hagedorn manage their share of strange and unsettling imagery, with glimpses of morbid occult practices reminiscent of Vikings. Throughout the season, the most powerful imagery is the constant contrast between the human industry and towering mountains, rushing rivers and grand forests, the plumes of smoke rising from the factories appearing as a persistent threat.
Unfortunately, Ragnarok doesn’t quite stick the landing; its finale struggles when it goes fully fantastical rather than keeping the supernatural influences vague and at a low ebb. There are some missteps in its translation of this ancient myth to the modern-day, mostly when it tries namedropping or the inevitable utterance of “fake news.” When things get more intense, the tonal shifts are often a little too jarring, though entertaining in their own way, such as a family squabble that suddenly turns into a knife fight.
There are some other strange touches that make those climactic moments harder to take seriously, like the local Spar convenience store (a Dutch chain that operates across Europe) becoming the epicenter of the supernatural drama, with talks of ancient prophecies and religion happening amongst shelves of Nescafe instant coffee. It’s a shame that the rest of the show can’t quite match up to the strength of its central concept, which depicts the end of the world as a slow creep, an accumulation of negligence and apathy that will slowly submerge us, even when we realize that it’s happening.
Netflix’s Ragnarok: Season 1 has a fairly shaky grip on its tone, but the YA drama works well in tandem with its smart adaptation of Norse myth, even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing in the end.