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Ragnarok and the battle for peak drama

The Nordic noir Netflix series represents in many ways a seamless marriage of Western and Eastern narrative approaches

By Rafay Mahmood |
PUBLISHED June 13, 2021

If ‘begin with the end in mind’ is the first rule of storytelling then emphasis on dramatic action is the second verse of the writer’s bible. Dramatic action is often confused for drama, a term it obviously borrows from, and the latter is sometimes restricted as a label for a single genre. But in a broader sense, drama provides the backbone for any kind of performance. It is that moment in time that not only binds a longer chain of cause and effect but also hooks a viewer or reader, whether they are shown something extraordinary or not. Drama is the ‘meat’ of the action. Drama is impact. Drama is what makes a story worth diving into and what makes, say, a movie stay with you for a while after you’ve seen it – unless it has a score by someone like Hans Zimmer, in which case it will surely stay with you longer.

Now to be fair, this framework of looking at drama as a storytelling instrument is fairly Western – or Greek, to be specific. The focus on causality and plot to provide structure to anything with a beginning, middle and end comes to us from Aristotle’s Poetics, the mothership of all things narrative that is still used to understand art and storytelling. Bear in mind that Aristotles primary focus (read obsession) is tragedy, but in explaining what you may call a formula for perfect tragedy, he articulates a vast array of ideas that help us understand not just drama but how to engage an audience in a cathartic experience – a term we will revisit once I’ve laid the foundation to explain the brilliance for Netflix’s Ragnarok.

Aristotle believed that any plot must be of an appropriate size and must settle itself seamlessly into the minds of viewers/readers. By size, he means the plot should take enough narrative time to establish offered packets of dramatic action i.e. they should be long enough to turn good luck into bad fortune or vice versa. Take for example a story about an evil king who is ultimately exiled by his subjects under the garb of dramatic justice.

This is why you can liken a good dramatic presentation to a living organism: stretch it too much and it self annihilates, end it too soon and you won’t offer or cultivate anything memorable. So, while less wasn’t more for Aristotle, ‘more’ was clearly not ideal for him either. This interplay of narrative techniques also not only affects the forms and functions of drama, but also impacts the process of catharsis, which the philosopher specifically understands as a process of purification resulting from a strong sense of fear or pity.

The heroes you watch on screen allow the hero or villain in your own self to celebrate your strengths or embrace personal weakness. Flaws that ego may never allow you to unveil, drama manages to pierce through. This interpersonal osmotic exchange of feelings between people on either side of the fourth wall eventually adds to the beauty of the art form or narrative and turns storytelling into an aesthetic experience.  The experience that one of the leading names in Hindu dramaturgy, Bharta (3BCE) describes as Rasa, or the process of accessing the juice of the performance, the elixir of drama.

While the Rasa theory is one of the most dominant codes of dramatic performances to come out of what was once known as the East, this method of experiencing and instilling drama is a bit different. Unlike Aristotle the focus is not on the plot but on forming an emotional junction between the viewer and the performer. This stress on an emotional ecstatic experience comes out of a ritualistic significance: performance in ancient India was always staged to evoke a certain deity and it was more than just a witnessing (darshan) of gods. It was a process of finding the divine in someone who could be your neighbour dressed as Shiva indulging in the dance of destruction.

As the ritual progresses so does the dramatic crescendo of the performance and with time, the audience climbs through their inner Bhavas to elate themselves to the level of seeing eye to eye with what is no longer a human, but a deity. As they say ‘Hum mein tum or tum mein hum gum hogaye, hotay hotay, ek hum tum hogaye’ (You became me and I became you, and in doing so, me and you became one). The key here is to be one with the gods by realising your own inner potential.

Netflix’s Ragnarok takes place at this really important junction between Eastern and Western approaches to not just understanding and replaying mythology but also telling the story of the gods through ordinary people, as they struggle to discover their roles in the great big mother story at play. Marvel’s Thor Ragnarok was also an attempt at humanising the gods and it does it so profoundly and effortlessly that it almost feels like a genre-bending offering where one expected the least. It is mind-blowing in its simplicity, and manages to touch upon so many threads of contemporary socio-politics that the whole hoopla around Loki actor Tom Hiddleston speaking of gender fluidity to promote the new MCU offering not only seems forced but also old-fashioned.

Ragnarok the Netflix series takes place in the fictional city of Edda in modern day Norway. It is a workers’ town plagued by climate change and pollution caused by a factory owned by the very rich and elite Jutul family. The Jutul family comprises of patriarch Vidar (Gísli Örn Garðarsson), his highschool-going son Fjor (Herman Tømmeraas), daughter Saxa (Theresa Frostad Eggesbø) and their mother Ran (Synnøve Macody Lund), who is also the highschool principal. The Jutul family isn’t only incredibly rich but they are the prettiest of them all because they don’t seem to age.

This is the first hint until it is formally discussed in the show that the Jutul family is essentially a family of Jötunn or giants as the shows put them. We are told that the giants are waiting for the final war Ragnarok between gods and giants after which they plan to rule the world for eternity. This conflict is almost cyclical, predetermined in the books of destiny. The giants might take new shapes and forms such as capitalists feeding off Norway’s workforce and gods might just reincarnate as activists protesting industrial pollution caused by the industry.

In comes Magne (David Stakston), a chubby high school kid who moves back to his hometown after his mother finds a job with the Jutuls. He also has a brother Lauritz (Jonas Strand Gravli). Seemingly petite and clueless about life in general, the bond they share is of support and love for their mother being a single parent but Magne seems to be the only son invested in it.  After a rather sudden and strange interaction with an old lady Wenche (Eli Anne Linnestad) Magne starts feeling stronger and uncomfortable in his glasses. At this juncture of the story, which is the very beginning of the season, Magne also makes his first friend in Isold (Ylva Bjørkås Thedin), a tomboy activist who is on a personal mission to expose capitalist exploitation of the environment, specifically by the Jutuls. While Magne is in the process of coming to terms with his abilities, Isold is killed for making videos of a Jutul factory dump. This is the first major plot point of the story for it not only gives Magne a reason to be more excited about his power and a motivation for revenge but it is also when a seemingly superhero show turns into Nordic Noir.

From the name of it, Nordic Noir is just film noir from the Nordic countries. But the treatment, both of its narrative and stylistic choices is not only cleverly woven together, the choice of montages and visual cues is something truly original for a genre that has been done to death in both Hollywood and anime. On your baptism into the genre you might feel that it is just the overcast conditions and small-town characters dressed for harsh hinters that give the mise-en-scène a unique flavour, but it isn’t just that. There’s something eerily common to all Nordic Noir detectives or investigators. They are so rich in their internal, often unsaid, conflicts that even the most formulaic moves in the plot seem extraordinary. As Guardian puts it, “while its [Nordic Noir] worn-down protagonists align to a formula of their own, their appeal is altogether different: leaner, less macho, more literary.

This rather timid replacement to the suave protagonist is what does wonders for Ragnarok as well. Magne is anything but a superhero or even the likable highschool prom-king type, but nor is he the lovable nerd you’d like to sympathise with. Both Magne as a character and Stackston as an actor are well-aware of their limitations, which is why every move they make not only seems natural but is justified through the curiosity that this incarnation of Thor symbolises; he is a teenager struggling to lose virginity and eager to change the world while his brother comes to terms with his sexual inclination for men. That is as ungodly as you can go with a character that was last played by one of the sexiest, most masculine actors in the world.

So while Magne is figuring out who killed his friend, he is simultaneously preparing for Ragnarok, and much of the first season passes without him having to throw any ‘light’ on the superpowers matter, which only happens in the final episode. The powers can’t be displayed because it’s a small town and only the giants know who Thor is. Likewise, only Thor and the oracles helping him know who the giants are. This perpetual restriction to not flout your powers makes Ragnarok essentially a soap about small-town people with crushes and infidelity, (another Noir element that picks up on season 2) where gods and giants are trying to make some space for themselves. This is perhaps what makes Ragnarok one of the most innovative adaptations of Norse mythology and this is also what is going to repel viewers eager to watch Mjölnir blasting people around. That doesn’t happen till almost another season. The second season brings in Odin and develops Loki with so much subtlety that for a moment an ardent fan of Norse Mythology didn’t pick up the reference when Loki goes to see a doctor and is diagnosed with a tapeworm. I’ll leave the rest of the season to you to figure out.

Having said that, an important lesson that this Norwegian drama teaches us is how to explore the narrative potential of folklore; how to pick one figure from a pantheon of gods, deities, and creatures present in various cultures and mythologies around the world and turn it into something truly relatable and re-livable. Even our regional cultural history and Hindu mythology is replete with events, entities and sagas that can easily be adapted to the contemporary world. The gods don’t have to look like gods and Krish doesn’t have to be a not so subtle tribute to the lord Krishna with quarter the drama. They can just exist among ourselves and spend the rest of the story trying to come to terms with their unique identity, ancient conflicts and wondering if the contemporary world is inclusive enough for them.

As far as epic action is concerned, Ragnarok keeps you glued without any of that. For regional storytellers, it provides one template too in that a more subtle take at turning Mahabharata into a post-nation state epic would make for great TV. The battle of Kurukshetra might be the age-old battle for territory between North India and South India but how is that battle going to shape up in a world that promises to become more cosmopolitan and woke but is in fact getting more tribal by the day. I’d say fund this for Mani Ratnam because otherwise Raavan (2010) will be the closest India or Pakistan have gotten to humanising an epic tale with enough plot and emotion. This will make both Bharta and Aristotle happy and perhaps give us our own Ragnarok, if not something much more exciting.