While cruising for my next source of distraction on Netflix, I stumbled upon The Almighty Johnsons. I love urban fantasy! As a post-Wiccan, eclectic neo-pagan (over-simplified, but it’ll do in a pinch), I love when polytheism and old pantheons are primary plot focuses! To top it all off, the show is a New Zealand production, from the same country that brought the rollicking adventures of Hercules and Xena to our television screens. I was sold. The acting is surprisingly good even when the writing isn’t, and I quickly made my way through the first season. It’s quirky, it’s captivating, it’s… often uncomfortable? Join me after the jump as I discuss Season 1. Spoilers ahead, and trigger warning for rape and rape culture.
The central conceit is deceptively simple: ye olde Norse gods have been getting reincarnated in various families of Nordic descent that had emigrated to New Zealand many generations ago. Though this reincarnation business has been going on for quite some time, it’s not entirely clear at what point this started or why exactly this started, but it is definitely clear that it’s a demotion; the gods have only a fraction of their power while in human form. This actually makes for an interesting change of pace from a lot of urban fantasy: the magic is extremely low-key. In the pilot, young Axl Johnson finds out he is Odin, king of the gods. To release the gods from the mortal coil and help them ascend to their full former glory, he must find and wed the current incarnation of Frigg, his rightful consort. Um, hi heteronormativity. What a nice throwback to the old days when women were chattel, most useful to men in their role as wife. A pretty problematic starting point! To explore the intricacies of the show, it may be easiest to take a closer look at each almighty Johnson himself. Let’s get up close and personal with these Johnsons! (Are you getting the pun yet?)
To begin with we have Olaf, the de facto patriarch of the clan. Not a brother, he is actually their grandfather, though the boys grew up thinking he was their cousin—a way to explain away why their 90+ year old gramps only looks to be in his late 30s/early 40s. His younger appearance actually has to do with him being Baldr, god of rejuvenation and new life. His role as family oracle, though it’s worth noting he’s not particularly good at his oracular skills, is a common enough role for a wise, old mentor, but Olaf is actually the epitome of the irresponsible male—a combination of a Peter Pan complex (I guess to be fair that might stem from the fact that he doesn’t in fact age like normal) and a pot-smoking, free-love hippie. He’s the kind of guy who will get his girlfriend knocked up and then “shoot through” (New Zealand slang for just up and leaving without telling anyone), as he has apparently done multiple times. Real class act.
Mike is the eldest son of the current generations of Johnsons and is more the actual father figure of the clan, even raising his younger brothers when their own father shot through (runs in the family). He is a builder, a solid working class manual labor job befitting of the noble, responsible eldest son in fiction. He is also the god Ull, whose realm is the hunt and games. This grants him the ability to track down anyone as well as the quaint ability to always win at any game he plays. Going with the whole responsibility theme, he hardly ever uses this second power, as he views it as cheating.
This is in sharp contrast to the next brother, Anders. Anders is by far the ickiest, stickiest of the brothers. He is a high-powered PR exec, which fits in perfectly with him being Bragi, god of poets, the original spin doctor. Because of this, he has the power to influence people with the sound of his voice. He most often uses this to, you guessed it, get women into bed. Gross, gross, gross. He claims that he can’t compel someone to do something they wouldn’t do anyway, but there’s no real way to back that claim up. Anders is manipulative, materialistic masculinity, with all the accoutrements (swanky apartment, high paying job, fancy suits, etc.) of the over-sexed bachelor who thinks women are just one more item that should be available at his every whim. He is the Pick-up Artist par excellence, he is rape culture personified.
Next we have Ty, who theoretically stands in opposition to Anders. His profession as a refrigerator repairman makes him is a manual labor working class guy like Mike, which again is often fiction shorthand for “fine upstanding citizen”, particularly when contrasted with slick, shmoozy suits like Anders. More than his professional life, it’s his personal life that is shown as the opposite of Anders’s: Ty a sweet, nice guy, but that is precisely his problem—he’s the Nice Guy™. He is “Not All Guys”. He has hard time getting women to date him—they say they’d rather just be friends, which in turn ends up getting blamed on the fact that he is too nice and respects women too much. This has a tendency of getting him to angst through his calm, cool veneer, and in fact angst is a somewhat fundamental part of Ty’s character—he is Hod, the god of “all things dark and cold” as he puts it.
Ty is arguably the most complex brother, and the whole misunderstood, brooding thing is to be expected from a god of darkness, but it’s really compounded by the fact that he has the power to generate cold (ahh, that’s why he’s a refrigerator repairman…). He can’t turn his power off the way his brothers can, and some angst is well deserved; for example, in his one successful dating relationship in the first season, the woman he is seeing almost freezes to death after spending the night in the same bed. The “can’t touch this” hero (I always think of Rogue from the X-Men) is of course a great commentary on how fundamental the need for touch and physical contact is for many people, but it can also lead to an overabundance of sturm und drang. For Ty, it often ends up being one more reason in the litany of why he is Forever Alone. However, what I find most disturbing about Ty is the fact that although he is presented as the antithesis of Anders, they in fact are two sides of the same coin—Anders thinks he deserves women because he is a fast-paced, smooth-talking executive who can get whatever he wants and women are just objects anyway; Ty thinks he deserves women because he is the total opposite of all of that, a hard-working, sweet and gentle man who respects women. But get this, the end result is the same—a feeling of entitlement to the affection of women.
Finally, let’s look at our regent ascending: Axl. He is only twenty-one-years-old (that is when gods receive their godhood, or what little of it remains in these present incarnations), and not a particularly mature twenty-one at that—not great for the person upon whom the fate of all the Aesir rests. He’s this sort of charmingly oafish slacker who just spends all day hanging out and drinking with this best friend and flatmate, Zeb. However, it is up to him to help the gods return to their former might and power, which can only be accomplished by finding the current incarnation of Frigg and wedding her. His horndog brother Anders thinks the best way for Axl to do this is to sleep with every woman who he finds himself attracted to, and that when they have awesome god sex unlike anything he’d have with a mortal, he’ll know she’s the One. While at first Axl is certainly not opposed to this plan which lets him “get his end off” (the Kiwi way to say “getting off”—I’m learning so much new vocabulary!) as much as he likes, he does quickly grow weary of it, and begins to grow up a little. He objects to the objectification of Frigg (often referred to as “the Frigg”, which seems extremely depersonalizing) but finds himself torn between what he feels is his destiny and family obligation—to wed and bed Frigg—and what he feels is right, that he should only marry a girl if he is truly in love with her.
I’d be remiss to not talk about the women—in opposition to our lovable, hateable Johnsons, we have Team Goddess: current incarnations of Fulla, handmaiden extraordinaire and bike courier in this life, Sjofn, goddess of love and lust, a local doctor who is bisexual in the whole “I’m so randy, I’d do anyone” way (not good representation), and Snotra, goddess of wisdom and knowledge who is the bumbling oracle counterpart to Olaf for Team Goddess, and marginally better at the whole oracular thing. They are led by the mysterious and powerful woman known as Agnetha, whose true god identity is not revealed till the end (I’m not spoiling everything!). Their main goal is to, well, kill Axl, or at least stop him from ever reuniting with Frigg. However, Agnetha runs so tight a ship that eventually the other women mutiny, saying that she’s so controlling, it’s no better than working under gods/men—a commentary that serves as a reminder that women can continue to propagate and uphold patriarchal/kyriarchal power structures that keep other women down. We also have Gaia, Axl and Zeb’s other flatmate and possible love interest for Axl, a young nurse of Māori descent who gives us the slightest drop of color in our world of white New Zealander Norse gods.
So, in summation, is The Almighty Johnsons really a show about how men use women? With a central conceit of “find the queen of the gods so you can marry her”, it’s hard to argue otherwise. I will say that this obvious disregard for female agency is tempered somewhat by the fact that Axl isn’t given agency in the matter either: if the Johnsons expect the current Frigg to drop everything and leave her whole life behind, giving up on free will and the possibility of true love, they expect the exact same thing of Axl and for the same reason—it is both their divine duty and their destiny to reunite and in turn, restore the full power to all the gods and goddesses (on the other hand, the whole “hunting down” Frigg is still rooted in male entitlement and predatory masculinity). The whole mission of Team Goddess is to prevent this return to power because the last time the gods (as in male gods) were in charge, everything ended up awful; gee, can’t imagine why, given this current crop of gods. They would much rather choose to keep everyone, including themselves, as pseudo-gods with extremely limited powers than have to deal with the male gods at full power. Who can blame them?
However, Axl just might be the one to break the cycle. By questioning the quest his brothers have set him on, he is challenging the master plan of returning the gods to full power. If he chooses free will over familial obligation, he would in fact be on the same side as Team Goddess. And full-god or not, he is still the king, and it looks like some changes are in store. The best example is when he confronts Anders about his evil ways. After a trio of “scorned lovers”—really rape victims, let’s be honest—tries to get revenge on Anders, Axl stands up to his older brother and tells him to cut this shit out. He uses his place as king of the gods to enforce a sex moratorium on Anders that we can only hope leads to the bastard cleaning up his ways and having a change of heart. I think Axl putting his foot down for the side of good, for the dismantling of patriarchal entitlement, gives us hope that maybe the future world of the gods isn’t as “munted” (a NZ alternative to fucked/fucked up) as we might fear.
While I have hope for Axl and his reign as Odin, I’m not entirely sure how much hope I have for the show. I’m still in the first few episodes of Season 2, and frankly, not enjoying it as much. Some big changes from the last few episodes of Season 1 have greatly impacted characters, including a now much more irresponsible Mike and a much darker Ty, neither of which I’m a big fan of. It just seems overall darker, while the first season, in spite of its problematic elements, often felt fun. I read somewhere at some point in the second or third (and final) season, elements of Māori mythology come into play; I look forward to this as it will likely give Gaia a bigger role, and maybe even make room for more characters of color, not to mention reminding viewers of the original peoples of the New Zealand islands and their heritage and culture.
So should you watch it? If you like low-key urban fantasy, sure. If you like Norse mythology, definitely. If you love Kiwi accents, most definitely. Like I mentioned, I think the acting really is quite good, and there’s a good bit of humor in many episodes. The first season at least is worth a quick binge; as for the rest, I’ll have to watch and find out. Have you already seen The Almighty Johnsons? Let me know your thoughts in the comments down below!