Streaming representation: Where the gods are dyslexic, genderqueer environmental activists
In Norse mythology, Ragnarök is the beginning of the end of the world. It will start with natural disasters and conclude with a great battle between the gods and giants. Netflix’s majestic modern series adaptation, “Ragnarok,” is set in the small Norwegian town of Edda, where climate change is undeniable and the local economy represents all that’s wrong with capitalism.
The people of Edda don’t know that they’re living among giants and gods. The giants in “Ragnarok” are known to the locals simply as arrogant, wealthy people who have gained economic and social influence over generations through their business, Jutul Industries, literally named for the type of mountain giants they are. In truth, they are violent, immortal beings. The Jutul family owns part of the town, but they’re also polluting it. The gods are a more eclectic group: a motley crew made up of mortal avatars of the deities who are determined to fight against the evil forces destroying their town. “Ragnarok” begins when Magne, played by David Skakston, moves to town — and he is bestowed with powers that will defeat the Jutul family, learning that he is the incarnation of the Norse god Thor and that he is destined to meet other gods who will help him on this hero’s journey.
Magne’s brother, Laurits, played by Jonas Strand Gravli, is the incarnation of shapeshifting trickster Loki. Laurits is a complex, chaotic character who expresses his genderqueerness as casually as his mischievous nature. “Ragnarok” explores the idea of a modern Loki without judgement, where the main aspect is Laurits enjoying himself. Whether he’s wearing his mother’s shirt to a school party, flirting with the local boys or starting to wear makeup, his family and community are enthusiastically supportive. Embracing the many facets of his true self helps Laurits to thrive.
When Laurits discovers that the Norse tales are true, playing out in his life and he is the incarnation of one of them, he begins to research the history of the ancient myths to learn more about himself. In doing so, Laurits identifies Loki as the first trans person in history due to him giving birth to the Midgard Serpent; his teacher even agrees when asked about it. This delights Laurits and leads to a reckless but rewarding quest to recreate the act. “Ragnarok”’s interpretation of the Midgard Serpent myth allows Laurits to experience a pregnancy and childbirth: He has food cravings, excruciating cramps, his belly swells — leading to a surgery where he “births” a mysterious tapeworm-like creature. He connects emotionally with the creature, committing to raising it in secret.
Magne is a shy, sincere character who struggles with school, strained family dynamics and interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, being the incarnation of Thor means Magne is invulnerable, has tremendous strength and swings the iconic hammer. When Magne gains powers, his eyesight suddenly improves; when he loses his powers, he needs to wear his glasses again. What doesn’t change is his dyslexia. I deeply appreciated seeing a character with ultimate supernatural powers whose neurodivergence wasn’t erased. Magne battles ancient beings, but he still utilizes the text-to-speech function on his phone to read texts. The show shows that having dyslexia makes you no less fit to defeat giants, figuratively or literally; needing support from teachers, friends and technology doesn’t exclude you from being the hero.
“Ragnarok” explicitly shows that there are many tools available for a dyslexic student to manage their education and social life effectively and that it simple and possible for a school to make accommodations for dyslexic students to function at their best. Magne is never forced to read aloud in class, he writes essays using his laptop’s spveech-to-text function and does research using the laptop’s audio narration of search results, his family or group project partner reads through his essays before he submits and he even uses a fidget toy during class to help him concentrate.
From the perspective of the audience, and those in the show who know that Magne is the chosen one to rescue the town, Magne’s dyslexia never results in doubt or make him seem any less capable. He is loyal and kind and, after struggling with grief over the death of a classmate who meant a lot to him and an awareness of the injustice done to her, dares to oppose power structures. His righteous anger, we come to learn, is true power, and Magne’s strength lies in his pure faith in doing what is right.
When Magne is targeted by the Jutuls for his accusations that they are engaged in unethical and illegal practices, his education is interrupted; enraged, the other students take up his fight for corporate transparency and accountability. When it’s announced that toxic waste from the giants’ factories has contaminated the town’s drinking water, which the children have consumed their entire lives, they organize a protest. Hundreds of young people show up with “Shut down that damn factory” and “Planet over profit” posters, chanting “We don’t have a Planet B!”
In a surprising display of humanity, one of the giants, who has fallen in love with a human, shows up at the protest himself, explaining, “I don’t think anyone can be neutral. And I don’t want to be.” He takes up the megaphone and speaks out against his family’s actions, warning them to take responsibility and realize that “even if you think that you’re immortal, our planet is not.”
“Ragnarok” depicts the changing climate of global warming alongside the environmental impact of corporate greed. There are record-high temperatures in Edda, fish are dying in their fjord and glaciers are melting rapidly. The students’ protests result in significant change, but it also affects their parents’ employment status, further highlighting the problems that arise when a community is entirely dependent on one business.
In one of his essays that his mom reads aloud to proofread, Magnes bluntly asks, “Does the city look the other way regarding the pollution from Jutul Industries because they are the biggest taxpayer and employer in the area?” In response, Magne’s mom explains to him that she cannot afford to worry about the environment because she worries about keeping her job, keeping him in school, and keeping a roof over their heads. A woman tells Magne’s mother that “some of us would rather drink a bit of poison than lose our homes.” The way the town of Edda depends on this one corporation is a sharp reckoning with the truth and horror of a monopsony, darkly familiar to many living in the shadow of businesses like Amazon.
This Netflix show truly has everything: Stunning Scandinavian landscapes, corrupt police investigations, climate change research, an eerie immortal family and animal sacrifice (I’m very sensitive about that and did have to skip forward a few seconds at times). “Ragnarok” deals with grieving the death of a father, wealth inequality, prejudice and brotherhood. There’s also coming-of-age teenage drama, young love, queer-friendly exploration and a fierce anti-capitalist spirit. It’s a thrilling, mystical, captivating adventure that will remind you of the power in fighting for justice.
Read more of the Aug. 18-24, 2021 issue.