Young mixed-raced medical student, Rosa Steenwijk, wants to be accepted into the highly secretive and elitist University Society Ares, where all of the richest and brightest families of Amsterdam and their offspring have been accepted into over the years. But once in, it becomes clear that there is a sinister force, a monster, driving this organisation, that feeds of its members over the generation and Rosa is now its focal point.
That’s the basis of this very unassuming Dutch show on Netflix. Rosa quickly rises through the ranks of the novices because she has ambition, which is what Ares is looking for in those that would run Amsterdam society. She has the ambition to better herself as well as to rise above her more modest social background, an ambition that the other novices do not have as they were born into wealth and expect greatness to come to them, unlike Rosa who has to fight for it. Rosa also rises so quickly is because she begins to Offer quickly. An Offering is the discharging of a black bile matter from the member’s stomach – which it is assumed only senior members do and which is expelled from the body and offered to the monster, a gimp like creature, in the basement. This matter is hinted at as being guilt. This is the same matter, which has infected the hand of Jacob’s Wessels, Rosa’s friends. A touch from Jacobs hand causes shame induced hallucinations, which drive those afflicted to commit suicide, each new death tearing the organisation apart from the inside out..
When Rosa rises to become president, she must produce another, larger offering. But before she does this, Rosa asks to see the beast. It is then revealed that there is a River of the guilt- the black bile- which runs beneath the building and beneath all of The Netherlands, and has done so for as long as anyone can remember. The guilt is given up by the presidents before maintain power which is what they expect Rosa to now do like every leader before her.
But instead of doing this, Rosa throws herself into the River. As soon as she does this, the audience sees all of the guilt that has culminated into this one monster, stems from the country’s participation in the slave trade and its colonial exploits which created the Dutch Golden age. Rosa takes on the form of the creature herself and walks through the building. All of the members who see her promptly run or commit suicide, showing that when being confronted by their guilt, the elites of the society are unable to cope.
Initially, you do thinking of this series as nothing more than a psychological horror show. Personally, I like horror – especially horror that doesn’t keep me up at night with images of the devil, which is why I watched this. But I had started watching it, just as something to pass away the time in lockdown – but I got more than I bargained for. I was shocked when the image of the slaves appeared on the screen. I didn’t think that the show would be referencing anything beyond personal, individual shame- like sleeping with your in-laws or stealing money.
When I was watching it, I didn’t think anything off the fact that there were only two black characters. As far as I knew, the show was about Amsterdam’s wealthiest and most influential, therefore on the surface, the visuals of two people of colour within a sea off white are fairly standard. But by the end, you see that in being the only black woman and becoming the leader, Rosa forces the elites to confront their ancestral guilt, bringing Ares to an end. She is their absolution.
What despite Rosa and her father being the only two black characters its interesting that there is no racism. Rosa is not looked down because she is black, but because she is poor, and any scruples the senior members have against appointing her leader, have nothing to do with her race. I got no sense that her race played any part in the narrative at all, which is why its so interesting that, the biggest part of the Ares guilt is about race. It seems to hammer home the idea that whether you, as an individual, are racist in today’s the 21st-century society is completely irrelevant and it doesn’t absolve a nation of guilt. National responsibility for the way a country has built up its economy, at the expense of others, is still something that should be talked about.
Slavery in the West is often spoken about as an American problem, and Europeans routinely downplay their role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In countries like The Netherlands and England, the fact of the matter is just about every person, high and low, benefited from the slave trade and from the resources that these countries stole from Africa. So for people like the former British president David Cameron to say that they will not apologise for slavery is disgusting because there is no wealth in England that did not come from colonialism. And what I like about this show is that it admits that fact in a way that does not make you feel like it is giving itself a pat in the back for merely acknowledging what we all know to be true.
One of the great things about the fantasy/horror genre is that it bend the rules of everyday verbal discourse and can depict complex abstract ideas through symbolism fantastical and imagery which can often hold so much more meaning than a few everyday words . Ares uses that symbolism tactfully and intricately. But is not an easy show to watch, so if you are squeamish about blood or get creeped out easily, it may not be for you. But if you have a stronger stomach, it’s a show I’d highly recommend, and I applaud The Netherlands for attempting to put together something that condemns a past that countries like England would rather sweep under the rug. It doesn’t make your nation any less great to admit that greatness was hard-won. Ares does what art should do- it shows us for what we are, what we were, and tells us how we can do better – not literally by killing off members of society, but exposing guilt so that it can be dealt with at the source and better societies can ensue.
England and America- take notes.