While more cable channels are starting to get into the reality business, History has decided to go the opposite way, in a big way. After the critical success of its first scripted series, Hatfields & McCoys, History has commissioned a new 9-part scripted series, Vikings, which was made with a reported budget of over $40 million (twice what was spent on the 10-part epic that proceeds it, the stilted Mark Burnett-produced miniseries The Bible). What’s interesting about the juxtaposition of the two series is how much Vikings actually includes theology into its own narrative, and not just of the Norse mythological kind. There isn’t a great deal of history about the Vikings (since history was written primarily by those from whom they pillaged), but series writer and creator Michael Hirst (The Tudors) uses that to play with our perception of these fearsome Norsemen.
The series follows the legendary Norse hero Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), who finds a fascination not in pillaging lands on summer raids (not that he is against it), but rather with the new cultures he comes into contact with as he plunders his way across Europe. Don’t let that make you think this is a sissy series, though — Vikings is brutal and broody and fast-paced. Hit the jump for more.
Many have compared Vikings to Game of Thrones, and while Vikings is far more simplistic in its storytelling than HBO’s fantasy drama, it shares its brutality (but not, thankfully, its sexposition). There’s sex in Vikings, but there’s far more in the categories of blood and guts, though the violence never reaches Spartacus levels of ludicrousness. But these are Vikings, after all. There will be looting and pillaging and raping and all kinds of horrors. But there is also political intrigue, family matters (surprisingly well handled) and a visually stunning presentation against a gloomy Irish backdrop that illustrates just how much History really did commit fully to the production value of the series (cheers, History).
While the pilot episode can be clunky at times, it’s still engaging and charming, with the introduction not just of Ragnar and his shield maiden wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) but also of his brutish brother Rollo (Clive Standen), the impish oddity Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) and his precocious and wary sun Bjorn (Nathan O’Toole). Ragnar’s main nemesis is his chieftain, Earl Haraldson (played impeccably by Gabriel Byrne) and his scheming wife Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig, who found her way more as the series went on).
Speaking of finding one’s way, that’s the thing about Vikings — hopefully the pilot will keep people watching, but regardless, I urge you to see it through for a least a few weeks. Having seen almost half of the episodes, I can say that things do get better as the plot complicates and Ragnar begins to define himself as a hero not necessarily like the ones we see in Game of Thrones, but more like, quite honestly, Jax from Sons of Anarchy. In fact, while Vikings may look more visually similar to Game of Thrones, its heart is definitely more aligned with SAMCRO. It’s violent, but it does have a soul, which is what Hirst seems to want us to think about Viking culture itself.
When we pick up with the Norsemen, there are only rumors of land (and land worth stealing from) to the west — that being, primarily, England. While the old guard (represented by the Earl) are content to keep their summer raids to the east, Ragnar is the one who wants to dare to adventure to this mythical west on a new kind of boat (naturally, the Earl is none too pleased. Heroics and evil doings ensue!)
The most interesting subplot involves a young monk, Athelstan (George Blagden) who Ragnar captures and spares from the raids on Northumbria. Ragnar’s interest in the monk and his religion form an interesting basis of conversation and, oddly, exploration of faith from Ragnar. The series isn’t preachy, though its inaugural episode can feel more like a history lesson than the more seamless narrative it later becomes (there’s a lot of world building about the Vikings regarding a court system, democracy, navigation and more, and while it’s not in the least but tedious, it does break up the flow).
Vikings doesn’t necessarily spare its Scandinavian hordes in terms of judgement, but it does give an interesting and complex portrayal (however truly accurate) of these brutal worshippers of Odin. Bottom line: Vikings is a stylish series that, for whatever flaws it may have narratively, is ultimately fun and absolutely worth watching. Valhalla, we are coming …
Vikings airs Sunday, March 3rd at 10pm on History