One of the most intriguing things about the History channel‘s Norsemen saga, Vikings, is how untapped the ancient practices of the Vikings are in contemporary America. What’s even more compelling, however, is that a TV show of this high production value and gory abandon falls under the History channel’s wheelhouse.
Meet the Norse Legend of Ragnar Lodbrok (Played By Brad Pitt — err Travis Fimmel)
Vikings follows the violent exploits of the legendary Ragnar, who (according to Norse oral tradition) heralded an era of warriors that were just-insane-enough to raid England’s monasteries and cities for gold and treasure. While Ragnar comes from an innocuous line of farmers, it’s clear that his ambition for power and mojo to lull the loyalty of hirsute and battle-hardened tall-white-dudes soon paves the way for bloody conquesting — a.k.a., the perfect show to channel your testosterone. With the enlisted help of his wily friend and shipbuilder, Floki (a Keith Richards-esque Gustaf Skarsgård), Ragnar oversees a fleet of fast longships to invade North East England.
His desire to intimidate uptight English Christians, however, remains unblessed by the local Earl, Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), who feels threatened by Lodbrok’s command of the people. Ragnar’s fate is also challenged by the ambivalent loyalty of his tortured brother, Rollo (played by Seth Rollins — err Clive Standen), a renowned champion of the battlefield — who happens to covet Ragnar’s wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), a fierce shieldmaiden in her own right. From there, well, things get bloody … and gleefully sacrilegious.
History’s impressive take on Norse warrior legends and mythology often rivals HBO‘s Game of Thrones. Yes, I said that. I realize I commit blasphemy against myriad GoT fans by saying that. But you see, my enduring pet-peeve of premium channel TV drama these days (i.e., Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire, etc.) is a predilection to “drag out the details.” As an invested viewer, I intermittently forgive “filler episodes” where nothing of especial concern happens, sans a smattering of provocative dialogue that foreshadows some roiling tempest to come. It’s a narrative ploy designed to advance a plot in a convenient direction, while the most titillating revelations stay reserved for the penultimate episode.
May the Norse gods curse the invention of the “mid-season finale.”
Vikings, however, is confident and propulsive — and better yet: never boring. It delivers at least one substantive, if not riveting, sequence per episode — some reveal or twist we either dreaded would occur or couldn’t altogether fathom.
If the History of Pre-Medieval Christianity had a Black Sheep and a Shield Wall
Underneath these overarching (and fairly cliche) plot points is something special. Vikings carefully indoctrinates viewers into the peculiar (and often reviling) occult practices and unique battle techniques of its subjects, almost as a visual catechism (it’s the History channel, after all). This is an intriguing world where voluntary human sacrifice to appease the will of Odin is praised, gnarly disfigured “seers” in black cassocks are your spiritual guides, and badass female warriors are commonplace on the battlefield. Indeed, Vikings resembles the Jungian shadow to modern-day ethics in America. At this interstice, we’re forced to look at moral relativism in the face, rather than via an arbitrary codex of contemporary Occidental laws. Yet, what remains universal throughout all mythological paradigms is a man’s innate desire to command respect and protect one’s lineage, right? Heathens are people too.
This show is about a lot of things (maybe too many), some of the most obvious being the cyclical struggle for power and its corrupting price. Still, its more granular subtext reveals a nuanced mix of pagan-cum-Christian archetypes. In fact, one of season 2’s key moments deliberates on Catholicism’s pagan roots, which is historical fact.
Vikings‘ best precedent for this is Ragnar’s abduction of Athelstan (George Blagden), a fragile English monk captured during the Vikings’ first raid of the English kingdom of Northumbria (season 1, episode 2). Taken overseas as a slave back to Kattegat, a settlement in 8th century AD Scandinavia, Athelstan is forced to assimilate to Norse practices in order to survive. Before he knows it, the dismay he feels from unanswered prayers opens his heart to his pagan captors. Ergo, an unexpected friendship blossoms between Ragnar and Athelstan, and it comprises the best parts of the show, in my opinion, where the two curiously examine the differences between their faith paradigms. Their friendship is also a twisted exercise in the Stockholm Syndrome, but you know …
Does Vikings Get Anything Wrong?
Hey, nothing’s perfect. Vikings‘ strengths are also its weaknesses. The cadence of its story development is aggressive, almost as if the writers suffer an irrational fear of losing our attention. As a result, the viewer is occasionally struck by how abruptly the will of these characters are turned and how fast time passes between episodes. Concerning Athelstan, for instance, it required the span of (roughly) 2 – 3 episodes before he became an axe-wielding “heathen”, a huge nautical leap from his Christian-monastic roots.
Still, I can’t recommend Vikings enough, if not for its historical speculation, then for its sheer bloody entertainment. At times, the cast blurs in the background against the boyish charisma of Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar, yet (by the close of season 2) the supporting cast manages to give purpose to Ragnar’s aloofness (at least for now).
The first two seasons of Vikings are now streaming on Hulu Plus. Clear your calendar.
— 4.0 / 5 Stars