In a television era trying to keep the historical drama alive, with The Tudors gone and leaving Mad Men to expertly pick up the mantle,Vikings comes along in its dragon ship to battle the influence of the big screen fantasy and sci-fi money-makers so many other shows try to emulate. It strikes at once as refreshingly gritty, with the tendency to get a little poetic and rather artful. History Channel’s debut scripted series has been met with positive reviews and a growing fan base bordering on the cultish, putting forth an impressive and apparent budget with fine results.
The first season is fairly consistent in its strength, and the finale remains utterly torturous, in a very good way. There is a very historical eye being cast upon the fate of the show’s many characters, and one is never sure whether they should side with the Nordic idols of old or the up-and-coming rising star Jesus of Nazareth. Whether you favor the Pantheon of Odin and Thor or the Saints for Every Occasion, watching Vikings perfectly captures the bitter chaos of reality, with all of its mystical rituals simply products of the human desire for control. Allies betray one another, ideals are challenged, and lives are spent all for survival, and if not for survival than eternal glory.
While the Vikings treasure a death of bravery to ensure immortality, our protagonist Ragnar dreams of a greater glory on earth than what his ancestors have previously achieved: domination of lands West of the ocean. An ambitious, charismatic, and innovative man, Ragnar constantly outshines his jealous older brother Rollo. The brothers’ relationship is portrayed very realistically with many ups and downs, and Rollo is a difficult character to predict.
Ragnar’s wife Lagertha (LA-ger-tha) is a shield maiden as tenacious, if not more so than Ragnar with a strong code of honor. She fights to maintain her family’s safety while staying loyal to her husband and his risky ventures. Ragnar’s best friend Floki (consummate trickster and pyro) regardless of his unpredictability is always counted on to make a quality ship and speak with some gods-fearing wisdom. English Monk (turned Ragnar’s slave) Athelstan provides a pair of fresh eyes that look upon Viking society for the first time, much like many viewers of the show. His struggle with his new life is compelling and slightly tragic. Viewers are simultaneously rooting for Ragnar while questioning the beliefs and system that can subjugate a kind and honest monk like Athelstan.
The series begins with a formidable challenge to Ragnar’s gusto in the form of Earl Haraldson played by the always satisfying Gabriel Byrne. Though his role as Earl is more tyrannical than what would be historically accurate, he serves the show well, and his concern with honor and revenge are exactly in line with true Viking mores. Ragnar’s son Bjorn (which means “bear”, a moniker I find quite endearing) is also an active character in the show, not merely a prop for Ragnar and Lagertha. Many aspects of Viking life often left unpublicized are touched upon as a result; familial love, intimacy, and a rather progressive view of marital fidelity and women’s rights to their bodies.
The show could improve in its teleplay simply by making the simplistic dialogue a little more complex and realistic, but I wouldn’t want it to change too much. Ideally any episode involving a rape would have a trigger warning before it, and I only bring it up because it happened about three times over the course of the first season. I realize no show specifically warns about that crime in particular, but I feel also the first step toward making those sorts of changes is bringing it up in the first place.
The biggest strength of the show is its art direction and visual nature. Viewers are treated to a textured display of cultural artifacts that range in focus from episode to episode. This almost always outweighs the sometimes weak dialogue, and I am definitely pleased that set design, prop mastery, and costume are given so much attention. The Viking culture could not be done justice otherwise, and so far this amateur scholar is satisfied.
I am positively giddy at the prospect of a second season of Vikings, and I recommend anyone who hasn’t seen the first season to catch up as soon as you can. Thanks for reading, or in Vikingspeak: “May you fight in many glorious battles, pass on to Valhalla, and feast with the gods!”