It’s never been a secret that there’s nothing good on television, but while this has for decades been simply the kind of thing where all complaints ended with, “but, whadda ya gonna do?”, progress has changed the system enough that someone can do something about it. There may have long been a host of cable networks, each of them putting out original content, but they didn’t often venture into the realm we might call the primetime domain.
Even that has obviously been changing for quite some time, with HBO and other pay networks putting out their own series, often to serious critical acclaim, but now everyone is doing it. Netflix and Amazon are even producing original series, a concept that spins convention in ways it’s hard to wrap your head around. And now, History is taking its shot.
When History makes such an effort, you have to expect that you’re going to get a theory like Vikings, but the network is keeping in line with the most popular offerings that are challenging the status quo. Though the “nothing on television” rally may have seemed to encompass a wide variety of absences, it turns out, given the ratings, that all that was missing were shows set in different periods (or fantasy ones) that focused on a complex web of characters, all trying to screw each other over, and a somewhat harder rating so that we can also remove the “over.”
Whether it’s Downton Abbey, True Blood, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, or Boardwalk Empire, the things they have in common are a focus on the interpersonal relationships of people who are plotting their plots, and, to one degree or another, they’re a bit sexy.
I throw all of this out at the beginning for two reasons- 1) Vikings, showing up on the History schedule, may not give people the right expectations on its own, even with the trailers, and 2) whatever you might expect, I think it makes sense to have the new normal in mind going in, because History is what I like to call “on the sell” here. Whatever impression the show might bring with it by being on History, this is a show that might just as well be on any cable network. There are a variety of ways to take that, of course, but I mean it in the sense that suggests I’d like to see more original series from them.
The first question everyone will want addressed is the first question everyone should leave aside, and that is obviously, how well is the history delivered. Is this how vikings lived? Does this relay the social structure accurately? On and on. The answer is that I haven’t the slightest idea, and nothing built into the show really attempts to sell you on the legitimacy of the details. You assume History, if anyone, has people to consult on such things, but it’s hard to know where accuracy leaves off and poetic license begins. That said, I find the way the show plays this out to be a brilliant effort.
This isn’t a show that first looks to show off some historic context, and then wonders how to put a story together. This is a show built around its characters and plot arc, and then says, “by the way, they’re vikings.” The overarching conflict, while not overly complex, is a solid structure, and the smaller pieces are clearly developed by looking to how this specific viking might actually react. Odd as it may sound, that’s a rare line of thought.
We jump into our story at the brink of a very tense moment in the local history. We’re looking at a very focused subculture of vikings here, and the area in question is the realm of Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne). We are quickly led to understand that the Earl is perhaps not the epitome of a person with the heart of a true viking. Many of his subjects are fed up with the fact that each year the Earl proclaims that they will raid to the east, to the lands they know. A safe approach, but one that sends them to raid people as poor as they are.
Among the most annoyed is Ragnar (Travis Fimmel), and he has a special reason to be irritated that his Lord won’t send them elsewhere, he’s found a way to sail west. At least, times being what they are, he thinks he has. It doesn’t matter though, because the Earl owns the boats, and he decides where they go. But, Ragnar has his schemes, and a way to manage his own raid, despite knowing there may be serious consequences to going out with his own small crew.
You’d think, and so would Ragnar, that coming back with proof that the lands to the west are more than legend, and that we can get there and bring home plenty of loot, would overshadow the minor detail of not having permission to make the effort.
Of course, this leads us into much of the historical exposition, because our Earl doesn’t see things that way, and likely with good reason. We manage some interesting cultural notes here, with the Earl keenly aware of how things look, and the tenuous grasp on power he has. His position seems solid (and we’re not really sure how things work), but an upstart making him look bad isn’t the sort of thing that can go unchecked.
The show has a certain Game of Thrones feel to it, with moments of wild brutality coming at the heels of stretches of dialog and “shadowplay” that occasionally feels like trudging through a marsh. It also has that same bent toward conversation scenes (especially in further episodes) featuring characters laying out their feints within feints at each other that has become a mainstay of Thrones.
There’s action and adventure, of course, and there’s a delicate struggle against the powers that be in a time when even delicate struggles generally involve an axe, but it also gives us Ragnar’s home life, and a certain glimpse into the society at large. It even rather wonderfully showcases the fact that being a young boy in a viking world is something that’s almost impossible to make sense of, when it’s you. Plus, it’s saucy. That will hopefully pull in quite a few viewers, but it isn’t why the show is a winner.
It pulls you in for exactly the same reason History‘s other big effort, Hatfields & McCoys, did, it’s dedicated to its characters. Though not everyone is performing at the highest level, the main characters suck you in, and deliver amazingly well. Byrne is at his best, and he’s been damn good for a long time. Travis Fimmel, who has been around a while, hasn’t had this sort of opportunity to stand out before, and he makes the most of it. As we get further into the series, there are moments when Fimmel manages to sit and stare in a way more compelling than all the fights put together. The number of actors who can pull off fifteen minutes of screen time where the script says nothing but, “steels his resolve,” you can count on one hand, and Fimmel makes it hard to take your eyes off him.
One mark of a show worth watching is that you find it hard not to mention everyone in the cast (which I’m not doing), and Vikings fits that bill. Katheryn Winnick, playing Ragnar’s wife, Lagertha, holds her own in perhaps exactly the way her character does. A tricky spot to be put in, something that could be said of Lagertha a dozen different times throughout the course of events, Winnick has to be sensual, charming, and still be believable as someone who stands in the middle of a dozen vikings in battle giving as good as she gets. That’s a tall order.
George Blagden, as a monk who Ragnar captures and keeps as a slave, Gustaf Skarsgard, the slightly mad shipbuilder Floki, and Clive Standen, as Ragnar’s brother Rollo, are also impressive. Blagden and Standen, unfortunately, are mostly impressive because they are able to push through the moments that give them little to do.
In the end, Vikings doesn’t quite have the air of being a true historical effort we got from Hatfields & McCoys, but it leans more toward carving out a spot among the new brand of “regular” shows. There are some that may feel it stalls a bit as we maneuver through the second episode and into the meat of things, and that comes largely from working in as much background as possible. Still, the delivery lives up to the best shows on television right now, and this is a band of vikings you’ll fall for.
Below check out the poster, some clips, and more info.
LEFT SIDE OF “V” – The left sides tells us the softer, lesser-known aspect of Vikings – Family & Life.
- The upper section is a nod to their craftsmanship/technological advances
- The middle section represents brotherhood and unbreakable bonds
- The lower section represents Growth & Life
RIGHT SIDE OF “V” – The right side of the “V” tells a different story.
- It is about war, violence, death and conflict. It is shaped like the blade of a sword. There are some cracks, worn texture and blood spatter – all indicating that the weapon has been put to use.
The Earl Promo
- Jackie K. Cooper: Vikings Should Provide the History Channel With Another Hit (huffingtonpost.com)
- History Channel’s Vikings is just as brutal as Game of Thrones (io9.com)