This review contains spoilers.
Two years ago, when I first tuned in to watch Vikings, I honestly wasn’t expecting much, despite my interest in the period and culture it depicts. After all, the show was ostensibly historical material being produced for The History Channel, a cable outlet that hasn’t done much lately in the way of history. I mean, Swamp People and Pawn Stars may bring in the ratings and thus the advertisers, but I doubt they’ll end up in many chronicles of our times.
What I did not know when I sat down to watch the premiere episode was the show’s pedigree. It was created by Michael Hirst who also gave us The Tudors. As someone well-versed in the Renaissance, I had been ready to absolutely condemn his previous series when it first aired in 2007. The previews looked too glossy, the content too prurient, and what were they thinking by casting someone as young and fit as Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII?
But The Tudors almost immediately won me over, even if it simultaneously did exactly what annoys me about most depictions of the Henry/Katherine/Anne triangle (Henry and Katherine were only 6 years apart in age—not the almost 20 year age difference The Tudors suggests—and were exceedingly happily married until Anne caught Henry’s eye). While the historian in me was irked by everything that the series got factually wrong, I was amazed by how well it depicted the hypocritical religious manoeuvrings and political intrigue that infected not just Henry’s court, but most of them throughout Europe at the time. If the series didn’t get the details right, it was quite canny in its larger brush-strokes and got people interested in learning more.
But unaware of Hirst’s involvement in Vikings, I was unprepared when a similar but still distinct thing happened when I watched it. The reign of Henry VIII is an extremely well documented one. But the ninth century culture depicted in Vikings is one about which we know little. For example, the story primarily focuses on the rise to power of Ragnar Lothbrok (played by Travis Fimmel). But we aren’t even sure that Ragnar even existed. The Norse of the period did not write their histories; in fact, they were an oral culture who did not see much difference between history and legend. Much of what we know about them comes not from the Vikings themselves but the cultures they preyed upon, and while those records verify the existence of men who were thought to be sons of Ragnar, none actually affirm that he was anything but a myth. So historically, there’s a lot more wiggle room for Hirst to spin his yarn in this world than that of Henry’s court.
But while Hirst uses this de facto license, he still tries to remain historically true in the same way he pulled off in The Tudors – things may not have happened exactly like this, but they did happen in a world very much like the one we see on the screen.
The first two seasons of the show focused on Ragnar’s dream to flout the wisdom of his fellow Vikings who had, for who knows how long, always raided to the east of his village of Kattegat (leaving slim pickings each successive year) to instead sail to the West in search of new conquests. For Ragnar, this isn’t in pursuit of gold but something that he, as a farmer, prizes far more: fertile soils able to regularly bear the kinds of crops the Vikings had rarely seen. In pursuit of this, he and a variety of allies make the voyage more than once, and Ragnar eventually ascends to the position of king based on his successes.
The season 3 premiere Mercenary opens with Lagertha, Ragnar’s former wife and current allied Earl, seeking the wisdom of Kattegat’s mystic, wanting to know her future – specifically whether she will have another child and when she will die. The mystic’s unhelpful answers (clothed in the excuse that the gods have not yet shown him what she wishes to learn) leave Lagertha frustrated and underline a rising tension that the show has focused on: the conflict between the pagan gods of the Norse and the single one of the Christians – fought out between the humans who represent them, since they themselves seem painfully absent.
But rather than turn this into either a white-hats-vs-black-hats thing or a more updated but still unfulfilling story of how we need to treat all beliefs as equally acceptable, Vikings presents religion as both a cultural conflict and a personal one. Yes, the Norse are pagans and the Saxons Christians, and willing to fight for their god(s). But many of the characters have more complex relationships to their supposed beliefs. There’s King Ecbert (Linus Roache) who seems to see Christianity as a necessity of governship in Wessex than a personal faith. While Ragnar participates in his culture’s religion rites, he doesn’t seem to put much stock in them. And Aethelstan (George Blagden), the former monk who Ragnar carried back with him to Viking lands as a slave, has the opposite experience—rather than reject either the Christian God or the pagan ones, he grapples with the possibility of worshipping both, all while stuck as the religious, culture, and linguistic bridge between the Vikings and their new friends the Saxons.
The rest of the episode lays out what looks to be the larger storyline for this season: negotiating a sort of peace between the two (although we know it cannot last long). King Ecbert has offered Ragnar the farmland he seeks in exchange for promises that the Vikings will otherwise leave his kingdom undisturbed. Upon their return to Wessex, though, he makes an additional request. He wishes them to defend the claims of Princess Kwenthrith to Mercia (thereby further securing his own kingdom). Aethelstan and Lagertha choose to take over the farming venture while Ragnar, his brother Rollo, and most of the rest of the Viking warriors depart to fight Kwenthrith’s uncle and brother.
The success of the first two seasons of Vikings is obvious in this episode, both in terms of what they have chosen to continue in this third foray and what they improve upon.
Hirst and his writers continue to do an excellent job of balancing the larger story with the more personal conflicts. We’ve watched Bjorn struggle to balance his loyalties to his parents; now he is about to become a father and husband and must manage his relationship with a woman who shares many traits with his ambitious mother. Ragnar is now conflicted about the power he wields and his relationship with his second wife, who he does not seem to love, and his youngest child, who he seems to fear. Rollo is obviously in mourning for everything he threw away when he betrayed his brother. And Lagertha is just as obviously unsatisfied to find herself with an empty nest and empty bed. While we want to see if the various schemes of Ecbert, Ragnar, and Kalf come to fruition, it is these personal struggles that really compel.
But if the heart of the show remains the same, the rest has gotten better as a result of a larger budget this year, hardly surprising after season 2 propelled the series to number one in cable in its timeslot. The already beautiful cinematography now depicts larger landscapes, buildings, and sets. And the battles have also grown in scale, the producers perhaps reacting to fan comments about the limited number of warriors on the field (although, keeping in mind how few men the Viking ships could carry and the danger and distance they faced in sailing to England, this is more the imposition of a modern day expectation on the series than a historical inaccuracy).
However, the larger budget will almost certainly be a blessing as previews and interviews with the producers and actors promise a siege of Paris by boat and more this season. Part of me wants to doubt that they can pull off something so spectacular. After all, we did not get anything that ambitious on The Tudors or HBO’s Rome (which had 2.5 times the budget of either of the other shows).
But I have learned my lesson when it comes to Vikings. Its continued success—as illustrated by Mercenary—should no longer surprise anyone.
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