Vikings: The Ingredients of a Compelling TV Drama

With Vikings Season 5 arriving this week, here's why the show offers much more than meets the eye.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Warning: contains mild spoilers for season one.

As we never stop hearing, we’re living in a golden age of television.

The explosion of cable TV as well as streaming service providers have provided so many outlets that television fare is no longer limited to staid and tested formulas, designed to appeal to a mainstream and lowest-conceivable-common-denominator type of audience by network executives interested only in the most advertising money to be made in the shortest possible time. While American broadcast networks are still killing shows off after only a tiny handful of episodes, these other outlets are more willing to take chances from the start, seeking out more niche, genre-based audiences and giving shows time to find those audiences.

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From a critic’s point of view, this is a bit of a mixed blessing. It means that there is more quality work out there to review, and that, in turn, raises the bar ever higher. But at the same time, it means, as all of us as viewers are learning, that there is simply too much choice out there to keep up with, even if we limit ourselves to the quality programming on offer. How many of us have a list of television shows we want to watch – eventually – but see the list grow ever longer every month?

For critics, whose job it is to help you sort what should earn a place on that list from what shouldn’t, it presents a special problem: if so much of what is out there deserves attention, how do you really generate excitement for one particular narrative that you think isn’t getting the love it should?

It gets even harder when a show appears to be one thing – from previews and marketing and source material – but turns out to be something else entirely.

And that is a key problem with the History channel’s Vikings. That last sentence alone is enough to send many of the very people who would really enjoy the show quietly in the other direction.

It begins with “the History channel.” Once upon a time, like the Arts & Entertainment network, the History channel lived up to its name, and showed documentaries on historical topics as well as speculative shows on historical issues. But now, the channel carries Pawn Stars, Ancient Aliens, Counting Cars, Ice Road Truckers, and Mountain Men. When it still covered history, History tended to stick closely to WWII and Hitlerian themes until 2005 when A+E networks launched its Military History channel and moved such content there. But the fact that its programming is so heavily invested in male-focused reality shows has led to an audience that is, according to Proving Ground Media, at least 75% male. Way to cull your audience.

Then there’s the topic of Vikings itself. Because the Vikings were primarily an oral culture, what history we have of them tends to be written by those the Vikings preyed upon. And as a result, our view of them – right or wrong – is of a brutal, parasitic, hyper-masculine society that destroyed everything in its path.

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And so it’s not unexpected that audiences with a wide swatch of choices on offer might discount checking out Vikings because of a fairly reasonable assumption that the show is a hack-and-slash fightfest, high on adrenalin and low on the drama, geared primarily toward the alluring 18-35 year old male audience. Certainly the marketing of the show does little to suggest otherwise.

But this is simply not the case. To present it that way would be much akin to saying the same thing about the Lord Of The Rings films. There are plenty of fight scenes, for certain, but they are not the heart and soul of the story.

Instead, Vikings is a family drama told on – literally – an epic scale. The Tudors creator Michael Hirst mixes the histories written by the conquered with the stories told in the Norse epics about such characters as Ragnar Lothbrok; Rollo (Hrólfr the Walker), founder of William the Conquerer’s Normandy; Björn Ironside; Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye; and Ivar the Boneless. He weaves together their tales by making them father, brother, and sons of a family who changed the fabric of Viking culture with the ascension of Ragnar from humble farmer to warrior king with a far-seeing plan to save the people of Kattegat and other Viking allies who collected under his leadership.

The story starts simply enough with Ragnar using his right within the quasi-democratic culture of the Vikings to suggest to Kattegat’s Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) that, rather than raiding the familiar but now-depleted lands to the east of the village, they turn their eyes westward where he has reason to believe that great riches await. Haraldson allows Ragnar to lead a force west, which culminates in the historically documented raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793. When Ragnar returns triumphant and with the promise of even greater successes around the corner, Haraldson grows jealous of Lothbrok, and eventually is killed in one-on-one combat with Ragnar who then becomes Earl in Haraldson’s place.

Which is where the series really takes off.

Because Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar is not what many of us would consider your stereotypical Viking, either in his priorities or personality. While a devastating warrior, he wants more for his people than an unstable life of parasitic raiding. And he sees those the Vikings thieve from as more than weak cultures ripe for easy pickings. His true strength isn’t in his arm but in his clever, curious, and questioning mind.

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This leads to strain and conflict with his brother, his wives, his children, and his allies and rivals alike.

Hirst has gathered largely underused or unknown actors (though many are now riding high on the success of Vikings) together to populate a world that, rather than focusing on battlefields, takes us into the more private sphere of Viking life. While the Lothbrok family is the royalty of Kattegat (and eventually elsewhere) and thus their family life dramatically affects the public life of the village, it is these family struggles that are most compelling: how Rollo’s (Clive Standen) envy of his brother Ragnar’s success both poisons and motivates him, what drastic but beautiful step Ragnar’s wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) takes when another woman shows up pregnant with her husband’s child, how each of Ragnar’s sons develops a unique but painful relationship with their father, etc.

Hirst’s tighter focus also helped circumvent one of the biggest challenges the show faced early on: how to create the sprawling world of Viking Scandinavia and King Ecbert’s Saxon England on a shoestring budget. While Hirst uses Ireland and selected shots of western Norway to great effect, even turning Poulaphouca Reservior in the Wicklow Moutains into an extremely convincing fjord on which Kattegat sits, he also remains true to history in that most of the early skirmishes with the Vikings were small, so there’s less wasted on hiring and training extras on the battlefield. The fighting is close-quarters and quickly over. Instead, the real action is happening back in the Viking camp and in Ecbert’s court.

The show supplements the family drama angle by giving Ragnar a foil in the true sense. King Ecbert, played to perfection by Linus Roache, may at first seem to simply be Ragnar’s doomed adversary. But a foil is not an antagonist. A foil is meant to reveal and emphasise the traits of another – usually the main – character. And where Ragnar still clings to his Norse mythology and belief system, Ecbert has apparently thrown off Christianity as anything other than a tool to be used to protect and manipulate his people. He has the same quick, clever, and Machiavellian mind that Ragnar does, along with the same sense of responsibility, but Ecbert has been king – or preparing for kingship – far longer, and possesses a cynicism that Ragnar does not. Their discussions, negotiations, and betrayals become the crucible in which Ragnar’s ideas of leadership are explored and ultimately solidified. And their scenes together are intimate, intense, thought-provoking, and demonstrate a rare chemistry between actors that make you want to rewatch them again and again.

Ecbert also has a family, and while Ragnar’s sin within his own is absence, Ecbert’s is in too much familiarity. His son, daughter-in-law, and grandsons are as much pawns to their king as the rest of Ecbert’s subjects are, and his manipulated their lives to his political and emotional benefit, often at tremendous cost to themselves. His relationship with his son Aethulwulf (played with growing determination by Moe Dunford) plays out the gradual but heart-breaking trauma caused by this attitude. His treatment of his daughter-in-law is particularly questionable and highlights the differences in the status of women between the Wessex and Viking cultures Hirst is depicting.

Princess Judith, the daughter of King Aelle of Northumbria, has had a typical life for a medieval princess. Her marriage is an arranged political one to cement ties between Northumbria and Wessex, and she has been raised to be silent, obedient, and very pious. Although she develops a great deal over the course of the show – largely becoming, intentionally on Ecbert’s part, her opposite – we are also given a warning for women in the part of Kwenthrith, another princess who tries to achieve power in the Christian world on her own. While Judith suffers, that suffering is limited by the ‘mercy’ of king Ecbert. In the end, Kwenthrith and her child have no such protection and pay a much higher price.

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On the Viking side, however, we have Siggy, Helga, Torvi, Aslaug, Lagertha and others. These women largely overturn our views of what medieval womanhood must look like. All are outspoken women who address their husbands or lovers as equals (there are exceptions, but those men tend to eventually pay a high price for subjugating their women, even temporarily). They have views that are politically, culturally, and militarily savvy, and win their own battles on all three fronts.

Nor are these women chaste. Hirst’s Vikings have a more open-minded view of sexuality across the board than do his Christians. Viking women pick and choose their partners with the same relative freedom that the men do, up to and including Lagertha and Ragnar inviting a Christian monk into their marital bed without a blush. Martial infidelity itself is morally ambiguous on the Viking side. But rather than this tarring the Vikings as less civilised than the Christians, the assumed superiority of Christian morality is heavily undermined by the fact that while the Christian women on the show are utterly under the thumbs of their fathers and husbands, women within Hirst’s Viking world are treated as fully fledged people with desires, needs, and plans of their own—and allowed virtually the same opportunities to pursue them as men. The show is worth watching for the Viking women alone.

But that’s hardly the only reason. What Hirst has managed to create is a complex, gorgeous, compelling, consistently well-acted and truly entertaining show that, while it may occasionally indulge the taste of Game Of Thrones fans for salacious sex and brutal violence, never does so gratuitously, but only in service of its larger and more universal themes. It is a character-driven drama that leverages the personal sphere to explore not one but two cultures fairly obscured by a thousand years and the mixing of myth and history so prevalent in the period. It is an eye-opening, thought-provoking tale of a family and a culture trying to find its way at a pivotal moment in time.

Sadly, it is not what one would expect from something called ‘the History Channel’s Vikings‘. But it should be. And if you’re not watching when Vikings returns for its fifth season returns this week, you’re missing out on a treat, even in this golden age of television.