This Vikings: Valhalla review contains spoilers for episode 1.
“After a long voyage on a small boat, a lot of things would sound good.”
Fourteen months have passed since Michael Hirst’s Vikings concluded its six season run, and fans of the History/Netflix series bade farewell to the Lothbrok clan. Nevertheless, the Viking saga continues with a spinoff created and written by Jeb Stuart. Vikings: Valhalla introduces Leif Ericksson and a host of new characters who immediately become embroiled in parallel tales of revenge. Though one hundred years have elapsed, the world in which we find ourselves still feels familiar, and viewers need only get comfortable with the changed landscape and the new crop of historical individuals.
The series premiere gets off to a bumpy start with some painfully stilted acting in the opening sequence, but “The Greenlanders” quickly gains its footing once the principals take center stage after The St. Brice’s Day Massacre. Of course, Stuart spends significant narrative capital establishing characters, motivations, and conflicts, but it doesn’t take long to recognize that the tales of revenge for both the Greenlanders and Viking nation provide plenty of space for the story to evolve.
Immediately fascinating is the conflict between Viking Christians and those who still worship the old gods, a rift which promises to provide a wealth of material now that it finds itself woven into the fabric of King Canute’s newly assembled army. However, several charismatic figures emerge that bear watching even before we consider Leif Ericksson and his sister Freydis Eriksdotter. Aethelred II clearly sets himself up as the principal antagonist when his “solution to the Viking problem” turns out to be total extermination of all men, women, and children living on English soil.
Even before we meet Leif and Freydis, the Sigurdsson brothers take part in an elaborate, joyful farewell celebration before Sten sets out to meet King Aethelred the Unready (Bosco Hogan) in England, leaving Norway’s future king Prince Harald Sigurdsson (Leo Suter) to face the greatest challenge of his life. The powerful visual images of the murder of Sten and the others in his diplomatic party juxtaposed against the slaughter of the innocent Viking families simply trying to make new lives for themselves turns the table on the viewer and makes it morally acceptable to back the coming Nordic assault on England. Aligning with Ragnar Lothbrok and his band of raping, pillaging, and murdering compatriots was always problematic, but here, there’s no such ethical dilemma.
What would Vikings: Valhalla be without a meaningful connection to Kattegat, and while it’s clear the village has grown exponentially in the past hundred years, it’s the appearance of Jarl Haakon (Caroline Henderson) as its leader that dominates this aspect of the episode. Her initial exchange with Freydis (Frida Gustavsson) provides some backstory that makes the later reveal of her position even more compelling. That Haakon has history with Erik the Red sits against the decision she must now make concerning Freydis’ revenge based murder of the man who raped her many years ago.
Prince Harald initially presents as one of the more compelling characters and comes across as a bit of a flirt through his offer of a hot bath to Freydis when they first meet at the docks. The great grandson of Harald Finehair and apparent heir to Norway’s throne, Harald establishes his credentials midway through the story when he attempts to reason with his half-brother Olaf the Holy and his refusal to fight with his pagan compatriots.
“What will all your saintliness have achieved for you?” Harald asks, acknowledging the greatest obstacle the Viking army must overcome if it’s to defeat the English. However, it’s his passionate intervention into the personal combat between a Christian and a pagan that solidifies his standing. His pronouncement “That your god is Odin or Christ means nothing to me,” seems to wake up the troops, perhaps putting on hold this conflict that will surely arise once again.
Leif (Sam Corlett) and Freydis make their narrative entrances amidst a terrible storm at sea that not only presages the impending turmoil instigated by Aethelred, but establishes their superb seamanship as they jointly navigate their small vessel safely to Kattegat. Even though one hundred years have passed in the Vikings world, not that much seems to have changed.
The show’s production values retain the excellence viewers came to appreciate in Vikings: Valhalla’s predecessor, and while we’re treated to only small scale action sequences, they nevertheless imply even greater things to come once the inevitable grand scale battles take place. And though the intensity of the storm drives home the danger inherent in this type of journey, it’s the manner in which brother and sister work together that hints at what we might expect in the future.
Erik the Red’s children face a number of obstacles as they forge their own paths, and it’s clear that neither backs down in the face of adversity. Leif takes on five men single handedly, but it’s most striking that he refuses to kill any of the five and merely disables them. On the other hand, while we empathize with Freydis’ urgent need to avenge her sexual assault, it bears watching whether she’ll be able to rein in her desire to act when restraint is called for. It’s notable that Harald stands up for her, and the reveal of her scar points to the ultimate validation of her act. It remains, however, for Jarl Haakon to rule.
Whether Harald and Freydis’ sexual encounter leads to anything more substantial remains to be seen, but Harald’s persuasive argument to Leif implies these two may strike up an important friendship. “True Vikings always reach for glory,” he tells Leif, hoping to convince him to join the fight against the English. While we don’t yet see any major bro action here, both seem to be on the same moral trajectory.
Obviously, this initial episode allows the characters to settle into their roles as the multiple story arcs unfold, but it’s the assembly of another great Viking army that controls all of the peripheral action. It’s now up to King Canute (Bradley Freegard) to unite Christian and pagan, a formidable task that’s imperative if the deaths of the thousands of innocents are to be avenged. Can the king convince Olaf Haraldsson (Johannes Haukur Johannesson) to put aside his distaste for those who still worship Odin and aid in the circumvention of the English defense system? We don’t see much of Canute in this episode, but when Olaf refuses to cooperate, the king’s attitude is clear. “Then I am sorry for you, Olaf. You have come all this way for nothing.”
Spinning off a series as successful as Vikings often leads to unrealistic expectations and ultimately, disappointment. That said, Vikings: Valhalla’s premiere “The Greenlanders” deals brilliantly with the burden of past experience introducing a new set of characters every bit as captivating as those in the flagship series. It will be hard to avoid comparisons to the Lothbrok clan, but Freydis, Leif, and Harald have the ship pointed in the right direction and favorable winds at their backs.