Midseason Check-In: VIKINGS

History Channel’s VIKINGS has atmosphere, great characters, and the best action sequences on basic cable. How did this happen, and can it keep it going?

Who needs a reason for betrayal? One must always think the worst Ragnar, even of your own kin. That way, you avoid too much disappointment in life.

–Floki

Nobody really expected much of Vikings. For one thing, it looked to be a minor Game of Thrones rip-off, cashing in on the popularity of Medieval Times swordplay while playing fast and loose with history. For another, it was airing on the History Channel, which was (and is) better-known for ludicrous “docu-tainment” shows about aliens, mermaids, and certain elusive backwoods residents. And also Bigfoot. But creator Michael Hirst, who had shopped Vikings to premium cable networks first, saw an opportunity to, you know, put some actual history on History. And, to the network’s credit, they saw it too.*

*(Not that they haven’t found a way to be weird about it. Incessant hashtagging? “Viking Fantasy League?” The obnoxious practice of previewing upcoming scenes at every commercial break? Figure it out, History.)

When it premiered last spring, riding the furs of the mega-hyped miniseries The Bible, it was immediately apparent — to anyone watching both series back to back, as I dutifully did — that Vikings had the superior production value, with gorgeous locations (Ireland, subbing manfully for Scandinavia) and an eclectic cast that slowly but surely came into their own in the service of a sweeping, surprisingly compelling story. And it’s the show’s accurate recreation of a truly alien culture, with their bizarre customs and even way of speaking (in accents than no one can really describe) that make it a great deal of fun, combined with expertly-staged fight scenes. (Shield wall!)

The first season plotted the rise of Ragnar Lothbrok, played with an unsettling authority by former Calvin Klein underwear model Travis Fimmel. Let us not speak poorly of such underwear models again, because against all odds Fimmel has imbued the character with real presence and life, and a mad glint in his ridiculously piercing, probably CGI-enhanced blue eyes. He’s the cleverest man in the room, a born leader and a fierce warrior, and his “discovery” of England (he sailed across the sea when no one believed it possible) and later usurpation of the sniveling Earl of his hometown, Kattegat (RIP, Gabriel Byrne) was cause for some actual fist-pumping in my house. Fimmel floats through scenes effortlessly, a compelling presence of “otherness,” cheeky and dangerous and probably insane.

But perhaps what Vikings did best was give us a truly kick-ass female character — Ragnar’s shieldmaiden wife Lagertha (Kathryn Winnick), who can hold her own in any fight, whether it’s a bloody throwdown on a Saxon beach or a domestic squabble with her husband. The show has walked a very fine line in allowing us to relate to these barbarians on a moral level, as Ragnar certainly loves to pillage, but he leaves the raping to his brethren, and will generally not kill innocents if he can help it. Ragnar Lothbrok was indeed a real historical figure (don’t wiki his name unless you want to risk being spoiled about what’s to come down the road), but whether he actually saw himself above the savagery of his people, or the show simply needed to concede some points to get the audience to root for him, as written in Vikings he’s a complex but appealing figure. He loves his children, and he loves Lagertha, which made it all the harder at the end of Season 1 when he slept with and impregnated Princess Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland), forcing Lagertha to balk at his winking suggestion of polygamy and leave the village.

So in a sense, Season 2 is about putting Ragnar in increasingly uncomfortable situations, but not in war — we must also watch him navigate the emotional battlefields of love and politics. He is almost childlike in how he shirks from these moral quandaries, telling Kattegat’s Seer he loves both women, when he and everyone on the show and in the audience know his One True Pairing is with the incomparable Lagertha. It’s odd to see him so unsure of himself, when he exudes confidence in every other setting, uniting with King Horik (Donal Logue) to lay siege to England, but rushing back in a panic to retake his village when revenge-seeking Jarl Borg (Thorbjørn Haar) claims Kattegat in his absence.

Fortunately, Ragnar hasn’t been the only character to change. Thanks to a clever jump forward in time this season, we’ve seen Lagertha get the best of her new, rape-y husband; Ragnar and Lagertha’s son, Bjørn, is fully grown (now played with strength and decency by The Hunger Games‘s Alexander Ludwig, towering over his parents) and, now reunited with his father, is learning the ways of war and ruling. And — thank Odin — we’re finally off the Rollo Loyalty Roller Coaster, as Ragnar’s brooding, hulking brother (Clive Standen, doing the best he can with an until-now-poorly-written role) has had enough of betrayal, turning back to Ragnar’s side and rescuing the family from Kattegat when Borg attacks. We can all be relieved that we shouldn’t have to spend any more time on that, as a redemption arc is ALWAYS more powerful.

But no one has had a more dramatic shake-up than poor Athelstan (George Blagden), as the former monk –> slave –> undersized Viking warrior chose to stay in Wessex when Ragnar sailed home in a hurry, and has undergone…well, some more trials. The slow-growing friendship between Athelstan and Ragnar was perhaps the highlight of last season, with the monk serving as an audience surrogate, fascinated and horrified in equal measure by the Norsemens’ culture. But even when Ragnar nearly offered him as a human sacrifice at the end of the season, Athelstan was willing to become — as he’s reminded when he returns to his country — an apostate, turning against his faith for the paganism of his new friends. And now, having survived an attempted crucifixion (again: he survived a crucifixion, something I’d never thought I’d see on a non-Jesus program), he’s wrestling with some crushing guilt as the plaything of King Egbert (Linus Roache), the only adversary to this point who seems as clever as — if not more than — our Ragnar.

Roache, all quiet, steely malevolence, is fascinating to watch — his loucheness a fun counterpoint to Ragner’s unhinged savagery. The two circle each other with great uncertainty, with Ragnar even offering to stop the sacking of Wessex towns if Egbert will give them some land (Ragnar’s just a farmer at heart, you see), a negotiation cut short by word of Borg’s treachery. Now that Ragnar has reclaimed Kattegat and his family (including the son, that according to Auslag, will one day destroy him*), he is certainly due to return to England soon. Horik and the others will get quite bored before long. They’ll run out of priests to shoot arrows into.

*(As an aside, this story thread interweaves together two of the series’s most troubling aspects. The first is the overtly fantastical, with the “serpent in the eye” and the prophecies feeling like a betrayal of the show’s down-to-earth, gritty aesthetic. Visions and hallucinations are fair game, as Athelstan and the Seer — who could be making all of his stuff up — have shown, but something about this rubs me the wrong way. It probably hurts that Aslaug — the show’s weakest element — is vacant, both as a character and in performance. She is a spoiled princess who only exists to drive a wedge between Ragnar and Lagertha, and I don’t necessarily care if it’s based on fact, but the show has not integrated her well.)

Yet even with the show’s flaws, Vikings remains an entertaining romp. It’s visually beautiful, with a palette heavy in greens and blues, and breathtaking vistas. The direction is premium-cable quality, the battle scenes shot and edited coherently (it’s staggering, how hard this apparently is), and strong characterization. Even the show’s “comic relief,” the deranged shipbuilder Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard), contains multitudes beneath his “bloodthirsty Jack Sparrow” exterior. These are characters — particularly Ragnar, Lagertha, and Athelstan — that I enjoy spending time with. I just hope that Hirst and his team have a coherent plan, and the show doesn’t squander its goodwill with ill-conceived, repetitive plotting. It’s a “B” show that wants to be an “A” show, and it occasionally feels like one.

Okay, it’s a B+ show. If you don’t have access to Thrones, or object to its many objectionable elements, you could do considerably worse than Vikings.

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