TV

'Vikings' Is Rather Cheerfully Brutal

Maysa Hattab

Vikings evokes the harsh world the Vikings inhabit and the tensions they embody -- between men and women, earth and sea, wealth and knowledge.

Vikings

Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Jessalyn Gilsig, Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, Gustaf Skarsgard
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: History
Air date: 2013-03-02
Website
Trailer
Amazon

Vikings is full of flash and darkness, visible in fast-moving camerawork, dense green foliage, and of course, its raging fight sequences. It is also overtly soapy, with characters arranged in a flimsy, priapic melodrama. The series, coming to the History Channel on 3 March, establishes these tendencies early on, deploying the clichés of warring and wenching, as well as a slashing, gurgling battle scene.

The difficulties of a Viking's life is made abundantly clear in the premiere episode, airing 3 March, which opens on a surviving warrior on the bloody battlefield, surrounded by corpses and yet still engaging a lone opponent as the camera sweeps and dashes over the gray landscape. This scene, at once fierce and broadly allusive, is followed by a set of stylized images under the opening credits, the sea and ships and swirling blue, all evoking the harsh world the Vikings inhabit and the tensions they embody -- between men and women, earth and sea, wealth and knowledge.

With these themes emphatically established, the series soon gives way to a set of particular stories, framed by the saga of a society working on a rough sort of democracy and consumed by a rougher justice, meted out by a shrewd, paranoiac chieftain Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) and his beautiful wife Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig). As their subjects are moved by assorted daily conflicts and expectations, these rulers are at once representative and removed, idiosyncratic humans and emblems of existential questions.

Not a series to let such questions get in the way of song and story, Vikings might be described as rather cheerfully brutal. When a warrior is run through with a sword, we hear lurid squelching sound effects, clearer indications of what's happening than the sometimes murky imagery. The show also tempers the predictably overheated machismo with a more adventurous and even ambitious yearning, personified by Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel). While on the battlefield with his brother, Ragnar experiences a vision of Odin lifting to the sky a fallen warrior who's given an eye in exchange for greater understanding of the world. The image proves influential. Ragnar distinguishes himself amid a clutch of bearded blond men by proposing a change in the usual routes for the coming summer’s raids.

As might be expected, there are a series of obstacles to his undertaking the journey, including the jealous wrath of his chieftain as well as the objections of his own wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick). She’s a "shield maiden," considered her husband's equal in this community, as revealed in scenes where she holds her own against other men and also enjoys, in quieter moments, a mutual respect with Ragnar.

Lagertha is not the only figure who raises questions about the nature of masculinity. Vikings sets Ragnar in direct contrast to his brother Rollo (Clive Standen), a charmless grunt not given to contemplation, with hobbies including the rape of slave girls. Ragnar is also set in parallel with his chieftain, a more sensitive, thoughtful man whose fears and vulnerabilities are only apparent to Siggy (and us).

While the men can consider what it means to be a man, they expect their women to be supportive. They weave, ensure the survival of stories, and tend to their homesteads. They might also chafe against their limits and obligations: a wife and daughter home alone are ever at risk of attack, no woman is allowed to go out with the men on raids, however much she might aspire to exploration and adventure. Even a powerful woman like Siggy is, in her home and in public, passive and decorative. Her power is predicated on her beauty, and her marriage to Haraldson, rather than any other attributes she might possess. Lagertha and Siggy have value, but primarily as status symbols and helpmeets for their husbands.

Even as Ragnar may be pondering the differences between his role and Lagertha's, by the second episode of Vikings, he's preparing to depart. Here his conventional masculinity is reinforced in scenes that play a little like a heist film, as he and his ragtag crew plot in secret to carry out a daring attack. Unlike those slick crooks who populate heist movies, however, Ragnar's crew is comprised of large hairy men, including the mystic and boat-builder Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard). We know immediately that he'll be trouble: he’s not quite benevolent and his motives are opaque.

Floki, Ragnar, and their fellows endure a sequence that might have been lifted from Perfect Storm, the roiling sea and then days of drifting before finding land. At Lindesfarne, the men find an isolated monastery where the monks prove comically helpless against the raiders and their own fatalism. The monks are largely anonymous, cut down amid jibes about their, and their God’s, apparent lack of masculine power. Among the survivors, a young evangelist, Athelstan (George Blagden), tries to explain his faith to an incredulous Ragnar, and so earns a journey back home with the raiders, and with him travels the possibility of still more new ideas.

Vikings is absurd, certainly, less historical than sensational. But its rugged Irish locations, likeable, not altogether lunk-headed hero and his even more likeable wife, are welcome complications. So too are the social and political upheaval we anticipate will come with the introduction of Christianity, an upheaval we know will involve Ragnar’s changing perception of his place in the world.

4

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image