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.