I’m a bit in love with Vikings. No, not the cuddly trainers of dragons or opera-hatted anachronisms used to promote small New Zealand Scandi-towns; I’m referring to the History channel series that has just started its third season. It’s pretty darn good.
Of course, it depends what you’re looking for. Me, I have a particular love for what I call period drama, that is, drama set some time in the past. Now, just playing dress ups and talking funny doesn’t do it for me, there is plenty of awful period drama (no need to list them). In order to win my heart it has to be great as a story/show, too (see my Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire raves). And going by these first 2 seasons I would say Vikings looks likely to fit into the pantheon of great TV being produced in this so-called ‘Golden-Age’ of television.
It certainly ticks most of the boxes of GA: gorgeous to look it, outstanding sets and costumes, intriguing and strong acting (except for 2 who let the side down), storylines that crack along and don’t wallow in melodrama or soap. It even has that great hallmark of the GA, cracking opening titles which even when you are bingeing (as I do) you have to watch all the way through to enter the world (the sawing cello, pitch-shifted vocals, the undersea shots of the longboats, waves crashing, bodies and loot sinking into the abyss… as tightly edited as a music video).
The story centres on Ragnar Lothbrok, a Viking celebrated in Norse sagas, and his rise from farmer (who does a bit of raiding on the side) to king leading the historical raids on Lindisfarne, Paris and so on.
To be honest, while I have binged both series twice, it took me a couple of attempts to watch the first episode as I’m not so keen on watching a whole lot of action fighting and gore. But that is not the core of Vikings. Like every other good GA show, it is about negotiating family relationships, and Ragnar’s wife, shield-maiden Lagertha, is as kick-arse a character (and actor) as Ragnar. As in the real world, there are strong women involved both fighting at the shield wall and plotting behind it.
From a historical perspective, it is fantastic to see the interactions with the various English kings like Ecbert of Wessex, Aella of Northumbria and the nasty Mercians. None of it is straightforward; everyone is plotting, making alliances and breaking them. It creates a dramatic tension of a good ‘page-turner’ where you want to flip ahead to see what happens (or just watch one more episode even though you really need to go to bed).
It also portrays the Vikings as they probably were, united in convenience, treacherous and jealous when looking for advantage. It is refreshing to see this reality rather than a Hollywood simplicity of goodies versus baddies.
And the battles are some of the most realistic I have seen, you get to know what is happening, not just close-ups of grunting men and gore. The geography and narrative of what is happening is never lost and, most of all, there are consequences to action. Hands down, some of the best medieval fighting I have seen filmed.
It is also very clever in the way it portrays and negotiates the various languages that are spoken. We switch effortlessly from Old Norse to Old English and back via occasional sub-titles and convenient translators in a seamless and entertaining way.
So why do I qualify my love for this series? Because it lacks the sparkling, brilliant dialogue of other GA TV. And, at times, it seems full of explanation. Yes, it is needed to a degree (and the character of the captured priest is a great vehicle for this) but I can’t help but groan when, yet again, I hear someone say “that is a…. we Vikings do that because…”
It is also somewhat lacking in humour. I don’t expect lots of jokes, but these are meant to be real people, albeit seriously tough nuts. Humour makes us human and even shows as dark as Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men or Game of Thrones, manage to throw in gems of dialogue and regularly unexpected belly laughs.
There are also some historical howlers which, in their way, are as laughable as opera-inspired Viking hats (I won’t mention them. Like cow horns on a helmet, once you know, it’s impossible to un-see them).
But, overall, these are minor quibbles. As I said, I am transfixed. The characters are lovable, the story grabs you, it has spectacle, excitement and tenderness.
And maybe like all new loves, it is good to be a little unsettled, to hold something back in reserve.
I can’t wait to see what happens in the third series.