History Channel’s new mini-series Vikings is a lot tamer than one would expect, considering the subject matter. The first episode set up a lot, and consequently the premiere felt like it was on the edge of something substantial happening. Instead of bringing a lot of blood and gore (there was still some), it focused on character development and setting up the premise of the show. Warning, this is not a spoiler free review.
Leading the show is Ragnar, an ambitious man who wants to challenge convention and sail west. He has the right combination of intelligence, rebelliousness and confidence to make him an interesting main character. Ragnar is made likable by a strong performance by Travis Fimmel, and made human by his relationship with his family. The episode features a lot of father/son bonding time with his son Bjorn, which allows Ragnar to show a slightly softer side. Slightly softer. He’s still a Viking. He’s not exactly warm and cuddly.
Equally fierce, is Ragnar’s wife, Lagertha. Lagertha proves herself as a capable fighter when her home is broken into and two men threaten to rape her. She proceeds to kick major ass. While I am always a fan of tough, capable female characters that can take care of themselves, the scene felt like it was there to serve no other purpose than to prove Lagertha’s sword-wielding abilities. Unless the two guys come back later to cause more trouble, that scene felt unnecessary, because judging by the promos, Lagertha is going to have plenty of time to prove said sword-wielding abilities in the future.
The last major member of the family is Rollo, who is clearly going to be trouble down the line. But for now, he’s helping Ragnar sneakily have a ship built, so they can sail west, despite the fact the local leader, Earl Haraldson is against the idea. The episode concludes with Ragnar, Rollo and Floki the ship-builder (who is crazy and eccentric in the best way) successfully trying out a new design.
That was pretty much the plot: Ragnar tried to get permission to go west from the earl, was denied, then got his own ship. But I don’t think the plot was the point of this episode. In their marketing, History Channel is pushing the idea that Vikings will offer a new perspective to the iconic seafarers. Next week it looks like Ragnar and company will loot a monastery and kill a lot of monks. Establishing the fact that these are human beings before showing that type of carnage was a good idea; it would harder to create sympathetic characters after witnessing them commit terrible acts of violence.
Vikings’ attempt to present a new view on its subject matter is refreshing given the fairly consistent media portrayal of Vikings as ruthless killing machines. (The underrated 2009 animated film The Secret of Kells is the best example of this). To be fair, yes, they did to a lot of terrible things, but if we’re being honest, it was the Middle Ages. Everyone did varying degrees of terrible things. The show is not exonerating or excusing the Vikings, but it’s not vilifying or dehumanizing them either.
The History Channel has created a show that is offering a new take that goes against an established norm, and that’s pretty exciting. And it’s well made, which is even more exciting. Not only are the actors thus far very good, but the production is excellent. The set, props and costumes have created a believable world. There is probably some history major out that is going to tell me I’m wrong for whatever reason, but the setting was good enough for me and my non-expert self to be impressed. (I also appreciated the inclusion of as much Viking culture and mythology as they could cram into the show without deviating from a coherent plot.) And the cinematography is beautiful. Even if the plot were terrible (it’s not), I would be happy to just sit and look at some of the scenes.
Vikings is off to an incredible start, and if the subsequent episodes keep up with the pilot and live up to the promos, it’s just going to keep getting better from here.