It’s hard to imagine a more fitting television series title sequence than the 52-second gem that leads off each episode of History’s Vikings.
“If I had a heart I would love you,” sings Fever Ray in a creepy multitrack pitch-shifting mashup that both disturbs and delights. “More, gimme more, gimme more,” she continues, perfectly capturing the pagan spirit of creator Michael Hirst’s quasi-historical epic as principal character Ragnar Lodbrok floats to the bottom of the sea, looking up at the silhouettes of Viking longships, falling axes, and slow-motion quick cuts of everything from helmets to ravens to, well, I’m not exactly sure what that red stuff was.
Hirst, of course, is the Englishman responsible for Showtime’s The Tudors as well as the scripts underlying Cate Blanchett’s rip-roaring Elizabeth feature film duology. Vikings marries the sumptious production values of those previous efforts with an educated guess of a narrative set in the Dark Ages.
More specifically, it posits that mythological Norse hero Ragnar lived, loved, and conquered portions of England and France roundabout 800 A.D. alongside his brother Rollo, his shieldmaiden wife Lagertha, and a host of walking beard raiders who seem largely ripped from the nearest competitive online video game.
These aren’t likable people, and from a Judeo-Christian perspective, the resulting drama is often hard to watch. Ragnar and his brigands are literally murderers, thieves, and casual rapists who indulge their baser instincts on whomever they happen across, for no other reason than because they can.
Hirst and his screenwriters nonetheless present them as men who love their children and who possess a bizarre sort of code that abides the violation of a peasant girl but treats familial honor and self-sacrifice with a sort of religious reverence.
As season one winds its way through nine 45-minute episodes, Vikings skillfully weaves a number of humane and affecting subplots into the show’s primary conquest-driven narrative tapestry. Despite the warmly lit campfire bonding scenes and the infinitely appealing rustic lifestyle, though, the central characters behave largely like animals and so the resulting concoction is something to be endured as much as it is enjoyed.
Identifying with and rooting for these characters is an uncomfortably difficult task. More than once I found myself entirely unsympathetic to the plights of both major and minor players. Ragnar himself, played with scruffy, barely-controlled abandon by Aussie and former Calvin Klein model Travis Fimmel, comes off as dangerously childlike more often than not.
His insistence on sailing west with his raiding party, risking his life over an unknown sea on little more than a whim is the sort of derring-do that would be easy to cheer for if it weren’t for the callous slaughter of the dozen monks he discovers upon landing in Lindisfarne.
And yet I powered through the first season in a matter of days, unable to stop watching in spite of the queasiness brought about by the urge to root for a truly amoral anti-hero. At the risk of stating the obvious, the moral judgment here is my own and not the series’, as Ragnar and the rest of the characters certainly don’t see themselves as immoral. On the contrary, there’s plenty of lip service paid to the Viking gods on more than one occasion, as well as an entire episode that revolves around ritual human sacrifice and its place in ancient Norse culture.
One of the season’s few relatable characters is a captured Christian priest called Athelstan. Ragnar spares his life during an early-season monastery raid, and Athelstan — played by George Blagden — undergoes a multi-episode transformation from translator slave to housekeeper to member of the tribe. Hirst and his screenwriters can’t seem to settle on what to do with him, though, or perhaps they’re just that skillful at dragging the audience along on his improbable fate’s journey.
Each time you’re convinced that Athelstan is ready to renounce his Christian upbringing and fully embrace the heathen ethos of his mates, he witnesses a new and more casual horror that sees him clutching at his crucifix before withdrawing back into metaphorical seclusion as a stranger in the strangest land.
All of this is watchable due in large part to the excellent ensemble cast. Fimmel, as mentioned, finds himself in a career-making role and knocks it out of the park with a perpetual glint in his eye that is equal parts inspiring and sinister. He’s like a slightly more subdued version of Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys, albeit with a funkdified ponytail-mohawk-braid thing and a lot more combat experience.
Clive Standen shines as Ragnar’s brother Rollo, a fierce warrior in his own right who is nonetheless perpetually overshadowed by his bro’s meteoric rise to Viking prominence. Gabriel Byrne turns in a subdued, workmanlike performance as Ragnar’s Earl and rival. And Katheryn Winnick’s Lagertha steals just about every scene she’s in, partly because she’s one of the series’ few sympathetic characters despite, or perhaps because of, her outward ferocity. And unlike many of the women in pay-cable sword-and-board predecessors like Game of Thrones and Hirst’s own The Tudors, she stays fully clothed for the entirety of the first season.
Actually, no. Her bare back features prominently in a simulated sex scene, but even here Hirst and his writers avoid succumbing to the sort of softcore commonly found in other historical or fantasy shows in an unexpected and effective display of restraint.
The same is true of the series’ infrequent battle scenes. They’re present, accounted for, and expertly staged, but there’s little of the slow-mo fetishization that’s come to typify fantasy-historical epics in recent years. Vikings’ violence — or the potential for it — hangs out on the periphery of every scene, including the domestic ones, but even when it erupts into full-scale conflict, it’s never gratuitous to the point where I’d be ashamed to watch it with my grandma.
Aesthetically, Vikings never fails to please. Ireland stands in ably for both Scandinavia and England, and the series’ propmakers — and I’m assuming, CG artists — have gone out of their way to craft blow-away badass longships, weapons, and sets that seem perfectly plausible given what historians and archaeologists have told us about the Norse Age.
Vikings’ cinematography is absolutely gorgeous from start to finish, whether we’re talking about a meeting in an achingly rustic and perfectly lit mead hall or a pitched battle on the beach between Ragnar’s invaders and their soon-to-be-subdued English subjects. In short, it’s easy to see why Lost and X-Files veteran John Bartley’s name usually features the ‘Emmy Award-winning’ appellation.
Ultimately the first season of Vikings is something of a guilty pleasure. In some ways I feel bad for liking it because it’s clearly a product of an increasingly agnostic society. But despite my season-long inability to connect emotionally with characters not named Lagertha or Athelstan, I’ll be watching season two as soon as I can. If you’ve any affinity for finely crafted period dramas with even finer leading performances, you probably should too.