Vikings: “Rites Of Passage”
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Vikings: “Rites Of Passage”

Vikings debuts tonight on the History Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern.

The only thing Vikings would need to do to be a success is deliver on the title: There should be Vikings and lots of them, doing Viking things, and raiding the English from boats with dragon heads. Fortunately for all involved, Vikings does an admirable job of living up to that title, and then it tacks on a few additional things, like a handful of somewhat compelling characters and some well-handled action sequences. Nobody’s going to mistake this for one of the best shows on TV, but in the televised epic genre, this stands as a strong third to Game Of Thrones and Spartacus. That sounds like less of a compliment than it actually is, because many, many networks have tried to do this sort of swords-n-sandals/sorcery-on-a-budget thing, and many have failed. That History Channel mostly succeeded in its first time out is nothing to sneeze at.

Vikings isn’t terribly ambitious. It’s mostly just about brawny men with beards, hitting each other in the face. Occasionally, attractive people of all genders raid and burn down monasteries, just because they can. There’s probably less raping and pillaging than in the historic record, but this is basic cable, and, honestly, would you even want to watch something with that much raping and pillaging? (There’s one major incident of sexual violence in one of the five episodes sent out to critics, and it stands out as particularly jarring, perhaps because most of the physical violence isn’t particularly graphic.) There are the bare bones of a plot here, starting with the hero, Ragnar, who’s an up-and-comer in his village, who longs to travel across the sea to the west, rather than endlessly raiding the Baltic lands to the east. He clashes against his leader, Jarl Haraldson, who isn’t very good at thinking big. He commissions mad genius Floki to build him the best ship he can find. And because he’s a Viking, his wife, Lagertha, is also an ass kicker.

What makes Vikings even more surprising in its relative success stems from the fact that its creator is Michael Hirst. Hirst isn’t a terrible writer, but his The Tudors was particularly overwrought, and its legacy continues to color how people feel about, say, The Borgias, which is from a different creative team but on the same network. (It’s a much better show, but it tends to get conflated in the imagination with the earlier series.) The Tudors took a complicated period of history and reduced it to a series of sexy double-crosses, and while it was close enough for government work, it also became weirdly, vividly hyper-lurid in rapid order. Leave aside historical inaccuracies for a minute (something people seem particularly unable to do with The Tudors because of how well-represented that period has been previously in the arts). The Tudors was still what basically amounted to a super-powered medieval melodrama, without a lot of depth behind it, and that did disservice to a bunch of potentially fascinating characters.

Vikings immediately skirts the biggest complaint leveled against The Tudors by being about somebody who lived so long ago that he’s more or less been turned entirely into a figure of myth and legend. The lead character is somewhat based on Ragnar Lothbrok, whom Wikipedia will inform you was the “first great Viking king,” and we’re picking up early in his life, before he conducted raids on Paris and England, before he was sentenced to death in a pit of poison snakes by an angry foreign king. (Seriously, a pit of poison snakes.) I’m not enough of a scholar of Viking sagas to have any idea just how close this Ragnar is to the Ragnar of legend, but as a “Lil’ Ragnar” figure, he’s a solid lead to build a series around. He fights well. He accumulates power. He tries to be a good man. He has a son and wife who alternately love and despise him. He’s played by Travis Fimmel, who’s probably still best known to American audiences for playing Tarzan in the short-lived, ill-fated WB series of the same name but where he was an unconvincing hunk of manmeat there, he’s gained at least one extra dimension for this role. Ragnar’s not the most complicated man on TV, but Fimmel plays him with style.

As his wife, Lagertha, Katheryn Winnick is similarly well-deployed. In the early going, there’s a bit too much grousing about how she wishes she were accompanying her husband into battle as his shieldmaiden, but once things kick into gear and she’s on the battlefield beside him, it’s easy to see why he values her by his side so much. Similarly, Clive Standenas does an able job of sketching in Ragnar’s brother, Rollo, a man who loves his brother but also seems sorely tempted to sell him out to the Jarl on more than one occasion. Weirdly enough, the most moving and tender relationship on the show turns out to be between Ragnar and Athelsten, a Christian monk that Ragnar, let’s say, befriends during a raid. Athelsten is played by George Blagden, and there are some surprisingly deft little scenes between the two unlikely companions, particularly the deeper viewers get into the series.

This is History’s first major scripted series, so it needed to bring in a star with some weight to him. In this case, that’s Gabriel Byrne, who plays the Jarl. The part is a fairly thin “bad guy” figure who stands in the way of Ragnar’s exploits, sort of like a high school principal in a teen movie, and it’s not exactly up to an actor of Byrne’s considerable talents. Byrne, at least, does the best with what he’s handed. Jessalyn Gilsig is here as his wife, Siggie, and it’s a part that’s written, for lack of a better phrase, as the “Jessalyn Gilsig role.” It’s never clear just why this part is here, or just why Gilsig is playing it, beyond the fact that she plays a lot of these sorts of would-be Lady Macbeths. There are pleasures to be had when spending time with the Haraldsons—particularly when the Jarl starts hanging out with an eyeless old Norse priest—but for the most part, these parts feel less full-bodied and robust than the other sections of the series.

“Full-bodied” and “robust” are actually fairly good descriptors for what the rest of the series has to offer. It’s almost certainly not an exact time machine for ancient Viking society—it seems unlikely the Vikings were this interested in issues of marital fidelity and love, and at times, the production values make it look like the History Channel found an abandoned Game Of Thrones costume trailer and went to town—but it’s a reasonably good evocation of the period on a basic cable budget. The series was filmed in Ireland, with occasional real longship recreations, and if the series doesn’t have the production level of Game Of Thrones, well, few shows on TV do. It’s impressive that the series looks this good for a first-time effort by a basic cable network, even if it’s an international co-production. The show is also surprisingly good at putting modern viewers in the terrified mindset of ancient seafarers, uncertain of how to cross an open ocean.

If Vikings is not particularly deep, it’s at least endlessly entertaining, and the world it evokes ends up being one of the most instantly compelling on television. The opening moments of tonight’s premiére see Ragnar on the battlefield, after a particularly intense fight, believing he spies Odin walking among the dying. The effects showing souls departing to the afterlife are rather cheesy, but the overall mood is pitch-perfect. These are people trapped in a strange, inhospitable world, doomed to lead lives of short, furious desperation. They long to make a mark, but the very landscape they inhabit stands in the way of that happening, and thematic echoes of that idea are in every shot, right down to the haunting title sequence. Vikings isn’t the best show on TV, but it’s surprisingly, supremely confident, and that can carry a series like this a long way.

Stray observation:

  • We’re contemplating adding coverage of this. Let us know in comments after you watch the first episode if you’d be at all interested.

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