While I agree with Todd that the first episode of Vikings was lean, energetic, and pleasantly surprising, I must admit to a certain unease that our lead character Ragnar was worrisomely virtuous.
Sure, we first meet him brutally dispatching some foes, but that’s in a fair fight. And yes, he does speak out against the Jarl’s conservative plan to raid the same, oft-pillaged lands to the east (and is secretly building an experimental longship to head west), but Vikings clearly intends viewers to see that as the visionary bravery of an adventurous mind. And yeah, he lets his 12-year-old son Bjorn get very drunk, but, hey: he’s a Viking. In addition, he’s presented in the première as a respectful and loving (and lusty) husband to his wife, formidable former shieldmaiden Lagertha, and a stern but loving father. Like I said: worrisome.
The ultimate dramatic success of Vikings will depend on the depth of its world-building. Thus far, the series’ world looks appropriately lived-in and authentic (the rugged coast of Ireland subbing ably for ancient Scandinavia), and sufficiently alien, as it should. Seemingly much more dedicated to the “history” half of the History Channel than evening-mate The Bible, Vikings promises a glimpse of a remote culture with customs and mores unnervingly removed from our own. But if Ragnar is presented as a man too far ahead of his time (meaning a man with anachronistically modern sensibilities), then his character’s complexity has limits, and so does his world: If he is too idealized as an audience stand-in, removed from his sociological milieu, then his every moral conundrum becomes a series of straw men and the show’s dramatic stakes deflate.
To put it simply: Is Vikings going to allow Ragnar to go Viking?
Happily, the second episode, “Wrath Of Northmen” answers that question in a satisfyingly ambiguous (gratifyingly brisk) way. As the episode begins, Ragnar and his hotheaded and gloweringly untrustworthy brother Rollo are raising a crew for their upcoming outlaw western voyage with promises of equal shares of the plunder and glory, and some strategically deployed macho posturing. (Debate tip: If you want a Viking to do something, insult his balls.) I never saw his reportedly disappointing Tarzan series, but as Ragnar, Travis Fimmel has already proven himself a capable lead, and it’s his charisma here that sells the scene more than anything else (although those striking blue eyes don’t hurt.) Throughout, Fimmel gradually reveals a believable sense of bemused, crazed menace, like Brad Pitt at his scruffiest/craziest, a quality which lends credence to scenes like the too-short ocean voyage, where Vikings’ breakneck narrative style can look more like narrative choppiness. (I get that there’s nothing inherently fascinating about drifting aimlessly at sea, but after one storm and a little dead calm, the whiny freak-out from the most weaselly of Ragnar’s men comes off as abrupt. Luckily, Viking pep talks are to the point.)
It’s when the Vikings discover a lonely monastery on the English coast that the character of Ragnar (as differentiated from Ragnar’s character) is put to the test. And where Fimmel and series creator Michael Hirst put my fears to rest. As the raiders land and gear up, Vikings convincingly builds both the tension and the drama of the situation. Apart from the impending violence, this scene, underplayed and shot with lean efficiency, successfully conveys the queasy wonder inherent in the event: the first Vikings striding onto a new land. The show, like the Vikings, doesn’t take time to get awestruck by the moment. Vikings raid. They’re excited by the prospect of unimagined new lands to plunder. And they get on with it.
It’s during the decidedly one-sided raid on the monastery—and the helpless monks within—that our view of Ragnar starts to come into a satisfying focus. Confronted with a barricaded room full of cowering, strangely dressed men, the Vikings hardly hesitate before they start killing. The ensuing scenes of slaughter, perpetrated with ruthless proficiency (and restrained basic-cable gore) present the best picture so far of the Vikings world as a distinct moral universe. The Vikings’ actions here, as opposed to their more understandable internecine squabbles, is simply other. They are not incensed, nor are they in cartoonish berserker mode: They are killing because, well, that’s what they set out to do. Their very workmanlike murder is as mystifying as it is frightening.
And Ragnar? While he doesn’t kill anyone on the raid, we see his determination, his excitement. He never makes a move to stop his men, nor is there any indication that he’s even thinking of doing so. (While he was putting down a potential mutiny, his actions on the boat are decisively cold-blooded.) And while he stops the brutal Rollo from killing a young, Norse-speaking monk (new series regular George Blagden), there’s no sense that he’s being especially noble. Curious maybe. But here again, Fimmel’s malevolent, perhaps unhinged glint speaks volumes as enigmatic as the meticulously hand-copied Bible pages the mischievous boatbuilder madman Floki consigns to the monastery-devouring flames. Ragnar might not have killed anyone here (his single-minded quest for treasure may be an explanation), but Fimmel’s performance suggests we not get complacent that he won’t. (Since it’s a monastery, and therefore bereft of women, the question of his behavior towards them goes unanswered. Unlike Rollo, whose offhand rape of the slave girl just prior to the sea voyage introduces that issue with disturbing brutality.)
It’s an encouraging development when a series shows such improvement so soon. And while the inevitable confrontation with Gabriel Byrne’s thus far two-dimensionally villainous Jarl (this episode: The Jarl tricks an advisor into a deadly bed-trick with his wife and roasts a blacksmith for having made Ragnar’s anchor!) has me concerned for the future, I’ll take solace in the fact that the second episode of Vikings proved so adept at confounding my expectations.
- Although he doesn’t have much to do so far, that’s good ol’ Vladimir Kulich as Eric, the most mountainous of Ragnar’s men. Apart from suiting up as The Beast on Angel, he played Buliwyf, my heretofore-favorite onscreen Viking in the underrated The 13th Warrior.
- My Viking-archaeology-dork (her term) wife, upon finding out that the raid was at Lindisfarne, excitedly high-fived herself and set the series’ exact time as 793 AD, the date/site of the first well-documented Viking raid. Well done, History Channel (and Emily).
- I also like Ragnar’s signature response to danger, whether from a raging sea or Lagertha with a blunt instrument and bad intentions: a sly little smile.
- Apparently there’s some debate about the historical verisimilitude of shieldmaidens, but if the two-fisted, yet clearly loving partnership between Ragnar and Lagertha gets more airtime, I’ll allow it.
- After brazenly making a play for his brother’s wife last episode, there’s another hint of a past between Rollo and Lagertha, although Ragnar’s winking teasing about the issue raises even more questions.
- That the performances on this show are so solid is that much more impressive, contending as they must with the inherent muting effect of needing to sound “foreign” (but not too foreign). Vikings is in a no-win situation: Its intended audience isn’t going to tune in for subtitles, but at the same time viewers are unlikely to buy into the show’s world if the characters’ accents are too familiar (see the backlash against David Duchovny’s California-tinged “comrades” in the recent film Phantom). So most of the cast (of mostly Aussies, Brits, and Irish) adopt that nondescript accent marked “other.”
- Adding to the effectively alien vibe of Vikings is Gustaf Skarsgård’s uniquely madness-tinged Floki. Look at his face when he burns the Bible pages: What’s he thinking? I have no idea—but it’s mesmerizing to watch. (Plus, he’s Stellan’s son.)