Vikings’ 2013 arrival saw it lumped in with the so-called “white male antihero” TV glut, and not without reason. As a genre, such shows are, at heart, wish-fulfillment fantasies where an American man can shuck off the emasculating trappings of modern domesticity and thrill, however covertly, to the actions of “real men.”
In Tony Soprano’s first therapy session with Dr. Melfi, he invokes the “strong silent type” (personified in his mind by Gary Cooper) and The Sopranos is informed by Tony’s interpretation of what that essential manliness entails. Walter White couched his escalating lawlessness in familial concern, but as he finally confided to Skyler at series’ end, he became the biggest meth lord in America simply because he liked it. As Heisenberg, Walter could forget his perceived failures as a husband, father, and provider and stride manfully among the criminal underworld. Sons Of Anarchy trucks heavily in the idea that outlaw bikers, breaking from the strictures of civilized society, are both freer and more truly men than, say, the viewer with a mortgage and a minivan. Even in a period piece like Mad Men, Don Draper sees his unfiltered-cigarette-smoking, whiskey-swilling, fanny-pinching present as missing something—and looks to the past, as seen in the repeated motif of cowboys and astronauts.
In that light, Vikings, which reaches all the way back to the most infamous manly society in Western history, seemed poised to deliver unadulterated—if basic cable-friendly—macho fantasy fodder. (After all, they’re who Ralph Wiggum hangs out with in his dreams.) The show’s protagonist, Ragnar Lothbrok (played by appropriately strapping Aussie Travis Fimmel), appears to embody a viewer’s conception of Viking alpha-male antihero perfection. He’s strong, handsome, bold, defiant of authority, dynamite in the sack (alongside Katheryn Winnick’s formidable Lagertha), and a fearless, brutal combatant. But over the course of the series, it’s revealed that Ragnar, for all his prowess, isn’t an antihero, but its opposite. In fact, he’s only an antihero if Vikings’ viewers are actually Vikings. (Which I’m going to go ahead and assume most are not.)
To make Vikings not appear to be a simple-minded hack ’n’ slash spectacle, creator Michael Hirst would have to create a seemingly impossible protagonist. To excel in the show’s world, Ragnar would have to do things unpalatable to modern viewers (the whole “ raping and pillaging” cliché exists for a reason). At the same time, presenting Ragnar as too enlightened and therefore acceptable to modern sensibilities would be so unrealistic as to be unplayable. The solution, abiding in both the character’s perception and Fimmel’s performance, was to position him as that world’s first real hero.
Throughout the show’s two seasons, Fimmel’s performance as Ragnar has trafficked in mystery. With those spooky blue eyes boring through allies and foes alike, he bides his time, only to take sudden, often enigmatic action. While no Viking version of a choirboy, Ragnar often acts in opposition to what the show (and historical stereotypes) presents as typical Viking behavior. While he’s a strong, violent leader of raids on poor Olde England, he stands apart from the worst depredations—often literally standing in the doorway while the pillaging and torture is happening. (As when men sent on behalf of ally King Horik—portrayed by Donal Logue—play Saint Sebastian with an unfortunate old monk and a quiver of arrows.) Or he’s eschewing the carnage in favor of ferreting out both greater booty and strategic information about the lands being raided. Hence his fascinatingly ambiguous relationship with captured British monk Athelstan. Every other monk taken in the initial raid on Lindisfarne is quickly and casually dispatched by his captor once their novelty wears off, while Athelstan is mined for insight into the ways of his countrymen and eventually accepted as a valued friend by Ragnar. And when his infant son Ivar—tragically yet accurately to be known as “Ivar The Boneless” in the sagas—is born crippled, Ragnar chooses not to expose the doomed boy to the elements, as is the Viking way, but to allow a boy-child with no martial prospects whatsoever to live.
It took a while, but I finally came to the understanding that Ragnar’s caginess in his leadership is partly born of something like sheepishness and caution. He’s like the star quarterback who’s discovers the joys of poetry and tries to find the least obtrusive way to bring his hidden appreciation for higher culture into greater acceptance—without getting the Viking equivalent of a locker-room wedgie, which would probably involve a lot more cleaving.
In retrospect, it’s a brilliant way to create a Viking hero for modern sensibilities without turning him into an anachronistically modern hero. (It’s also a smart way to deliver the expected Viking thrills in a reduced-guilt form.) As Ragnar’s ambitions are revealed, they are decidedly homey—land to farm, greater prosperity for his people, and an end to the constant violence that marks every aspect of Viking life. Ragnar’s desire to sail west into the unknown flies in the face of stolid Earl Haraldson’s (Gabriel Byrne) determination to simply keep raiding the doormat lands to the east, which is standard rebellious hero stuff. But when Ragnar discovers the rich and fertile England, what he sees is farmland (the Scandinavia of the period had precious little arable land)—and with it, the chance to fundamentally transform the Vikings’ pillage-based way of life. And while it’s never clear how fully articulated Ragnar’s plans to essentially colonize England are, even to himself (Vikings is at its weakest when it gives Ragnar too much to say on the subject), it is clear that what he’s longing for is an end to the necessity of constant warfare in favor of what we see him enjoying from the first episode: family and farm and security.
In essence, it’s Viking society itself that is the show’s antihero—a lusty, brutal world where martial virtue is valued above all else, where sexual subjugation of women (non-Viking women anyway) is unfettered and indiscriminate, and where men had to be real men. In order to be successful in this society, Ragnar has to prove himself in all of those arenas (although, again, he confines his sexual activities to first Lagertha and then beautiful but less-impressive second wife Princess Aslaug, played by Alyssa Sutherland). But he’s doing so in pursuit of an agenda he knows is so alien to his contemporaries that to reveal it is inherently dangerous.
The concept of the antihero itself is one of vicarious id release. Viewers drawn to a charismatic villain see him acting out a role they feel has been enfeebled by the influence of time and civilization. But Ragnar Lothbrok, living in the wellspring from which the male antihero clichés flow, is looking forward. In these first glimmerings of higher consciousness, Ragnar is—warily and cleverly—poking his head up just enough so that the birth of a modern hero won’t also mean the death of a Viking one.