Vikings was always haunted by Ragnar Lothbrok, magnetically portrayed by Travis Fimmel and positioned by series creator Michael Hirst as the most interesting man in the world. If the murky focus that resulted from the legendary explorer and conqueror’s season-four death was partly intentional, as Hirst’s examination of the splintered and fractious aftermath of the death of a Great Man, the series never reached its considerable early heights again.
Vikings: Valhalla attempts to circumnavigate its predecessor’s narrative whirlpools by leaping forward a century in time to when the pioneering Norse deeds of Ragnar Lothbrok have not so much faded as ossified into talking points. For more pragmatically ambitious leaders like the Norse King Canute (played here with canny authority by Bradley Freegard), invoking the names of not only Ragnar, but Bjorn Ironside, Lagertha, and even Ivar the Boneless is, in every sense, campaign strategy.
With the Norse so entrenched in English society that many have converted to Christianity and even risen to become part of King Aethelred the Unready’s court, the aging (and tellingly wheezy) Aethelred’s decision to purge all Norse from the land is presented as an ethnic cleansing designed to solidify political power as much as a representation of actual religious animosity toward the largely assimilated settlers. That massacre spurs the homeland Norse to vengeance, although with far more ambivalence than we’ve come to expect.
Vikings: Valhalla functions as a spin-off more than a direct sequel to Vikings. Swapping Hirst for Hollywood veteran Jeb Stuart in the creator/showrunner seat, Vikings: Valhalla seeks to show the beginning of the end, where the mighty deeds and sagas of the past are falling with alarming speed under the seemingly unstoppable march of Christianity.
Half of Canute’s gathered army are Christian converts, as led by Olaf Haraldsson (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), whose support for vengeance against the English hinges on a mass conversion of the remaining “pagans” in Canute’s ranks. Meanwhile, the forests of Norway are stalked by roving bands of Christian zealots, led by the glowering Jarl Kåre (Asbjørn Krogh Nissen), who mercilessly mow down pilgrims on their way to the Norse holy site of Uppsala. Vikings: Valhalla presents these events, in a very real way, as the beginning of Ragnarök, with the Old Gods and their followers transformed in the century since Ragnar’s day into the persecuted and dwindling minority in their own land.
It’s here that Vikings: Valhalla both succeeds and fails on its own terms, as Canute’s eventual invasion of England and its aftermath are played out through the eyes of a trio of variously compelling representatives. Prince Harald (Leo Suter) is the Christian viking half-brother to Olaf (and descendant of Vikings’ Harald Finehair), impatiently awaiting his turn to rule while sporting a ready charisma he uses to away Canute’s fractured troops to the matter at hand. Leif Eriksson (Sam Corlett) and his sister Freydis Eriksdotter (Frida Gustavsson) are, as their names hint, children of the famed Erik the Red, come from Greenland to Vikings’ home port of Kattegat on an old school revenge mission of their own.
After that mission is carried out, the Greenlanders (as Leif, Freya, and their small band of friends are derisively called) find themselves swept up in the tide of current events. Freydis is left in the custody of Kattegat’s leader, Jarl Haakon, played with effortless regality by Swedish-Danish singer and actress Caroline Henderson. There’s a throwaway line explaining how Henderson’s Haakon (who is Black) wound up ruling the seat of power in Norway, but we see that the open trading hub of Kattegat has become this series’ exemplar of tolerance and cultural coexistence. As much as Vikings: Valhalla wants to cloak itself in historical trappings, however, this spin-off series’ big picture cultural ambitions are more broadly drawn than even Vikings’ often ham-handed meld of melodrama and anthropology.
It’s a relief that, at least in this first of four planned seasons, Stuart doesn’t continue Hirst’s sometimes cringe-worthy efforts to dramatize the first contact of the Norse and Native Americans. (Look for Corlett’s Leif the Lucky to pick that thread up if Netflix actually allows Vikings: Valhalla to continue.) But despite Stuart intermittently aping Hirst’s penchant for velvety court intrigue couched in cherry-picked, spottily recorded historical record, the broad strokes concerning religion here are especially explicit, as Vikings: Valhalla shows how bullying, swordpoint Christian expansionism inevitably trumps even viking berserker bravery.
Nobody’s saying that Christian zealotry wasn’t behind some of the most horrific bloodshed in world history. But Vikings: Valhalla turns its season-long elegy for a fading belief system and way of life into a cartoonish good versus evil battle worthy of Star Wars, with the black-clad Kåre stalking and slashing the Norse faithful like a bald, bushy-bearded Darth Vader. Christianity, both in England and Scandinavia, is depicted as the refuge of hypocrites, rapists, racists, and sadists (with a penchant for Hannibal-style gore-tableaux), while the gods-worshipping Norse (the odd Saw-style human sacrifice machine notwithstanding) are idealized as a problematically pure branch of human culture, ultimately too pure to truly adapt.
Meanwhile, the Norse ways, as exemplified in Kattegat’s multiculturalism and Haakon’s wise forbearance, are the setting for Freydis to take on the series’ burden of representing all that’s to be lost. Gustavsson is easily the series standout, and a worthy successor to Katheryn Winnick’s kickass Lagertha, even as Freydis is first saddled with a depressingly prosaic backstory for her vengeance, and then loaded down with a season’s-worth of mounting symbolic significance as “The Last One.”
All of this isn’t to say that Valhalla isn’t interested in giving viewers all the derring-do, blood, and sex Netflix allows. The dashing Harald (who’s immediately paired with Freydis for some moderately engaging mixed-faith romance) and Leif’s adventures in attempting to topple Aethlred’s young successor, Edmund (Louis Davison) from the English throne comes complete with plenty of impressively mounted and energetic battle scenes, including a mid-season assault on London Bridge that’s as thrilling as it is elaborately silly.
There’s a streamlined briskness to Vikings: Valhalla when compared to its predecessor that verges on glibness. Stuart takes advantage of his clean slate to tell a story that’s as much Game Of Thrones as Vikings in its appeal to gallop-paced and crowd-pleasing entertainment value over whatever pretensions to historicity the latter series’ aspired.
But if Stuart’s four-season plan is to come to greater fruition, it’s going to have to answer for some seriously choppy storytelling. Freegard’s Canute disappears inexplicably from the back half of the season, despite building up a plot-line between the newly crowned Viking King of England and its survival-minded former Queen Emma (Laura Berlin).
And while Corlett’s underplayed Leif keeps hinting at both a boundless inner rage and a wavering faith, neither struggle pays off satisfactorily through Corlett’s tamped-down performance. In addition, apart from Freydis’ first-episode swerve, nobody involved is particularly good at selling the plot twists the series keeps going for, leaving us simply waiting for the next quickly approaching action scene. Vikings: Valhalla is a crisp and often very entertaining re-skinning of the Vikings franchise that could use a little more of Vikings’ often messy ambition.