Review by C.J. Bunce
After the first few episodes of Vikings you will find yourself asking why this is only a nine-episode mini-series. The History Channel’s first historical fiction mini-series since the acclaimed Hatfields & McCoys, the new series Vikings takes stunning locations, a powerful score, and a good story steeped in Nordic mythology and creates an epic production on par with Braveheart, Rob Roy, 300, and Attila. And it’s even better than Game of Thrones.
Everyone has their own view of what Vikings should look like. We know from documentaries and books that these warriors in the late eighth century were plunderers and pillagers. They lived in a style as you’d find people roaming your local Renaissance Faire, clothing of wools and furs and hide. Weapons of steel, shields of oak and longboats whose appearance would strike fear in hearts of the enemy. Whether the History Channel has every historical detail down is beside the point. Vikings is completely believable and true enough to the ancient sagas of fierce warriors, gods of every stature, and clan intrigue.
The first episode of Vikings airs tonight at 9 p.m. Central/10 p.m. Eastern on the History Channel. Viewers will meet the determined and ambitious Ragnar Lothbrok, an actual character in Norse sagas played engagingly in the series by Australian actor Travis Fimmel. Fimmel’s command of the character, who must be both likeable to his contemporaries yet not entirely likeable to modern sensibilities, is essential for both the viewers and his renegade group of clansmen to follow Ragnar on his risky voyage to the unknown western sea. Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects, Assault on Precinct 13, Point of No Return) is the local chieftan who owns the ships that the Vikings must take to sack the villages to the east. Ragnar and his farmer kinsmen have sworn a fealty oath to Byrne’s Earl Haraldson, who refuses to believe rumors of this place called England and its cities of endless plunder. This tenuous relationship between Ragnar and Haraldson, and what is best for the Viking tribe, provides the focal tension for the series.
From the first scene in episode one we are treated to exactly what we expect in a Viking adventure, with Ragnar and brother Rollo, played by Clive Standen (Doctor Who, Robin Hood, Camelot) defeating a Baltic army with axe, spear, knife and sword. The action is suitably intense and not overly bloody or gratuitous. Scenes between Ragnar and son Bjorn, played by Nathan O’Toole (The Borgias) are surprisingly good and full of backstory that helps set the climate for the practical laws that govern the society as it is mixed with the harsh punishments of a more primitive world.
Ragnar’s wife, a shield-maiden named Lagertha, is played impressively by Katheryn Winnick (Bones, House, M.D., Law and Order, Radio Free Albemuth). Series writer Michael Hirst, known for scripting the movie Elizabeth, and TV series Camelot and The Tudors, creates Lagertha as a powerful equal to Ragnar, consistent with the tough-as-nails women of Viking tradition. And don’t let Hirst’s The Tudors pedigree affect your impressions of Vikings–you won’t find a soap opera or over-sexed romance here. Although the series is a bit light on women characterization, Lagertha is a memorable co-lead in the story. Another interesting character is Ragnar’s boatmaker friend Floki, played by Swedish actor Gustaf Skarsgård (Kon-Tiki). Floki is a bit like the frenetic god Loki coupled with several “peculiarities” which allow him to play off Ragnar quite well.
The series is filmed in beautifully cinematic locations across Ireland by John S. Bartley. The score by Trevor Morris is rousing and exciting. Jon Beer and Jil Turner’s art and set direction are spot on, and the series features great costume and prop work.
For viewers who don’t think they are getting enough action in episode one, stay tuned for episode two, where the stakes are raised, and the Viking plundering and legendary brutality really begins. And from there the series only gets better as Ragnar decides how to best use his knowledge of the West and his nautical skill to his best advantage. Vikings is a great addition to not only the historical fiction genre, but its myths and setting will serve well for fans of classic fantasy, too.