Review by C.J. Bunce
How do you tell the disjointed and gap-filled history of the Vikings in the era of Erik the Red’s son Leif Eriksson? Much like Vikings series creator Michael Hirst had done for his award-winning series: by stitching it together with good storytelling that’s all in the spirit of the legends and historical accounts. Leif’s greatest deed in the first season of the sequel series Vikings: Valhalla didn’t really happen in history, but it results in an episode that should count as one of the best strategy and siege depictions in TV history. The storytelling over eight episodes is so tightly written and the action moves at such a clip that you probably won’t notice the production, costumes, and props are just as authentic and grand as in Vikings.
Three key stories take characters in different directions. Vikings: Valhalla heavily reflects the then real-life struggle between Christianity and paganism. What is to be done with Leif Eriksson when he wasn’t even in England at this time? Leif Eriksson’s sister is Freydis Erikssdotter. Her story is about revenge, as is a story of the Vikings as a whole seeking vengeance against England. But how does a religious split divide them? That final thread may determine in future seasons the fate of the Vikings altogether. Hence, the Valhalla of the title.
Every story needs its villain. Is it the vile, deceitful Jarl Olaf, played by Icelander Johannes Johannesson? Olaf, once employed by the Crown, returns with all the secrets to have his revenge on London’s royals. He purports to be singularly focused to drive paganism from the Vikings, but he’s really after the dead king’s treasure. Queen Emma of Normandy is missing, and only Olaf knows where she is, so he leverages her children to get her to cooperate. But that is only the beginning of the shifting loyalties. Then there is Jarl Kare, who looks a bit like a medieval Ood from Doctor Who. He is cleansing Norway of nonbelievers on his way to destroy Freydis.
Prince Harald Sigursson, son of the former king’s bodyguard and brother of Olaf, wants only the head of the king for murdering his loyal Viking subjects, but the fierce and surprisingly savvy King Canute of Denmark, who led the attack, has other plans. When King Aethelrud dies, boy king Edmund allows himself to be coronated (to the protestations of the queen). Canute gets a classic mob boss (late tenth century style) scene on his route to be the first Viking king of England (a point where the show reflects the actual history books).
The writing is clever–necessary for a show where viewers know the ending and who ultimately prevails. Leif is the hero of this journey, but so is Harald, who also wants to be king of Norway. Just because you don’t believe in God, doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in you. That’s a theme here, as warring–and not warring–factions try to determine whether to follow a new god or an ancient pantheon of gods.
Split apart from Leif for killing a high-ranking Christian Viking who once raped her and carved her back with a dagger, Leif’s sister Freydis has a journey steeped more in Viking mythology than reality. She must walk a path that leads her to a mysterious hovel of pagan spirituality–think Floki and his character arc in the earlier series. The heroine stepping in for Lagertha, Freydis’s story is about self-discovery. This is where history takes a backseat to fantasy, magic, and myth.
Duplicity is everywhere in Vikings: Valhalla, and as in the first series England is written to be filled with weak leadership. Where Ragnar’s family was outsmarted by all sorts of factions over the series’ six seasons, it seems like there will be little time to flesh out the several generations covered the first time around. This first season of Vikings: Valhalla only offers eight episodes, so there is much still to develop. But beware: showrunner Jeb Stuart is not afraid to kill off the most endearing characters along the way.
Leo Suter (Sanditon) is the breakout star of the series as Harald. His character requires certain levels of persuasion and charisma and he pulls it off easily. German actress Laura Berlin’s Queen Emma is one of TV’s better attempts at re-creating a powerful royal. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina star Sam Corlett provides a surprisingly low-key Viking with his Leif Eriksson. Of all the characters his is the least developed, and the least tied to history in the first season. King Canute’s Bradley Freegard is refreshing as a Viking unlike his predecessors, who we’ll hopefully see more of next season.
You get the feeling the show is trying to build the new Lagertha quickly from not much backstory, but they make a good effort, placing Frida Gustavsson’s Freydis under Jarl Estrid Haakon (Caroline Henderson), a wise, older shieldmaiden who leads Kattegat–an updated version of the city from the first series–complete with her own army. Freydis is a superb character, a shieldmaiden Lagertha would have been proud to fight beside. Is Ragnarok coming, and is Freydis the last hope for the Vikings? At least two more seasons appear to be in the works for us to find out.
Other good performances can be found in supporting roles, including Danish actor Søren Pilmark (The Kingdom) as Canute’s father Forkbeard and Pollyanna McIntosh (Lodge 49, The Last Tycoon, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) as the Eleanor Roosevelt-esque Queen Ælfgifu of Denmark.
You’ll never think of “London bridge” the same way again. It’s historical fiction that borders on fantasy, one that will compete well with the best fantasy series. This is a great first season for the series, and fans of the original will feel right at home. Catch Vikings: Valhalla now, with all eight episodes of the first season streaming on Netflix.