The History Channel's 9-part Vikings miniseries, from The Tudors creator Michael Hirst, is real-life medieval history leavened with enough flights of fancy to keep it afloat. Here's why you need to give this show a chance.
History-lite, maybe — but history.
The show takes pains in its attention to authentic detail. Many of the characters and storylines have their roots in recorded events and Norse legends, and the gorgeous landscapes, evocative sets and accurate-to-a-fault costumes create a visually stunning impression. Mix in the show's willingness to be provocative — trippy interactions with Gods and men, undiluted sexuality, characters you'll love to hate, the age-old clash between innovation and conservatism — and Vikings becomes the perfect Sunday night entertainment while you're waiting for Game of Thrones' return.
The characters are badass and multi-faceted. The central couple, warrior Ragnar Lothbrok (the compelling Travis Fimmel) and his shieldmaiden wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick, pitch-perfect) are a paragon of lusty married bliss in a time when the other alliances depicted are brutal or political. Lagertha has already won a devoted fan following, as an uncompromising lady-warrior who is also a mother and lover, going toe-to-toe with Ragnar.
Ragnar's best friend Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) is another refreshing character, a crazy-eyed visionary shipbuilder who might be descended from Gods and talks to trees. Even the show's antagonist, Earl Haraldson (played with restraint by Gabriel Byrne in scarlet and ermine) hints at complexities beneath his I-shall-thwart-you mustache twirling: a flashback shows the Earl's tragic past, which has shaped the tenure of his reign. Afraid of Ragnar's suggestion that the Vikings must raid to the West instead of the well-known East, Haraldson represents stodgy authorities who have sought to block progress, a tale as old as time.
George Blagden sings.
Blagden, a newcomer recently seen harmonizing as Grantaire in Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, makes use of his vocal chops when he appears as Athelstan, a Christian monk captured by Ragnar on their first venture to the West. We're not sure if there's more overtures to be had, but we've seen the teaser trailers where Ragnar and Lagertha ask Athelstan to join them in bed. We're on board.
The series takes pains to show the methods by which Vikings undertook such long and perilous sea voyages. Early forms of navigation are shown and explained, like the rough version of a compass Ragnar is sure will lead him to untold riches, and the legendary 'sunstones' that were purported to help guide on overcast days. The recent discovery of such a crystal in an ancient British shipwreck suggests Vikings could be teaching geology alongside history.
Vikings is a new venture for the History Channel, strongly rendered fiction rooted in fact, in the vein of their blockbuster Hatfield & McCoys. While there has been lamentation about the network's slide into sensationalism from its documentary past, Vikings is a very far cry from Ancient Aliens. From its first two episodes, Vikings has shown itself to be smart, self-aware, full of information and fun. Just like my favorite history professors.
Vikings' second episode airs this Sunday, March 10, on the History Channel.