History Channel enters the foray of original series with VIKINGS, premiering this Sunday, March 3rd at 10 p.m. ET. Set in Scandinavia during medieval times, around 800 A.D., the show follows real-life Viking, and subject of myth and lore, Ragnar Lodbrok (Travis Fimmel, The Beast), as he challenges what he considers an unfit ruler and expands the reach of his people.
The show opens at the end of a great battle, with Ragnar and his brother, Rollo (Clive Standen, Camelot), surveying the bodies on the battlefield. I do think it’s a little unrealistic when a thrown spear easily impales one would-be escapee. However, this scenes does a good job setting a tone of the series, and showcasing its hero in a great light.
In fact, this first episode is a lot of setup. Ragnar sits in council with his fellow, argues with his lord, consults a seer, visits a shipbuilder, and has sex with his wife, all to demonstrate what type of person he is, presenting various facets of his life. A good pilot introduces us to the protagonist, and over the course of the hour, viewers will get a real measure of what kind of man Ragnar is, a smart, ambitious, brave one, and what he has set his sights on.
Which is not to say that the episode is boring; quite the opposite. It may be a setup, but it’s also well made, and extremely interesting. The world the Vikings inhabit, as well as their morals and values, are quite a bit different than those of modern society. We are given a crash course, seeing the power struggles and their version of justice in action. Yet, there is movement enough in the plot to stay interesting.
Lest anyone worry these strange people will feel unrelatable to modern audiences, Ragnar’s family is given central standing, too. His wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick, Bones) is a fierce shield maiden, unafraid to show her husband affection, fend off two would-be rapists, and use a loom. But when she overrules Ragnar and makes their son, Bjorn (Nathan O’Toole, The Borgias), go to bed, even though Bjorn has just been made a man at the tender age of twelve by their people, it demonstrates that as much as things change, they also stay the same.
I am not familiar with Viking culture, so I cannot say how historically accurate VIKINGS is, but it certainly looks good. Filmed in Ireland, the sweeping scenery is impressive, and the buildings, costumes, and tools used look like they are from an earlier time period. It’s a little like Game of Thrones, and while maybe not at the same level of quality, not to mention comprising a much smaller cast, it’s similar enough that it’s likely to pick up some of the same audience, as long as they can be made aware that it’s airing.
Ragnar himself is the stuff of conflicting legend, and because of that, we can only guess at where the story is going. Sure, he and Rollo will sail east on a ship built for them by the odd and brilliant Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard, Evil), off to raid England and other new lands. And the current lord, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne, In Treatment), will clash with our hero, proving to be a dangerous foe. But will see Ragnar eventually become king? Will we see his sons grow up to be warriors in their own right? Will we see his eventual death? Until more episodes air, it’ll be difficult to judge what kind of pacing the series’ writers intend to go for in these first nine episodes, let alone over the span of years, should the series prove to be a success.
VIKINGS not only looks good, but it’s also well written. As stated, the pilot really gives us a feel for the time period, locale, and the primary characters, but I also feel that even the supporting players give off a sense of completeness, rounding out the world, making it seem authentic. Haraldson may be evil, but we see his sweet wife, Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig, Glee), and a flashback to the death of his sons, and realize that there’s a story behind every action and motivation. The acting excellently conveys this mission, and I am already eager to watch the next installment.
My only real complaint is about the accents affected by the various characters. The episode begins with subtitles, with is cool, but I’m glad they fade away relatively quickly. However, each performer has a different take on what a Viking’s English should sound like, and even among each individual, looked at separately, that take does not seem to be consistent throughout the episode. Ah, well. Nothing can be perfect, and accents aren’t so important, especially when the thing wouldn’t have unfolded in English in the real world, anyway.
I have to be honest, I was skeptical to hear History Channel was dipping its toe into historical fiction. But if this is an example of what they have in store, teaching us about a culture and lesser-known hero in such a high quality way, I hope VIKINGS is only the first of many such tales.
CHIEF TELEVISION CRITIC | Creator of and writer for It's All Been Done Radio Hour live show and podcast. A voracious reader wanting to tell stories of his own, Jerome began writing around the age of 8 and hasn’t stopped, both original works and television reviews. Lives in central Ohio. Favorite current shows include The Walking Dead, Jessica Jones, Flaked, Outlander, and Archer.