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First thoughts on VIKINGS
This past Sunday, the History Channel debuted its first scripted drama series, VIKINGS. (If you missed it, or if, like me, you don't actually have a television, iTunes had the first episode available for free, at least at the time of writing.)
VIKINGS follows the exploits of a de-mythologized Ragnar Lodbrok, a hero of Viking myths and sagas. Going by the first episode, the show hardly appears to be a straight adaptation of Ragnar's Saga; little about the show's hero remains the same as either the sagas or, as best as I can tell, the best guesses at the historical life of Ragnar. (I suppose that's not necessarily a bad thing, though it's a strange choice - nobody in America except serious Viking buffs will even recognize the name, and the people who recognize it will be confused as to why the character doesn't resemble the Ragnar of the sagas. Who knows.)
In the first episode, "Rites of Passage," Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and his twelve-year-old son set out to their tribe's Thing, where, after a few matters of law and punishment are settled, the tribe's leader, Jarl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) will announce their destination for the summer's raids. Haraldson announces they will strike east, into Russia, as they have for several years; unfortunately, while it is known territory, it's also a poor place to make a profit, as the Slavs aren't any richer than the Scandinavians. Ragnar, with the help of a few new technologies, believes they should strike west, instead, but Haraldson won't have any of it. In secret, Ragnar hires a half-crazed shipwright, Floki, to build him a vessel so he and a crew can go exploring, putting him into direct conflict with Haraldson, who doesn't want one of his subjects making him look weak by defying his orders.
There's plenty of other stuff going on, too - the transition of Ragnar's son, Bjorn, into manhood, a bit of sexual tension between Ragnar's brother Rollo (Clive Standen) and wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), and a very strange consultation with a deformed oracle. The show does not lack for subplots.
One scene that I found particularly interesting comes near the beginning of the episode, where, after the men of the house have headed off to the Thing, two vagrants appear at the family's home with the intent of raping and robbing Lagertha. Lagertha promptly catches both of them off-guard and drives them away, using her farm-tools as effective weaponry. Though it might not seem like it at first, this scene does a tremendous job of world-building. It brings us into the mindset of people living in the Viking Age, a world without organized police forces or 911 centers, a world where, when the men left the homestead, they would be gone for weeks. It also shows that the women of the North were hardly defenseless, and could protect their homes with or without their men.
Indeed, if the show excels in any one area, it is in world-building. I found it easy to get lost in the landscape, full of lush grasslands, claustrophobic forests, and weather-beaten rock faces, and the towns, which look like quite plausible recreations of period dwellings. It's a gorgeous show. And there's a lot of good work in the details of life in the Viking Age; the decision to begin at the Thing allows VIKINGS to quickly dispel the notion that the Northmen were simply berserkers, demonstrating their complicated society, their notions of law and nascent democracy.
It's not all stellar. Some of the subplots already feel worn out -- I'm looking at you, whoever decided that making Rollo lust after Lagertha would make a fresh addition to the script. And there are a few moments that just seem odd and out of place: for example, why on earth does the gothi Ragnar consults look like this?
To quote the great and honorable Mr. Plinkett: what's wrong with your face?
There's also a handful of unspecified details that annoy a nitpicky jerk like me -- chief among them, just where the heck the show takes place. We're given an approximate date of 793 AD, but the titles merely tell us that Jarl Haraldson's domain is somewhere in "Scandinavia." Well... Where in Scandinavia? It's a big place. The saga's Ragnar was a Dane, but VIKINGS doesn't specify. I ask mainly because the plot's premise depends on the idea that sailing west is unfeasible, as it would require a long voyage west into open ocean. But the Danes could easily sail along their western coastline and come down the northern shores of Germany and France, which means the whole "fear of an open ocean" thing shouldn't be an issue. (Note: I am not a sailor, nor a cartographer, so if you can explain this to me, please do.)
Anyway. Despite those problems, VIKINGS looks to be a pretty good show, with excellent production values, deep and subtle acting on the part of Travis Fimmel, and, above all, a surprising ability to transport the audience into the Viking Age. From my own perspective as a part-time Heathen, it's also nice to see that these Northmen are proud worshipers of the Aesir, and the ancient Nordic religion seems to underpin the story. Ragnar really does believe in Odin, and that belief is presented as an essential and vital part of his character.
I'm hoping the rest of the series follows through on the promise of this pilot. We'll see how next week's episode fares.
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