History's “Vikings” returns for its third season on Thursday (February 19) night and through three episodes, I can safely say that Michael Hirst's saga of pillaging and migration remains everything it has been almost from its premiere.
Over two seasons, “Vikings” has delivered solidly above-average thrills that exceed the requirements of its basic cable home. The show has a passionate audience already, but I'm reasonably sure there's a far larger audience out there that would get a kick out of “Vikings,” because it really is one of those shows that check a wide number of demographic boxes.
“Vikings” is reliably badass, if you like that sort of thing. Maybe not every episode, but probably every two or three, the directors and choreographers deliver a visceral Viking action set-piece that has both admirable scale, but also a raw, gory intimacy. Perhaps more than any other action show on television, “Vikings” conveys military strategy with on an intellectual level, rarely leaving viewers struggling to understand why a skirmish fell one way or the other. From well-deployed shield-walls to Norse ferocity, when things go Ragnar & Company's way, I know how and why. [I can't speak to the historical accuracy of the battle scenes, nor of anything in “Vikings.” I also don't care. Nobody's forcing me to take a pop quiz after watching an episode. At the most, somebody will say, “Did you enjoy watching the episode?” and my answer will generally be “Yes.”
As an action show, I'd say “Vikings” maybe ranks a little bit below “Game of Thrones” or possibly something like an “Arrow” or “The Flash,” in terms of choreography/stunts, but I wouldn't say it ranks far below those shows.
Merely doing action is pretty hollow if you don't have characters who can be developed through that action, and that's pretty hollow if you don't have actors who are capable of giving performances through it. “Vikings” is a show that delivers macho posturing, but with enough better-than-necessary performances that action scenes make you care, pushing you to the edge of your seat. Travis Fimmel has done two seasons of atonement for “Tarzan” and he's a solid anchor for the series, even if the responsibilities of increased power have sanded off some of Ragnar's crazy-eyed unpredictability. But if that's what you want, Gustaf Skarsgard's Floki has remained nutty and unpredictable thanks to Skarsgard's quirky line-readings and liberal application of eye-liner, while Clive Standen's Rollo has remained unpredictable by virtue of constantly wounded pride. And thanks to a wisely deployed time-jump last season, “Vikings” aged wee Bjorn from a plucky child into a strapping young man and, in Alexander Ludwig, the show's casting directors continued an admirable streak of landing solid performers in addition to indisputable eye-candy.
The perception when it comes to “Vikings” was always that it was all about grimy dudes with long hair and axes. This is not and has not been the case. Ever. The reality is that when it comes to strong and quickly dimensionalized butt-kicking female characters, “Vikings” has very few peers. Katheryn Winnick's Lagertha has justifiably gotten most of the press in this department and “Vikings” has done great work establishing Lagertha not just as a physical presence whose fierceness is entirely plausible on the battlefield, but also as a smart political operator whose elevation in Viking society has been illuminating to watch. While they haven't been in the fray chopping heads, Alyssa Sutherland's regal Aslaug and Jessalyn Gilsig's always scurrying Siggy have presenting different ways that women could attain status and control their own destinies in Viking society. And with the addition of Gaia Weiss' Porunn and a slew of English princess-types, “Vikings” has impressively kept adding to a roster of female characters that has, at least for me, been more interesting than the male Vikings for a while now.
So I've covered reasons why “Vikings” should interest fans of proficient TV action and why its cast offers both well-acted testosterone-laden man-meat, but also an equal complement of assertive and well-acted female roles (none of which are hard on the eyes).
But “Vikings” comes from “Tudors” creator Michael Hirst and his interests are brainy as well. Again, I can't speak to their historical accuracy, but the angles of Viking society that attract Hirst aren't just about raids and attempted world domination. He's interested in power and gender roles, hence the balance of the cast, but the spiritual world of the Vikings has never been far from Hirst's mind. The first season built to a ritual sacrifice at the Temple of Uppsala, while the second season built to a ritual punishment that was treated as nothing less than divine vengeance. This is a world in which seers seem to have a direct line to the Gods and in which nature's behavior carries great meaning. But through increasingly conflicted Anglo-Saxon monk Athelstan and the newly added King Ecbert, who served in the court of Charlemagne (at least for the purposes of this series), Hirst offers contrasts between the Viking religion and developing Christian beliefs.
Might I add that the production values achieved on the Irish stages and locations for “Vikings” are consistently outstanding, with John Bartley and then P.J. Dillon offering some of TV's prettiest vistas and period details. And the credit sequence set to Fever Ray's “If I Had a Heart” is one that I never skip or fast-forward through.
The world of “Vikings,” started in and around a single village but has become increasingly expansive and, at times in the early-going of Season 2, perhaps a little overextended.
Newly minted King Ragnar is given a mission to cement his alliance with King Ecbert, which pushes many of the main characters to one part of England, while Lagertha and several other main characters get their own, very different, English storyline. But things keep happening back in both Ragnar's original village — Kevin Durand is an absurdly natural fit in this world as a mysterious storyteller — and in the nearby village where Lagertha has risen to Earl, but now has to put a previously unseen guy named Kalf (Ben Robson) in charge, for good or for ill.
The limitations of period transportation makes it hard for Hirst to work with parallel storylines, but Hirst tries anyway, not necessary to the benefit of early pacing. I couldn't overcome the sense that one of two of the concurrent journeys would probably take a half-hour on horseback, while other journeys must be taking weeks or months by sea.
The start of Season 3 also suffers a little from a lack of a High Profile Adversary. Gabriel Byrne and Donal Logue never felt like permanent fixtures in the “Vikings” cast, but both added presence and character actor chops to what were designed as one-and-done impediments to Ragnar's gradual ascension. When Ecbert was introduced, it felt as Linus Roache was serving a similar purpose, but instead Ecbert and Ragnar have been presented as similarly progressive, or at least “curious,” rulers and while Hirst has sometimes fudged or embellished history, he hasn't done something as demonstrably fictionalized as having Ecbert of Wessex beheaded by a Viking.
The assumption is that eventually Paris and Lothaire Bluteau's Charles the Bald will become the season's Big Bad (which similar Ecbert-ian limitations in play), but the early episodes are hampered by slightly predictable or one-dimensional English or Viking baddies. That doesn't mean nuance won't set in eventually and it doesn't mean that the battle scenes are lacking, but I feel like I only know the season's likely cumulative build from history and conversations with Hirst, rather than anything set up early in Season 3.
I also have to confess that while “Vikings” has done so well with adding female characters, I have male character issues, specifically that Rollo and Floki have outlived their plausible mortality by several seasons. I look at those two characters as as good as Standen and Skarsgard are and as useful as the characters are, Rollo is so far past trustworthy that even ties of blood can't make me believe Ragnar would keep him around, while Floki's death and betrayal have now been teased enough times that “Vikings” has become The Boy Who Cried “Floki.” So when Season 3 begins with Floki lamenting to wife Helga, “I feel trapped in all this happiness,” all we can do is assume that his happiness is about to abate, just as we've previously assumed he was wounded-and-dying or on the verge of betraying Ragnar. And there aren't enough supporting male Vikings, so “Vikings” periodically assumes I know or remember or care about somebody and that I'll care if they kill them, but I rarely do.
While certain of Hirst's fascinations have also achieved a level of familiarity — his fetishism of Viking sacrifice rituals remains far from exhausted — I like that he's trying to expand the tonal reach of “Vikings” in addition to its geographical reach. I'm sure some viewers out there still 'ship Lagertha and Ragnar, if you're like me and you figure Ragnar doesn't really deserve Lagertha's awesomeness anymore, you'll be pleased by a budding new romance that lets Katheryn Winnick actually smile, a rarely utilized piece of her arsenal. Light rom-com hijinks definitely aren't what make Hirst most comfortable, but it's a good variation on the show's previous depictions of Viking love and coupling.
When I did my Best of 2014 rankings, “Vikings” wasn't in my Top 10 or Top 20 or Top 30, but as I expanded out, it was comfortably in my Top 40, which means that, in sports terms, it isn't a superstar, but it's the sort of valuable contributor that I like having in the TV landscape, probably occupying a space between premium cable prestige and fun network populism. It's a show that I simultaneously think could have much more mainstream success than it has if a wider audience checked it out, but also could have a deeper well of critical support if writers gave it a shot. Only 19 episodes of “Vikings” have aired and you could catch up in a hurry, but I'd suggest that it's pretty easy to figure out the things that are happening in “Vikings” and get in on the fun.
“Vikings” returns on Thursday, February 19 on History.