Review: History’s ‘Vikings’ a bloody good time

There are more ambitious dramas on television right now, but few that deliver as consistently on what is promised than “Vikings” (Sunday at 10 p.m.), History”s first scripted drama series. The show is exactly what you might expect from the title – unless, that is, you”re from Minnesota and expecting a fictionalized account of the career of the Purple People Eaters, or perhaps a dramatization of the sex boat scandal – presented with plenty of style.
So there are many tall men with axes and shields and interesting beards. There are longboats and debates over whether any lands exist to the west of Scandinavia – making our westward-looking hero, Ragnar (Travis Fimmel), a bold thinker for his era – and battles on green hills and sandy beaches. There”s abundant pillaging, talk of Valhalla and how to get there.
It”s called “Vikings.” It”s about Vikings. And it”s quite good in the early going.
The series was created by Michael Hirst, who has plenty of experience with period intrigue (the “Elizabeth” films, Showtime”s “The Tudors”), and the pilot directed by “Breaking Bad” veteran Johan Renck. With a little help from computer effects and a lot from their production people and the green hills of Ireland, they create a vision of the culture that may not be 100 percent to historical accuracy, but which also doesn”t feel completely ludicrous for the sake of drama.
Though we open with Ragnar as one of the few survivors of a fearsome battle involving swords, spears and axes – one that”s not quite as graphic as, say, Starz”s “Spartacus,” but also one that doesn”t hide from the blood – the series is willing to take its time to introduce us to Ragnar”s family, his community, and the conflicts before the action really gets heated. We meet his wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), a fierce shield-maiden in her own right, and their son Bjorn (Nathan O”Toole), who”s on the verge of becoming a man – with all the power and responsibilities that involves. And we see the subtle battle between Ragnar and the local Earl (Gabriel Byrne), who believes there are no lands to the west and no way to get there – even though Ragnar has discovered the Viking equivalent of GPS, and can properly chart a voyage through unfamiliar waters.
Fimmel”s a former model who had a rough introduction to the TV business a decade ago as the star of the WB”s “Tarzan,” but he”s evolved into an interesting performer. The role of Ragnar plays to all of his strengths: impressive physical presence, a command of the screen, crazy eyes that also reveal a wicked intelligence behind them. Some of his most interesting moments involve Ragnar in repose, contemplating his next move, and Fimmel absolutely holds the frame as he does it. The part (and the beard) may create more confusion between Fimmel and Charlie Hunnam on “Sons of Anarchy,” but that”s not a bad thing when the performance suggests it might have that kind of power behind it.
Fimmel is well-matched by Winnick, who”s convincing as a woman who can go to battle with these giant men, and also by Gustaf Skarsgard (brother of Alexander from “True Blood”) as Ragnar”s eccentric ship-building friend Floki. Byrne is playing more of a stock villain, but he also lends credibility to this maiden voyage for History, and Jessalyn Gilsig from “Glee” plays well to type as the Earl”s cunning wife.
In an odd way, the four episodes I”ve seen play almost like science fiction. Ragnar is the explorer determined to go somewhere that everyone says is impossible to get to (if it exists at all). And when the Vikings do eventually land on the shores of England, they”re greeted as something akin to aliens, baffling the local Christians – including George Blagden as a monk who becomes Ragnar”s reluctant guide to the Saxon world – almost as much as they in turn are baffled by those who would leave so much gold and so many jewels lying around an unprotected house of worship.
“Vikings” isn”t complicated. It doesn”t get too cute in its dialogue, and instead relies on the inherent appeal of the era and these characters to drive the story. It knows what it wants to do, and it does it. As original series debuts go, it”s no “Oz” or “The Shield,” but it does the job it sets out to do in entertaining fashion.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at