Episode 1: Rites of Passage
Episode 2: Wrath of Northmen
By: Carlos Uribe
Vikings is a show about the violent world of the Norsemen who raided and explored Medieval Europe.
What is this? History is doing a show that's actually about History? You don't say! It's also fictional? Fascinating!
I decided to check out Vikings because I believe it's the first fictional historical program that the History channel has done. It's only been beaten by Showtime, HBO, AMC, ABC, NBC, CBS, and Starz. The success of some of those shows probably convinced the channel that there was actual demand for historical dramas. The question was which historical topic should they cover? They decided on the Vikings. It basically sells itself. The title Vikings itself is a promise that there's going to be a lot of action. The vikings were basically known for constantly raiding villages, pillaging towns, and raping women. There's barely any raping in Vikings because that wouldn't make for an entertaining series to any non-Viking viewers but there is some pillaging. Vikings is a show with solid characters, an interesting plot, and great action. It's not the next great show but it is one that is entertaining and a great first effort by the History Channel. That might not seem like a lot of praise but it's honestly a great commendation for a first effort. It should also be taken with the note that it does have the potential to become great. The characters, writing, and acting have the promise of improving so that Vikings is more than just entertaining. The good news is that if Vikings is a success then maybe History Channel may start living up to it's name.
The plot of the first two episodes of Vikings follows Ragnar's quest to sail to the west and raid lands with a lot of rumored treasure. He has some obstacles in the current Viking lord and having to trust the first ship built capable of sailing the open ocean. The plot allows the show to give the protagonist a drive that the audience can easily understand. The stakes don't just exist in the battlefield but at home as well as the lord's desires are conflicting with Ragnar's dreams. The lord makes it perfectly clear he's not going to tolerate Ragnar's journey to the west so there's a lot of compelling drama outside of the action. Vikings is also able to capture the period well. Actually I'd like to amend that point. Vikings is able to sell it's version of the events well. It might very well be historically accurate but I don't really know enough about the Vikings to actually state if it is or not. The culture present in the show reflects one that is very different from our own and you even get the sense that they're holding back some of their values to ensure they don't alienate people. Vikings manages to exceed because it's able to present a world of the Vikings that is acceptable to people while presenting a plot that gives it direction for the next few episodes. There are some complaints about the plot but that's because of how it chose to utilize the characters.
The main character of Vikings is Ragnar. He's based on the legendary first Viking king who is known more as a myth than an actual human being. This gives the show a lot of freedom on how they chose to portray him. He's a protagonist that the viewers can get behind. He has a dream to improve his own lot, he loves his wife, and he cares about his family. He's basically an American hero in the Viking society. That is both a good and a bad thing. It's good because it allows the viewers to easily identify with a character they can relate with. This is a society that's rapidly different from our own but it's still vital that we're able to get drawn into it. Having a character that we understand is crucial to this. It's also bad because he's the character that acts the least like a Viking. Since this is a show called “Vikings” you can see why this would be a problem. It's a double-edged sword but it's not a significant enough problem that really detracts from the entertainment. It is one of the reasons that the show falls short from greatness. Do we need a character that we like? Absolutely but we also need a protagonist that is at least ruthless. There is a balance this show needed to set up: one where Ragnar is a character that the audience can relate to and another where he feels like he's a member of his society. This is something that future episodes can fix-a lot of shows like to start out with likeable characters before revealing their unflattering sides.
The show employs multiple side characters. The main antagonist is Earl Haradlson, the lord of the Vikings. He's basically there to serve as an obstacle to Ragnar's dream. He's not a bad character but he does need to be fleshed out better. His wife is Siggy, a Lady Macbeth kind of character. She's good but I'm just not sure why the plot needs her yet. A major problem is that so far the two are being presented as vague threats or randomly scheming against random characters. The other side characters are on Ragnar's side. The one likely to turn on him is his brother, Rollo. He's jealous of his brother and there's constant tension between them. The comical relief character is Floki, a crazy shipbuilder who can also read people. His wife, Lagertha, is a fierce shield maiden. It's a bit odd that she's established as a fierce warrior in the pilot and is revealed to be on the same level as her husband. This basically means that the show has decided to make Lagertha as a better warrior than the protagonist. Which is an odd decision but at least it does go to show how women didn't just raise children in Viking society. They were in the front lines. Ragnar's son is Bjorn. Bjorn is a twelve-year old kid who becomes a man in the pilot. This is basically a perfect way for the show to introduce us to the world as Bjorn is still being taught Viking customs and values. The final main character is actually introduced in the second episode, a monk named Athelstan. He didn't make a big enough appearance to really establish anything beyond his belief in his religion.
Vikings had a pretty solid premiere and a good follow-up. The narrative is strong but it does make a lot of mistakes when it comes to characters. It could do a better job in establishing the antagonists as formidable opponents and it could have done a better job presenting Ragnar as an actual member of Viking society. He's too Americanized at this point. It's a good enough show that I'll probably stick around. It's entertaining, the action is tight, and it manages to immerse you into the Viking world. It could one day become a great drama but for now viewers will have to settle for a fun and engaging one. Which is good enough for most people.
The second episode was on Hulu so I went ahead and included it in the review.
If the History channel had waited a year there's a strong chance that even the fledgeling CW network might have beaten them.