Vikings, Season One (2013)

 

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

 

There was a stirring of interest among costume drama fans when The History Channel announced its intention to bring its first fictional series to the small screen. The result is impressive but also somewhat flawed; a brutal, fictionalized retelling of a Viking family amid political upheaval, the spread of Christianity, and a rapidly changing barbaric world.

 

Summer approaches in the small Viking village. Soon the men and some of the women such as Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), who are Shield Maidens, will go on the summer raids. Each time, they return with fewer numbers and plunder, but Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) is convinced that greater wealth lies across the water, in the unknown. His vision leads him to enlist the local boat builder to build him a craft in secret, which he will then use to conduct a raid... without the knowledge of their warlord, Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne). When it is ready to set sail, Lagertha pleads to go with him but is instead left behind to look after the children.

 

Haraldson suspects treachery and awaits the warriors at home, prepared to confront and strip them of their wealth if they return victorious; but meanwhile across the sea, Ragnar reaches solid land and discovers a monastery. Abundant in gold and silver, with unarmed men who refuse to defend it, he believes all of England will be so easily conquered. They kill most of the monks but one in particular, a young, idealistic Christian named Athelstan (George Blagden) captures his interest. Ragnar takes Athelstan as a slave, neither of them realizing that their lives are about to change forever.

 

I have mixed feelings about this series. Historical rewriting doesn't interest me, since I have little knowledge about the period; neither do I have any complaints about the costuming being inaccurate, because I have come to expect as much from Joan Bergan, who also did the equally inaccurate but beautiful costuming of The Tudors and The Borgias. The same creative trio behind both of those series is also behind this one -- the same primary writer (Michael Hurst, who loves to play fast and loose with history), the same costume designer, and the same composer. It is a well-acted, well-produced, enthralling, and engaging series with deeply flawed characters. That is either its strength in making them human and realistic to the period or its politically correct weakness, because the women are wonderful while all the men are dogs. Strong, intelligent, beautiful, proud, and desirable, most of the women refrain from the back-stabbing, raping, pillaging abuses that their husbands commit. It seems one-sided to me, but then I'm someone who thinks men and women should have equal representation in terms of ethics on screen.

 

Historically, this series has some basis in fact and is interesting in the sense that it explores both the paganism of the culture (it doesn't even shy away from human sacrifices) and the legal system in place at the time. Athelstan points out its unequal terms (that a man may rape a slave, but not a free woman without punishment) and we see that a collective unanimous vote must be gathered from the council members in order to put a man to death. Much is made of going to death with honor, in order to obtain a decent afterlife. Christianity is touched upon but not with as much interest as the paganism, which is explored in nearly every episode. The superficial inclusion of the Christian faith may be a blessing, considering the health of the Church at that point, but there is an imbalance. Everyone is ruthless and willing to trade other people's lives for what they want. The series doesn't become as graphic as some cable shows, but despite Michael Hurst stating that sex isn't necessary to tell a good story, there is still plenty of it... mostly implied but sometimes seen, and not all of it voluntary on the women's part.

 

Television has undertaken a trend of late of writing deeply unsympathetic and unlikable leading characters, motivated through personal gain, greed, and ultimate selfishness. I miss the days of honorable and moral characters, whose actions are to be admired for their virtue rather than for them sacrificing others for personal profit. This show is not immune and by the end of the first season, the only character I still like on Vikings is Lagertha, which I hope is what the writer intended. If not, he has a problem.

    
Sexual Content:
Half a dozen sex scenes. Most of them have movement, some of them show naked backs. Other scenes are implied or cut away. A monk is invited into a threesome (he declines). Two women are raped and a third is almost raped before killing her attacker. A man offers another man his wife; when the second man accepts the invitation and climbs into bed with her, they murder him. Blurry glimpses of caressing figures imply that an orgy is happening in the pagan temple.
 
Language:
None.
 
Violence:
Frequent and gruesome; men are bludgeoned, stabbed, have their throats cut, or are beheaded. Many fight scenes. Blood spurts and spatters. Human and animal sacrifices are made (off-screen, but the bodies are shown and we see lots of blood draining into bowls).

Other:
Paganism is explored in depth through dreams, prophecies, references to and conversations about the gods; sacrifices, including humans, prayers, superstitions, and creepy oracles.