When Vikings Season 1 first arrived, I have to admit I was pretty excited. I was particularly eager to see footage from their very first game. Fran Tarkenton came off the bench, and the Vikings went on to become the first expansion team ever to win their very first game. OK, as Baby, our Shepherd/Chow mix dog film reviewer would say: I made that last part up. You’d have to have been living under a pretty isolated rock to have missed all of the buzz over The History Channel’s epic new drama series Vikings.
This is quite a step up for the History Channel folks. They’ve certainly produced a great number of historical dramatizations and documentaries, but nothing they’ve ever done before compares with this series. We used to review a ton of their stuff here for years, so you know I’ve liked a lot of the things they’ve done. But Vikings puts them in a totally new stratosphere. This is historical drama that you’ve only seen before in the likes of Rome or The Tudors. Of course, there’s a very good reason for that. Michael Hirst created the series and is the creative force behind it. He served the same positions on The Tudors. That puts expectations here very high, and the show has met or exceeded them all.
The series follows the exploits of Ragnar Lothbrok (Fimmel). He is a farmer in 8th Century Scandinavia. In the summer he would join his brothers on their infamous raids in the lands to the East. But Ragnar is restless. He believes that the Eastern lands have been pillaged to the point of diminishing returns. He wants to sail to the West where he believes there are new lands to be plundered. This puts him at odds with his land’s Earl, Haraldson (Byrne). It is his ships and his rule that governs this clan. As Haraldson reminds him, it would be dangerous to go against his wishes.
But that’s exactly what Ragnar does. He commissions Floki (Skarsgard) to build a new type of boat. He has also learned to build a crude compass, a technology unheard of here, to guide the ship west. He recruits a crew headed by his own brother Rollo (Standen) and he takes an English monastery by surprise. There he discovers the strange priests and monks and their new religion. He also discovers the plentiful gold artifacts they use in their worship. The raid is a great success. They return with slaves and booty galore. Haraldson is amazed but can’t let the disobedience to go unpunished. He claims the entire bounty, allowing each of the crew to select a mere single item for themselves. Ragnar selects one of the priests (Glagden) as his slave. But, it isn’t a slave he’s interested in. The Priest teachers him their language and unwittingly reveals the location of other places to plunder.
The success of Ragnar’s raids creates a rivalry between him and his Earl, and it’s not going to end until one of them is dead. Once in control, Ragnar sets off on a path that will change his people and those who come in contact with them forever.
The series does a pretty good job of bringing the culture and lifestyle of the Viking people to life for us. There is a great effort toward authenticity. That isn’t to say that the show claims to be historically accurate. The Vikings were not a literate people. They did not keep a written record of their lives. What is known has been pieced together through artifacts and stories that were handed down orally from generation to generation. It’s not even possible to depict the culture with any precision or accuracy. When you watch a film or a series like this, you need to be mindful of the difference between authenticity and accuracy. They are not the same things and shouldn’t be confused here. Authenticity means that there’s an attempt to portray the world in a faithful way. We’re talking costumes, weapons, beliefs, lifestyles and environment. That’s not to say that the film is attempting to tell a “true” story. Only one that feels true. Accuracy is intended to educate. This kind of a show is intended to entertain, and the authentic presentation is there to immerse us realistically in the world in order for us to care about the characters and events. The Vikings does this with a sweeping eye toward detail. The world comes alive for us and we can be swept up in the events.
The show is fortunate enough to have a smart cast. I’m not exactly sure what to make of Travis Femmel. I never saw him in Tarzan and can’t really recall seeing him in anything before. He certainly commits to the part, and I’m having a hard time separating the two. Can’t complain about that. There’s a tremendous amount of nuance and subtlety to the performance. He’s larger than life, to be sure, but much of that is due to the circumstances around him. Femmel pulls back and allows the performance to live within his environment. I’m sure the production design helps him to get lost in Ragnar, and we benefit from the collaboration.
Katheryn Winnick plays Ragnar’s wife, and she’s another actor I don’t recall seeing before. Unlike many ancient civilizations, women were nearly equal in Viking society. They were warriors and even leaders. Winnick certainly brings that out. She has an unenviable task of having to show a slight deference to Ragnar, although nothing close to subservience. Yet, she still must pick those moments to show the necessary strength. It’s a bit of a tightrope performance that provides for one of the show’s most interesting and complicated characters.
Clive Standen plays brother Rollo. The character has a slow start but is becoming very interesting by the season finale. We’re getting the idea that there are layers to him that we have not seen yet. Gustav Skarsgard steals every scene he’s in as Floki. He’s a Vikings renaissance man who is a skilled warrior, ship builder, and philosopher. Yet he’s often the most primitive character. It’s a contradiction that plays strong, again with a subtle performance. You can’t help but think there’s a rich history behind this guy. You really want to see his story as much as the one you’re watching. It’s my hope that his past is explored somehow in future seasons.
George Blagden plays the priest. This is the most emotional character of the show. He’s basically the representative of the audience. He’s taken by surprise by the bloodthirsty savages who invaded his sanctuary. Over time he’s seeing them as a deeper culture as rich as his own. Needless to say, he is having somewhat of a crisis of faith. Again, a pivotal role is trusted to a relative unknown, and it works.
I have seen Jessalyn Gilsig before, most notably in David Kelly’s Boston Public. She plays the wife of Haraldson who must learn to survive when he is beaten by Ragnar. She’s the cunning court loyalist with plans of her own here. She’s the devil who whispers into the ear of the brother who loves his brother but feels somewhat overshadowed by Ragnar’s fame and adoration. This will also have great potential for future episodes.
The series is filmed in Ireland where many of the coastal cliffs and mountains provide a nice backdrop to these stories. Hirch takes the time to allow us to delve into these environments and the cultural aspects of the people. These stories are not told in a vacuum. Again, it’s that term: authenticity, and you can’t say enough about how it shapes the experience as a viewer. That’s the right term for this show. You don’t watch it, rather you experience it.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. The high-definition image presentation is true to the broadcast quality and then some. You’ll appreciate the textures particularly. This is a rather dirty world, and the production design has coated everything in that layer of mud or dirt. The presentation delivers it. There are also some stunning vistas here, and the cinematography is something to behold. The transfer here delivers that painstaking effort. The image is sharp and crystal clear. The color palette is often cold. I’m impressed at how the show’s lighting gives us a wonderful indication of climate. Seasonal changes show wonderfully in the shape and quality of the light. Black levels are pretty much inky black.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also the product of detailed design. Surrounds are not usually aggressive but do offer those slight ambient sounds that bring us into the action without really being noticed. Dialog is clear and perfectly placed. The score is above average for television productions.
There are Deleted Scenes and select Commentary Tracks on each disc.
There are 9 episodes. (3 to each disc)
Conquest And Discovery – Journeys Of The Vikings: This is an interactive map. You select an area and get a brief video. There is a very welcome play-all option if you don’t want to navigate the map.
The Armory Of The Vikings: Again you navigate icons of the various weapons of the Vikings and get a brief video. There is no play-all option here.
A Warrior Society – Vikings Culture And Law: (20:48) Historians join cast and crew members to talk about the people this series is based upon. There’s a look at particular scenes from the series with information about what it represents.
Birth Of The Vikings: (17:09) This is the behind-the-scenes stuff. There’s a focus on the characters and stunning locations. The boats are also a big part of the feature.
Warfare & Tactics: (12:11) Stuns and battle scenes here.
Just in time for another Thor movie we get to see a series that seriously explores the Norse mythology and culture that spawned the Marvel characters so many years ago. It’s rather nice to hear the stories of Odin, Thor and Loki in the context of their origins. It’s easy to see how these beliefs shaped the people that shared them. The fact that their stories survive today without the benefit of a written history says something for the power of these beliefs. The episodes are compelling, and there is such an advantage to having them all so you can watch as many as you want at a time. It’s early yet, but I think that Vikings “is destined for great things”.