When Vikings Season 1 first arrived a couple of years ago, 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 drama series Vikings. Now season 3 is out on Blu-ray, and it’s certainly a season to remember.
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.
Now Ragnar (Fimmel) has made an alliance with the King Ecbert (Roache) of Wessex. This king has his sights on the entire English kingdom as his own and plans to use the Norseman as his ticket. Of course, it’s only going to turn out badly. At the king’s request, Ragnor leaves behind a settlement of his people, and you just know that isn’t going to turn out well. Does the term plausible deniability ring a bell?
Within the Viking people Ragnar’s continued reliance on the Christian priest Athelstan (Blagden) and his willingness to fight side by side with a Christian army is bringing disharmony to the ranks. Trusted friend Floki (Skarsgard) is doing his best to stir that pot. He believes “the gods” will show their anger and something bad will follow. The unrest grows, and it could be a huge trouble for Ragnar as he is seen to be embracing the Christian faith perhaps over the very Norse gods themselves. All of this plays a rather clever role in the season finale, but it also marks the departure of the Athelstan character. It’s one I will miss going forward. His loss will also put a strain on Ragnar, who truly has come to love and count on this man.
Of course, the big news for season 3 has to be the attacks on Paris. While the first episodes deal with the growing fears and resentments between faiths, there is also a tremendous amount of time spent exploring the political connections outside of our Viking world. But the groundwork is being laid for their multiple attack on Paris.
The last three episodes depict the three attempts at invasion, and this is some of the most intense fighting you have ever seen in a television drama. The first attack contains nearly 30 minutes of constant fighting. There’s little dialog here and rousing score. The episode takes us so completely into the fight that I found myself experiencing battle fatigue from the safety of my own home theatre chair. The sets and effects are near feature film quality, and this battle is a milestone in television production when it comes to depicting fierce battle. While the next two episodes don’t have quite so long and brutal of a segment, it is the battle that dominates these episodes. Watching these three at the same time was a particularly rewarding experience. If you think you can take it, I suggest you give that a try. It will be intense, and it will be thrilling.
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 ex-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. Her character has to fight for her title this season and finds herself betrayed. It offers even stronger moments for an actress who has truly shone on a show so dominated with men.
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. The season finale shows us that going forward this show might become a fight of brother against brother. Gustav Skarsgard steals every scene he’s in as Floki. He’s a Vikings renaissance man who is a skilled warrior, shipbuilder, 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. He finally gets his moment to lead, but it’s a trap by Ragnar in order to fill his heart with what it is like to be responsible for the deaths of others. Floki is a man devastated by the invasion of Christianity in their culture and feels called to do something about it. He’s a bit more of a broken man going forward.
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. There is one instance of a serious flaw. A couple of the scenes in the French Court during the attack on Paris appear to have odd focus issues. One instance was hard enough on my eyes that it started to cause a headache. I believe it is likely connected to the greenscreen work and an issue blending it into the set.
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 10 episodes on 3 discs.
Each episode has an alternate extended version. That is the version I watched throughout.
Athelstan’s Journal: This is a series of webisodes that serve as a bit of a recap of the first two seasons. It’s also nice to have extra time with the departing character.
Guide To The Gods: This is an interactive feature that lets you select a Norse god and hear some history about the myths.
Heavy Is The Head – The Politics Of King Ragnar’s Rule: )11:43) Cast and crew talk about accuracy and “truth”. I’ve already talked about the kind of authenticity you’d find here. It’s interesting when one of the executives points out that we don’t know what happened in the Dark Ages because it was the Dark Ages.
A City Under Siege – Creating And Attacking Paris: (14:35) As I’ve said, the Paris attacks are the big moment of the season. This feature provides conceptual art and plenty of cast and crew input to reveal how the city came alive on the show. Of course, plenty of the focus is also on the tremendous battle scenes.
The season ends with a twist you will see coming a mile away. Still, it’s a clever story point. I think the episode takes too long to develop it all. The more you linger on a concept that isn’t fooling anyone, the more it takes me out of the action and drama. It could have been handled better, for sure. The end sets up the struggle I already mentioned, and there’s a promise of more action to come. There is also a feeling that Ragnar’s reign is soon coming to its end. “And that’s a day we most fear.”