For cable and satellite television, exclusive programming has long been considered a mark of legitimacy. This was something that Sky realised early on, and whilst their erstwhile rival Super Channel concentrated on acquiring repeat rights for series like Doctor Who and Blake Seven, Sky ensured that their early fare included some exclusive international acquisitions. It is a belief that continues to this day, with Freeview comedy staple Dave picking up the rights to produce new episodes of both Red Dwarf and Yes Prime Minister in recent years.
It is therefore perhaps no surprise that, as the various legitimate streaming services for both film and TV online have come of age, they too have begun to recognise the value that exclusive broadcasting rights can bring. For Netflix it was House of Cards. For Crunchyroll it was Space Brothers. Now, for LoveFilm, it is Vikings.
Perhaps it is best to begin this review by first establishing what Vikings is not. Although originally produced by History in the US (representing – yes, you guessed it – the channel’s first foray into self-produced drama), Vikings is most definitely not historically accurate.
Although it pulls heavily on the general mythos, and indeed literature, of Norse history it has no qualms about throwing accuracy into the wind for the sake of the plot. Horned helmets are mercifully absent, and the writers clearly have a copy of Ibn Fadlan’s travel writings floating around the office (or at least 13th Warrior on DVD). The Norse Historians amongst you – of which we have no doubt there are many – will also spot that the series features an entire episode based on Adam of Bremen’s description of human sacrifice at Uppsala. Yet for all this, there are plenty of elements that raise eyebrows. The series begins with the premise that, ahead of the Lindisfarne raid, the Vikings were largely unaware of the existence of Britain to the west. Its use of a sunstone for navigation, portrayal of Viking law and government and the presence of shamanism are also elements that are there largely for the benefit of the narrative.
Make no mistake, Vikings is only slightly more loyal to its historical setting than The Tudors or Rome. The history of mediaeval northern Europe provides a framework in which the series’ drama can be played out, rather than a rigid rulebook which must be obeyed, but once Vikings is accepted on those terms, it has to be said that it is actually rather good.
Comprising nine forty-five minute episodes in total, the series follows the rise of Ragnar Lothbrok from farmer and frustrated raider (Ragnar wishes to sail west to raid the “mythical” land of Britain, his more risk-averse Earl prefers to go east) to earldom. Woven around this are the stories of Rollo, Ragnar’s brother, and Lagertha, Ragnar’s wife and a Viking warrior in her own right.
Of the various interlocking plots, Ragnar’s tale is inherently the most complex. The series manages to convey his journey from charismatic leader of a small band of men, to an Earl who is perhaps slightly out of his depth on the larger stage, with a surprising amount of heft. This is certainly helped by Travis Fimmel, who puts in one of the show’s standout performances as Ragnar. Fimmel manages to take a character that in the wrong hands could have been decidedly one-dimensional and inject just enough insecurity to make Ragnar realistic.
By contrast Clive Standen’s turn as Rollo is less assured. Loyal to his brother, but desperate for fame and glory in his own right (and in love with Ragnar’s wife) Rollo’s story is one that, on paper at least, should make for solid viewing. It never quite seems to really gather pace, however, with Standen’s shifts between loyal brother and jealous rival sometimes feeling a bit too arbitrary. There is promise there though, and by the series’ end it is clear that the writers have greater things in mind for the character. The fact that he shares a name with the first Viking Duke of Normandy is almost certainly not a coincidence, and so we must hope for greater things to come from both character and actor.
Completing the three ostensible leads, Katheryn Winnick puts in a solid performance as Ragnar’s wife (and Rollo’s obsession), Lagertha. Like Fimmel, Winnick manages to raise her character above the “warrior by day, wife by night” role that it could easily have become in less able hands. In this she is clearly aided by the writing – if Ragnar’s journey is one from confident warrior to unsure leader, then Lagertha’s is the exact opposite:- a contrast that is clearly deliberate and which alone should make the second series, now officially greenlit by History, interesting viewing.
Vikings, of course, is ultimately an ensemble piece, and whilst it may fall to Fimmel, Standen and Winnick to carry the weight of the plot, they are ably supported in this by fine casting elsewhere. Gabriel Byrne’s performance as Ragnar’s rival, Earl Haraldson, is as solid as one might expect, although he is arguably outshone by Jessalyn Sarah Gilsig (of Glee fame) as his wife. As with Winnick, and once again aided by the writing, Gilsig manages to take her character well beyond what in other hands could have become more of a background role.
If there is a real star-turn in Vikings, however, then it comes from Gustaf Skarsgård, another son of award-winning actor Stellan. He is his own man though, once again proving that Scandinavia is a real hotbed of TV acting talent. Skarsgård’s performance as Floki – slightly unhinged shipbuilder, cold warrior and friend to Ragnar – is excellent. Skarsgård manages somehow to imbue Floki with a combination of intensity and wry amusement that positively leaps out of the screen. In his hands Floki becomes the epitome of someone who is dangerous to know, but at the same time the most loyal friend a man could ever have.
Visually speaking, Vikings largely hits its mark as well. The series’ visual marker is clearly Game of Thrones, something it’s not always too subtle about hiding – be prepared for extensive shots of slightly ominous black birds, for example. A lot of thought has clearly been given, however, to working out how to capture that feel with a smaller budget. The decision to shoot in Ireland was an excellent one, as it allows the location and sets to carry more of the visual weight than special effects. The camera work is similarly clever, helping, on occasion, to make the world of Vikings feel more heavily occupied than it actually is. Indeed so accomplished is the series at this that it comes as quite a jolt when it occasionally falls short – noticeably a battle between Ragnar’s men and a Northumbrian army that looks like it would struggle to fill out the away end at a non-League football game, let alone defend one of mediaeval Britain’s most powerful kingdoms.
Ultimately, when taken as a complete package, Vikings is well worth watching. As History’s – and indeed LoveFilm’s – first real foray into exclusive drama it is incredibly impressive, and by the end of the series it is impossible not to be pleased that it has been given a second series in which to develop further. It is a series that is consistently good, with occasional flashes of greatness. Indeed perhaps what is most enjoyable of all is that the reasons for those moments of greatness are surprisingly diverse – sometimes it will be a plot turn, sometimes a moment of action. Sometimes it will just be because Vikings manages not to fall into the clichés and tropes that we have seen so often before. For most series an episode focused on human sacrifice would be a groan-worthy experience, yet Vikings manages to make it one of the most interesting and well-shot episodes in its run.
Much of the press that has surrounded Vikings so far has focused on trying to cast it in the Game of Thrones mould, an activity that arguably LoveFilm’s own press releases have not done much to discourage. There are similarities, certainly, but anyone watching it with that expectation is likely to be slightly disappointed – and that would be a shame as there is both quality, and potential, to be found here in equal measure.
Instead a better analogy, for CTVT readers with long memories at least, would perhaps be that old classic Robin of Sherwood. Vikings has the same mix of history and occasional mysticism, the same tension between the dreams of the writers and the budgets they are working with, and the same understanding that the acting talent should not just be confined to your leads.
Log on to LoveFilm with the above in mind, and you will not fail to be charmed.