Eddie Cockrell on why Vikings are the genre du jour
The time has come to see Vikings in a new light
FIMMEL’S RAGNAR, ALTERNATELY FIERCE AND BROODING, IS NOTHING SHORT OF REVELATORY
THE season one cliffhanger ending of Vikings was fairly inevitable as these things go: newly minted earl of the medieval Scandinavian village of Kattegat, Ragnar Lothbrok (Australian model turned action hero Travis Fimmel), contemplates the tummy of Princess Auslag (Brisbane-born model Alyssa Sutherland), whom he has just impregnated on returning from a mission to Gotaland.
At the same time his scheming sibling Rollo (Clive Standen) decides to throw his lot in with Jarl Borg (Thorbjorn Harr), an aggressive challenger to the real estate claimed by Ragnar’s new ally King Horik (Donal Logue). “I will fight with you against my brother,” he says, somewhat anti-climactically.
Meanwhile, back in Kattegat, a plague has claimed the respective daughters of Ragnar and Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig), widow of the former earl, Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), killed by Ragnar in a fight to the death. Ragnar’s shieldmaiden wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), who has already been hit on by Rollo, becomes concerned about her husband’s wellbeing and consults the blind Seer (John Kavanagh), only to be rebuffed because the news is too grim.
Still with us? Young monk Athelstan (George Blagden), kidnapped by Ragnar during his maiden raid on a monastery in Northumbria, is revealed to be clinging to his Christianity, despite sporting Viking garb and renouncing Christ three times publicly in preparation for becoming a human sacrifice that is bestowed on another when the subterfuge is discovered. Flaky but brilliant boatbuilder Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) has acquired a consort in Helga (Maude Hirst), though it doesn’t seem to have modified his eccentricities much. Finally, Ragnar’s young son Bjorn (Nathan O’Toole), fresh from the rite of passage into manhood bestowed by the now-dead ex-Earl Haraldson, is ominously disapproving of Dad’s dalliance.
These are just some of the intrigues to be found in the most recent breakout hit series Vikings, the second episode of the second season of which began last week.
While perhaps not as much of a small-screen juggernaut as True Detective, Downton Abbey or The Walking Dead, the show has several things going for it.
Polished but not too polished, violent but not graphically so in the way of some other shows, Vikings has received critical praise and high ratings for its intricate but easily digested storylines, lusty acting, magnificent scenery (the Canadian-Irish co-production is shot on location in Ireland and Norway) and elaborate production and costume design courtesy of many of the craftspeople and crew who first worked together on Braveheart.
It also hews closely to the thematic and narrative playbook pioneered by shows such as The Sopranos: men and women in violent and highrisk vocations, often outside the law, work mightily to balance their professional and family lives while indulging in all manner of sin and vice — only to find, to their naive surprise and chagrin, the children for whom they’ve laboured so hard to have better lives are turning into younger versions of themselves.
Seen in this light, the events of Vikings are a far cry from the way they’ve been portrayed previously on screen. There was a time when movies about manly Norsemen teetered precariously between action and camp: think the 1958 film The Vikings, in which Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis play the crusading sons of Ernest Borgnine’s Ragnar (and no, Curtis never uttered the oft-quoted Bronx-inflected honk “Yonda lies the castle of my faddah da king” in any of his films, much less this one).
The 1980s Icelandic “Viking trilogy” begun by director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s When the Raven Flies (1984) is worth watching and available on YouTube, as are highlights from the 1987 sequel In the Shadow of the Raven and clips from 2007’s Embla, which is, confusingly, a “director’s cut” of a 1991 feature, The White Viking.
In most of these films the role of women consisted largely of cooking, doing laundry, submitting to their men and fleeing danger with their children. In fact, you’ve got to look long and hard to even find the female of the species in writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2009 Viking saga Valhalla Rising, in which Mads Mikkelsen plays a largely silent Norse warrior named One-Eye.
Not so in Vikings, as Winnick’s Lagertha is a skilled fighter who repels two intruders while her husband is away raping and pillaging. (There’s much raping and pillaging in this show, in keeping with the playbook’s dictum that the “modern” antagonist must be as repellent as is possible while still garnering ongoing interest and support from viewers.) In one scene Lagertha and Ragnar have the mother of all marital spats, throwing each other around their cramped hut until an exasperated Bjorn breaks them up; then they have sex, as you do.
Yet Vikings is much more than The Sopranos in costume, thanks to creator and season one writer Michael Hirst. He comes by the series’ veracity legitimately, as his filmography reads like a vivid history textbook: he wrote Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, both starring Cate Blanchett, for the big screen, and is, according to his agency’s website, working on projects involving Alexander the Great, the Medicis, Mary Queen of Scotts, Madame Tussaud and Mao Zedong. His television credits include the series Camelot and The Tudors, as well as films about Casanova and Pope John Paul II.
As the series progresses, Fimmel’s Ragnar is nothing short of revelatory. The fire in his eyes and the stoicism he is forced to bring to bear remind one of Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling, respectively. The entire cast seems shrewdly chosen thus far, with the sinister comic relief of Skarsgard’s Floki in the same ballpark as Bruce Spence’s Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2.
So what’s in store for season two? In place of the token established star represented in season one by Byrne, Linus Roache, late of Law & Order, joins the cast as King Ecbert of Wessex, with Alexander Ludwig replacing O’Toole as Bjorn. The emphasis on the shadowy presence of Norse gods in everyday life continues, as does the friction between brothers. And when it comes to new worlds to conquer, there’s a lot of material available: the real-life Ragnar began a reign of Viking strongmen who terrorised neighbouring countries for 400 years.
Vikings, Mondays, 8.35pm, SBS One
Graeme Blundell returns next week
Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok and, below, Alyssa
Sutherland as Princess Aslaug