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Michael Hirst’s Vikings was a strange series. It was visceral and bloody, but it could border on being a history lesson at times. It was a showcase for hunky thespians with period-inauthentic ripped physiques, but it was also almost Shakespearean in its dramatic aspirations. It was a world oversaturated in testosterone, but it featured some of the most badass female characters ever depicted on the small screen.
Over its six-season run, Vikings was a little metal, a little emo and yet it had an unmistakable pop hook, the sort of show that felt capable of uniting myriad disparate audiences. It was never discussed as one of the most-watched shows on TV, but it earned an impressive 89 episodes (most of them airing on History) and it’s my guess that the audience it has accrued over the years is massive. And it was never a big Emmy player (it snagged one special effects win and a handful of other technical nominations) or a centerpiece of critical Top 10 lists, but at times it was a borderline great show — not on the level of Game of Thrones at its peak, but significantly better than Game of Thrones in its wobblier seasons.
Airdate: Friday, February 25 (Netflix)
Cast: Sam Corlett, Frida Gustavsson, Leo Suter, Bradley Freegard, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Caroline Henderson
Creator: Jeb Stuart
I watched the first few episodes of Netflix’s Vikings: Valhalla mostly fixating on all of the ways the semi-spinoff was failing to cross the tricky boundaries the original bridged. Then I watched the second half of the eight-episode season being relieved that even if Valhalla never quite reaches the heights of the Vikings mothership, the show it settles into becoming is pretty strong and satisfying on its own.
Boasting Jeb Stuart (The Fugitive) as creator and showrunner and Hirst, who wrote every episode of Vikings, only in an executive producer capacity, Valhalla is set 100 years after the events of the original series. Names like Ragnar Lothbrok and Ivar the Boneless and Lagertha and even Rollo are tossed around for either continuity or straight-up pandering, but Valhalla actually tells a story that casual audiences are more familiar with.
This is the story of Leif Erikson (Sam Corlett), son of the notorious Erik the Red and the man eventually credited with being responsible for the first European footholds in North America, 500 years before Christopher Columbus.
We meet Leif and sister Freydis (Frida Gustavsson) on tempestuous seas heading toward the Viking metropolis of Kattegat with a small crew of fellow Greenlanders. They’re on a mission of personal revenge, but things change course when they arrive and learn that back in England, Aethelred II (Bosco Hogan) undid decades of seemingly peaceful coexistence (Stuart erases a lot of the surrounding history) by ordering the slaughter of all Danes in the kingdom. The mobilizing Vikings are determined to make the British pay, and possibly elevate King Canute (Bradley Freegard) to England’s throne, but that will only work if they can heal growing fissures between the Christians and “Pagans” in their ranks.
The first episode, directed in Irish locations and on familiar soundstages by Niels Arden Oplev, competently introduces many of the series’ core characters, including the Greenlanders, Freydis’ potential love interest Harald (Leo Suter) and blustery, power-hungry Olaf (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). Like the original series, there’s a scruffy sameness to a lot of the main male characters — and to the women as well, most of whom have been cast from the ranks of Scandinavian models with little apparent consideration of what a Viking shield maiden might have actually looked like. But no matter! That’s the brand!
What isn’t on-brand is how astonishingly dull the second and third episodes are. The men all bicker in completely non-ideological terms about their religious or national pride, and no side has enough illustrated cultural richness for viewers to feel allegiances other than siding with whoever seems best-looking.
Hirst’s sense of soapy palace intrigue — The Godfather seemed to be his inspiration for everything — was unfailing, and his research was always intriguing and walked a line resembling accuracy. So much of the scheming in these early episodes is rote and the action is completely negligible. It’s also a blunder — albeit one that I can vaguely understand — to split Freydis off into her own storyline, in which she’s disempowered in the short term in favor of some long-term destiny prophesied by the mystical Seer (John Kavanagh, reprising his Vikings role).
The qualitative shift in the series begins around the fourth episode, which steps up both the action and the military strategy while also stepping up the backstabbing and character reversals. From there, you can count on a decent set-piece per episode, shot in familiar intimate and brutal Vikings style, and several of the performances gradually come into their own.
Still, Hirst’s grasp of the operatic and educational never emerges here, and I missed the heightened dialogue that brought out the best in otherwise limited actors. This cast could use something comparably meaty to tear into. Corlett, Suter and Freegard deliver degrees of intensity and physicality, but little else. The actors who get to ham it up are quickly the most entertaining, especially Jóhannesson and Asbjørn Krogh, who pops up halfway through the season as a vicious Christian Viking.
Following in the path of the original series, men spend the most time bellowing and smashing people’s faces in, while the women, including Gustavsson and Laura Berlin, interestingly steely and calculating as Emma of Normandy, are fiercely grabbing the spotlight. Special credit to Pollyanna McIntosh, as Denmark’s unpronounceable Queen Ælfgifu, who calls to mind Vikings co-stars like Gabriel Byrne or Linus Roache, whose more nuanced approaches helped ground the chaos around them.
Don’t watch Valhalla if you haven’t watched Vikings first, not because the backstory is necessary, but because Vikings does all of the same things as its successor, only better. And if you loved Vikings, the first season of Valhalla suggests there’s a lot more story to tell and the resemblance between the two series is growing.
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