The History Channel is not known for doing scripted fare, having barely aired any, so it was with hesitance I checked out its first drama series, Vikings, last spring. The show, which follows real-life legend Ragnar Lodbrok (Travis Fimmel, The Beast) and his family and friends, exaggerated for both effect and because the Vikings didn’t keep good records, so the actual events are somewhat disputed, is quite good. It has action and violence, sure, but also character development, questions of morality in a different time and place, and some really surprising twists. The Complete First Season was recently released on Blu-ray and DVD.
Ragnar himself is a hero, loyal to his friends, but with a bit of a selfish, caddish quality to him, disobeying the orders of his leader Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne, In Treatment). The Earl would like Ragnar to continue to sail west, as their people have done for awhile now, but Ragnar complains that the west has been stripped barren and would like to go east, into the unknown. Ragnar secretly commissions his eccentric pal Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard, Evil) to build a boat, gathers some followers, and heads east, anyway.
There are repercussions for Ragnar’s actions; he isn’t allowed to just go ahead and defy Earl Haraldson. Yet, Ragnar is also right, the kingdoms of England are ripe for looting, which we see when Ragnar lands in King Aelle’s (Ivan Kaye, The Borgias) territory. And so, an epic showdown is set for the two great men, Ragnar and Haraldson, which comes to a head even before the end of the season.
Vikings is very fast-paced. Besides the struggles with Haraldson and the battles with Aelle, we are also introduced to King Horik (Donal Logue), who rules over the various Earls, and Ragnar travels to the land of another Earl, as well as his people’s religious temples. This, in only nine episodes.
All of this travel means lots of settings, which makes the show feel very big. The landscapes, filmed in Ireland, are absolutely gorgeous and timeless, with the buildings detailed and perfectly fitting into the wilderness. Add to this elaborate costumes and Vikings is a visually amazing production.
Which is why I recommend going for the Blu-ray version. In the dark, rainy scenes, or the murky halls lit only by fire, you’re going to want that extra crispness to really see what’s going on. Plus, it allows you to be impressed with all of the work that went into fully realizing this world. Sound is not as vital, with the soundtrack appropriate, but not itself usually stand-out. However, it’s well mixed, and hearing dialogue amidst the cacophony of other noises is not difficult.
There is also a lot of personal and family exploration. Ragnar is married to a warrior named (Katheryn Winnick, Bones), with whom he squabbles, but loves deeply. They have two children, Bjorn (Nathan O’Toole, The Borgias) and Gyda (Ruby O’Leary), the latter of which is a gentle soul, and the former wants to take after his parents. Ragnar also has a brother, Rollo (Clive Standen, Camelot), who sticks by his sibling, but also may not be entirely satisfied in a subservient role. Further complicating matters, Rollo is in love with Earl Haraldson’s wife, Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig, Glee).
Perhaps the most interesting part in the show is that of Athelstan (George Blagden). A priest Ragnar captures on a raid, Athelstan becomes part of Ragnar’s family as a slave who begins to question his own faith. Athelstan is the window into this strange world; will he be able to make a life among the savages?
The acting isn’t bad. At times it gets a little flat and cheesy, and there is never a consistent accent for the Vikings themselves, even sometimes among the same character. Yet, for the most part, I found it a thoroughly enjoyable, engrossing world. Vikings isn’t a completely realistic take on things, anyway, with supernatural elements, mostly involving The Seer (John Kavanagh, The Tudors), and this allows a little leeway in the believability of the players, too.
The three-disc set has the sort of special features you might expect for a series television Blu-ray. There are deleted scenes and commentaries on some of the episodes, of course. Every episode offers an extended version, but don’t seem to be much longer than the aired versions. There are also a few featurettes. My favorite is “Birth of the Vikings,” a 20-minute look at the making of the show. It includes interviews with many of the key people in the production, and a discussion on how the show came together.
Vikings: The Complete First Season is available now.