One of the biggest challenges in presenting historical dramas on the screen is walking the fine line between entertainment and historical realism. At any point, you risk invoking the wrath of fans and critics, or historians and academics. Many shows throw caution to the wind in the name of enterainment, like Starz’s "Spartacus". Often times, as is the case with Showtime’s "The Borgias", that entertainment factor is enjoyable, exciting, and just plain fun. In the case of the History’s newest scripted drama, one might expect more than flashy period costumes and exhilarating plot lines. In Vikings, History has a perfect vessel to deliver both entertainment and historical fact. Fresh off the success of last summer’s record-breaking miniseries, "Hatfields & McCoys", History hopes to break into the world of scripted drama with "Vikings." Created and written by Michael Hirst ("Elizabeth: The Golden Age", "The Tudors"), a veteran of historical dramas, the series follows the Viking warrior Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) on his journey from warrior to leader. Dissatisfied with pillaging the East, he looks to the West, developing a new way to travel the dangerous waters with the help of a quirky boat maker called Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) and his threatening brother, Rollo (Clive Standen). His plan doesn’t sit well with the local earl and leader of the Viking clan, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne). This series plays on that power struggle while incorporating many broad themes that allow it to hit a variety of notes and play to a larger audience.
The scope of the series is impressive, both visually, and in theme. Shot primarily on location in Ireland, the first thing that viewers should notice is just how visually striking it is. The scenery is particularly breathtaking and, most importantly, does not look cheap. Along with the picturesque scenery, the costumes and set design are well-done and remarkable, making the series a pleasure to view. It is obvious a real effort has been made to make it look very well done.
There’s a real passion in the acting here as well, and the character portrayals don’t come off as forced. Not only does Travis Fimmel shine in his role as lead Viking warrior (and this show does play to his strengths), but also the supporting cast does much to bring a different aspect to this world. One of the most admirable qualities about "Vikings" is that it’s not portraying just one aspect of Viking culture, and uses its supporting cast to introduce its audience to these different elements. Of particular note is Katheryn Winnick’s portrayal of shield maiden Lagertha, Lothbrok’s wife, who stands out, not just as a caring mother and devoted wife, but a kick-ass warrior in her own right. Winnick’s character is a breath of fresh air, and shows that Viking culture is more than buff guys with shields and swords. The inclusion of a character like Lagertha is a smart decision on the writers’ part, as it shows the depths the show is capable of.
In keeping with showing the many different aspects of Viking culture, the character Athelstan (George Blagden) represents the view of the Western world, and the voice of the audience, as he learns about this new world firsthand. Blagden plays an Anglo-Saxon monk, captured by Lothbrok on a raid to England, and thrust into a new world and culture that he must adapt to if he wishes to survive very long. Athelstan quickly develops into the series’ most sympathetic character, and someone the audience can easily connect with, as his journey resembles that which the audience is experiencing. The character also brings the aspect of religion into the show, and the theme of Christian God vs. Pagan gods. The differences and (surprising) similarities between the two is one of the most fascinating elements of the show. Blagden shines here as well, masterful at his portrayal of Athelstan’s doubt and hope with just a glance or expression. The fact that what we know about Viking culture in the present consists mostly of what was written by the Christian Monks makes his character that much more intriguing.
"Vikings" is very much a show that does what it says on the tin. There is what you’d expect from a show about Vikings: Fierce warriors, Viking ships, and of course the brutality of a Viking raid. And yet at its core, "Vikings" brings in some great themes with the help of its stunning scenery, stellar cast, and intriguing story. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy the show in a casual way–it has everything you need, from epic battles to - character-driven drama. But if you’re looking for something more, "Vikings" will deliver, and that’s what makes this show stand out above the rest. It addresses issues of religion, power struggle, political intrigue, women’s roles, and, yes, even westward expansion. It shows a side of Vikings culture not normally seen in popular culture, that of the Viking community.
"Vikings" is an impressive series, which only increases its entertainment value as it progresses. Tune in this Sunday at 10 p.m. on History Channel.