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Vikings: Valhalla - Season 1 - Review

Set 100 years after its predecessor, Vikings, new Netflix show Vikings: Valhalla seeks to carve out its own path in the sea of historical epics, going up against The Last Kingdom's final season which is now only a day away from airing. 

In a way, the efforts of Valhalla to set itself apart from the glory of Vikings echoes main character Leif Eriksson's own desire to make a name for himself that isn't constantly weighed down by the reputation of his father Erik the Red (who may or may not appear in the show in the future as it's set in 1003, the same year in which he died).

Other important characters include Harald Sigurdsson before he becomes King of Norway who's so charming and magnetic that I would probably follow him into battle five minutes after meeting him, Leif's sister Freydis, a warrior seeking her destiny and King Canute, a man who sometimes felt so dangerous I wouldn't even want to be in the same room as him. He is, after all, the leading player in two of the tensest scenes in the whole show - the stalling scene on the bridge at London as we anxiously wait for Leif to carry out his plan and the banquet scene where he has Eadric Streona executed. 

As far as villains are concerned, Olaf Haraldsson (who I somehow managed to mistake for Ray Stevenson for the entirety of the first episode, don't ask) proves to be far more cunning than I'd expected even if he is reduced to fleeing at the end of the show after having what I'm sure was a very nice ten seconds as the King of Norway. 

We also have Jarl Kare, a Christian fanatic with an admittedly good reason for hating the pagan faith though he is obsessed with the wisdom of a seer he calls the Old One and a prophecy about a cross carrying a sword. When he learns this might be Freydis instead, scarred with a cross on her back by a rapist she gets her revenge on in the first episode, he becomes obsessed with killing her. 

You could even say that Kare and Freydis are the embodiment of their respective faiths, clashing together in the halls of Kattegat, one of the most important seats of Pagan power in a country where Christian vikings are seeking to erase any sign of their old pagan history. 

Religion is the main push and pull in the season and they're certainly not subtle about it. On one side you have the pure Christian vikings like Olaf, whose moniker is 'The Holy', who at one point tried to force a mass conversion on all Vikings and on the other side you have the vikings who devoutly believe in the Old Gods, like Freydis, who with every trial and tribulation becomes more fierce in her beliefs.

Then you have the characters in the middle of the scale. Jarl Kare twists the pagan and Christian beliefs together to drive his personal holy crusade and Leif falls into doubt and uncertainty after a couple coincidental moments with a cross given to him by a little girl. Harald though is the very picture of balance between the two faiths, idealistically dreaming of a Norway where all faiths can co-exist in peace, a seemingly unattainable ideal at this point in the show.

There are of course historical inaccuracies. One glaring example is that Harald was born in 1015 and yet finds himself in a show set in 1003. The stance taken by the crew seems to be that much of Viking history was never written down, originally being told orally in stories and songs and poems, meaning that some of the information we do have may not be entirely accurate in the first place. 

It's certainly a loose approach that likely won't please the history buffs among us (I don't personally confess to having too much knowledge about the Viking age so can't complain too much one way or the other). I get the impression though that they wanted to tell Leif and Freydis' story and Harald's and didn't want to go to the trouble of making two separate series so lumped them together. That is mere speculation though.

Ultimately though, this show is primarily an adventure and it has the bonus of being a fun one. So often I find myself losing interest in historical shows because they're too interested in standing around and talking or taking part in battle after battle after battle. 

The balance between action, drama and a sense of humour is what makes this show work so well. I certainly hadn't expected to enjoy it as much as I did and while it's too early to tell whether it will reach the heights of glory that Vikings did, it did at least accomplish what it set out to do - give audiences a brand new set of heroes to root for.

Additional Thoughts:

- Some of the romantic relationships could have been better developed. I don't think Harald and Freydis' relationship had enough progression for them to be saying they love each other (though I definitely buy Harald as a hopeless romantic who would in fact declare his love way too early in a relationship) and Liv deserved more of a purpose outside of progressing Leif's arc. 

- Speaking of Liv, RIP to the Greenlander crew. It's my own fault for getting invested in a bunch of minor characters. I'd have loved to have seen more of their bond with Leif and Freydis.

- I hope the anger and grief Leif ends the season with helps make his character more energised in future seasons. His quiet introspective personality often got overshadowed by the personalities of other major players like Harald and Freydis. 

- Leo Suter is the MVP of the show for me, lending Harald a gravitas which makes him infinitely watchable. Good to see him be able to showcase his talents outside of co-starring and supporting roles in shows like Victoria and Sanditon. I look forward to watching him portray more of Harald's journey to becoming King of Norway.

What did you think of Vikings: Valhalla's freshman season? Who was your standout performer/character? What are you hoping to see in future seasons? Sound off in the comments below!

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