Vikings – Pilot
Vikings begins with a time-stamp, setting the scene as somewhere in the Eastern Baltic, 793 A.D. It is then a show set in the deep past but more specifically it is set in our actual past. This fact is fitting given that it is the first scripted drama produced by the History Channel – yet another network making a name for themselves in the fictional side of the industry; how many can there be? – but strangely enough it is also what sets it apart from most of the other period shows out there. Game of Thrones is the obvious go to comparison given the swords and stratagems content of both shows but for both better and worse Westeros isn’t our world; Spartacus too is based on a figure from a famous legend, one set within our world yes, but a fiction nonetheless.
Vikings though appears on the surface to be built on a foundation of facts, recreating a part of our real world in the same way as one of the network’s documentaries might, just within the structure of a story. It is education through entertainment, but don’t let that first E-word offend you; Vikings never lets you feel like you’re learning, it imparts information too covertly for that, hiding it in sweeping vistas, swordfights and sex-scenes. To my mind stories are some of the best teachers around – I know that I have learnt more from fictional books than text books – and so this is an approach that I wholeheartedly endorse, especially since the subject is such a fascinating one.
Though everyone knows the word, the hats and the horrible implications of their raids Vikings aren’t a culture that seem to come up much in the context of current entertainment – perhaps because History is written by the victors, in this case the Medieval English around whom most explorations of the era are based – and therefore so much of the information presented during this pilot was new to me. Given just how cinematic so many of this culture’s traits are it is a wonder to me that they aren’t more often used: the complex power structures, codes of law, powers of wealth and ceremonial rites featured flawlessly within the hour – flowing quite naturally out of the narrative – were all compelling facts and the figures enacting them just the same.
The actors portraying those characters are also surprisingly solid, surprising given how historical productions usually tend to skew from hammy to awful. Gabriel Byrne isn’t phoning his performance in, providing menace and mania to his antagonist role and little-known local Travis Fimmel holds his own as the hero; selling both the strength, smarts and soul of the character quite well. The supports have too small an amount of screen time thus far for me to really say much about them, but there were some intriguing turns and no terrible ones, so hope is high here too. The family dynamic at the show’s core is nothing new on a macro level – their stories the usual soap-opera beats at this stage – but the small touches inserted by the characters and their context refresh them really well.
As for the actual plot, the through-line driving us to the people, places and particulars that the program wants to tell us about, it is an interesting one thus far but could become problematic in the future. Ragnar, the lead, is sick of following the Earl’s order to sail East in the summer time for their raids, rebels and puts together a crew to venture west for the first time. The scheming and supernatural elements involved in the early stage of this endeavor keep it interesting without ever overwhelming the simplicity of the show (again, this isn’t attempting to be Game of Thrones). I wonder though if once the crew get going this combination will become problematic. Vikings is sleek, like a longboat, and I appreciate this for now but once we are accustomed to the world the idea of watching the week-to-week adventures of their trip is a potentially troubling one.
Vikings is not a creatively named show but this plainness is fitting of what it delivers: it is muscular and straightforward like the story and its characters (they speak in declarations, saying exactly what they mean which is a rarity in today’s television). It promises certain things and certainly delivers on all of them, with the potential to maybe do even more, but I’m still not sure that these are things that I need to see each and every week. This show is so much more accessible than all the other period pieces out there (it has no sex, no sorcery, no spurting blood) it has a positive purpose (teaching), great production (Michael Hirst shot the hell out of this pilot) and will likely please a lot of people; because of this it lacks the entrancing edge and daring of those other shows, which is what most attracts me. I would rather see a show die fighting to its last than live a long, languorous life – here me and the Vikings agree – and if Vikings is willing to take those risks going forward then it will have me in Valhalla, but the journey has just begun, we shall have to see if that is the case.