Categorised | US TV reviews

Preview: Vikings 2x1-2x4 (History/Amazon Instant Video)

Posted on February 28, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Vikings season 2

In the US: Thursdays, 10/9c, History
In the UK: Amazon Instant Video. New episode every Friday, starting today

Vikings was a big surprise for me. Had I watched it last year, it would easily have been in my top three new shows of the year. But given it aired on the History Channel - the channel’s first scripted drama - came from Michael “The Tudors” Hirst and looked suspiciously like it was a cash in on Game of Thrones, I missed it and only watched it last month when I bit the bullet and got LoveFilm access (LoveFilm, of course, is now part of Amazon Prime).

How glad I was. A semi-autobiographical drama about the life of the semi-historical, semi-legendary viking Ragnarr Loðbrók, it was a fantastic blend of the personal, historical, political, educational, mythological and extreme violent, showing how Loðbrók (as a proxy for all vikings) went from being a simple farmer to a Scandinavian Earl through his adventures in the hitherto unexplored west - 8th century England. Full of lovely little touches, including spoken Old Norse and Anglo Saxon, strong roles for women, the appearances (maybe) of Norse gods as well as all the things you’d expect from Saxo Grammaticus and others’ stories of Loðbrók, it quickly became a must-see for me.

Now it’s back for a much deserved second season with plot threads aplenty to pick-up. What will become of Ragnarr and Rollo? How’s Æthelstan the monk doing? What will become of Hlaðgerðr and Ragnarr’s marriage given his infidelity? Will the English be prepared for any further invasions from Ragnarr and his men? And will King Ælla manage to get Ragnarr into that snake pit?

Spoilers - not too serious, I hope - after the jump.

Is it any good?
It's changed slightly but yes, it is.

Ragnarr, since one day he must be king but isn’t yet, still has a lot to do. Some of those things, which were left dangling at the end of last season, are sorted very quickly. Indeed, the conflict that was spiralling between Rollo and Ragnarr is very much sorted out in the first episode after rising to a peak between seasons. Although that’s not entirely satisfying dramatically, it does enable us to get new plot threads going.

Although essentially it’s quite hard to be accurate when dealing with a historical figure who’s also part legend, the producers have been a little cheekier with the timelines and are now pulling in events from later in the 8th century and indeed from the 9th century to give us an accelerated timeline.

Much of the focus of the first four episodes is the return of Ragnarr and his men to England, except now they’re dealing with Wessex rather than Northumbria and are looking to put down some roots, rather than simply raid. Key to this is the king of Wessex, Egbert (Linus Roache*), who is described as being essentially the English version of Ragnarr. Roache and the writers do a good job of showing us a thoughtful but ruthless man, ready to deal with the vikings however he can. When that’s a military option, as usual, the producers give us some excellent fight scenes that show off viking battle techniques well.

Indeed, with season one having educated us considerably about the religion of the vikings and their culture, season two now seems intent on teaching us about 8th and 9th century Anglo-Saxon Christianity, showing us the differences between modern Christianity and the still-evolving, still young beliefs of the religion. It’s a little bit of a shame, but still fascinating to watch, particularly the bits involving the now almost fully converted Æthelstan.

But thankfully, Viking myth hasn’t been totally forgotten because Ragnarr’s wives - yes, wives - are chronicled, as are his sons, who of course go on to conquer almost the whole of England. Here we get to see the return of one of those wives, Aslög (yes, we’ve skipped Þóra Borgarhjörtr), who was the daughter of the mythical Sigurd/Sigurðr the dragon-slayer and Brynhildr the shield maiden. The producers here treat this as faithfully as they can, right up to the birth of Ragnarr’s son Sigurd Snake-in-the eye (Sigurðr ormr í auga) - guess why he’s called that.

As well as the dealings with wives both past and present - thankfully Katheryn Winnick’s Hlaðgerðr isn’t dropped at all, and she continues to show her strengths during these episodes - we have the various political wranglings that the vikings had to deal with back home, with Ragnarr having to deal with protecting what he already has as well as what he’s hoping to get.

As with season one, season two is a compelling piece of work, continuing almost all the good things about season 1 and adding to them. Indeed, I’m now gutted I’m going to have to wait for the next set of episodes. If you haven’t already hopped on board the Vikings longboat, I suggest you do as soon as you can.

* The first person I ever interviewed as a journalist, fact-fiends.

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