TWO PONY-TAILED LEATHER-CLAD MEN on a bloody field work their swords on fallen enemies to finish them off. They are Vikings at the end of battle. Vultures circle overhead, their numbers growing. Suddenly crows—the birds that gave the Norse god Odin the power to look into the future—appear. One of the men, Ragnar, reputed to be Odin’s descendant, sees them and is transported to a vision of the riches lying to the west of his Baltic home.
History Channel’s new series The Vikings is its latest bid for a hit like Game of Thrones. Sometimes it approaches that program’s combination of history and melodrama. Sometimes it gives in to the formulaic. Its best feature: how it depicts the life, rituals, beliefs, and dreams of glory and plunder of the seafaring people we know as the terrorists of the Dark Ages.
Its virtues and shortcomings are apparent in episode one. (The first season is available through Amazon and iTunes.) Ragnar is eager to break out of the routine of pillaging Russia each summer. As he says to Rollo, the closest of his Viking band of brothers, “The bastards to the east are as poor as we are.” New riches, he feels certain, lie to the west.
Ragnar has met a wanderer who has given him a gift: a “sunwheel” that, floating in water, will keep sailors on course for true west through uncharted waters. He pays Floki, a great shipbuilder, to fashion a different sort of vessel for his voyage. Here is one of the series’s enticing historical tidbits, as Floki explains the technology that makes his new design seaworthy. Other moments make vivid Valhalla’s rich significance to the Vikings’ way of life and death.
The series also illustrates how the Vikings sailed and fought and how they trained their daughters to weave and their sons to fight. These insights, fortunately, are offered throughout.
Unfortunately, the plot, characters, acting, and dialogue often seem clichéd and stiff. Even screen and stage veteran Gabriel Byrne struggles to give depth to his role as the corrupt tyrant who brooks no threats to his autocratic ways—particularly Ragnar’s radical vision of sailing west.
By the first season’s finale, Vikings succeeds in its portrayal of these dauntless warriors. And it’s reasonably entertaining. Given History Channel fare like Ancient Aliens, maybe that’s the best we can hope for.
Gene Santoro is a New York–based writer and reviewer.