I want to start out this review by noting that, like all television series, the intent of The History Channel’s Vikings is purely entertainment. It is not a documentary, and therefore perfect fact and accuracy should not expected of it. Therefore, as I note anachronisms below, I am in no way saying that they ruin the show. I do, however, think there is an interesting discussion to be had on the subject and that is all this is meant to be.
This series follows the adventures of Ragnar (Travis Fimmel), his wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), and his brother Rollo (Clive Standen). The cast is, in order, Australian, Canadian, and English, so the first hurdle to overcome is the varying accents. Fimmel tries out a pseudo-Scandinavian accent while Winnick sounds trans-Atlantic and Standen just speaks in RP English. I have to admit that this distracted me for the entire first episode even though it’s really not that big of a deal. This show is produced for an English speaking audience, so writing it in one of the Old Germanic languages or even one of the modern ones would be entirely pointless. It does take getting used to, though.
Vikings reflects very little of what is known of the real culture of its subjects. In general, Vikings lived and operated in hirds, large family groups rather like clans, not in nuclear family units as portrayed. The villain in the series is Lord Haroldson, portrayed by Gabriel Byrne. Most countries had either no hierarchy or a very loose one, as Scandinavians operated under the ideal that all men but slaves were equals. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule. Denmark, for example, was probably the most organized country with very powerful kings dating back almost 100 years before the setting of this series. The title of Earl and the power the character wields both seem unlikely and out of place in this setting, however.
It is not clear in the program how much territory Haroldson controls, but within that territory, all of the free men make an oath of their loyalty to him as soon as they reach maturity. Haroldson controls how the men train, where they raid, what their spoils are, and what he keeps. He oversees all legal issues and his judgments are given as law. Most disputes in this age were settled between families. The punishment for murder was almost always a fine, not death, as portrayed here. Theft and rape were considered much more serious offenses and I believe that the way Haroldson keeps his men’s plunder would have been considered theft by the Vikings.
So far, there are only two women characters on the show, Lagertha and Haroldson’s wife Siggy. I have to say that the portrayal of the female characters is rather disappointing as they occupy the usual cliché sphere of either warrior babe or damsel in distress. A Viking woman’s place in society was far more interesting than that and I think that this show is missing a huge opportunity in that regard.
I don’t want to go too in depth here, because this post is getting long already, but Viking women were treated differently from most European women of the era. Violence against women was not tolerated. For a man to strike his wife was an abominable offense, and in one of the sagas it actually leads to the husband’s death. Women could easily obtain a divorce, ran the household’s finances, and were usually involved in all major decisions. Rape was punishable by death and even unwanted touching procured an enormous fine. Widows could own land and businesses and, though a father could force his daughter into her first marriage, it was generally frowned upon. Women in the sagas are revered for their power, wisdom, and influence, with beauty being almost secondary.
Now, Siggy’s character is, I think, moving in the direction of the shrewd, political woman, so I am looking forward to that. Lagertha hasn’t really shown much personality yet. She is a former “shield maiden” (entirely made-up concept as far as I can tell) and so fights with the boys and goes on raids. She’s crazy about her husband, but little else. I just don’t think the writers are sure of where they’re going yet. Siggy and Haroldson’s daughter was just introduced, married off, and widowed within about five minutes of screen time, so she may be another leading lady. We have yet to see.
As for the male characters, Ragnar is a curious explorer and feared warrior. Sometimes his pride veers into arrogance, particularly when he deals with his brother. He is gentle at home and brutal during raids. I think his character has merit, but the acting at this point is a little stale. Rollo vacillates between villain and hero with jealousy being his guiding characteristic. I think he’s another example of the writers being unsure of where they are going. If he is to be based on Rollo the Ganger, as some people are guessing, he has a long way to go. Gabriel Byrne is not only the most famous, but definitely the best actor in the series which is all I can say about him without giving spoilers.
The costumes, hair, and makeup are truly atrocious at this point and, as this show is reinventing itself episode by episode, I hope they get a major overhaul. There is really no excuse for how horrible and weird all of these impossibly gorgeous actors look. All of the costumes up until last night’s episode seemed to be some shade of grey, but it could just be mud. Vikings were actually known to wash their faces twice a day and to bathe twice a week, but obviously mud just makes things look cool. Plus, eyeliner. Lots and lots and lots of black eyeliner. An entire Wet N’ Wild pencil applied generally in the direction of woman’s eyes looks amazing. Not.
Quick historical facts: it was illegal for a woman to show her arms or for a man to wear a cloak that dragged the ground, French braiding was not invented yet, tattoos were blue, men plucked their eyebrows, married women wore their husband’s family’s coronet, Vikings didn’t knit, and there was no true black dye. Nevertheless, I would settle for any anachronisms as long as everyone stopped looking like walking petri dishes containing a thick stew of myriad infectious diseases.
The show is filmed in Ireland and the cinematography is stunning. The ships are too small and would not have had sails in this year, but they are otherwise impressive and fairly authentic looking.
Overall, I think this series is fun. It is only in the middle of its first series and is still getting on its feet. I’m definitely looking forward to more and I may even post more about it later.