Vikings: Valhalla

Vikings: Valhalla
Vikings: Valhalla
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Michael Hirst’s Vikings was an odd series. It was bloody and visceral, but could sometimes pass as a history lesson. It paraded hunky actors with period-inaccurate ripped physiques, yet was almost Shakespearean in its dramatic aspirations. It existed in a world oversaturated with testosterone, but featured some of the most badass female characters ever shown on television.

Over the course of six seasons, Vikings was a little metal, a little emo and yet had an undeniable pop hook — it was a show that seemed capable of uniting myriad disparate audiences. It was never talked about as one of TV’s most-watched shows, but it racked up 89 episodes (most on History) and I’d venture to guess that the audience it amassed over the years is massive. And it wasn’t ever a big Emmy player (it won one special effects trophy and earned several other technical nominations) or a centerpiece of critical Top 10 lists, but there were stretches when it was borderline great — not Game of Thrones at its peak great, but definitely better than Game of Thrones at its wobblier seasons great.

Watching the first few episodes of Netflix‘s Vikings: Valhalla, which debuted Wednesday (November 24), I spent most of my time fixating on all the ways in which the semi-spinoff wasn’t working to bridge those tricky gaps opened up by its predecessor. Then I watched the second half of the eight-episode season just relieved that even if Valhalla never quite approaches those heights attained by the mothership series for which we had been prepared to settle.

With Jeb Stuart (The Fugitive) serving as creator and showrunner and Hirst cited as having written every episode of Vikings except this time around he’s only an executive producer on Valhalla, this iteration is set 100 years after the events depicted across six seasons of television. Names like Ragnar Lothbrok and Ivar the Boneless and Lagertha and even Rollo are tossed around for either continuity or straightforward pandering, but Valhalla actually tells a story that casual audiences are more likely to have heard of.

This is the story of Leif Erikson (Sam Corlett), the son of the more famous Erik the Red who ultimately became credited with being responsible for establishing European settlements in North America 500 years before Christopher Columbus set sail.

We meet Leif and sister Freydis (Frida Gustavsson) on choppy seas heading toward the Viking metropolis of Kattegat with a small crew of fellow Greenlanders. They’re on a mission of personal vengeance, but things take a turn when they arrive and discover that back in England Aethelred II (Bosco Hogan) has undone decades of apparently peaceful coexistence (Stuart erases much surrounding history) by ordering the slaughter of all Danes within his kingdom. The mobilizing Vikings are determined to make Britain pay for this atrocity, possibly elevating King Canute (Bradley Freegard) to England’s throne, but that can only happen if they’re able to bridge growing fissures between Christians and “Pagans” within their ranks.

It’s not on-brand for the second and third episodes of Vikings: Valhalla to be this stunningly boring. They are bickering, the men are, but they’re all bickering in totally non-ideological terms about their religious or national pride. Neither side has enough illustrated cultural richness for us to feel allegiances besides just siding with whoever seems best-looking.

Hirst’s sense of soapy palace intrigue — The Godfather seemed to be his inspiration for everything — was unfailing, and his research was always intriguing and balanced on a line that approximated accuracy. A lot of the scheming in these early episodes is rote, the action completely negligible. It’s a blunder — one I can kinda figure out — to split Freydis off into her own storyline, where she’s disempowered in the short term in favor of some long-term destiny prophesied by the mystical Seer (John Kavanagh, reprising his Vikings role).

The qualitative shift in the series begins around Episode 4, which steps up both the action and military strategy while also stepping up the backstabbing and character reversals. From there you can count on a decent set piece per episode, shot in familiar intimate-and-brutal Vikings style; several of the performances gradually come into their own.

But still, Hirst’s grasp of operatic and educational never emerges here, and I missed the heightened dialogue that brought out the best in otherwise limited actors; this cast could use something comparably meaty to tear into. Corlett, Suter and Freegard deliver degrees of intensity and physicality but little else. The actors who get to ham it up are quickly the most entertaining, especially Jóhannesson as Olaf; he brings almost no nuance whatsoever playing him as little more than an aggro ne’er-do-well with an eyepatch who says “brother” funny. Asbjørn Krogh pops up halfway through the season as a vicious Christian Viking; he’s “the mean one” and I’m being generous.

Following in the path of the original series, men spend the most time bellowing and smashing people’s faces in while women, including Gustavsson and Laura Berlin (interestingly steely and calculating as Emma of Normandy), are fiercely grabbing the spotlight. Special credit to Pollyanna McIntosh, as Queen Ælfgifu, who calls to mind Vikings co-stars like Gabriel Byrne or Linus Roache, whose more nuanced approaches helped ground the chaos around them

Don’t watch Valhalla if you haven’t watched Vikings first. Not because you’ll need to know what was going on in England circa 875 A.D., but because Vikings does all of these things better than its successor. If you loved Vikings, though — if you’ve been waiting this long for me to say something positive about Valhalla — there’s good news: The first season suggests there’s a lot more story to tell here, and that story is growing increasingly familiar.

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