Last night, Patty and I, as a chaser to Game of Thrones, finished History’s first dramatic series, the 9-episode Vikings. By turns exceptional, terrible, and delightfully baffling, it was worth our time far more than I anticipated. And even if it probably taught us nothing reasonable factual about Vikings (more on that later), a fictional series with a few fact-like tidbits on Vikings strikes me as far preferable to many of History’s “non-fiction” offerings: Aliens, for example, did not build the pyramids (despite a t-shirt Patty owns that illustrates this concept with the note teach the controversy).
Below are nine great reasons to watch Vikings that highlight all the ways in which its first season is filled with great responses to our current pop-culture moment.
1. Vikings is smart enough to make its central drama not just about family, but about many different types of families. Romantic love, sibling rivalry, parent-child, and chosen family narratives in multiple forms thread through all nine episodes, guaranteeing something familiar and emotionally engaging for pretty much any viewer.
2. Vikings goes out of its way to show joy even in desperate, difficult, and violent times. This is why so many people are watching it after Game of Thrones where joy seems merely a concept outgrown or a feeling vengeance occasionally briefly evokes. (Look, I love Game of Thones, but its name is Despair).
3. Vikings gets that sex is part of who people and cultures are. Mostly, it avoids falling into the sexposition trap HBO’s programming is often chided for, and instead integrates sex into the narrative as consistently but passingly as food, except when someone’s sexual choices becomes a major plot point. But often sex is just sex and it’s talked about like the weather.
That said, can anyone tell me what was up with all the threesomes? I’m not being snarky. I’m just trying to figure out if the multiple offers (some declined not) of threesomes and moresomes were supposed to tell us something about Viking sexuality or represented the results of market research regarding fandom in general and Tumblr in particular. The prevalance of F/M/M moments particularly generates this question, considering that History historically has a much larger male audience than female audience. Who did they think was watching this?
4. Vikings has great female characters. From political cunning to battlefield skill to domestic excellence these women are all accomplished in radically different ways. The desire to have it all is clear in many of them, and the fact that that’s not easy is just as present. They’re heroes and villains and, most importantly, almost never plot devices. If you have a thing for political power couples, this is your show. And while rape is present in the plot, we also see rape averted, punished, and addressed as a community concern.
5. Speaking of fighting, the fight choreography on Vikings benefits from being well-done and relatively realistic (fight choreography never truly realistic, because in order for it to be visible, people have to take wide swings so you can see it — in a real conflict that gets people killed). Fighting styles and weapon choices tell us things about characters on Vikings, and the ways in which women fight acknowledge that geometry is all, but if you get into a bad corner, size and strength can and do matter.
6. Since we’re talking about fighting, let’s also talk about death. Vikings is obsessed with death, and does a fantastic job of presenting a culture that has a completely attitude about death than our own. It does this three-dimensionally, through diverse situations (death from sickness, the desire to die in battle, the religious use of human sacrifice) and a lot of fantastic acting that allows the characters to exhibit sorrow and fear even in the face of deaths both revered and glorious. The way Vikings handles death is one of the most harrowing, interesting, and moving things I’ve seen on TV this year, and worth it for that alone.
7. All the death content means we get lots of material on faith as well. This could have been full of annoying Christianity vs. paganism cliches. Instead it’s murky and complex all the way around. People question their faith constantly and are seen taking refuge in it as often for truth belief as for community and the comfort of habit. This is an accessibly, and appropriately, modern worldview that makes the characters deeply relatable.
8. At its heart Vikings is about ambition and its consequences. It offers no firm answers, but suggests that ambition is both a disease and a gift that can neither be eradicated or refused. This isn’t just compelling, but freeing. Because while the ambition feels familiar, odds are you aren’t losing sleep over not having raided England yet this season.
9. Finally, Vikings is populated by characters with widely varying types of intelligence, not all of whom are as skilled as estimating their abilities as they think. This allows the audience to do work, characters to fail believably, and everyone to be treated to Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok’s delightfully sly grin.
Vikings is certainly imperfect. While the acting from most of the leads is exceptional, some of the actors in minor roles are unable to conquer the show’s often clunky dialogue. Historical (and I’ve been told geographical) accuracy, while better than “aliens built the pyramids,” is deeply dubious. Some episodes are intentionally strangely paced (e.g., episode 8, “Sacrifice”), and the show’s choices around illustrating the language differences and communications difficulties between the Vikings and the English are nearly impossible to divine the rationale behind, despite being central to one of the show’s plot devices.
That said, it’s only nine episodes, which is a perfect bite-sized introduction to a surprisingly thoughtful, yet strangely produced, basic cable curiosity that largely gets by on charisma, momentum, and ambition alone.