Czech translation here
Still mourning the loss of Breaking Bad, I have been searching for several years for another series to follow religiously – without success. Now and then I try a few episodes of something, only to be reminded in yet another way of the depth of the doodoo we are sunk in. House of Cards, American Horror Story, True Blood, and, yes, even The Vampire Diaries – I tried them all. Only to say to myself midway through the third or fourth episode, “why am I watching this garbage?” Only Better Call Saul has not disappointed me, though the episodes are doled out in an eyedropper, and they are really a pale shadow of Breaking Bad.
Sharing my woes with a heathen friend, he suggested I watch the History Channel’s Vikings. “It’s great!” he said. “Odin shows up in the first episode.” For those geezers who still think of the History Channel as running nothing but documentaries (usually on Hitler, thus at one time earning it the nickname “the Hitler Channel”), this went the way of the “arts” in A&E (the one-time “Arts and Entertainment” channel). No longer A, only E. Vikings is a dramatic series chronicling the adventures of Ragnar Lothbrok, a character drawn from the Icelandic sagas, who was most likely an actual historical figure who lived in Denmark in the ninth century.
It took me awhile to get into Vikings. I watched the first episode and, yes, there he was: Odin combing a battlefield for slain warriors. We see him through our hero Ragnar’s POV (point of view), so it is not clear whether he is really present, or only imagined. I had to admit I was intrigued, but things went rapidly downhill. In a later scene, a murderer is judged by the local Earl and sentenced to have his head lopped off with an axe. But the Vikings didn’t do that! They banished (or “outlawed”) murderers. Did nobody on this show bother to google how the Vikings punished criminals? Do they have no technical advisor?
A later scene was worse. The villain of the piece (for the first season) is Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), who is paranoid and always imagining usurpation. He is married to the sexy, conniving Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig), who seems to push the Earl to greater and greater follies. In order to expose a possibly disloyal underling, the Earl actually invites the man into bed to make love to Siggy. When, after considerable hesitation, he accepts the offer Haraldson has him killed. At this point I felt I had come to the place at which I usually arrive in watching recent programs: the place where things just don’t feel right. (Later on, I’ll give a reason why so many programs today have such moments.) Have you had this experience watching today’s TV? What was the point of the scene? Just to show that Haraldson and his wife are bad and also a little mad? Was it to introduce something kinky? This is a recurring problem with the show: characters are continually doing things that are perverse – and that often make no real sense.
After this strange scene (which made me want to stop watching the series entirely) one expects some big, showy villainy from Haraldson. But all he really does is oppose Ragnar’s plans to sail west and search for new lands to exploit, partly because he fears Ragnar becoming too popular, partly because he is just a fuddy duddy. This conflict gives season one all the depth and complexity of those ABC Afterschool Specials I grew up with as a child in the 70s. It is a relief when Earl Haraldson is finally killed off, at which point Ragnar becomes Earl and the series becomes more interesting.
Ragnar is played by Australian actor-model Travis Fimmel. His performance is generally compelling, if sometimes rather too quirky and over the top. In the first season he is a family man, and his wife Lagertha (played by Katheryn Winnick) is a strong presence. The writers have drawn elements from the sagas in developing these stories, and invented much else. Predictably, they glory in the fact that Viking lore is filled with depictions of tough, strong Amazonian women. And, predictably, the writers present as fact what was almost certainly fiction. Lagertha is an appealing character, but after a season she is pushed out by Ragnar’s new love Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland), the daughter of Sigurd (here the writers are faithful to the saga literature, and one wishes they would be more so). In what seems an abrupt move at first, but turns out to be wise, season two shifts a couple of years into the future. Lagertha returns as an Earl in her own right, and as a more interesting character. She brings with her Bjorn, Ragnar’s son, who now looks like a man in his 20s, whereas in the first season he looked all of ten. (Apparently Vikings grow very fast. Must be the skause.)
From this point on, the plot twists and turns. The Vikings raid. Form alliances. Break alliances. Fight amongst themselves. There is conflict of all kinds, and the series is seldom predictable. But here I must touch on one of its greatest flaws: this unpredictability is often due to plot twists that seem breathtakingly arbitrary. A continual problem is characters doing things that are, well, out of character. One wants characters that are interesting and complex, but one also wants their actions to make sense. In Vikings, too often the writers seem to be continually changing their minds about what sort of person they want to depict. Characters start off good, then turn bad, then turn good again, then turn bad (or the reverse: from bad to good to bad and back to good again).
Ragnar’s brother Rollo (Clive Standen) starts off a stalwart sort (though he is in love with Lagertha), then becomes so resentful of Ragnar he betrays him (in what is a rather implausible plot twist). Despite this, he is welcomed back into the fold, proving himself loyal, but eventually becomes a shit again. This is particularly true after his wife Siggy dies. Now, you will recall that Siggy was the wife of Earl Haraldson. She marries Rollo after Haraldson dies. At first, she is portrayed as malevolent and power hungry, then (after marrying Rollo) she becomes a devoted wife who helps take care of Aslaug’s children, then she schemes against Ragnar again, then she saves Aslaug’s children from drowning only to be drowned herself. You see, when the writers can’t figure out what else to do with a character, they simply kill them off. In season one, Ragnar and Lagertha have a young son and daughter. After failing to find any way to make the daughter interesting, the writers kill her off via a convenient pestilence that sweeps the village, also eliminating a number of other superfluous characters.
The most egregious example of this sort of thing is what happens to poor Athelstan (George Blagden) a monk Ragnar picks up when he sacks the monastery at Lindisfarne (yes, that one). Ragnar carries Athelstan back to Denmark as a slave. In one of the series’ many I-can’t-believe-they’re-actually-doing-this-cause-it-just-doesn’t-feel-right moments Ragnar invites the pious Athelstan to have a threesome with him and Lagertha. Athelstan declines. Once more, I almost stopped watching at this point. A Viking letting a slave screw his wife? Really? Again, one wonders what is going on here. Did the writers just think they needed to introduce (something else) kinky? Did they need to find an excuse to expose Travis Fimmel’s overexposed torso? (He was a Calvin Klein model.)
Much to my surprise, Athelstan actually turns into an interesting character. A pious Christian, he becomes fascinated by the Vikings and their gods, and it eventually seems as if he intends to renounce his faith. In one episode, Ragnar and family travel with Athelstan to the pagan temple at Uppsala. There’s an imaginative attempt here to try to recreate what the temple might have looked like (complete with the idols of Odin, Thor, and Freyr, and the gold chain surrounding the whole thing). I think this was the first episode I really enjoyed. Though there were problems here too, including the introduction of mutant-looking priests à la 300. Oh, and then everyone takes mushrooms and fucks everyone else.
Athelstan’s conflict is interesting, and his character is effective because we ourselves are outsiders looking in at Viking society. We can identify with him. We too are steeped in this Judeo-Christian gruel and conflicted over it, and strongly attracted to pagan ways. Additionally, a strong friendship blooms between Ragnar and Athelstan that actually manages to be halfway affecting. Matters heat up when Athelstan begins having full-blown visions, and even stigmata. Finally, he seems to renounce paganism and throws his arm ring (a gift from Ragnar) into the bay. (This scene inspired me to finally order an arm ring from Grimfrost.) But just when things seemed to have gotten really interesting with Athelstan – the writers kill him off.
Speaking of stigmata, something weird is going on in this series with the whole Christian thing. On one level, there is very clearly a strongly anti-Christian element in Vikings, and frankly it’s offensive. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a pagan and strongly anti-Christian. But I am an intelligent anti-Christian. The perspective of the writers on this show is really not that of pagans (of course), but of liberals. Christians are depicted as befuddled, hypocritical, brutal, and, above all, sexually uptight. Now, all of that is true – but the liberal perspective is that this is all there is to Christianity. Thus, by contrast the Vikings are depicted as wild, carefree, and sexually liberated. Yes, it’s really as dumb and ham-fisted as that. As my aforementioned heathen friend put it to me, they hate the Christians because they had standards, and love the pagans because they think they didn’t have any. In short, the Christians are hated for the one good thing about them.
Athelstan’s stigmata result from an episode where he is captured in England and crucified by the Christian authorities in Wessex for being an apostate. Yes, you read that correctly: they crucify him. Trouble is, of course, the Christians didn’t do that. They had it done to them. Once again, somebody failed to consult Google, or to phone up a college professor. Folks, we are dealing with some very badly educated people here. And this is, in general, the problem with television drama today. It is now being produced by a generation that went to school after the schools got really, really bad. Especially the top-drawer schools that a lot of Hollywood writers graduate from. History to them is a cartoon show. Christians, boo! Uptight; can’t fuck; crucify people . . . or something. Pagans, hurrah! Take shrooms . . . maybe; drink and make merry; fuck a lot and aren’t picky about it.
Athelstan is saved from dying on the cross by King Ecbert of Wessex (Linus Roache, in what is initially a fine performance). Ecbert is another disappointing character. At first, he is quite interesting: a Christian king fascinated by paganism, who keeps a hidden collection of Greek and Roman artifacts. He is complex and sympathetic. But apparently the writers got bored with that, because at a certain point they turn him into an outright and unsympathetic villain. In another scene that almost made me turn off the series for good, he presides over the public mutilation of his daughter-in-law, who has been exposed as an adulteress.
Athelstan’s stigmata appear well after his wounds have actually healed, as do his visions. And this rather undermines the writers’ anti-Christian stance. Why are these things happening to Athelstan if Christianity is the bunkum the writers think it is? Or are they happening to Athelstan? Is it all in his imagination? We don’t really get an answer because, of course, he’s killed off. So how do we make sense out of this? The answer is that we don’t, because none of it really makes any sense.
This is a series written by a committee of tyros with heads full of half-baked ideas about history, and even less-baked ideas about how to put together a drama. One imagines them somewhere in some antiseptic conference room writing the show by free-associating ideas hastily scrawled on a dry erase board and post-it notes. “I know, let’s have Ragnar invite Athelstan for a threesome!” “I know, let’s reveal that Count Odo is into S&M!” (Another disappointing character development, best not discussed any further.) This is the generation of writers that brought us Lost, my friends. I’m sure they think the arbitrary twists they keep pooting forth are “clever.”
The writers of Vikings are exactly the sort of people Paddy Chayefsky warned us about in Network. In that film (my second favorite, after Fight Club) William Holden says of Faye Dunaway, “She’s TV generation. She learned life from Bugs Bunny.” You see, once upon a time TV was written by people who hadn’t grown up learning everything about the world from TV. Once upon a time it was written by people who read books, and got their hands in the dirt, and suffered through the Depression, and fought in wars. And who studied real history, not the politically correct, cartoon pablum that passes for history in universities today – taught by professors who learned life from Bugs Bunny. The generation of writers working in Hollywood these days – like the younger folk of the nation generally – are peculiarly and disturbingly detached from real, authentic human emotions, ignorant of human psychology, clueless about the past, and untouched by any feelings of awe or reverence.
Perhaps the kindest thing I can say about Vikings is that it is better than Game of Thrones (which I find unwatchably cheesy and dumb). As I mentioned, I came to the series rather late, and only just finished watching the third season. I will surprise my readers by saying that, yes, I will keep watching – in spite of the fact that I have been warned that eventually Ragnar gets a Chinese girlfriend (bound to happen: the humanoids who make this show couldn’t tolerate an all-white cast for long). I find the character of Ragnar interesting, and seeing Viking life re-created (no matter how imperfectly) is irresistible. I will take whatever crumbs I can get. Besides, season four of Better Call Saul isn’t scheduled to air until September.