Vikings S1 – what may laughably be called a review a year late

Apparently US Memorial Day means we can’t have another episode of Game of Thrones S4 this week (though seemingly we can have another episode of Mad Men S7 culminating in a surreal dance number featuring a dead character so what this says about USians’ priorities is anybody’s guess). Owing to this sword/beard-shaped lacuna in my weekend, plus the rain and an unhappily placed door jamb, I ended up spending most of yesterday on the sofa with my foot in the air mainlining series 1 of Vikings.

I so wanted to love it, and this is why I end up petulantly reviewing stuff on the internet about a year after everybody else – by the time I get around to seeing something I am invested. I am not someone who gets precious about historical accuracy, mind, and in the case of Vikings this is just as well. They have run together a retelling of the Ragnar Lodbrook sagas with bits and bobs from earlier and later in attested history. Ragnar himself is a misty, possibly mythical figure. King Aelle really did rule Northumbria, but somewhat later than 793, the date of the first Viking raids on Lindisfarne, which this series chooses as its anchor. I don’t really get why any show or film does this, by the way – suddenly pops a date onto the screen in curly writing in a way which contributes nothing whatever to the story while inviting every Wikipedia-cruising carper on the internet to take potshots at your whole enterprise. Why tie yourself down like that, especially when you’re basically doing a bit of myth-retelling? Most people can situate the Viking Age adequately in their mental model of north west European history – after the Romans, before the kings and castles – and if they can’t, a date isn’t going to tell them anything. If you need to introduce pacing it would make more sense to use cues like “The Following Summer”, though in the case of a series based around seasonal raiding no writer should really need to do that.

But while I’m happy for people to chop history and myth about I think it’s a shame when it’s underused. History is stuffed with grand narratives, Viking history perhaps even more than most. There were Vikings on the personal bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperors, they traded and raided all over the Baltic and down the great Eurasian rivers as far as Mesopotamia. You could easily tell a story that starts with a band of brothers in a modest collection of farms and fishing towns – like this one does – and show these familiar caricatures in all sorts of unfamiliar settings, encountering distant lands and undreamed-of riches and politics that might challenge their thuggishly-presented socio-economic arrangements. Yet there is only really one grand narrative in Vikings a full seven episodes in, by which time Game of Thrones had plunged us into about five different worlds and killed or put into serious jeopardy key people in most of them, and the narrative is of course “Go West”. Bullet-headed, gold-chasing Ragnar who wants to sail west and conquer frankly not dissimilar lands to his own bar the odd fjord, versus risk-averse, sly Earl Haraldsan (Gabriel Byrne reminding everybody that you can point the camera at a real actor for thirty seconds and get taken through ten times as many emotions and nuances as appear in their scripting) who insists his boats continue to raid eastwards.

And it’s true that the first encounters between the Vikings and the monks and soldiers of Northumbria were easily the best scenes in the whole thing. Culture clash is one of those themes that focuses a story-teller’s mind and the mind of the audience on the same pinpoint of time, and it nearly always comes off because everyone can see what the stakes are – this is the moment, everything screams at the viewer, where it all begins. Cautious welcomes turn to puzzlement as people start babbling mutually incomprehensible languages and then somebody makes a wrong move and the whole thing turns bloody – very believable and great to watch. A lot of these early encounter scenes are staged so that most of the Vikings really are taller than most of the surrounding English, as well as messier, nastier-looking and with more hipsterish hair, and it works both as a metaphor for where these people’s fortunes are going and as homage to the terrified writers of ninth-century England who recorded them very much like this. But after that promising beginning we seem to have got locked onto a rather tedious storyline involving lots of people tramping through heathland, some home politics of the serious-expression-in-firelight variety, the perpetually ratty King Aella whose Archbishop, or whatever he is, is being played by Peter Cook, and generally a gentle, predictable slide towards the Danelaw (spoiler for you right there). If there is going to be a game-changer that doesn’t involve Earl Haraldsan’s hot widow and/or Ragnar’s sulky brother Rollo, well, this is a better show than I am currently giving it credit for.

One thing I did love was all the reverse-engineered archaeology – the opening titles basically show a stylised hoard/burial/shipwreck hybrid deposit event taking place (viz. they fall in the water) and at odd intervals in the series you can just hear, under the doomy music, the researchers gibbering excitedly about how cool it would be to show a strangled-sacrifice-and-hoard, or skulls-next-to-bottoms burial, and provide an imaginative context for them. And it is pretty cool. One of these pleasing little moments features by far and away the best character, Floki, a trickster figure in the spirit of Loki himself, who gigglingly flips a coin from King Aella’s massive buy-off into the Tyne as the Vikings sail for home, thereby reminding all archaeologists who spend their time reasoning out contexts for deposits that sometimes, a thing is in the ground (or in the river bed in this case) because an unpredictable psychopath put it there.

The fact that Floki is the best character points up what is lacking here, I think. Tricksters are fabulous devices for powering a story onwards and have been used as such by every culture that has ever written stories, but while you can use them as sources of profound change in a story (Floki is the boat builder who makes Ragnar’s raids possible) or for flipping a situation over (it is Floki’s sudden capricious grab for the necklace of an Northumbrian soldier that prompts the first proper Viking-English skirmish) I shouldn’t be watching that character alone for signs that things are moving on. I also want to see relationships evolving between the others, Ragnar, his band of raiders and his family that prompts them to take conflicting actions, rather than all of them swirling obediently round whatever Ragnar has smirkingly decided he fancies doing next. I also want some evidence of tensions between thirty-odd people fighting from the seat of their leather pants in a foreign land, rather than having to be written into the scenes afterwards where they’re all safely home and Rollo the Sulker is away from the band griping with somebody else. Much the liveliest relationship in the whole thing is that between Ragnar and Aethelstan the ex-Lindisfarne monk turned God-doubting slave, and the script flares into life when they talk because their interactions play successfully on differential status. Ragnar could, as Aethelstan points out, have him beaten to death on a whim and suffer no penalty, and we are invited to guess at Ragnar’s motives for taking a pretty indulgent line towards him – indulgent in the sense that he allows him to live as a slave in his household after slaughtering his defenceless companions anyway.

It’s the only relationship in the whole thing I really care about, that feels like it could go sour, or that generally shows signs of having unpredictable emergent qualities. I want more unpredictability, I want Ragnar to have a proper opponent and real, evolving relationships with other people, and I want some honest-to-Odin bromance, goddammit. I have an almost limitless capacity for any amount of nonsense involving slightly grubby men charging about with swords (see also The Musketeers, which compellingly featured open shirts too), but at the moment I won’t be racing to download S2 unless there are some seriously good switcheroos in the last two episodes of this season, or of course unless I break the toes on my other foot on another rainy bank holiday weekend.