Vikings: Season 2

Vikings

★★★★

You’ve got to give it to the team behind The Vikings. I thought Season 1 was good; but they kicked off the first episode of Season 2 with an intense battle scene, complete with shield walls, impalement and Rollo surging around without his shirt on; and things simply haven’t let up since. If the first season was about dreams, exploration and quiet calculation, this second season plunges us into the difficulties of keeping hold of power: the negotiation, the double-bluffing and the hard choices about who to trust and who to destroy. Sometimes, as both Ragnar Lothbrok and his enemies will discover in different ways, the most dangerous of men are not those who drink and argue and go fiercely into battle, but those who wait on the sidelines, and watch, and weigh, and measure.

As the new season opens, Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) is in an awkward position on several fronts. He has been dragged into the vicious land dispute between King Horik (Donald Logue) and Jarl Borg (Thorbjørn Harr); and, to make matters worse, he finds himself fighting against his ambitious brother Rollo (Clive Standen), who thinks that his future might be rosier with Jarl Borg than with Ragnar. As if sibling rivalry wasn’t enough, Ragnar has also managed to put himself in a very difficult situation with his proud wife Lagertha (the ever-luminous Katheryn Winnick). Despite his protests of innocence over his encounter with Princess Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) at the end of Season 1, he is left looking rather red-faced when the princess arrives at Kattegat in regal state, looking gorgeous and undeniably pregnant.

Vikings: Season 2

Princess Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland)

Faced with a determined rival and a husband who can only weakly propose a ménage a trois, Lagertha exercises her right as a woman and a shield-maiden and heads off to find a more congenial arrangement elsewhere. Torn between his parents, their young son Bjorn eventually departs with Lagertha (when he reappears, Nathan O’Toole has undergone an impressive transformation into Alexander Ludwig). And so, Ragnar is left with a brace of unreliable allies, a simmering brother, a new and incredibly fecund wife, and a band of warriors eager for more plunder. As the years pass, his attention once again turns back to England, where the scene shifts to Wessex, the domain of the dilettante King Ecbert (Linus Roache), who proves to be a subtle and worryingly intelligent adversary.

This season has proved to be even more enjoyable than the last, mainly because the writers have grown in confidence and have gone for something much more elaborate. The characterisation is also more interesting. Ragnar remains an intriguing character and nothing like a conventional Viking hero. He’s a stout warrior but battle is an obligation, not a passion, for him. While Rollo is happiest in a shield wall, cutting down swathes of warriors, Ragnar is the more contemplative, more philosophical of the brothers. He is the kind of man who always wants to know more: how, and why, and what. And, because he is open to new ideas, he is precisely the kind of man who succeeds where brute brainless force can fail.

We get to see the full force of his cleverness in this season, not only in his negotiations with Ecbert but also in his handling of his allies. Smart, unpredictable and completely inscrutable, Ragnar is not the kind of man you want as your enemy – a fact that, sadly, many people discover much too late. Fimmel continues to do a very good job with the character, giving away very little except a quirk of the eyebrow or a slight smile, and always managing to convey Ragnar’s almost obsessive thirst for novelty and understanding.

So much has happened in only ten episodes that I genuinely don’t know where to begin. There is so much to enjoy, and relatively little to criticise. Initially I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Ecbert (and I’m still not, in the sense that I clearly wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him); but I liked the way Anglo-Saxon culture was shown taking advantage of the Roman world that remained. It became a bit of a running joke that Ecbert’s scenes usually took place in a bathhouse. And I particularly liked the fact that Ecbert was so passionate about the classical world: there aren’t many series where a scene is spent translating an ancient scroll about Julius Caesar’s military strategy. Brilliant. I enjoyed the constant uncertainty about who was trustworthy and who was not; I enjoyed the splendid cinematography, the massed ships raiding over the waves, and the fact that people regularly shouted ‘Shield wall!’. It was moving to watch Athelstan (George Blagden) struggle with his faith; and I still think Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) is a super character, especially as he starts to get a bit darker in this second season.

Most of all, however, I continue to be impressed by the series’s female characters. There’s been plenty of praise for the strong women in Game of Thrones, for example, but I have to say that The Vikings is coming up with some equally admirable – if less complex – women. Lagertha continues to be splendidly formidable, both as a warrior and as a woman defending her own right to dignity. It’s a testament to Winnick’s acting that, even though Lagertha is so slight and small, I find her completely convincing as a shield-maiden. Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig) may have a more conventional role to play, but she is driven by the same kind of desire for power and authority that motivates so many of the men.

I’m also delighted to report that the trend set in the first series continues: there is no sexposition of the kind made famous by Game of Thrones (although I was profoundly unimpressed by the Mercian sex kitten who rather implausibly turned up in Episode 8). While there are sex scenes, they’re used to develop plot and character. Nudity is fairly infrequent and, in any case, it’s much more frequently male than female; and, to be frank, it’s usually Rollo. All hail Clive Standen for taking one for the team, and making my knees go a little bit weak every time.*

More than the first season, I should make the point that this isn’t for the squeamish. Although it doesn’t go out of its way to be grotesquely gory, the series is quite happy to go in directions that your average BBC drama would probably try to delicately sidestep. Obviously don’t read on if you fear spoilers, but among the usual delights of rapine, pillage and general slaughter we also have two particularly nasty methods of execution. One is the old chestnut of crucifixion, which just goes to show that one really can take the imitation of Christ too far; and the other, which I must confess is still haunting me now, is blood-eagling. I never for a moment expected to see that done on screen, and even though they manage it extremely well without any direct shots, there’s absolutely no doubt about what’s going on. I’m not sure that many people would have known quite what to expect, but I have Guy Gavriel Kay and The Last Light of the Sun to thank for my instruction in this particular area. All the way through that episode I kept saying to myself, ‘They won’t do it. It’s just a dramatic device. There’ll be some way out of it. They won’t do it.’ And then, knock me down with a feather, but they did it, in a sequence that was both horrible and magnificent, finishing with an aerial shot that left me feeling queasy for the rest of the evening.

Once again I entirely recommend this series to anyone with a taste for historical drama, political intrigue or the odd bit of old-school warfare. My one regret is that there still hasn’t been any oar-dancing, but I’m convinced it’s only a matter of time. The series is well-made, well-acted and, crucially, far too smart to take itself entirely seriously. As it is all available to stream on Amazon, there’s even less excuse for you not to watch it. Enjoy!

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*The last time I got all girlish about an actor in a TV series (the Dauphin in the Hollow Crown’s Henry V), the link got forwarded to him on Twitter, which was rather mortifying. The internet has its downsides. So, just in case: Clive, if you’re reading this, love your work. You’re doing a splendid job. How about some oar-dancing in Season 3?

10 thoughts on “Vikings: Season 2

  1. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank God I read this before I picked up the cup of coffee.

    Oh dear, oh dear. No, not nude oar-dancing! I am far too English to have even contemplated that. *Hides face in embarrassment* I was aiming for oar-dancing of the fully-dressed variety; that would be quite sufficient, considering how impossible to seems to be to persuade anyone to do it. Having failed with the British Museum's events department and with the massed forces of Viking re-enactors at the Festival of History, I'm just thought it was worth a go here.

    Just to emphasise, this show is very enjoyable for a large number of reasons to do with the acting and the cinematography and the gripping storylines, quite regardless of what the cast may or may not be wearing at any given time. 😀

    *Cautiously picks up the cup of coffee again*

  2. maryb says:

    I think Alexander Ludwig is going to take over the role of gratuitously nude man. And that's ok with me – although I feel like a dirty OLD lady saying that. And I could totally see him doing the oar dancing.

    I am constantly amazed by how much I enjoy this series. I keep telling everyone I know to watch it and not a single soul will. Which only goes to show that I have no influence at all on my peer group! But seriously, all the people I know who love Game of Thrones would probably like this too.

    Each episode sends me to Google. For instance, I had no idea where the Kingdom of Wessex was (I'm an American – it isn't part of our schooling) but after seeing Ecbert in the Roman baths, oh about 10 times, I decided to look it up and see if Bath was part of Wessex. Well, what do you know … So The History Channel can pat itself on the back that it is educating me.

    Like you, I found the Mercian princess implausible, and unnecessary. And I always wonder if Vikings really had such great wooden docking systems (all looking as if they are made with milled planks). But on the whole I'm seldom pulled out of the reality of the series by things that don't seem right.

    I can't wait for next season. More Lagertha!

  3. The Idle Woman says:

    I have exactly the same experience: isn't it annoying? We're all Game of Thrones fans in my office so every week we have a run-down of the new developments in Westeros, but every time I try to tell them that the Vikings is also really fun, I get quizzical stares in return. So it seems that direwolves and dragons and White Walkers are fine, but a bit of raiding and a few battles is a bit too unbelievable for them to handle. *Shakes head wearily*

    I'm not sure if Ecbert is meant to be actually in Bath or not – I'm assuming he can't be, if the raiding party is camped on the south coast. It would be much too far for them to reach in one day (I grew up just outside Bath so clearly I would have been *delighted* if it had been there!). But Roman baths would have been more widespread back then; Ecbert's probably based in an old villa somewhere. I'm still trying to judge how far he is trustworthy. I don't think Ragnar can trust him, but can Athelstan? What does Ecbert really want, apart from the obvious 'land and power'? Hmm. Glad the Mercian princess irritated you as well. I just can't believe that a woman could have behaved like that at this date if she wanted to remain respected and in control. The sooner she goes back to Mercia, the better, although if Lagertha and the would-be raiders are going with her, I fear we haven't seen the last of her yet.

    Alexander Ludwig's poster, which I didn't have space to include here, puzzled me because it implied that he might not finish the series with all limbs intact… as did Floki's rather disturbing conversations with King Horik about Baldur… and yet he did. So I'm not quite sure what is going on there. I think we shouldn't take the posters too seriously. They seem to be primarily a chance for cast and photographers to have a bit of fun by showing the characters as some of the Norse gods. (Ragnar is Odin, if you look at the fire that burns in one of his eyes; Floki must be Loki; Aslaug is presumably Frigg; I imagine that Rollo is Thor; Bjorn would naturally be Baldur; and would Siggy be Eir, with her medical and maniupative qualities?) Yes, I am almost certainly reading far too much into this. I get a bit stuck when we move onto Ecbert with the deer and Horik with the hen. My Norse mythology isn't that good yet.

    So yes, hoping for more Lagertha next season, more political manoeuvring by Ecbert, and really hoping to see Rollo back on his feet and fighting again. If he's going to follow his historical namesake's story arc, he's got quite a few raids to make yet. And the world will be a darker place if he doesn't get back out on the battlefield (for me, certainly, but quite possibly for Ragnar too; in different ways).

    I really don't mind who does the oar-dancing. I just think it would be fabulous.

  4. maryb says:

    Oh I didn't think he was actually in Bath – or if he was supposed to be, they didn't make it look like the baths as the public visiting Bath sees them now. I just wondered if Bath was in Wessex.

    I tried to Google to see if the Mercian princess was based on a real person but all I found was information about the men in the family – which, I suppose, is typical. I didn't look too hard so maybe there is something. I wondered if she was real and had something “scandalous” in her story and the writers took the opportunity to write her in a completely unbelievable way. Of course, years later Godiva had her own story of riding through the town naked so it wouldn't have surprised if there was something that could be manipulated for modern television. I'd like to see Lagertha take her out 🙂

    I like the character of Siggy because I'm never sure what she is going to do. I don't trust her even though she has mostly been a reasonably decent person since her husband died. I like characters that are gray like that. Do you think that she and Lagertha are supposed to be middle aged and past child bearing age and that's why they never get pregnant any more? And while I was glad Lagertha killed that second husband of hers – I couldn't figure out why on earth she married him in the first place.

    I like your theories on the Norse gods. I don't know enough about them to make the comparisons. I know the names but not the personalities. Maybe I should spend some time on that before the next season starts.

  5. The Idle Woman says:

    I've just had a dig around on Wikipedia and IMDB, where her name is given as Kwenthrith – isn't she meant to be Cwenthryth, sister of Saint Kenelm (whom she had arranged to be murdered, according to his legend)? I'm sure I remember her saying something about him now being regarded as a saint. According to Wikipedia, she was the daughter of Coenwulf, although I have a vague recollection that in the programme they might have made her Offa's daughter… but there seems to be precious little evidence about her, and even less proof that she did actually have her brother killed. The historical Cwenthryth ended up as an abbess which, judging by the behaviour of the fictional Mercian princess, looks most unlikely. 🙂

    Initially I really didn't care much for Siggy because I was sure she was going to betray everyone but, especially after that last episode, it turns out that Ragnar is far more of a puppet-master, and his friends far more faithful, than I'd anticipated. So yes: she's back in my good books, especially because, of all the characters, she has to sacrifice the greatest degree of dignity in winning over Ragnar's enemies.

    Interesting point about how old she and Lagertha are meant to be. Lagertha has a grown son after all, but by the standards of the time she could still only be in her mid-thirties. That's still young to us… but something I always find hard to remember (and rather galling) is that if you were over thirty in this period you were definitely considered as old; and if you were over forty you were old, full-stop. Maybe women reached the end of their childbearing years slightly earlier then… but I suspect the lack of any new children for her and Siggy is because it doesn't make dramatic sense. And as for Lagertha's second marriage? Power, surely. Wealth and power and security, so that when she takes him out (as she had to, really, because the man was foul), she has authority and independence in her own right. Go Lagertha! 🙂

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