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.
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!
*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?