Starring Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, Gustaf Skarsgård, and Gabriel Byrne
My rating: ★ 1/2 stars
An awful beginning for a good series.
Vikings, the History Channel’s first scripted series, tells the story of the legendary Norse hero, Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel). In this first episode, Ragnar, a landowner and small farmer, desires to go raiding to the west, where he believes lies a rich unexplored land. He must convince the local leader, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), to risk an expedition to this unknown territory. Bringing his 12-year-old son, Bjorn (Nathan O’Toole), for the first time, Ragnar attends the annual council meeting at Haraldson’s court at Kattegat* with the intention of making his case for going west.
The council meeting provides an opportunity to show the audience what the society is like in this place and time. Bjorn acts as an audience surrogate. Because it’s his first time there, he can ask Ragnar to explain the things that the audience needs to know. In this way, the audience learns important exposition. One of the major purposes of any pilot episode is to convey to the audience information about the characters, the story, and the setting. However, Vikings makes this exposition clunkier than most. The episode spends most of the time with characters sitting around and talking, mainly Ragnar explaining things to Bjorn, and, when Bjorn won’t suffice as an audience surrogate, Ragnar explains things to his brother, Rollo (Clive Standen).
As if trying to stave off criticism of the show being talky, the writer, show-creator Michael Hirst, includes an opening battle scene, where Ragnar and Rollo are the only ones left standing. Whom they are fighting and why is unclear, and this battle is never mentioned again. Its only purpose is to provide an action scene at the beginning of the series. At the end of the scene, Ragnar has a vision of the Valkyries swooping down to take the fallen warriors to Valhalla. This bit of mystical nonsense, like the battle scene itself, is dropped from the series once the scene is done. Subsequent episodes remain grounded in reality, mostly.
The key conflict here that is carried on into future episodes is the one between adventurous Ragnar and the older, more risk-averse Haraldson, who recognizes that Ragnar’s ambition may lead him to challenge the earl’s authority. Their scenes are well-played, with Fimmel displaying Ragnar’s passion while Byrne shows boredom lurking under his anger. Haraldson is old. He’s tired. He doesn’t want to deal with this upstart.
Ragnar understands that Haraldson will reject the idea of going west, yet he goes through the motions of following the proper procedure of seeking the earl’s approval. Once the council meeting is over, however, Ragnar brings Bjorn to meet Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård), a local eccentric and boat-builder, who has already begun making a boat for the trek west.
Meanwhile, back at the Lothbrok farm, Ragnar’s wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) teaches their daughter, Gyda (Ruby O’Leary), various household tasks. She is rudely interrupted by two men who try to take advantage of the fact that her husband is away. She injures them severely, throws them out of her home, and returns to her chores as if nothing has happened. Later, when the men of the family have returned from the council meeting and Ragnar steps out for a moment, Rollo creepily propositions Lagertha, who rebuffs him. Rollo’s distasteful desire for Lagertha continues for a handful of episodes but is then forgotten.
The pilot does its job in setting up the major conflict of the early part of the season, that between Ragnar and Haraldson, but it falls short in convincing viewers to continue the series. Pilot episodes are always tricky, with the need for so much exposition and the lack of a relationship between the viewers and the characters. But too many threads are introduced that are quickly abandoned: the random battle scene at the beginning, Ragnar’s mystical visions, Rollo’s lust for Lagertha, and a bit about the death of Haraldson’s sons. The pace of the episode is slow. The conflict is predictable. Of course, Haraldson is going to decline Ragnar’s request to go west. There wouldn’t be much of a show if Ragnar encountered no resistance. However, the show fails to make Haraldson’s resistance in any way interesting or fresh. And one element of the conflict about the raiding makes no sense. One scene is dedicated to Haraldson announcing where the men under his command are going raiding. Prior to this, the men wait in great anticipation for the announcement. However, we learn that the summer raids always go to the Baltic lands. So, if they’ve never gone anywhere else, why would the earl bother to make a big announcement that the men will be going to the Baltic lands, and why would the men wait anxiously to discover where they are going?
The pilot episode, despite some stunning visuals and good performances, fails to suggest that the series will be either interesting or intelligent, which is unfortunate because the series is both. If viewers can make it through the pilot, the series immediately improves with the following episode.
*Kattegat is not a real town. None of the legends or any of the historical evidence suggesting that Ragnar Lothbrok may have really existed indicates where he is from beyond the general area of Scandinavia. So, Hirst devised a fictional town named after the strait between Denmark and Sweden. Where Kattegat is supposed to be—Sweden, Denmark, or Norway—has never been indicated on the show.