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Vikings: A really good show you’re not watching but should be

With all the winter premieres on their third and fourth episodes, I’ve been on a bit of a writing hiatus, but now the second wave of 2014 premieres are cranking up and I’ve been watching TV for three days straight. This morning, I sat in front of my television for a straight, four-hour stretch sneak-peeking at season two of History channel’s Vikings, and it I am reminded why I was unabashedly in love with this show last summer.  History channel is known for striking a rich balance between historical nonfiction and high drama (remember how great The Hatfields and McCoys was?!?!) and this show is no exception. I have seen the first third of the season (don’t worry, I won’t reveal spoilers) and its sophomore attempt is just as beautifully shot and violenct as a soap opera starring Vikings needs to have in order to  live up to its name. Vikings is one of those shows that far too many people aren’t watching, yet is among the best of the summer crop.

Set in Scandinavia in the eighth century, Vikings follows one Earl, Ragnar (Travis Rimmel) and his exploits as he seeks to travel west to pillage unknown lands that we know to be England.  Season one found Ragnar and his family trying to convince the then-Earl to finance these trips to the West, and we saw Ragnar grow from a violent, unstrained, loyal follower into a [super handsome] leader of the people. This season, much has transpired since then, and the Vikings’ politics have ratcheted up a notch (or ten) so that now Ragnar is Earl and must grapple with all that entails. Aside from all the characters you must keep up with and their hard-to-pronounce names, this show captivates me with its intensity and sincerity.

Intense may not even do it justice, as the battle scenes are a gory, bloody tribute to the Vikings’ reputation for being ruthless and without remorse in battle. It is nothing to see a main player take an ax to the throat or a spear to  the eyeball, and raping and plundering is the absolute norm in this show. As I’ve said before, I really admire a show that isn’t afraid to cannibalize taboo subjects (often at the expense of its own characters) for the sake of melodrama, and there are few shows that rely, almost exclusively, on an audience’s bloodlust to succeed. Brutality is a running theme in this show, and rightfully so, since this show features the most historically savage people and their attempts to plunder the Western world, but it wouldn’t do it justice if I suggested that it was painted with that broad of a brush.

The more specific strokes come from a sincerity that is born from a focus on a tight group of Vikings that the writers cull carefully and thoughtfully enough for us to forgive them their atrocities. Just like we don’t blame the bull when we get the horns, we aren’t upset at Ragnar, et al for killing a priest or murdering a child. Ragnar, as the leading male character, is about as  ferocious as they come, but he is incredibly vulnerable when it comes to the people he loves. Rimmel plays Ragnar with a light touch, exhibiting his softness in scenes with his wife, children and the animals he loves. He describes himself, after battle, as “weary and bloodsick” and tells his brother, after a particularly sharp betrayal, “you’ve broken my heart,” so that we see these two sides coalesce in a character we really care about. (Am I gushing? Forgive me, I really love this show)

While Ragnar draws our attention to the particular, we are constantly seeing a larger, historical narrative play out. This show rides the line between drama and history and I am constantly trying to sort out which is which, and I find it endlessly fascinating. Because so little is known about the Viking culture, I am so preoccupied with trying to reconcile what I know about British history and what this show is telling me about Viking history. For instance, did you know that Vikings employed young, single women as shield maidens in battle? Me either, until Vikings reveals that Ragnar’s wife Lagertha was once just such a maiden and often would accompany him into battle. Also, did you realize that Viking mythology excludes concepts such as miracles and saints in lieu of faith in the deeds committed while one Earth (not to mention that Viking heaven is called Valhalla)? This show addresses faith and the varying spirituality in a developing world with poise and fairness, and it is one of the only shows to do so.  Although there are some moments that ring a little out of time (there is a divorce story line in season two that I’m not buying),  and some dialogue that is completely anachronistic (I’m not sure Vikings had the idiom about “airing dirty laundry”) its enough that I can see the History channel deal with the Viking age with respect and without condescension or curt moralzing.

The season two premiere of History channel’s Vikings is set to air February 27th, but if you need to catch up, History has all the episodes from season one available on their website.  Since this show is not getting the attention it deserves, I am DYING to talk to somebody about this show. Tweet me what you think about Ragnar and the gang — @sroseholt.

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