If anything, I was hoping that History Channel’s Vikings would do a lot to demystify the fascinating culture from the north, one that has been relegated to mere stereotypes and caricatures over the years when looking at their portrayals. The Norsemen are often seen as one-dimensional figures, who have a bloodthirsty craving for violence, rape, and pillaging, with their interactions between each other bordering on unintelligible muttering. Based on what this network has put out in recent years, I was expecting exactly that, only with a couple of horned helmets thrown into the mix. So far, though, after the first episode, I am quite impressed and happy with the overall look and feel of this coming ten-part series, which could expand into future seasons. It is not perfect, as nothing ever is, and there are a few cringe moments, but I actually found myself enjoying the first episode, and am anxious for the rest of the series. Below are some highlights and what stood out to me the most:
- What impressed me: the fact that this episode was not centered around violence, though we did have some fighting early on and a later execution, gave me the proof I needed that the creators were not going to thrust themselves into the stereotypes mentioned earlier. Not to say that gratuitous violence won’t come at a later episode, but at least they set the tone with a very human portrayal of these misunderstood people. The father-son scenes did a lot to accomplish that, and we can actually relate to the family members of the main character Ragnar Lothrbok (Travis Fimmel). There is also a scene involving tribal law which I thought illustrated how punishment was doled out, and not being terribly barbaric at that, which is what we might expect. There is also great insight into their thinking that there might be lands to the west worth exploring, as well as the difficulties they might face in doing so. I am not an expert in Viking history, and know just the basics, so I am not sure how accurate these scenes are, but it did work. A lot of times, when dealing with this kind of subject matter, when the creators make something up or alter it for the story, it becomes too modern. Vikings does not fall victim to that, at least not story-wise. In regards to the cinematography, it is outstanding, as the locations chosen for filming are stunningly gorgeous. The sets constructed also look “real” and do not fit into the almost cartoonish portrayal I was expecting.
- What made me cringe: the dialogue. The one item that really bugs me with this show is the lines these characters find themselves saying. It really is the only thing that I truly hated. As the minutes went on, I began to think that I probably could have written a better script on the back of a napkin while waiting for a burger at the diner. Painfully forced lines such as “They are having sex” and “I must go piss”, combined with an anachronistic usage of the month “January” make this a frenzy of moments where you want to yell “Just shut up!” at the screen and hope that the characters can somehow communicate through ESP. The best parts of this episode are where there is little dialogue, as the breathtaking scenery really will take the viewer on a journey. I also wish the producers would have done without the oracle scene (perhaps they could have had a mention of it after it occurs off-camera), or at least tried to ease up on the ridiculousness of showing a disfigured, almost alien-like person in the role, something which took away from the realism of the show quite badly. Since oracles are supposed to have an air of mystery behind them, it would have been better served to have the face covered by a veil or dark shadows and letting the viewer wonder, rather than having us seeing that “thing” which almost made me laugh.
- The acting: I cannot say that any of these actors were simply “miscast”, because no person in our modern age, I believe, can convincingly look how the Vikings really did. Travis Fimmel, by looks, does give off a pretty good rendition, but like the rest of the cast, the acting and recitation of lines seems forced, uninvolved, and out of place. It appears, and I hope I am wrong at this assumption, that the highest level of acting we will see is when Gabriel Byrne is on the screen as the Earl Heraldson, and even he himself looks like a fish out of water with the little mustache he is sporting. As a side note, it is also worth mentioning the various Irish accents do not take away from the story, unlike what we saw in The Bible, which also aired Sunday night.
Overall, this is a case of hit and miss, but a lot more hits. There was a good balance of action, character buildup, story placement, and romance (for those who need that in what they watch). They did a good job at the end building up what is to come in future episodes, and for that, I will continue to watch. I found myself entertained despite the aforementioned gaffes, and will give this first episode a 7.5 out of 10.