Vikings Season 1 Review “All Change”

As a literature major and book nerd, I have read some Norse literature over the years. I have not, though, run across or researched the story of Ragnar Lothbrok. Normally, I would love to investigate the historical person upon which a character is based, but I have held back with Vikings. The show is unique compared to what is on television right now. While many shows are going down the gore-porn serial killer path, Vikings has much more to offer – a beautiful setting, historical context, complex characters, and phenomenal actors. Finding out how the real Lothbrok may have lived feels like reading the last chapter of a book first.

My head in the sand strategy, however, may be causing me greater angst in terms of my attachment to certain characters. Most people know Michael Hirst’s work from The Tudors, which was based on England’s King Henry VIII. People familiar with European history know that Henry VIII was not an exemplary husband. When I started watching The Tudors, I had in the back of my mind not to trust Henry. When the charming Natalie Dormer entered the story as the manipulative and coquettish Anne Boleyn, I knew not to get too attached to her character. There was only one way that things could end, and it would not involve her living to see her daughter, Elizabeth, ascend the English throne.

I don’t have the same frame of reference for Vikings, which means I can’t mentally prepare for what comes next. When Ragnar stabbed Lagertha in the back this week, he simultaneously snuffed out my romantic visions for the couple. The Ragnar we see at the end of the season looks nothing like the Ragnar we met at the beginning. He was previously a hard working farmer, burning with curiosity for the Western lands, and devoted to his spit-fire wife and children. Now, Ragnar is ambitious. He aligns himself with the King and prepares to go to war on the King’s behalf. Based on the prophesy of the Seeker, he has become obsessed with the idea of spreading his legacy through male progeny. When Ragnar leaves his wife and daughter behind to attend a negotiation for the King, he sows the seeds that will lead to the complete annihilation of his family.

Ragnar betrays Lagertha and has sex with Aslaug in a room full of sleeping Vikings. Bjorn, though, is not asleep and is infuriated that Ragnar has betrayed Lagertha. Aslaug later comes to Ragnar and tells him that she is pregnant. This denouement happened really quickly considering the lack of EPT sticks in Viking times. My heart immediately went out to Lagertha. Perhaps if I’d known Ragnar’s story, I would not have been so stunned. Maybe like Henry VIII, Ragnar is an antihero through and through. Lagertha may not know yet what Ragnar has done, but she is a smart woman. She knows that her relationship with Ragnar is precarious and he may do something rash that will have serious consequences.

Even in the dark about Ragnar’s infidelity, Lagertha is put through the emotional ringer in this episode. She is still recovering from the loss of her son and Ragnar’s inability to provide her any support or comfort. Though a strong and resourceful woman, Lagertha is completely powerless when a fever sweeps through their village. Lagertha watches as her daughter, Gyda, worsens and eventually dies. She is not alone in her sorrow as Siggy’s daughter also does not survive the plague. I hope that these two women will be able to unite in their grief and have a true friendship. I did not care for Siggy in the beginning because I thought she was manipulative. She still may be. But, we’ve seen Siggy lose her husband and now her child, which puts her in a similar position to Lagertha.

As Lagertha watches her daughter’s body burn, I had the sense that she has been broken down and is ready to stand back up. Katheryn Winnick does an incredible job of showing Lagertha’s crushing sadness and a small spark that Lagertha is going to rebound from this stronger and more self-assured. A woman who has gone through so much and come out in one piece has earned her spot next to Ragnar and I have no doubt that she will make any interloper understand very quickly that she is in charge. There is no way that Lagertha can be allowed to fade into the background. She may be an Anne Boleyn. The problem is that the viewers, including myself, are attached to Lagertha, whereas we knew better than to get attached to Anne. That means historical accuracy, or rather approximation, may have to take a back seat in order to keep Lagertha around.

Honestly, I wouldn’t be unhappy if Athelstan and Lagertha developed a relationship. Athelstan has keenly observed Lagertha as she has run the village during Ragnar’s absences. They are similar in that they are the only two characters who demonstrate any kind of empathy or mercy. Granted, Lagertha did not intervene when Athelstan was to be sacrificed. However, their shared love for Gyda and presence when she passed away will bond them in a way that Lagertha won’t have with Ragnar. I can see Athelstan taking an active role in providing Lagertha with emotional support.

Aside from the demise of Ragnar and Lagertha’s love story, the finale felt more like a penultimate episode. There was no big cliffhanger and no climactic confrontation. The story was more of a slow simmer that we’ll have to wait a year to see boil over. Rollo is teaming up with Jarl Borg to betray Ragnar. This wouldn’t be surprising, but after Rollo’s resistance to Earl Haraldson’s overtures, I’ve learned not to take him at his word. Bjorn redeemed himself for a season of aggressive behavior by defending his mother to Ragnar. King Horik is preparing for a war with Jarl Borg that should provide some great fight scenes next season.

Waiting a year is going to be ridiculously difficult. Hopefully by then even more people will discover what a fantastic show this is. The entire cast and Hirst should be proud of what they accomplished this year, particularly Winnick and George Blagden for their breakout performances. The History Channel also deserves some credit for seeing the potential in the show and taking a chance.

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