Viking history has a wide appeal and an iconic place in Western and European culture, but outside of heavy metal music it has been under-explored territory: there have been relatively few decent movies, TV shows, or video games dealing seriously with Viking culture. As such, Vikings feels like a landmark show. Its been running for a few years now, but streaming in the UK has been exclusive to Lovefilm/Amazon so I’ve only just had the opportunity to watch the first season. It’s a cracker. Developed for the History channel in the US, Vikings is exceptionally well-written. A great deal of care has gone into creating a comprehensible and compelling narrative in an environment that feels authentic while being intelligible to a general audience. It’s a fine balance and an impressive achievement.

The first season of Vikings follows the story arc of Ragnar Lothbrok, charting his rise from obscurity to notoriety and glory. Ragnar is a charismatic character played with charm and wit by Travis Fimmel. For those who don’t know, Travis Fimmel is a former model who bears an uncanny resemblance to Charlie Hunnam, but he is also a likable and talented actor in his own right. Ragnar and his wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), make for one of the most improbably appealing TV couples in some time. Their relationship forms the dramatic and emotional centre of this first season, which over the course of its nine episodes features a surprising number of plot lines. Lothbrok is a legendary historical figure and the source material is obviously rich, but the writers do a good job of getting through some potentially complicated storylines at a good pace and with enough variation in tone and content to keep the viewer consistently entertained.

Particularly for the first few episodes, Vikings very strongly brought to mind Sons of Anarchy, and not just because of the physicall similarity between the two leads. Ragnar is the same kind of inspirational leader as Jax Teller, a great fighter and talker who is capable of empathising with friend and foe alike and seeing and trusting in the strength of his allies. There’s a great deal of thematic similarity between the shows. In particular, brotherhood, loyalty, and family are major motifs, as is the tension between personal ambition and familial and social responsibility. Also like Sons, this is a seriously violent drama, and not for those with a weak stomach. One of the first episodes shows the Vikings sacking the monastery at Lindisfarne, and I was blown away by the suddenness and scale of the violence. It’s extremely well done: coming almost out of nowhere and feeling absurdly casual, the violence is shocking but doesn’t feel gratuitous–precisely because it’s so congruous with the depiction of Viking culture we see elsewhere. Similarly, sex and sexual violence are prevalent here but depicted in a mature way, as a necessary part of the story, and don’t fall prey to the kind of salacious treatment we might expect in a more grindhouse historical drama like Spartacus.

Religion is a prominent theme in this first season. This is natural enough considering that the encounters between the pagan Vikings and the Christian British are central to the story, and their interactions soon progress from mere carnage to diplomacy and the beginnings of cultural interaction. An important character is Athelstan, a monk from Lindisfarne kidnapped by Ragnar who keeps him as a slave. Ragnar treats Athelstan well, certainly compared to how his kinsmen treat their slaves, and it’s an important signifier of Ragnar’s relative enlightenment and far-sightedness. The intelligence Ragnar eventually gets from Athelstan about Britain turns out to be of great use, as does the smattering of language he learns from him. Indeed, one of the interesting aspects of this first season is seeing how Ragnar and his friends react to Athelstan’s influence, and how Athelstan learns to live under Paganism.

I’m intrigued to see how it develops, and also to see how (or whether) the show depicts elements of the pagan outlook being absorbed by the new religion. The depiction of pagan mystics, priests, rituals and, particularly, sacrifice, is vivid and disturbing, and the show does well to portray this without either glamorizing such customs or demonizing the people who observed them. Further, most of the Vikings here show no fear of death and some of them actively seek it in battle as a means to enter Valhalla; change a few words and you could be listening to some of today’s religious fanatics. It’s poignant, not least because the fanaticism on display here is about as authentically ‘European’ as it gets.

It’s not all heavy going. Vikings has its lighter moments, often brought to us by Ragnar, the source of much of the show’s humour, or by some of the light-hearted revelry and pranks of his warband. Floki, a prankster and Ragnar’s shipbuilder, is a regular source of amusement; as are the situations and combinations that can arise from the relatively loose sexual mores of the time. The general tone is quite dour, though, and the 45-minute episode time is about right. With only nine episodes, it’s a short season but gets through an amount of story that would sustain other shows for two or three times that long. I’m eager to check out the next seasons, although slightly wary of the recent news that season four is going to be twenty episodes long. I hope they don’t start padding it out, as the tautness of the writing and the fast pacing is one of the show’s strengths. In that sense, it probably owes more to something like Deadwood than it does to Sons.

So far as I can tell, Vikings is far and away the best thing Amazon Instant has to offer, so do yourself a favour and check it out; if you don’t have a subscription, you can probably hunt down the first season on DVD for a few quid.

Vikings also has a captivating intro sequence and I can’t stop listening to the theme music.