One of the best things about the first two seasons of Vikings is its pacing. Season two moves along at a fair old clip, and never gets bogged down in melodrama. Events which might sustain The Walking Dead or Sons of Anarchy for a whole season are dealt with in an episode or two here. Considering the hardiness and fatalism of its Norse characters, as well as the major historical drama which unfolds, there is of course no reason why the show should focus excessively on personal angst. Nevertheless, many shows do just that, and it’s good to see Vikings is brave and confident enough to resist the trend.
It’s all the more impressive because this second season does contain a number of really pathetic and moving sequences. A memorable example is an almost incidental shot of a doomed man facing a nightmarish death, quietly petting a brown rat in his prison cell. The briskness of the storytelling and its refusal to dwell on any one individual’s suffering for too long makes those moments all the more profound: suffering in this world is the norm, not the exception, and as Ragnar says to his son Bjorn, what makes you think you should be happy? But the individual story arcs never overshadow the main plot. This season sees the growth of internecine rivalries and tensions within the Viking camp, and also sees them drawn in to political struggles in England. King Ecbert of Wessex is one of the new characters in this season and a much stronger and more astute adversary for Ragnar than the hapless King Aelle encountered in Northumbria.
The Vikings’ return to England also poses some hard questions for the Saxon ex-priest-cum-Viking, Athelstan. Much of this season focuses on Athelstan and Floki, two of Ragnar’s close friends, and examines questions of loyalty and trust. Athelstan’s conflicting religious ideals and convictions have been a theme of the first two seasons, and he serves as a counterpoint to Floki, the most ideological of the pagan Vikings. Athelstan is just the sort of character who in another show could become a character shill or Gary Stu, but Vikings avoids that trap: partly because of the ordeals Athelstan has to endure, but also because the character is handled sincerely and treated as a real person struggling believably with conflicting ideas, rather than just as a canvass for the writer’s preoccupations.
Season two’s first episode concludes a major storyline carried over from the first season, and I was surprised to find it then moved forward four years. It’s a good move, however, because it helps keep things fresh and allows for some new and interesting plot points. As I alluded to earlier, this briskness is characteristic of Vikings, and quite refreshing. I understand that season four is significantly longer, so we’ll see whether it continues. But these first two seasons are terrific and eminently watchable.
The battle scenes are a extremely well done. They manage to avoid being gratuitous or stylised, yet maintain a strong sense of physicality, and the choreography is dynamic without being over-the-top. It feels like you’re watching something real rather than something out of a comic book, like Spartacus. The depiction of military tactics is also interesting and unusually sophisticated, in that it actually shows different groups fighting in recognisably different ways. At the same time, it doesn’t telegraph the fact it’s doing this, it just gets on with it. It’s another example of the intelligence and humility of Vikings’ writing.
The cast is tremendous, and Travis Fimmel and Kathryn Winnick remain particularly easy on the eye. Winnick’s Lagertha is the star of this season, and an inspirational heroine. Thorbjørn Harr also deserves an honorable mention for his depiction of Jarl Borg, a prominent figure in this season. Vikings feels like one of those shows, like Deadwood or The Wire, that could make the careers of everyone involved with it. It’s a truly special show and testament to the potential of serious historical drama.
Also, the season ends with an amazing panning shot that looks like something out of Skyrim. Absolutely stunning.