For those of you who have not had the pleasure of watching the six seasons of History’s Vikings (not history’s Vikings – they’re only loosely affiliated with the show), let me bring you up to speed before we turn to the new spin-off, Vikings: Valhalla (Netflix).
Vikings was 89 episodes about Vikings. The main Viking was the legendary hero of the Norse sagas and eventually king Ragnar Lodbrok (Travis Fimmel). Vikings started in 793 (or 2013 out here in the watching world), with the Viking raid on Lindisfarne and marauded through the schedules for a couple of generations’ worth of Vikings and seven of our years. It was a simplified Game of Thrones, a Nordic – which is to say a less utterly demented – The Tudors (another production by Vikings creator Michael Hirst) – designed to trouble the mental capacities of no one, though it doubtless caused medieval scholars significant pain. At various points it starred Gabriel Byrne, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and – as I believe is statutorily mandated for all Scandinavia-based productions – a Skarsgård; in this case Gustaf, son of Stellan, brother of Alexander.
Vikings: Valhalla is also about Vikings. We pick up about a hundred years after we and Ragnar left off, with the St Brice’s Day massacre. King Aethelred (Bosco Hogan), not so Unready on 13 November 1002, orders the slaughter of every Dane in England in retaliation for their fellow Norsemen’s propensity for raiding his kingdom over the preceding years.
King Canute (Bradley Freegard) immediately starts gathering a vengeful Viking army at Kattegat and prepares to go to war, aided by Harald Sigurdsson (Leo Suter) – AKA Harald Hardrada, and you may want to keep an eye on him, because Vikings: Valhalla is going to take us all the way up to the Battle of Stamford Bridge – and, ideally, Olaf “the Holy” Haraldsson (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson).
Two problems: one, Olaf is now a zealous Christian and won’t fight alongside his pagan countrymen. Two, I’m not entirely sure who anyone is because they are all just moving masses of beard and animal skins. Olaf is the largest – OK. Canute is the handsomest – fine. And Harald is sporting a manbun that, even at a distance of 1,000 years, is upsetting but at least a working identifier as long as he’s facing away from camera. When he’s not, he is indistinguishable from Leif Eriksson (Sam Corlett). Eriksson is a real history Viking – the son of Erik the Red, and an explorer who is thought to have beaten Christopher Columbus to North America by about 500 years – but here we know him first as the leader of a group of Greenlanders who have arrived at Kattegat to avenge the rape of his sister Freydis (Frida Gustavsson, a great performance that throws others into sharp relief) by an unknown Christian and just at the wrong time not to be caught up in a war they have little interest in. Freydis was also a real Viking, and quite the marauder in her own right – if we get to nominate a spin-off to the spin-off, Freydis Takes Valhalla gets my vote.
It’s fun, no more, no less. Bit of history, bit of gore, bit of sex, bit of plot, lots of hair. As mindless distraction at a gruelling time, it will be hard to beat. Wrap yourself in a direwolf rug – I may be crossing streams here – pour yourself a hornful of strong ale and enjoy. Skaal!