I would've made a horrible Viking. I'm not very good with a battle-ax. All the drinking and bad hygiene would get to me after a while. And I'm pretty sure I'd get sick on those stormy ocean voyages.
Vikings, History Channel's first scripted drama, does a fantastic job of depicting just how much I would've loathed being a Norseman back in the early Middle Ages. And the details of that depiction make it an astronomically problematic show. Why? Well, if History Channel's right about how these Vikings lived back in the day (and, really, given its impressive track record with such shows as Ancient Aliens, how could it be wrong?), their lives were soaked in violence, sex, filth and booze.
Plugged In would have had an extraordinarily low readership in ancient Norway.
Not that there weren't men who occasionally aspired for something better than plunder and wenches and mead. Take Ragnar Lothbrok, for instance. Oh, he can pillage with the best of 'em, but he's always been more of an explorer than a fighter. And thanks to some nifty innovations, he's discovered some brand new places to plant their fierce flag—most critically a lush, green isle filled with riches and reasonably docile Christians. Having been made king back home and having a deal struck with one of the new land's rulers, King Ecbert, Ragnar has a hankering to settle down in what is called Wessex (modern translation: Southern England).
Not everyone's thrilled with Ragnar's pacifistic bent, of course. And many are more than willing to use violence to stamp it out.
Vikings is, in a way, Game of Thrones lite. While there are no dragons and "sexposition" scenes (HBO's notorious habit of including gratuitous sex scenes in the midst of dry dialogue), there are mountains of other kinds of explicit sex amid all the vivid violence. Courtships tend to be fast and physical. And disagreements are often terminated at the end of a blade. Indeed, any random episode is liable to feature a rape or beheading or some manner of torture. Often all three.
Life is not sacred here. It's not even particularly important. And while you get the sense that what we see onscreen feels more or less reflective of the spirit of the age (if not the historical letter), that still doesn't make it any easier or any more advisable to watch.
Oddly, maybe, in the midst of all the salaciousness, sadism and gore, we see evidence of deeper stirrings: the desire to provide for wife and family, the value of friendship and community, the need to dream big. We see, too, a yearning for spirituality. Vikings shows us a time when the heroic Norse myths ran headlong into the curious faith of Christianity and its loving Savior.
We know how that bashing of beliefs ended, of course. Eventually the Vikings converted and settled down, with the old gods fading away to myth and memory. The History Channel seems to express some wistfulness for those bygone gods, though. And the Christians we see here are often far more cowardly and just as bloodthirsty as their pagan adversaries. The monk Athelstan is a Christian struggling with his faith, maybe especially so because he was (abortively) crucified by his fellow Christians. It's not, apparently, a very historical take, and some have suggested the show is extrapolating views that Christianity was and is a violent, hypocritical mess.
But Christianity Today's Paul D. Glader notes that even in that awful crucifixion scene, Athelstan prays to God in Latin—suggesting that even if his fellow Christians aren't showing any sort of Christ-like love, his eyes are still fixed on his Savior.
Will Ragnar or any of his compatriots ever convert? If Vikings were being true to history, it would be likely. In this salacious expression of Viking lore, though, it seems ... less so. There may simply be too much killing and maiming and rape and torture to perpetuate for any solid spiritual resolution to wriggle its way into the carnage.
Ragnar and his band of Vikings travel to Wessex to begin the process of settling there. But when they arrive, the local king informs them that they'll have to fight the current rulers/usurpers of Mercia first.
Several Vikings are killed by arrows before their boats ever get to shore. Swords and axes level the human landscape in a bloody affair. (Example: the camera looks up at an assaulting Viking as he lands a fatal blow on his victim's head.) We witness flirting and kissing and sensual dancing. A man wrestles with what to do now that he's made two women pregnant. (Someone advises him to marry one and keep the other as a concubine.) People drink alcohol. Someone says "a--" once.
Lagertha is given an enigmatic prophecy by a blind soothsayer. A Wessex knight grumbles about fighting alongside pagans, telling a bishop that he can't get his head around a world with one God and many gods. "One of us must be right," he fumes. "The Lord sayeth, 'I am the way, the truth and the light," the bishop confirms. Ragnar expresses skepticism toward magic, and he tells the knight, "You can neither hide from your God or from ours." There is a reference to John the Baptist. A woman asks to see Athelstan's crucifixion wounds, then kisses them in apparent piety.
"Wrath of the Northmen"
All manner of other mystical and mythical talk is traded among the Vikings. And when Ragnar and his crew happen upon an undefended monastery, the monks plead and pray, but are beaten and hacked to death anyway. Not all die, however. Ragnar finds a survivor hiding in a treasure-filled chapel, clutching the Gospel of St. John.
"Of all the treasures I see in this place, you chose to save this," Ragnar says. "Why?"
"Because without the Word of God, there is only darkness," the monk answers. Ragnar spares him (to sell him as a slave, he says), forbidding anyone to touch him. Rollo, Ragnar's brother, takes his resulting frustration out on a crucifix hanging on the wall, smashing it to bits. "This is what we give your God," he hisses.
Ragnar stabs a man in the neck, and blood squirts. A woman is raped onscreen, with sexual motions shown. Participating in a ruthless setup, another woman hits a man repeatedly after he strips off his pants and hops into bed with her. Because she's a noblewoman, he is subsequently stabbed by guards before (it's implied) getting cut to pieces. Another man is executed by having his face shoved into a burning pit (offscreen). Ragnar and his wife beat each other, telling their son that they're "just having an argument." The two also appear to be engaged in foreplay during the "argument."