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 drink.
Let's just say 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—Scandinavia's medieval answer to Steve Jobs. Tired of always plundering lands to the east, Ragnar has a hankering to see what's west for a change. And even though head Viking Earl Haraldson thinks a trip out west would be a waste of time (and a good boat to boot), Ragnar disobeys the guy, invents a compass and commissions a special ship that can deal with those serpent-filled seas.
Guess what! Ragnar's right. There is land to the west—loaded with riches and unwary people and peaceable monasteries. These innocent folks might as well have put a neon sign outside Northumbria that read, "Welcome, attackers. Enjoy your plunder!" It's that kind of hospitality that, as both history and Vikings tell us, kept Ragnar and his cohorts returning again and again.
But the greatest dangers facing Radnar might not be in these strange new lands or on the rough open seas, but at home—in the vicious politics of the Norse.
Vikings is, in a way, Game of Thrones lite. While there are no dragons and explicit "sexposition" scenes (HBO's notorious habit of including gratuitous sex scenes in the midst of dry dialogue), there's still plenty of other kinds of sex amid all the violence and duplicitous behavior. 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.
Yet 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. Even as the Vikings plunder Christian communities (and we see them treat both relics and Christians themselves quite brutally), history tells us that, eventually, it was Christianity that conquered.
But that'll take a while. Centuries, in fact. And in the meantime, there'll be ever so much bad Viking behavior for this show to dwell on.
"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."