Vikings

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Paul Asay
Emily Clark

TV Series Review

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 (which sailed exclusively to Amazon Prime in Season 6), 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 the show’s right about how these Vikings lived back in the day, their lives were soaked in violence, sex, filth and booze.

Plugged In would have had an extraordinarily low readership in ancient Norway.

Long on Boats, Short on Mercy

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 could pillage with the best of ’em, but he was always more of an explorer than a fighter. And thanks to some nifty innovations, he discovered some new places to plant their fierce flag—most critically a lush, green isle filled with riches and reasonably docile Christians. He even grew fond of Francia (now called France), before his death. After all, how can you keep Vikings down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?

The show later morphs into an exploration of his sons’ daring deeds—characters loosely based on those from an old Norse story titled, fittingly, The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons. But no matter what son this new story focuses on, be it the brutally heroic Bjorn Ironside or the sneaky schemer Ivar the Boneless, blood and intrigue are always along for the voyage—even as this screen-based epic, in Season 6, comes in to its final harbor.

Vikings is, in a way, Game of Thrones lite. While there are no dragons and few “sexposition” scenes (HBO’s notorious habit of including gratuitous sex scenes in the midst of dry dialogue), there are mountains of other kinds of visceral sex amid all the vivid violence. Courtships tend to be fast and physical. And 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.

Not Much Faith in This Show

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 this clash of beliefs ended, of course. Eventually the Vikings converted and settled down, with the old gods fading away to myth and memory. The show seems to express some wistfulness for those bygone gods, though. And while Vikings offers unexpected spiritual nuance at times, the Christians we see here are often far more cowardly or just as bloodthirsty as their pagan adversaries. And yet, this new upstart faith begins to claim converts, one by one.

Will any of Ragnar’s sons 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.

Episode Reviews

Dec. 30, 2020: “The King of Kings”

After being stabbed and apparently left for dead in the first half of Season 6, Bjorn Ironside still has a few breaths left in him. But with the ruthless Rus warlord Oleg (accompanied by Bjorn’s brother, Ivar) seeking to conquer Norway, the injured king must figure out a way to defend his stronghold of Kattegat before he truly draws his last breath. Meanwhile, Bjorn’s brother, Ubbe, plans to colonize Iceland—but he learns that one of his would-be traveling companions, Ketill, just happens to be a homicidal maniac.

Ketill learns this truth from another would-be traveler to Iceland, Othere. The accompanying flashback doesn’t show much blood, but it does show Ketill’s disillusioned daughter commit suicide after learning her dad’s such a creep. Things get far bloodier outside the gates of Kattegat, where people die all manner of terrible deaths. One man has his head cut off. Others die after being pierced by arrows. (An arrow sends a horse falling, too.) Someone is stabbed in the neck and expires. Bjorn’s own stab wound from the previous episode looks pretty terrible, and Bjorn spends most of the episode gasping and coughing up blood. A man is executed by being set on fire.

The man being immolated, by the way, seems to go surprisingly peacefully because of his Christian faith. He tells the onlookers that Christ is beside him, and has whispered to him, “I am the resurrection and the life. I shall walk beside you, always.” He tells a boy-prince that he’s “ripe for heaven,” and as he burns, he clasps his hands in prayer.

The scene is just one of many spiritual moments in the episode. Ubbe and Othere have what amounts to a theological debate over chess. Othere, a Christian, talks about his own savior, while Ubbe insists that Othere’s God and his own pagan god—the Allfather—might be one and the same. Bjorn berates one of his lieutenants for his lack of faith in the Vikings’ own pagan gods. “What is my name or yours compared to that of Odin or Thor?” He demands. “Do you suppose they will just sit idly by as they watch followers of the false Christ God slaughter and slay their children and cast their singing bones to the wind? … You are no true believer.”  We hear other references to those pagan deities (along with their afterlife and penchant for sacrifices), and we watch as Christian leaders are given holy Communion moments before battle (and kiss a golden cross).

A woman lies on Bjorn and kisses him, reviving him from his injuries. She also talks about how she was raped (in a previous episode). Bjorn’s wife and mistress get along quite well. The corpse of someone (and his horse) is set in a lifelike pose in a massive Viking barrow. We hear the word “b–tard.”

Dec. 4, 2019, “New Beginnings”

Bjorn, son of Ragnar, struggles to decide what sort of king he wants to be now that he’s reclaimed the throne from his corrupt brother, Ivar. Trusting in her son’s leadership, Lagertha decides to give up her life as a shieldmaiden to become a peaceful farmer. Meanwhile, Ivar flees to Russia, where he finds an unlikely ally in Prince Oleg of Kiev.

Ivar’s plan to have a suspicious man killed backfires when the man hands him over to the Russians. The Russians kill several mercenaries travelling with Ivar and torture his bodyguard for information (they ultimately kill him by using a slingshot-like contraption to rip the man’s body apart). A recently killed corpse is dragged across a throne room and another man is thrown into a pool of blood left behind. Several men are beaten and branded on their faces with hot metal. Someone mentions burning a woman alive.

A man says that Ivar is a god and another says he is a direct descendant of the Norse god Odin. A man claiming to be a Christian admits to killing his wife for her adultery. He had her buried in a mausoleum and lights candles at an altar for her. A woman swears to the Norse gods that she will never fight again before burying her sword in the ground. Buddhist monks stand in a marketplace. People drink to Odin.

People drink wine at meals. Someone mentions a man getting drunk. A couple cuddles on their bed and kiss. A woman swims in a midriff-baring top and short skirt. People beg alongside a road. Slaves are mentioned. A man calls someone an “idiot.”

Vikings: Apr. 14, 2016 “Death All ‘Round”

Ragnar, suffering horribly from drug withdrawal, continues to lead his Viking horde through the Frankish wilderness toward Paris and beyond. Along the way, atrocities abound. Blood, death and implied rape is in evidence. A child is found dead in the river, and another kid just gives a shrug and a “who cares?” We see the head of a decapitated man sitting on a table. A man is shot in the chest with a crossbow. Someone places a ring on the bolt still sticking out of a dying man’s chest. Also, a woman loses her baby and is surrounded with bloody rags. Ragnar retches repeatedly and seems to vomit up a spider.

The king of Francia arranges for sexual trysts with both a man and his sister. We see bare backs in another sex scene. And a man is sexually rebuffed by his pregnant wife.

Prayers and sacrifices are offered to Odin and Thor. A woman is forced to drink the blood of a sacrificial rabbit. The Pope shows off what he claims is part of Jesus’ crown of thorns. Beggars and merchants sell portions of the “true cross.” Someone has visions.

Vikings: 2-19-2015

“Mercenary”

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.

Vikings: 3-10-2013

“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.”

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Emily Clark
Emily Clark

Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.

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