When you love a TV show, you kind of want to push it on your friends. Over the years, I’ve felt that way about “Friday Night Lights,” “The Wire,” “Freaks and Geeks,” and a few other under-watched classics, all while running the risk of making said show seem like medicine. And I have friends who’ve pushed “Battlestar Galactica” on me hard, just short of locking me in a room with a TV and a link to GrubHub.
“Vikings”? I’m not pushing it on anyone. I know that this scripted History series, which finishes its second season Thursday night at 10, will only appeal to a specialized kind of taste. It’s a hauntingly grim drama set in a brutal age, among people who live by instinct, superstition, and swords. There’s nothing upbeat about it. While the vikings do have moral and religious codes, those codes support human sacrifice and ambitious looting. There are glimmers of love and loyalty, for sure — glimmers that are important because they’re rare — but, well, there are no grand castles, no lace gowns, no period-piece lushness, no happy endings.
And there is enough blood spatter to keep Dexter and the CSI crew combing the walls of Valhalla for eternity.
So I write not to push, but to celebrate. What I love about this show is what may be a turnoff for others. It simply feels authentically primitive, or at least uncompromised by a network’s notes — “we need more romance,” “characters should be more relatable,” “can’t we pretty them up?” I don’t know much about viking history, so I can’t vouch for the show’s accuracy. What I do know is that each week, “Vikings” transports me to a dark world whose bearings are entirely different from ours, and yet still decidedly human. Despite an occasional B-movie moment like Starz’s campy “Spartacus,” the show is a raw, convincing, and compelling vision of a far-off time and place.
The cinematic mood of “Vikings” casts a somber spell. It is beautifully cold, with fire-lit nights, the blues and grays of fog, the frigid air, and an unforgiving landscape. We see only occasional flashes of hot color passing by, on a shield, for instance, or on a dress. The scenes are sometimes punctuated with images of carrion birds, hungry and waiting. There is a seer who sits in a dark, cramped room advising people, a startlingly unattractive figure whose eyes appear to have been removed and lids sewn or burned shut. And most of the viking characters are dirt-caked as well as laconic, with shades of Ingmar Bergman’s spare masterpiece, “The Virgin Spring.”
Holding the center of the show is Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok, a leader who boldly takes his warriors on westward raids, away from the overly plundered Baltic states to the still untapped England. Armed with a mysterious smirk and a hard stare, Fimmel turns Ragnar into a fascinating and faceted man whose violent nature is tempered with moments of insight, compassion, and wry humor. He makes Ragnar’s bond with the Christian monk, Athelstan, into a lovely manifestation of curiosity; other viking leaders would have scorned the man of God, but Ragnar is spellbound by his otherness. Fimmel also makes Ragnar’s love for his children, and his forgiveness of his traitorous brother, Rollo, sit easily with Ragnar’s ruthless nature. As the show’s charismatic anchor, Fimmel deserves an Emmy nod.
While the saga of Ragnar unfolds, a consistently intriguing cast of characters come forward, like Ragnar’s oldest son this season, or recede, like Gabriel Byrne’s earl in season one. One of the strangest is Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard), a ship builder who is also a bit of a court jester. This season, he is flirting with the idea of shifting his allegiance from Ragnar to Ragnar’s disloyal war partner, King Horik (Donal Logue). Meanwhile, Ragnar and Horik are negotiating with King Ecbert (Linus Roache) of Wessex, a shrewd and civilized tactician who has been a great addition this season.
“Vikings” is written and produced by Michael Hirst, of “The Tudors” and the movie “Elizabeth,” with a great understanding of how to make the action scenes more than just video-game-like bloodshed. We always understand what is at stake in a given battle, just as we do when watching “Game of Thrones.”
Indeed, “Vikings” and “Game of Thrones” share much in common, although “Vikings” is less sprawling and has no dragons. On these excellent shows, the fight for power is crude, and the leaders’ self-interest often leaves his or her tribe in danger. Both are set in faraway times, but both are defined by political aspirations that are as naked as they are in today’s partisan America.