by Sam Allard
Let me say this at the outset: fans of Norse mythology may be distressed to learn that there are no outlandish helmets to speak of, at least not in the series premiere.
This History Channel original program is an as-yet-to-be-diagnosed period piece in the high-end production vein of Game of Thrones. You've probably seen the TV spots. It's about a warrior-farmer named Ragnar Lothbrok (played by the Aussie Calvin Klein alum Travis Fimmel) who's not only fierce and handsome but also sensitive and curious and warmly paternal.
As the series gets underway, Ragnar is taken with a bout of Westward wanderlust. He's tired of raiding "the East," as he and his tribesmen have evidently done for years. Annual pillage and plunder is a major ingredient in the cultural recipe for these chaps. Ragnar yearns instead for unexplored waters and new, conquerable lands.
The first episode, which aired last night on the History Channel — and re-airs about a thousand times this week — is also streaming online at History.com.
It's 8th-century Scandinavia folks, and the haircuts are bananas. Here is a closeup of Ragnar's cudgeled, grimy face to kick things off, breathing heavily between axe-swings. A context-less battle is always a decent opener, if nothing else to alert viewers of what's to come. Early reports say the violence really picks up.
Ragnar fights a bit, sleeps with his sultry wife — a warrior in her own right! — then goes off to an annual council of his tribesmen with his son. Ragnar has with him a special device which he thinks will convince his tribal lord, Earl Heraldson, (Gabriel Byrne) that traveling West makes sense at last. (His special device is a sun dial, folks.)
The Earl basically says no way Jose, and gets all pissy that Ragnar had the stones to question his judgement in front of the whole council. He even sends a sort of spy to keep tabs on Ragnar. I smell a conflict, here!
Ragnar then takes his little impish kid to a wackjob shipbuilder named Floki, a man with bawdy mascara who literally listens to trees to ascertain the quality of their constituent planks. Floki has been secretly commissioned by Ragnar to build a ship. Presumably, Ragnar intends to explore the West on his own, (or with a handful of rebels) without Heraldson's blessing. Bum bum bum!
Back at home, Ragnar's brother shows up. He's in on the plan, too, but ONLY BECAUSE he's got the hots for Ragnar's baller wife Lagertha. This was somewhat breathtakingly clear when the brother — Rollo, I guess? — leans into Lagertha's ear and whispers the story of some local lass he lately brought to orgasm whilst thinking of her face. (Political conflict and familial strife? What more could we ask for???)
Notwithstanding the writers' trials of making ancient characters communicate in sensible, modern terms, the script's a bit of a mess. Everyone's galumphing around speaking in this weird, vaguely Nordic accent, and the exposition-as-dialogue phenomenon has ne'er been as crystal clear: "You are a farmer," "She is a shield maiden," etc. There was even one fun scene where Ragnar literally explains how a primitive sun dial works.
The single attempt at humor — the impish son, when asked where his parents are, says, "they're having sex," — lands plum on its face.
But look it, I'm on board. Props to the History Channel for making an effort. I'm happy to chalk up some of the story deficiencies as symptomatic of a pilot episode finding its footing. The miniseries is nine episodes in total and there's some excitement brewing for sure. The scenery is lush and the conflict is generic but tried-and-true.
Also, there's this: Lagertha, while Ragnar and the imp were off at council, dispatched two oafish townsmen looking for sex. "You couldn't kill me if you tried for a hundred years," she said, and then stuck a hot poker on one of their faces and gouged the other one's neck with a meat hook.
Eager to see that that type of retribution play out in exquisite detail over the next eight weeks.