Sunday, March 3, 2013

Review: Vikings "Rites of Passage"

Non Spoiler Review:
It's the 8th Century. Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), farmer by trade and pillager of villages in the summer, takes his son to their chieftain's assembly as part of his entry into manhood, but also to pitch his idea of sailing westward. That remains a controversial notion, given Earl Haraldson has always raided east into Russia, despite the poor settlements that provide lessening rewards. 

Vikings is Michael Hirst's latest endeavour for History Channel, a nine part series promising a new perspective on the classic (and usually inaccurate) portrayals of the Northmen in cinema. Viewers of The Tudors, as well as the classic Elizabeth are familiar with the standard of Hirst's work, and this is no exception. Vikings is a stunning historical piece, moody and brilliantly shot with vibrant northern European settings, a realistic, earthy look and a stunning and talented cast. Katheryn Winnick is Ragnar's impressive wife Lagertha, Clive Standen (Camelot) plays brother Rollo, and Gabriel Byrne is the formidable and close-minded Earl Jarl Haraldson.

While the first episode is tasked to establish the characters and relationships, as well as the culture of the Scandinavians, it provides a very intriguing start, leading up to an exciting ending that successfully kicks the series off. Fimmel is easily the standout here, completely selling us on his character (a difficult balance of creating a likable family man/visionary who also happens to pillage and murder on the side). Much like the human characterization in The Tudors, this isn't just a bunch of actors playing historical figures. They've created a believable world right from the first scene, and a great deal of chemistry among Ragnar and his family.

For cable television, I was actually surprised Vikings was so light on violence beyond the establishing battlefield scene, but it is only the first episode. I was hooked from the start and am already a bit disappointed that this won't be an ongoing series, so that's saying something. Fans of The Tudors I expect will quite enjoy this one.

Spoilers Now!
793 A.D. On a bloody plain in the Eastern Baltic, Ragnar Lothbrok and his brother Rollo dispatch the last of the warriors from a battle as ravens descend on the dead. Ragnar stares off and sees a man he thinks is Odin among the fallen and the warriors rising into the sky to Valhalla.

Back in Scandinavia shield maiden Lagertha and her daughter fish in the river as Ragnar trains his son Bjorn to fight. Lagertha chides her husband that Bjorn isn't old enough to go to the village for the feast, but Ragnar says it's time he became a man.

Ragnar heads off with Bjorn, telling him that the Earl will decide where he sends his ships, which will be to the east where they always go. But Ragnar wants to go west to find out what lies there. He confesses there is much he would give to acquire that knowledge. 

Lagertha and her daughter are visited by two extremely shifty individuals who know all the men are gone and she's all alone. She offers them food or drink but otherwise they must go. They have other needs, they tell her, so she calmly takes her sword and gives them a serious beating before sending them on their way.

On the way to the village, Ragnar recounts a tall tale how he gained Bjorn's mother's hand in marriage. A man fights and looks after his family, he says and then asks his son if he feels he can look after their family. Ragnar has a big decision to make that may change many things. They reach the coast and the bustling village where they run into Ragnar's brother. Heading to the tavern, they muse where the Earl will be sending them this year. The east is poor and Ragnar wants to sale west where there is rumor of great towns with gold and silver. But Rollo says they can't sail across an open ocean. 

Ragnar believes there's a way. He has something that can change everything, and produces a device he retrieved from a wanderer who told him it was possible to go west over open sea. It's a sunboard that needs to sit in water. By tracking the shadows produced by the sun at noon they can maintain a true course. Rollo is impressed but questions if there is no sun how do they find the way? Ragnar shows him something else—a sunstone that he holds up to the cloudy sky and filters the sunlight.

The gathering begins with Earl Haraldson presiding over current criminal matters. A man is accused of murder, but protests his innocence, explaining his claim to the land is what prompted the dispute. He adds that Haraldson knows this as well. The man is found guilty by unanimous vote and sentenced to death by beheading. Everyone gathers for the execution and Ragnar insists his son watch so that the man may reach the afterlife. The task is done, but Haraldson curses him and hopes he never reaches Valhalla. Ragnar is not impressed. There is rumour that Haraldson wanted the land for himself. It's a lesson on how things are done there, he warns his son. 

Next Haraldson presents a gift of salt and earth to Bjorn and another boy to bind them in loyalty to him as their chieftain. They swear their oath and put on their arm rings. Heraldson's wife Siggy kisses them. Before the feast begins, Ragnar speaks up and wants to know where they will be raiding in summer. Haraldson concedes they will raid east into Russia again. Ragnar gets up and suggests an alternative. Haraldson has heard of the stories of the west but won't risk his ships, which go where he tells them to go. That's the end of the matter. 

The feast begins and Ragnar is summoned by Haraldson to speak in private. The Earl questions his knowledge of the west. Ragnar isn't sure of the facts, but believes. Jarl warns him he's been insulted by him for the last time in front of his people. Ragnar should be content with being a farmer, as there are many who would like to possess his land, and warns him never to stick his nose in his face again. The Earl tells his man to keep a watch on Ragnar. However, Haraldson is haunted by his own nightmares, one in which he found his sons dismembered in a pit.

Ragnar wakes his son to go consult with the gods. Ragnar wants to know what they have in store for him. The oracle tells him they desire him to have a great future but can withdraw their good will at any time. He must convince the gods to alter the runes to work in his favor. The laws of men are far below the shapings of the gods, so Ragnar decides that means he is to take the law into his own hands. The priest won't confirm it for him, but recommends he go ask the gods himself. Ragnar sends the boy out so they can speak alone. The priest suggests he asks the wrong questions. 

Ragnar next takes Bjorn to visit Floki, an eccentric man and a boat builder. Floki is designing a boat that can handle long sea voyages, but they won't know how strong it will be until they try. Ragnar gives him the last of his money from his summer's raids, but Floki assures him they'll soon be as rich as dwarfs.

Time passes, and back home Ragnar informs Rollo the boat is nearly ready. Rollo won't go unless they're all equal, not under his brother's command. Ragnar assures him they'll always be equal. Now they must find a crew, difficult given many won't go against Haraldson's wishes. When Ragnar steps out Rollo confesses to Lagertha he only sees her face when he's with other women. She warns him not to talk that way. He's a great warrior but not so great a man.

Ragnar has a vision of Odin again, and returns to the house claiming he has seen the sign that assures him they're doing the right thing. He gets the impression something awkward happened, and tells his brother good night.

Floki, Rollo and Ragnar take the new boat out and unfurl the sail. The nervous Floki is elated as the  impressive ship picks up speed. From the hills Haraldson's man watches.

The Verdict:
Having suffered through a couple of horrible premieres recently, I was pleased that Vikings lived up to all my expectations. As a rapid fan of The Tudors, I can say this series is a worthy successor in many respects—a host of compelling actors and a believable historical setting. I'm only vaguely familiar with this gorgeous 8th Century backdrop, so I'm sure the series will prompt much follow up research, as I've already read up a bit on the legend of Ragnar Lothbrok. I should also make mention of the cool opening credits.

Especially interesting is the cultural portrayal of the Vikings in a manner we've not seen presented onscreen before. They sustain their lives through farming, broken up by raiding seasons in the east. It will be interesting to see if the perceptions of the characters suffer once we see them in actual battle pillaging villages where the moral lines are sure to grow murky.

An additional perk is the very subtle undercurrent of the supernatural. There is nothing overtly fantastical that dispenses with the grounded reality, but Ragnar's visions of Odin add an extra layer to his devout beliefs and how religion permeates their lives.

Fimmel and Winnick have fantastic chemistry and the scenes between Ragnar and his son were charming and funny, too. Byrne looks to be a dangerous adversary, and Standen is a good counterweight to Fimmel's presence, and promises conflict down the road in the little bits of tension we get this week. It's clear Ragnar is going to be blinded by his dream of sailing west, and it remains to be seen who among his family and friends suffer for it.

The quick transition of the new ship from planning stage to shakedown cruise kept things moving at a brisk pace. I'm sure events will unfold even faster now that the introductions are out of the way. I'm happy to say History Channel sold me with this first episode. It's very rare that a pilot lives up to the trailer and actually exceeds my anticipation in all respects.

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