I have to say I was a little disappointed with the first episode of the second season of “Vikings,” when it premiered at the end of February on History.
I was a huge fan of the first season, but its finale led me to believe that the war between Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his brother Rollo (Clive Standen) would last a good portion of Season 2.
Well, I hate to play spoiler for those who haven’t watched it yet, but that war of brothers doesn’t last more than an episode, one which also wraps up another late Season 1 story arc, involving Ragnar’s infidelity. So much was packed in to those first 45 minutes of this year, that I started to question the show’s pacing — which was so effectively used last year it became one of the hallmarks of the show.
And while the episode is fantastic in other ways — if horror-film bloody (another trademark of the show so be the warned, ye of weak stomach) — I decided to put off watching the show for a while. But after several friends assured me that the second season was equal to the first, I started in again a few weeks ago and finished the 10-episode run in a matter of days.
Episode 2 opens four years after the events of Episode 1. Really, it’s the beginning of the new season’s story arc and my friends were right — the pacing improves greatly, though never equals Season 1 in that regard.
While the series began as Ragnar discovers a way to navigate the open ocean allowing his kin to raid west, becoming the first Norse to land in Northumbria — part of a divided England — the second is largely about a pact between Ragnar and two other Viking leaders, King Horik (Donal Logue) and Jarl Borg (Thornbjorn Harr) to raid England together.
That pact doesn’t last long. As Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) tells Ragnar, Vikings need little reason for betrayal, even amongst kin. That seems especially true if they think it is both to their advantage and that they can get away with it — justified by being the will of the gods of course.
But the narrative this season also concentrates more on the character Athelstan (George Blagden), once the action gets going. Athelstan is a Christian monk taken as a slave during the first raid, but who has slowly converted to Norse culture after Ragnar makes him a free man. However, he never really gives up his faith completely.
As the Viking fleet returns to England early in Season 2, this time to Wessex, Athelstan goes along as a Viking raider despite the objection of some who still view him as an outsider who worships a false, single God.
Athelstan fights with his new brothers, but gets captured and branded an apostate by the church, who wants him literally crucified. But (and sorry for another minor spoiler) he is pardoned by King Ecbert (Linus Roache), a Christian who is also knowledgeable about the Roman culture once in England, but lost during the dark ages.
The two become friends of a sort, but this just adds to Athelstan’s conflicted soul. He has adopted elements of both faiths and is even asked to used this combined wisdom during a trial of a young woman beaten by her husband — where he reveals the Norse treat their woman a little more fairly than early Christians at least.
A third story arc intersects these two, which involves Ragnar’s extended and now splintered family. But don’t fret, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnck) and Bjorn play big roles in Season 2 as well. The actor playing Bjorn was changed during the four-year time jump, with the young blonde boy played by Nathan O’Toole being replaced by the older, much taller and broader Alexander Ludwig — yet the two certainly look enough alike to make the transition very believable. Bjorn still has some learning to do, but he is clearly his father’s son.
At times the show is truly gruesome. I don’t think I was prepared for the episode “Blood Eagle” — the name of a slow execution reserved for traitors and other criminals of the worst class. But maybe we need a reminder of how violent warfare truly was when men fought in close quarters, hacking at each other. For all the news coverage of war today, the aftermath of bombs and drones seems sterile compared to the field of battle littered with limbs, the dripping victors barely removed from our biological ancestors.
Whether historically accurate or not, the show is entertaining and at least incorporates some elements of the real past. However, I wouldn’t do too much research, as I spoiled a couple of surprises by doing a few Google searches in between episodes, including a couple of events that I’m sure will happen in Season 3, which has already been announced.
How true to history should a show like “Vikings” be? Send correspondence to Dave Bartlett at firstname.lastname@example.org.