Vikings, Ep.1.01: “Rites of Passage” The Norse gods are off to a decent, though not deific, start

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Vikings, Season 1, Episode 1: “Rites of Passage”
Written by Michael Hirst
Directed by Johan Renck
Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on History Channel

After the success of last year’s miniseries, Hatfields & McCoys, The History Channel travels deeper into the past with its first scripted drama series, entitled Vikings. Created by Michael Hirst (Elizabeth, Showtime’s The Tudors), with a pilot directed by Breaking Bad veteran Johan Renck, episode one, “Rites of Passage,” promises a new thrilling perspective on Norse mythology.

Expect many tall, blond haired and long bearded, beasts of men, wielding swords, spears and sometimes an axe, but don’t expect too many epic battle scenes. The teaser of “Rites of Passage” is perhaps misleading. For cable television, “Rites of Passage” is extremely light on violence. The establishing battlefield sequence is the only action set-piece in the episode; an impressive piece of filming no less, aided in part by the gorgeous Northern European backdrop. But that is about all you can expect in terms of action. There is one beheading, shown off camera early on, but apart from that, the rest of the episode is all talk. I’m not complaining, but rather making a statement. In other words, don’t expect Spartacus or The Walking Dead. While Michael Hirst deliberately opens with a bloody battle, he spends the rest of the episode introducing the characters instead – and this is a good thing. Many have, and will continue to compare Vikings to Game of Thrones, but Vikings doesn’t share HBO’s willingness to clutter the screen with violence and sexposition. Well at least not yet. It will be interesting to see just how long the creators will shy away from it; after all, these are Vikings we are dealing with. Eventually we should expect some pillaging and raping. But like Game of Thrones, Vikings seems to center around political intrigue, family affairs and even hints at supernatural occurrences, only it is still too early to tell if they are not of this world or only happen in the minds of the characters, who believe these Gods to truly exist.

The pilot takes its time introducing us to our anti-hero Ragnar (Travis Fimmel), and his family, and also somehow finds the time to set up a few conflicts before the credits role. Ragnar is tired of the way his people think, and believes they are wasting their time raiding and pillaging the villages to the east. There are long debates over whether any lands exist to the west of Scandinavia, but Ragnar hopes it to be true, making him a forward thinker for his generation. Believing there are riches to the west, he commissions his tree whispering friend Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) to build a ship that could travel the seas headed to what is now known as England. Along with a very shiny stone, which works as a Viking compass, Ragnar can properly chart a voyage through the unfamiliar waters. Standing in his way is the formidable, close-minded and power hungry Earl Jarl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), who doesn’t like Ragnar’s plan because he feels it to be a threat to his reign. Forbidding him to journey out, Ragnar, Floki and Co. venture out in secrecy.

Before they do, we meet his wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), a fierce maiden who has no trouble defending herself against unwelcome intruders, and their son Bjorn (Nathan O’Toole), who on the verge of puberty, is now expected to hold a sword and stand witness to afternoon executions. Fimmel and Winnick have fantastic chemistry and the scenes between Fimmel and O’Toole are charming and genuine. But the standout performance  comes from Byrne and the rivalry between Earl and Ragnar throughout the entire season should prove entertaining. It’s clear Ragnar’s long life dream of finding new land will come with a price, and it remains to be seen who among his family and friends will suffer for it.

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The first episode is burdened with the task of establishing both the characters and relationships, as well as the culture of the Scandinavians, in only 49 minutes. Perhaps the series would have benefited from a longer pilot. Either way, “Rites of Passage.” is an intriguing start, culminating with the beginning of a new adventure. “Rites of Passage” benefits from of strong cast but for what is reported to cost 40 million dollars to produce, Vikings often feels and looks like it was shot in a sound studio. Here is hoping for the best.

Other thoughts: 

Special mention of the credits. Great decision to use Fever Ray’s song “The Wolf”

Considering this is the History Channel, I’m not sure this series is historically correct.

The main character Ragnar Lodbrok and his wife Lathgertha were legit, real Vikings, and yes Lathgertha was a legendary shieldmaiden.

Floki is like a Scandinavian hippie. He talks to trees and they talk back.

Fimmel’s a former model who a decade ago was the star of the WB’s terrible series Tarzan.

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1 Comment
  1. Richard Yarus says

    Michael Hirst’s VIKINGS is really an interesting study of 793(AD)-794(AD) Vikings. The one thing to remember about the show is that the great British monk, Alcuin of York, was already in Aachen (the capital of Charlemagne’s empire) at the time of the raid on Lindisfarne Priory. Alcuin, as we recall from 7th grade World History Class, was asked by the Frank King to run the Palace School in Aachen. Therefore, without doubt, these Norse Vikings that conducted the raid, already knew of the lands west of them, i.e. Jarvic, York, Lindisfarne, Northumberland, etc. It is important to note that Lindisfarne Priory was very important to Alcuin, and it was home to several of Alcuin’s friends. Alcuin actually wanted to return to Lindisfarne prior to the Viking Raids, but was prevented
    from doing so by Charlemagne. The Frank King wanted Alcuin to stay in Aachen and administer the Palace School.

    These facts were well understood by the Vikings. At this 793-794 (AD) period, the Dane and Norse Vikings under the rule of Godfred of Hedeby, were upset with Charlemagne’s Iron Embargo against them, his ban on Viking ships from entering Frank ports, and on his expulsion of Viking Mercenaries from Frank lands. Mercenaries had aided Charlemagne in his fight against the Saxons, a common enemy. Additionally, The Dane Vikings feared that Charlemagne was about to invade Hedeby and other parts of the then Viking territory.

    This topic is covered in Amazon’s e-book, “To Kindle A Fire,” (c) 1999, a Viking novel by Richard Yarus.

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