A familiarity with History’s Vikings isn’t required in order to enjoy its sequel series Vikings: Valhalla, which is set one hundred years after its predecessor and thus spins its own stand-alone tale of Viking conquest, treachery and conflict, the latter of which is not only external but internal as well, thanks to schisms between Viking culture’s traditional paganism and burgeoning Christianity. Those religious ruptures are the engine driving much of Jeb Stuart’s eight-episode Netflix affair (Feb. 25), although as admirers of Michael Hirst’s original Vikings know, the real draw here is roaring, screaming macho violence and sex, all of it delivered with a healthy dose of blood and the occasional glimpse of titillating nudity.
Vikings: Valhalla has already wrapped production on a second season (with a third now in the works), which underscores the scope of this history-based saga. How accurate it is to real events is a question best left to learned scholars, but new and long-time viewers alike will no doubt feel right at home in this grim, grimy world, given that in most respects it’s been fashioned as something akin to Game of Thrones-lite. Kings, queens, noblemen and ruthless challengers to the throne abound in this 11th century Europe, with England intent on stamping out its pagan Viking population, and the Vikings increasingly convinced that the only means of achieving true peace is through warfare and domination. Throw in an otherworldly oracle and talk of destiny and damnation, and Vikings: Valhalla plays like a more simplistic and aggro rendition of HBO’s fantasy hit.
With Vikings’ Ragnar Lothbrok now a legend, the Viking people are enjoying a quiet life in the London-adjacent settlement of Danelaw when English king Æthelred II (Bosco Hogan) decides to carry out the St. Brice’s Day massacre, a slaughter that precedes his decision to purge all Vikings from English shores. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t sit well with the North’s Vikings, led by King Canute of Denmark (Bradley Freegard), who gathers together various Viking factions to plan a vengeful counterattack. Of those conspirators, the most important are brothers Olaf (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) and Harald (Leo Suter), both of them interested in becoming the new kings of Norway. They’re also Christians, although it’s Olaf who’s the zealot determined to convert his brethren to Christ; Harald, on the other hand, is a more tolerant and open-minded sort, albeit still resolved to see the English pay for their crimes against his people.
At the same time that these combative preparations are being made, Leif Eriksson (Sam Corlett) and his sister Freydis (Frida Gustavsson)—the children of Erik the Red—successfully brave a horrific storm and safely sail to the Norway stronghold of Kattegat, where they seek justice against a Christian who raped Freydis and carved a giant cross into her back. After Freydis spends a hot-and-steamy night with Harald, she locates her man in the right-hand lackey of Olaf, but her revenge comes with a price: Leif must join Canute and Harald’s cause against the English. Consequently, along with his own mates (including lover-to-be Liv), Leif agrees to help Canute seize control of England and become the country’s first Viking king—an undertaking that results in the origin story for “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” Meanwhile, Freydis is sent by Kattegat’s ruler Haakon (Caroline Henderson) to the Swedish city of Uppsala, a bastion of Viking paganism, on a pilgrimage to seek out her destiny.
Freydis finds what she’s looking for via both an encounter with an ancient, mystical Seer (John Kavanagh) who informs her that she’s “the last,” and a priestess who gives her a mythic sword. These two developments ultimately put her at direct odds with Kåre (Asbjørn Krogh Nissen), a bald, murderous Christian fanatic who believes it’s his divine fate to rid the Earth of non-believers. If this weren’t enough plot, Vikings: Valhalla expends considerable energy on the palace intrigue taking place in England, where King Æthelred’s reign is coming to a close, his green-behind-the-ears son Prince Edmund (Louis Davison) is itching to assume power, and Æthelred’s advisor Godwin (David Oakes) and Edmund’s stepmother Queen Emma (Laura Berlin) are also vying for choice position.
Additionally, the Vikings themselves are fracturing at the seams, split between pagan and Christian camps that can’t see eye to eye about their future. Vikings: Valhalla uses that dynamic for plentiful dramatic tension, although its primary focus remains throughout on manly men doing manly things like drinking, fighting, scheming, and growling. There’s more hyped-up testosterone to these proceedings than in ten similar shows combined, and the fact that just about everyone involved is extremely good-looking—and/or extremely bearded, dirty and fit for any number of Lord of the Rings-style endeavors—lends the action a routine He-Man energy. The women in Vikings: Valhalla are also a fearsomely lethal bunch, as eager to screw and swing a sword as their male compatriots.
“There’s more hyped-up testosterone to these proceedings than in ten similar shows combined…”
These characters may not have much complexity or depth, but they compensate for their thinness with a surplus of furious attitude—save, that is, for Corlett’s Leif, who turns out to be far duller than expected from one of the series’ nominal heroes. Leif, Canute and others are struggling to carve out their own legacies in the shadows of their illustrious (or notorious) fathers, but again, those elements are mere drivers for a plot that mostly cares about large-scale clashes and various political double- and triple-crosses. To that end, things move quickly in Vikings: Valhalla, with protagonists meeting their doom with unexpected swiftness, allegiances forming and collapsing at a moment’s notice, and the balance of power seesawing wildly over the course of its eight installments. There’s rarely a dull moment in this historical adventure, which goes a long way toward making up for the fact that much of what’s taking place has been seen before.
With more carnage on the horizon, Vikings: Valhalla sets the stage for what could prove to be the very sort of swords-and-sorcery epic that Game of Thrones fans have been craving. And if not, it will at least tide them over until House of the Dragon arrives later this year.