Judge David Johnson routinely wets himself in the shield wall.
History Channel's ballyhooed first dramatic series hit the shores with a decent amount of buzz and, almost, delivered.
Facts of the Case
Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) is destined for greatness. Everyone knows it. His wife. His friends. His brother. His chieftain. But this is a threat to some and his ambition and lethal dexterity with a sword and general awesomeness will mean that enemies will crop up everywhere. The first? Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne, The Usual Suspects), his leader, who simmers with envy over Ragnar's exploits.
His most recent adventure brought him to the lands of Britain, where a horde of gold was protected only by a legion of overmatched Saxons and some harmless monks. Ragnar returned with riches and a manservant, a captured monk named Athelstan (George Blagden). This one act sets off a sequence of events that will make Ragnar a man to be feared, hunted and envied.
Man, do I love stuff about Vikings. Even low-grade movies like Pathfinder and Hammer of the Gods (well, maybe not Hammer of the Gods) earn a few extra points in the positive column thanks to the presence of bearded Northmen. Still, I am forever on the lookout for the upper echelon stuff that can dwell in Valhalla with the likes of The 13th Warrior. And credit where it's due: History came damn close with Vikings.
It's an imperfect adventure, particularly frustrating given the first salvo of episodes, which are straight-up thrilling. The brainchild of Michael Hirst, Vikings is a legit piece of TV production, shot on gorgeous locations and equipped with convincing costuming and set designs. These guys are puttering around in real boats and swinging swords that look heavy and succumbing to realistic-looking plagues and the show is nothing but the better for it.
Yet what achingly, exasperatingly, frustratingly keeps me at arm's length is the story. About halfway through the season a major plot-altering twist happens and, instead of juicing the series for the stretch run, the air got sucked out. It mainly affects Ragnar and not for the better. He transitions from bad-ass antihero, to dour dickbag and by the end of the finale I found myself ambivalent to his fate. His tension with his wild-eyed brother is a focus on his arc and provides ample dramatic soil to till—and the final scene lays the groundwork for a foundational change to their relationship, which appears to be the driving force for the next season. It all should have gotten me amped up in a big way, but those last handful of episodes were so tonally different than what preceded them and so oddly plotted (an entire show felt like it was devoted to the priest getting stoned) the momentum was sapped. Worse, I was confused and disinterested.
Still, I'm going to recommend this show, especially if it's a period of history you might be interested in. The series drips with authenticity (Ragnar was a real guy) and everyone involved are for sure into making a super-realistic portrayal of a crazy period in history.
Top-notch Blu-ray from History: the gorgeous cinematography springs to life in a razor-sharp 1.78:1, 1080p transfer and the throaty score and clanging sword-on-shield hullabaloo sounds great, courtesy of a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. Lots of decent extras: deleted scenes, audio commentary on select episodes, three featurettes—"A Warrior Society: Viking Culture and Justice," "Birth of the Vikings," and "Forging the Viking Army: Warfare and Tactics"—and a pair of interactive features on Viking weaponry and their journeys.
So close to being awesome, but some befuddling story and character decisions keep these guys from totally dominating.
Just missed the boat.
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