Grab your sword and shield and get ready for battle, because History Channel's surprise smash hit Vikings
is sailing back to your small screen.
Last year, Vikings proved to be the little show no one saw coming, managing to rack up a good deal of viewers interested in sailing and plundering. The show became the number one new cable series of the year, with the season finale of the show scoring an impressive 3.6 million viewers.
Right now is a great time to get into the period business, and that's obvious by looking at the offerings across the cable universe. Plenty of shows have been created in the Game of Thrones mold, with varying degrees of success. In a way, Vikings is the anti-Thrones; instead of a sprawling universe Vikings takes a more narrow focus.
The show's laser focus on a particular group of Vikings, headed up by the mysterious and charismatic Ragnar Lothbrok, is an appealing feature of the show. It keeps the narrative focused and allows the show to cut out distractions.
Instead of wandering Westeros, we spend time learning about Valhalla, the Viking way of life, and the culture clash of religions in the region. If Game of Thrones is huge and sprawling, Vikings is quiet and intimate. Or at least as intimate as a portrait of blood-thirsty Viking warriors could possibly be.
If you liked the first season of Vikings, which comprised of a mere nine episodes, you should really enjoy the show's second season. The show changes in some dramatic ways, while staying the same in all the ways that matter.
The universe of the show opens up in season two with another trip to England, where this time the Vikings meet a much more politically savvy and brutal king, played by Linus Roache. It's always interesting to see the comparison between the more familiar Western way of life, and the foreign way of the Vikings. There's a comedy inherent in the culture clash the show wisely plays up without overplaying, especially in a scene where Ragnar is forced to join the new English king in the bath.
While the show expands, it keeps doing what it does well. One of those things is continuing to develop the Viking at the center of the tale. Travis Fimmel's Ragnar is an intriguing character; you never quite know what is going on in his head, but you know the wheels are turning. Fimmel plays Ragnar as both compellingly flawed and unknowable, a wholly human figure with mischief just behind his eyes.
He can play scenes deadly serious or with an undercurrent of glee, and often he plays both at the same time. Hilariously, he spends a good portion of early episodes just trudging around with a pygmy goat for no real reason. He switches easily between finding the current of humor in his awkward love triangle, to being crushed by the reality of a fractured family.
The show also continues to play fast and loose with the narrative timeline. In season one, one of the interesting hallmarks of the show was it's ability to make huge time leaps between episodes with grace and ease.
This continues into season two, with four years intervening between episodes. The show doesn't hold the audience's hand and point out how the characters have grown and changed emotionally, a strangely compelling and satisfying way to watch television. Instead the show just expects you to stay with Ragnar and friends as history marches forward and circumstances change.
Speaking of changing circumstances, Ragnar's love life goes through an interesting upheaval at the beginning of the season. After Lagetha's miscarriage and his daughter's death, Ragnar made time on a voyage with the beautiful Princess Aslaug. It's not a huge spoiler to say that Aslaug returns and makes life more complicated on the home front for Ragnar and his family.
Nor is it telling to say Lagatha never really leaves the rich tapestry of the show. It's a smart decision given how well-developed the character became in season one and how intensely watchable Katheryn Winnick is in the role. The biggest change might be in Bjorn, who goes from adorable kid sidekick to a massive Viking played by The Hunger Games' Alexander Ludwig.
Meanwhile characters like Athelstan continue to have dramatic character arcs, and you'll see the former monk has adapted quite well to Viking life. This might not always be the case all season. Athelstan's journey takes a dark turn in episode four and, according to actor George Blagden, only continues to grow darker.
Vikings is a good show, a self-assured show, and a visually striking show (the scenery is really out of this world), which isn't to say that Vikings is a perfect show. The creative team has seemingly never really known what to do with Clive Standen's Rollo, and that character unfortunately continues to flounder in the early part of season two.
The season starts with a dramatic battle sequence between brothers that will surely leave audiences on the edge of their seats. I'm just not sure there's much, if any, of the audience really invested in that particular relationship enough to care past the shield walls and bloodshed. I'm not sure anyone is tuning in for the amazing adventures of Rollo and his shifting loyalties, so I'm surprised they haven't found anything more interesting to do with his character.
Siggy, played by the lovely Jessalyn Gilsig, is a much more interesting character who still seems to be underdeveloped for the amount of time she's gotten in the spotlight over two seasons. But the show seems to be doing better with side characters, particularly Donal Logue (Terriers, never forget!) as King Horrick and the always entertainingly batty Floki.
Vikings is a quietly self-assured show, and that's a pleasure to watch. It's also a show with an incredible depth of onscreen talent and truly stunning scenery. You might have come for the raiding and pillaging, but you'll probably remain to find out what happens to Ragnar, Lagatha, and friends.
The ability to expand this foreign world, take their religion seriously, and humanize these characters even while refusing to shy away from their barbaric acts is a real strength of the show. And it certainly makes it worthwhile to jump aboard the Vikings ship for season two.
Vikings season two premieres February 27 at 10pm on History Channel.
(Image courtesy of History Channel)