It's always been easy to love History Channel's Vikings, which just finished the first half of Season 4's extended twenty-episode run. It's a show that really has no inhibitions or reservations and races through plots that could last whole seasons in a single episode. Much like its characters, Vikings is wild and unpredictable and extremely entertaining. But somehow it makes us support characters would be, essentially, the bad guys in any other story.
(Mild spoilers for Vikings Season 4.)
Don't get me wrong, I love the characters of Vikings. Travis Fimmel has been outstanding as Ragnar, showcasing an incredible range and depth to the character beyond simply being a legendary warrior. We care about Ragnar's evolution into King or his crisis of faith as he is caught between two beliefs. Kathryn Winnick's Lagertha has been a delight as one of the most indomitable women on television and Gustaf Skarsgård is always captivating as mystical and unhinged Floki (the Skarsgård family are the gift that just keeps on giving). It's sometimes easy to forget what stellar character work many of these actors have managed to accomplish. By our modern standards, many of their actions are absolutely barbaric, but each of the major characters have been humanized to a point where their actions make sense in the context of their world. Their lust for battle and glory is based off a specific belief system that simply happens to contradict our own.
And of course, these contradictions are what make these characters and their actions so loaded. While there are elements that are embellished or tweaked and an extremely liberal take on historical accuracy, the legends of Ragnar Lodbrok describe him as a scourge to France and England during the ninth century, a warrior king and a pirate. The show runs with this interpretation and commits to the brutality of it. In the opening episodes of the first season, we are witness to this Ragnar's first raid against England, ruthless and unprovoked and done only for personal glory back home. They plunder and pillage, slaughter and steal and the violence only escalates as the series goes on. The execution of Jarl Borg, the slaughter of King Horik's family or the climax to Ragnar's invasion of Paris are all horrifying, if captivating, moments. But it all makes sense in the context of the world we've seen developed and follows the rules set by this culture. There are actions that we could condone as 'evil' but that word doesn't have the same meaning in this world.
Part of the trick is that Ragnar started at the bottom, the underdog. His first raid is done against the orders of a vaguely oppressive authority figure, a storytelling technique that has always been effective. We want to see him and his comrades succeed against the odds, to overcome the authority that says it cannot be done. But no matter how much Ragnar succeeds, the show is careful to always show push-back, that success is never complete victory. After his first raid on England, the Earl of Kattegat confiscates all his riches, making Ragnar sympathetic once again over a ruthless killer. Even as Ragnar rises in power, this trend continues. There's always another challenge, often borne out of his past decisions. By keeping him on the back-foot so often, it means that we share the same thrill of success when he turns the tide. And by the time he's risen to the top, we are so committed to his journey that we have to see how it ends, even if it means his own end.
There's arguably no classic 'good' characters within the world of Vikings, excepting maybe Athelstan, in the same way that there are very few, if any, 'evil' characters. The idea here is that who we choose to support is a matter of preference, as no party is solely in the right. Every figure of power that Ragnar encounters is equally flawed as he is, but in a substantially different way, and they come into conflict based on believable reasons. The show has taken time to humanize every major player, be they Viking or not. Even after the Vikings leave England and turn their sights to Paris, the audience is still treated to the intrigues and developments of King Ecbert, played superbly by Linus Roache, and his court.
The lack of a fully morally clear point of view means we could step into the world of any of these characters and travel through the story with them instead. And of course it all comes down to point of view, who this story should be told through and of course the show has chosen to tell this one through the eyes of Ragnar and his family. If we were to view the whole series exclusively through the lens of a character like Ecbert, Aelle or Emperor Charles, the Vikings would be nothing more than villainous savages who continue to ravage Paris. And of course we do see this point of view, but it's not the most prominent one. They're there to not just enlarge the world but to make us question Ragnar's actions, whilst only on occasion validating them.
It can be hard to pin down just who we should cheer on, but somehow it all comes together. I'm engrossed in this show and its characters, both Viking and not, so whatever it's doing seems to be working.