Prime Instant Video review: Vikings – A look back at Season 1, Episode 7, 8 and 9
James R | On 24, Feb 2014
When Vikings first sailed onto LOVEFiLM Instant’s shores, the comparisons to Game of Thrones were inevitable. Swords, mountains, beards, surely they were similar? But while the History Channel’s epic, written by Michael Hirst, unfolded on a smaller scale, by the time the final third of Season 1 arrived, it had used that size gap to grow into something both expansive and unique.
Episode 6 saw Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) collide head-on with Gabriel Byrne’s cruel Earl Haraldson, a brutal, intimate showdown that gave the tribe a new leader. That was it, it seemed. The climax had arrived. But Episode 7 (A King’s Ransom) reveals that the early peak actually opens up the show’s horizons, introducing more people to conquer, more places to pillage.
Northumbria is top of the list, prompting a clash with King Aelle. A quick game of ransom-your-brother aside and Ragnar’s cemented his status as legend – at the cost of his own brother, Rollo, who gets baptised as a Christian.
It’s a trivial token gesture for some of the Norse group, but it puts Rollo on a course to become the polar opposite of Ragnar, willing to betray his famous sibling just to get out of his shadow. It’s an excellent performance from Clive Standen, whose intensity – and sheer physicality – makes him a striking match for Travis’ calm, piercingly-eyed lead.
The theme of Christianity versus Viking paganism remains the show’s other key rivalry, summed up in George Blagden’s Athelstan. The conflicted monk is put centre stage in Episode 9, as the Vikings take a trip to Uppsala for a ritual sacrifice.
While the outing is notable for showcasing Kathryn Winnick’s moving turn as Ragnar’s recently-bereaved wife Lagertha – a striking contrast to earlier moments where she beats up her husband – the impressive thing is its slow pacing; showrunner Hirst (who also gave us The Tudors and Elizabeth I) uses the thoughtful hour as an interlude in the increasingly battle-strewn narrative, taking time to indulge in his characters as much as the hedonistic blur of mushrooms and sex.
Directed with candid class by Ken Girotti, it’s easily the best episode in the season; the calling card of a confident show, one that’s finally hid its stride. Throats are slit, loyalties are tested, prayers are made for the continuation of bloodlines and legacies, and throughout the ominous dread is tangible – as vivid and thick as the red stuff spilling onto the floor.
Episode 9, All Change, ramps the speed back up again, pitting Rollo and Ragnar against each other. With Ragnar ordered by King Horik to take land back from Earl Borg, the stage is set for betrayal and battle – but the real double-cross comes from our hero himself, who finds himself faced with the beautiful Princess Aslaug (a mysterious Alyssa Sutherland)
As Lagertha deals with death and disease at home, her husband frolics with this foreign lady, each actor so settled in their roles now that the prospect of domestic conflict is as thrilling as the looming homicidal struggle between brothers.
It took a whole run to find its voice but after a middling two-thirds, the final leg of Season 1 proves that Vikings has the brains and brawn to sail on to more ambitious things; a chance to broaden its scope by narrowing its focus. Yes, there are swords, mountains and beards – but they have their own intimate personality. And that smaller scale only makes the moves of each person against the sweeping backdrop feel even bigger.
Watch Season 1 of Vikings online on Amazon Prime Instant Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.