Netflix UK TV review: Vikings: Valhalla: Season 1
Martyn Conterio | On 13, Mar 2022
Generations have passed. The world has changed. But the more things change the more they stay the same, right? If the bloodthirsty exploits of Ragnar Lothbrok, Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside and Lagertha have long since drifted from living memory into folklore, these mighty kings and queens continue to be respected and revered. Fast forward a hundred years or so, and the Vikings, though many have converted to Christianity and willingly gave up their pagan idols, still find themselves confronted with political challenges and struggles. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Michael Hirst’s Vikings (which ran from 2013 to 2020) featured a brilliant international cast, gave the audience wonderfully imagined characters to embrace as fan favourites and provided riveting plots mixing historical fiction, Norse mythology and factual backdrop. Jeb Stuart’s sequel is wise enough to recognise a winning formula when it sees one. Vikings: Valhalla sticks close to its predecessor, allowing a seamless quality and direct connection between the two entities. In terms of visuals and editing and storytelling craft, there really is not a great deal of difference. But again, if something isn’t broken, why fix it? Where there is requirement to switch things up, switch things up they do. The production design has advanced, the war technology updated, the costumes too. This is where the alterations are found. In essence, Vikings: Valhalla clings to the industry maxim that sequels should be the same, but different.
The first season consists of eight episodes ranging from 45 minutes to over an hour and introduces a whole bunch of new faces. Chief among them is Leif Eriksson (Sam Corlett), a Greenlander who has set off to Kattegat (the fictional haven from Vikings) looking for revenge, along with his sister Freydis (Frida Gustavsson) and their small crew. Meanwhile, war is brewing over in England, after a Viking settlement established decades before is wiped out by a paranoid and xenophobic English monarch. The majority of Season 1 involves a federation of Viking nations setting sail to confront the English. Yes, the plot is all raiding and no trading, the main centrepiece battle, which unfolds on London Bridge, is excitingly staged and cleverly constructed as a flashback episode.
Of the newbies, Freydis is the MVP. She stays behind in Kattegat while the menfolk go off to fight and takes on her own voyage inland to the pagan church at Uppsala (seen in the original show), where she finds herself and her true purpose in life. Essentially, it’s a coming-of-age tale, Viking style. Gustavsson is terrific as Freydis, a troubled young woman who grows in stature and taps into an inner strength as the narrative progresses to become a fearsome shield maiden in her own right.
Corlett’s Leif Eriksson also must prove himself in the eyes of the audience as much as the Norwegians, and so he does, finding his feet as a creative thinker and ingenious fighter, despite his insistence he doesn’t much like battling and bloodshed. If Ragnar was a simple farmer who grew into a beloved king through force of will, Leif is a smarter type of hero, a man who asks questions first before picking up the sword. This ensures he’s not a Lothbrok substitute, because, well, who could ever replace Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar?
Also among the new batch of recruits is Leo Suter’s Harald Sigurdsson, making another welcome addition, the character of historical significance related to the English crown and the Norman Invasion of 1066. Same goes for Laura Berlin’s clever politician, Emma of Normandy, descendant of Vikings’ Rollo and the future mother of Edward the Confessor. At this point in time, however, she’s a young queen finding herself in a complex situation when her elderly husband passes away and the Vikings take over the throne in London.
Of course, fans will be pining somewhat for the old cast, but Valhalla’s band of heroes and heroines, movers and shakers, establish themselves as worthy successors. The one dampener is the removal of Fever Ray’s moody electro banger If I Had a Heart, which served as the Vikings theme tune over the title credits. What a shame it’s been replaced by bland orchestration. A minor quibble, sure, because where it matters – the drama and performances – Vikings: Valhalla will undoubtedly please.