“A lot of things might sound delicious after a lengthy cruise in a small boat.”
Fourteen months have gone since Michael Hirst‘s Vikings ended its six-season run, and fans of the History/Netflix series bid the Lothbrok clan farewell. Nonetheless, Jeb Stuart’s offshoot of the Viking narrative continues. Vikings: Valhalla introduces Leif Ericksson and a slew of new characters who are quickly entangled in parallel narratives of vengeance. Despite the fact that one hundred years have passed, the world in which we find ourselves still feels familiar, and viewers simply need to become acquainted with the transformed scenery and the fresh crop of historical figures.
The series premiere gets off to a rocky start with some painfully awkward acting in the opening prologue, but “The Greenlanders” rapidly finds its feet as the main characters take centre stage following The St. Brice’s Day Massacre. Of course, Stuart expends much narrative capital in creating characters, motivations, and conflicts, but it doesn’t take long to see that the narratives of vengeance for both the Greenlanders and the Viking country provide plenty of room for the plot to expand.
The fight between Viking Christians and those who still worship the old gods is immediately compelling, and it promises to give a lot of material now that it has become woven into the fabric of King Canute’s freshly organised army. Even before we examine Leif Ericksson and his sister Freydis Eriksdotter, numerous fascinating individuals appear. When his “solution to the Viking issue” turns out to be the utter annihilation of all men, women, and children residing on English territory, Aethelred II definitely establishes himself as the main adversary.
Even before we meet Leif and Freydis, the Sigurdsson brothers hold a lavish, joyous goodbye celebration before Sten departs for England to meet Ruler Aethelred the Unready (Bosco Hogan), leaving Norway’s future king Prince Harald Sigurdsson (Leo Suter) to confront the biggest task of his life. The powerful visual images of the murder of Sten and the other members of his diplomatic party juxtaposed against the slaughter of innocent Viking families simply trying to make a new life for themselves turn the tables on the viewer, making it morally acceptable to support the upcoming Nordic assault on England. Aligning with Ragnar Lothbrok and his gang of raping, pillaging, and killing comrades was always a risk, but there’s no such ethical quandary here.
What would Vikings: Valhalla be without a significant link to Kattegat? While it’s evident that the town has developed rapidly over the last hundred years, it’s the emergence of Jarl Haakon (Caroline Henderson) as its leader that dominates this element of the episode. Her early conversation with Freydis (Frida Gustavsson) gives some context, making the subsequent disclosure of her position all the more interesting. The fact that Haakon had a past with Erik the Red complicates the decision she must now make about Freydis’ vengeful murder of the man who raped her many years ago.
When they first meet at the docks, Prince Harald appears to be one of the more interesting individuals, and he comes across as a bit of a flirt by offering Freydis a hot bath. Harald, the great grandson of Harald Finehair and the apparent successor to Norway’s crown, demonstrates his credentials midway through the narrative by attempting to reason with his half-brother Olaf the Holy and refusing to battle with his pagan compatriots.
“What good will all your saintliness have done for you?” Harald inquires, recognising the most difficult challenge the Viking force must overcome if it is to fight the English. However, it is his emotional intervention in a personal conflict between a Christian and a pagan that cements his position. His remark, “Whether your deity is Odin or Christ, it means nothing to me,” appears to rouse the troops, maybe putting a halt to a fight that would inevitably erupt again.
Leif (Sam Corlett) and Freydis make their narrative debuts in the middle of a horrific storm at sea, which not only foreshadows Aethelred’s future upheaval, but also proves their exceptional seamanship as they jointly manoeuvre their little vessel safely to Kattegat. Despite the passage of one hundred years in the Vikings’ world, little seemed to have changed.
The show’s production values maintain the high standards that fans grew to expect from Vikings: Valhalla’s forerunner, and while we’re only treated to small-scale action sequences, they foreshadow even bigger things to come when the eventual large-scale conflicts take place. And, while the severity of the storm emphasises the danger involved in this sort of travel, it’s the way brother and sister work together that hints at what we might anticipate in the future.
Erik the Red’s offspring endure a variety of challenges as they carve their own paths, and it’s evident that neither gives up in the face of hardship. Leif takes on five soldiers alone, but it’s most notable that he doesn’t kill any of them and instead disables them. On the other hand, while we sympathise with Freydis’ intense want to avenge her sexual attack, it remains to be seen if she will be able to control her impulse to act when restraint is required. It’s interesting that Harald defends her, and the disclosure of her scar foreshadows the final approval of her deed. It is still up to Jarl Haakon to reign.
It remains to be seen if Harald and Freydis’ sexual experience leads to anything more serious, but Harald’s strong argument to Leif suggests these two may form an important bond. “True Vikings always want glory,” he says to Leif, seeking to persuade him to join the struggle against the English. While we haven’t seen any huge bro action yet, both appear to be on the same moral path.
Obviously, this first episode enables the individuals to settle into their positions while the various plot lines unfold, but the gathering of another great Viking army governs all of the peripheral action. It is now up to King Canute (Bradley Freegard) to bring Christian and pagan cultures together, a difficult undertaking that must be completed if the murders of thousands of innocents are to be avenged. Can the king persuade Olaf Haraldsson (Johannes Haukur Johannesson) to set aside his disdain for those who still worship Odin and help him evade the English defence system? In this chapter, we don’t see much of Canute, but when Olaf refuses to comply, the king’s attitude is evident. “Then please accept my apologies, Olaf.” You’ve travelled a long distance for nothing.”
Spinning off a successful series like Vikings frequently leads to false expectations and, eventually, disappointment. That said, “The Greenlanders,” the first episode of Vikings: Valhalla, deals masterfully with the burden of previous experience, establishing a new cast of people every bit as compelling as those in the main series. Comparisons to the Lothbrok clan will be difficult to escape, but Freydis, Leif, and Harald have the ship aimed in the correct direction with good breezes at their backs.