Sunday, March 3, 2013

Vikings "Rites of Passage" Review

Vikings is History's first scripted series about, well, uh, vikings. No, History isn't dramatizing the history of the Minnesota Vikings, the underachieving National Football League squadron, but, rather, those Nordic folk that've been depicted as brutal barbarians in the history books. Specifically, the series follows a young warrior and family man, Ragnar Lothbrok, as he sets out to sail across the sea to lands west of his land. The policies of his local chieftain, Earl Haraldson, conflicts with Ragner's ambitiously bold dreams about conquering lands. Plus, he's got a brother that's not exactly respectful of him or his family.

History's press release for the series opens with a sentence or two about the historic depictions of the vikings. The vikings were warriors with long hair, helmets with horns, large and brutal men who ravaged their way through Europe. Vikings aims to tell the brutal side of the viking story. The teaser of "Rites of Passage" is bloody. The rest of the episode is not bloody. It's like creator Michael Hirst deliberately opened with a bloody battle that fits the image the audience has of vikings just so he can spend the rest of the episode introducing the family element. The opening bloody battle is an impressive piece of filming, aided in part by the gorgeous Northern European backdrop, and it shows Ragnar's capabilities as a warrior. Ragnar Lothbrok is the Man of Vikings, the hero, the one descended directly from Odin, the god of war and warriors. After the battle, Ragnar watches crows descend and feast on the corpses. A man dressed in black with a long white beard stands in the distance, covered by crows, fading in and out of Ragnar's eyesight, and Ragnar's mind.

I don't know much about Norse mythology. Thor and Loki are the only gods in Norse mythology I know, and what I know about them I learned from Marvel. The family element of Vikings is entirely familiar for it is the type of story that spans cultures, centuries, and what-not. Ragnar's going to take a boat to distant lands, leaving behind a wife and a daughter, as well as a son on the cusp of manhood. Ragnar left home to meet with the chieftain. While gone, his wife, a shield matron (there's no way I got that name right), is approached by two men that would've raped her had she not kicked their asses. Later in the episode, after Ragnar's brother agrees to go to battle with him across the sea, in which they declared themselves equal, he tried to sleep with Ragnar's wife. Sadly, I'm forced to resort to a Greek story as comparison for what I'm watching. Many things about Vikings felt familiar.

The familiarity of Vikings is not a negative criticism. There isn't anything distinctive about the series besides its Northern European setting, though. The pilot doesn't divide its time between bloody battles and familial life. Ragnar's family dominates the narrative. Ragnar's young son follows him through the villages as he sets to explore the world across the sea. Ragnar's son witnesses a beheading for the first time, and unwittingly votes for the man's death as the chieftain won't make a ruling without a unanimous decision. Ragnar meets his boat-man, Loki, who spooks the son by boasting about his ability to read the trees, plants, and the man.

Ragnar's deeply devoted the Nordic gods. Earl shoots down Ragnar's ambitions to sail across the sea to find new lands, convinced nothing lies beyond the sea. Ragnar's brother doubts, too, until Ragnar shows him how the sun moves. One god (or is that character like an oracle?) explains to Ragnar that he is the one and that great things lie in his future. There's a revelation about the crow man dressed in black. Ragnar sees him again and tells his brother he received a good omen. Oh, so the crow man dressed in black is a good omen. I'm not sure how rooted in Nordic history the show is considering History's growing disinterest in historical programs. Ancient Aliens pretty much solidified the channel's shifting interests. Anyway, I feel like I'd be able to learn a great deal about Norse mythology and legend, which would be way more worthwhile than continuing to watch Revenge.

I love the look of Vikings. Northern Europe is absolutely gorgeous on film. Vikings showcases the natural beauty of its Northern European landscape. Its setting creates an atmospheric element that'd be difficult to create in any other location. "Rites of Passage" as a whole is well-done but its weaknesses are similar to weaknesses in other series openers. The world-building takes time as well as the character introductions and subsequent developments, which it makes it hard to sort of fully connect and engage with the content. Ragnar and his family are well-developed, but his brother feels like an idea, and Earl Haraldson reminds me of Denethor. In other words, Vikings isn't completely fleshed out quite yet, but this is just one episode, and the preview for the rest of the season suggests a more realized and complete series than what is introduced in "Rites of Passage."

I think it is worth watching.

Other Thoughts:

-I resisted writing the first paragraph about Monty Python’s spam sketch. The spam sketch is terrific for a number of reasons. The Vikings are one of the reasons the sketch is terrific. I suppose the Pythons were combining history and absurdity, as the Vikings came to England in the 8th century. Perhaps the Pythons were intimating that the Vikings came to England for spam. I make that supposition based on the stock footage of the Viking ship used in the sketch, as well as the fact that the Vikings have a song for spam.

-I’d watch a dramatization of the history of the Minnesota Vikings. Would you? There’d even be a boat!

-My favorite piece of natural Northern European beauty is the water. The water looks immaculate. Johan Renck shot a gorgeous episode.


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Originally, I titled the blog Jacob's Foot after the giant foot that Jacob inhabited in LOST. That ended. It became TV With The Foot in 2010. I wrote about a lot of TV.