If a piece of history is cool enough for Led Zeppelin to write a song about it, it’s worthy of attention. Admittedly “Immigrant Song” is about the settlement of Iceland, not about the first bloody raids on English soil, but Vikings is here to give us a taste of Viking conquest all the same. As it heads into the latter half of its fourth season, we’re here to give you a fast recap of Vikings season 1.
Vikings occupies a remarkable place on television. As a History Channel series, it is chiefly a historical drama, and it doesn’t go out of its way to paint its characters in a light that would be more palatable to those of us with modern sensibilities. The editing and writing come across as the best History Channel special to ever grace the small screen.
The show follows the legend of Ragnar Lothbrok, a purportedly real-life Viking hero written about in the sagas. As he contends with factions within the Viking clans, the wrath of his liege lord, foreign kings, and treacherous seas, Ragnar begins his ascent to greatness and strives for that thing all Viking warriors hope to gain – a seat in Odin’s great hall in Valhalla.
– HERE BE DRAGONS: SPOILERS PAST THIS POINT –
Vikings has an enormous cast of characters, so it seems fair to give a brief account of some of the main characters and their motivations.
The hero of the tale. A farmer and Viking raider from Kattegat with a clever mind and a strong sword arm. He desires to travel to the West and explore lands unknown to the Vikings.
A shieldmaiden and Ragnar’s wife. She is a cunning warrior and an equal match for Ragnar’s wit.
A former monk who becomes a slave in Ragnar’s household. He is well-traveled and infinitely curious about Viking society, though he often finds aspects of it hard to stomach. He becomes one of Ragnar’s trusted advisers.
Ragnar and Lagertha’s son. He is training to become a warrior like his father and is anxious to be fully grown. He is often a proxy for the audience as he learns about Viking culture and tradition.
Ragnar and Lagertha’s daughter. She takes an immediate liking to Athelstan.
Ragnar’s brother. Brutish and gruff, he cares about fighting, women, and glory but in many ways he is aimless. He is constantly at odds with his more famous brother and resents living in his shadow. He is, however, quite the ladies’ man.
A wild, impish shipwright. Floki is deeply devout when it comes to matters of the gods. His mischievous nature proves he has more in common with Loki than the last four letters of his name.
The Earl of Kattegat. A jealous man who fears that Ragnar means to kill him and take his place. He is deeply traumatized by the murder of his two sons years earlier.
Earl Haraldson’s wife. She is devoted to him and her daughter, Thyri. She will do what it takes to survive in a world of sudden political upheaval and is not afraid to seize an opportunity.
The king of Northumbria. He is furious with the Vikings for their incursion into his lands.
Vikings Season 1 Recap and Reactions
Episode 1: “Rites of Passage”
The series opens in 793 A.D. and gets right into the fighting. Ragnar Lothbrok and Rollo battle Baltic warriors. When the fighting stops, Ragnar sees a vision of a man he believes to be Odin and watches Valkyries descend and take the spirits of fallen Vikings into the skies. It’s an odd way for the show to start. Beyond the pseudo-supernatural encounter, the first episode deals primarily with introducing the setting and central characters.
Ragnar plans to take his son Björn to meet the Earl and undergo the rite of passage. Ragnar’s conflict of interest with Earl Haraldson comes to the fore when he suggests that instead of raiding the east, they turn their boats to the west. Ignoring any warnings from the Earl, Ragnar takes Björn to meet with his shipwright friend, Floki, who has secretly been building a boat capable of sailing the open water. Floki is wild, almost a man possessed.
Elsewhere, Lagertha bludgeons two drunkards who come to take advantage of her in Ragnar’s absence. It would have been preferable to make it through episode one without the first female character we meet having to fight off unwanted sexual advances to demonstrate her toughness.
Even with the violence, there are moments where this show really feels like History Channel educational fare. Ragnar’s explanation of the sunboard and sunstone feel like we’re getting a masterclass on ancient Viking navigation techniques. One thing above all is clear: this is a tale of discovery. It’s Manifest Destiny: A Norse Fairy Tale.
What I Learned: When a friend vaguely asks if you are going to “The Thing,” they are asking if you plan to attend a meeting with your Viking chieftain.
Episode 2: “Wrath of the Northmen”
After Ragnar gathers a crew and turns west to go raiding, Earl Haraldson takes a young boy hostage from the village. The scenes on the boat are claustrophobic in the damp fog, and for a moment you fear that Ragnar’s first excursion will end in disaster. Instead, they find a monastery in England, and boy is that bad news for the monks there.
Ragnar and Rollo may be brothers, but they are clearly not cut from the same cloth. When Ragnar shows restraint after their first encounter with the monks, Rollo charges to the slaughter, killing the huddled holy men. He also doesn’t understand why Ragnar chooses to spare Athelstan, even though the young monk speaks their language. Laden with gold and slaves, the Vikings set off to return home.
I had a visceral reaction watching Floki burn the books in the monastery. All that history, lost. Also, Earl Haraldson’s stooge, Svein, is the worst.
What I Learned: Viking ships look terrifying when viewed from the shore.
Episode 3: “Dispossessed”
Earl Haraldson is not pleased that Ragnar and his crew made it back alive. But he is pleased by all of the gold, so he keeps it all out of spite. He gives Ragnar his choice of the haul, and Ragnar chooses to keep Athelstan as a slave.
Following Athelstan, we get a different perspective of Viking life. He serves as the surrogate for the viewer and asks all the dumb questions about culture, history, and religion that a Viking ought to know. Athelstan is like a Daniel or Joseph figure from the Bible. He is a slave who stands in the face of strange customs and has a commitment to do right by his faith in a foreign land.
Ragnar sets off again for Northumbria with Lagertha, and Earl Haraldson sends Knut to spy on the proceedings. When they land, they encounter messengers from the King of Northumbria, and Ragnar shows off his rudimentary Anglo-Saxon. Rollo again proves his lack of patience by attacking the messengers during negotiations, and all but two are slain. One flees, and the other is taken captive, pressed into service as a guide.
Earl Haraldson buries his hoard, and Svein murders and buries the boy from Ragnar’s village to serve as a guard in the afterlife.
What I Learned: Human sacrifice was widely practiced in Viking society. And Svein really is the worst.
Episode 4: “Trial”
The crew presses on to a town and Ragnar suggests they wait until the Sabbath to attack. Through the eyes of the Vikings, familiar tropes for modern Western audiences seem new, exotic even, as they learn about Medieval English customs. There’s a particularly funny moment where Floki drinks the sacramental wine and spits it out for its bad taste, which appalls the congregation. Of course, it’s all tragically violent, and Floki kills the priest.
During the raid, Lagertha interrupts Knut as he is assaulting a Saxon woman, and in his rage, he tries instead to assault Lagertha. She kills him handily.
On their way back to the boat with their goods in tow, the raiders find they’re blocked by King Aelle’s soldiers. The Vikings form a shield wall and proceed to utterly slaughter the horsemen. When the dust and blood settles, Ragnar sacrifices the remaining captive to Odin.
Back in Kattegat, Haraldson is thrilled that the raid was successful but is suspicious of the circumstances of Knut’s death. Ragnar lies on Lagertha’s behalf and stands trial, but Rollo comes to his defense confirming Ragnar’s account, and Ragnar is set free.
We also get our first glimpse of King Aelle, who will be the true villain in Ragnar’s larger saga.
What I Learned: Northumbria was a distinct kingdom in England during this time, opening the potential for us to meet more English kings.
Episode 5: “Raid”
This is where the series really starts to get good. Earl Haraldson has begun to fear the ambitious and clever Ragnar. His raiding party destroys Ragnar’s farm, seriously wounding Ragnar, but he and his family flee to Floki’s residence.
Rollo’s failure to betray Ragnar at the trial disappoints Haraldson. He’d probably also be disappointed to learn of Rollo and Siggy’s romantic past. It’s a revelation that explains the way that Siggy reacts when Haraldson captures Rollo, tortures him, and cannot get Ragnar’s location from him.
As Siggy watches the torture, we see the true concern in her eyes. Relationship boundaries seem to be fluid everywhere in this particular society. Hearing of the torture, Ragnar sends Floki to challenge Earl Haraldson to single combat on his behalf.
Episode 6: “Burial of the Dead”
Single combat! Familiar territory for this Game of Thrones fan. We all knew Earl Haraldson wasn’t long for the world. Siggy proves herself to be one to fear when she mercilessly slays Thyri’s new husband and is first to hail Ragnar as the new Earl. Rollo, ever the hothead, also kills Svein (but admittedly, I don’t mind).
As soon as the wounded Ragnar sits down, he is greeted with cases to hear. Tostig, an old raider, wants in on the next raid and find glory so he can feast with Kahless… er… Odin. Also, we actually got to see someone wearing a winged helmet! The Angel of Death performs a sacrifice of a young maiden who will accompany Haraldson into the afterlife. Athelstan looks on the proceedings with disgust, and I share his distaste for this human sacrifice. At the end of the episode, Floki gives an account of Ragnarök.
What I Learned: I was too busy cheering when Svein was offed to pay too much attention.
Episode 7: “A King’s Ransom”
The first six episodes were the prologue. Now Act 1 begins! There’s a significant time jump to the Vikings approaching Northumbria, England. Lagertha rules sagely in Kattegat in Ragnar’s absence. She also suffers an agonizing miscarriage. Editing choices like this one lend to the series’ History Channel documentary feel.
Ragnar finally gets his way and has a face-to-face meeting with King Aelle after he captures the King’s brother Aethelwulf. Ragnar walks into Aelle’s hall like an old West gunslinger. If Vikings had spurs, his would be shiny and chrome. The way Ragnar and other Vikings speak English in the company of Englishmen is entertaining; it’s stilted like it’s clearly their second language
Eventually, they establish terms where Aelle will pay the Vikings to leave his kingdom. Rollo must be baptized to accomplish this, and Floki is not pleased. He jeers at “Rollo the Christian.” Aelle betrays the Vikings, sending warriors instead of gold, and the Vikings dispatch them handily, though Tostig earns his place in Valhalla with a warrior’s death. After Aethelwulf is killed for this betrayal, Aelle sends the gold, and the Vikings return home.
What I Learned: It really sucked to be English in the 8th century. Especially after the Vikings showed up.
Episode 8: “Sacrifice”
Athelstan grew an amazing beard. Awesome. Too bad it takes him the entire episode to realize he is meant to be sacrificed to the gods. Ragnar and the crew take a field trip to the temple in Uppsala. After a blessing from the priests, Lagertha and Ragnar pray for children, though Ragnar expects that someone else will bear his next son. Later, he explains to Athelstan that they sacrifice nine animals of every kind, every nine years. Including nine humans. Athelstan still doesn’t cotton on that he’s to be the sacrifice.
On the night before the sacrifice, there’s a monstrous orgy that even includes hallucinogenic mushrooms. Thyri bathes and romances Athelstan (who’s still clueless). Ragnar is thrilled to meet King Horik, and he pledges to aid him in a dispute with his rival Jarl Borg of Götaland. Horik’s tale of his ascension to the throne is told like a retelling of a saga. We learn of Ragnar’s much wider ambitions: he wants to raid France, of which he learned from Athelstan.
In his meeting with the chief priest before the sacrifice, Athelstan denies he is a Christian three times, which ironically is a very Christian thing to do. Needless to say, the priest figures out his true heart, and in a Spartacus moment, Leif replaces Athelstan as a sacrifice. Just when you think a character will become significant… Boom, dead.
What I Learned: Viking kings had a hand in religious affairs as well, performing many of the rites in ceremonies.
Episode 9: “All Change”
Ragnar’s fame is destined to grow, and Rollo is really bad at statecraft. Ragnar fails to reach an agreement regarding the disputed lands and sends Floki to ask King Horik about altering the terms. While they wait, Ragnar and his crew go to the great ash tree. Along the way, they meet Aslaug, who turns out to be the answer to Ragnar’s prayers. They have a tryst; Björn makes his father swear it will never happen again, and Aslaug tells Ragnar she’s carrying his child.
Back at home, Lagertha struggles to keep things together after Siggy becomes a vector for a deadly infection that goes through Kattegat. Gyda dies, as does Thyri, and it makes Ragnar’s infidelity all the more crushing. The editing again reminded me of a documentary special. With many of the sudden cuts and time lapses, sometimes I expect a prestigious history Ph.D. to provide voiceover with information about Medieval plagues or politics.
This episode also reminded me that Hamlet is a Danish story. Jarl Borg is much like King Claudius. His wife is poisoned by a cup meant for another (though he was not the poisoner in this case) and seized power from his jealous brothers. If Borg is Claudius, then Rollo fills in for Laertes, an impressionable and proud young man who is all too happy to seek revenge. Jarl Borg believes that the disputed land will be assimilated, and King Horik will be humiliated.
We will continue with a recap of season two. For now, catch up or rewatch the series on Amazon Prime.