Jeb Stuart’s Vikings: Valhalla (2022)
Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty
Umberto Eco once explained the continued interest in the medieval and in medievalism in one simple sentence: “People seem to like the Middle Ages.” And television producers seem to like the Vikings. Vikings: Valhalla, Jeb Stuart’s eight-part series streaming on Netflix (with two more seasons promised), is a sequel to Michael Hirst’s six-season Vikings, which aired from 2013-2020 on The History Channel. Both series were complemented by The Last Kingdom, which aired for six seasons beginning in 2015 and was developed by Stephen Butchard for BBC2 and Netflix from Bernard Cornwell’s series of novels, The Saxon Stories.
Vikings told the story of Ragnar Lodbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his family. Ragnar rises from being a simple farmer to a Viking king who terrorizes early medieval England and France. The series follows his adventures and later those of his sons and their followers in England, France, Scandinavia, Russia, and across the Mediterranean. Ragnar’s capital is the fictional Kattegat in Sweden. The original series condenses roughly a century of history and includes historical events such as the Viking sacking of Lindisfarne Abbey in 793 and their siege of Paris in 845. Characters and their interactions are a mix of the historical and the fictional. The major tension in the series is religious—with the pagan Vikings encountering the equally violent Christian Saxons and French.
The Last Kingdom recounted the role that a fictional Dane, Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Dreymon), plays in both furthering and frustrating attempts by Alfred the Great (David Dawson) and his heirs to unite England as a Christian kingdom. The pagan Uhtred is the very definition of courage, integrity, and righteousness. Alfred and his Christian followers run the gambit from the overly pious to the truly villainous. Again, there is a mix of the historical and the imagined in a series that spans some six decades, although the at times unbelievably long-suffering but always-loyal Uhtred seems ageless throughout.
Both Vikings and The Last Kingdom seem content to be little more than action-adventure series, Vikings: Valhalla less so. For starters, the main character is Leif Erikson (Sam Corlett), who along with his father Erik the Red, is much more well-known than Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons. In the series, Erik is mentioned frequently, but never appears. Vikings: Valhalla opens on November 11, 1002, with the so-called St. Brice’s Day Massacre, when Aethelred II (Bosco Hogan), known as the Unready, orders the killing of all Danish settlers in England, be they Christian or pagan, as a “solution to the Viking problem.” This third Viking series has then an immediate political agenda. We are indeed in eleventh-century England, but the script contains less than subtle parallels to genocides and ethnic cleansings in the twentieth and twentieth-first centuries that were “solutions” to eliminating racial and ethnic differences. The earlier two series featured clashes between Christian and pagan, in which the Christians usually came off as the less sympathetic characters. In Vikings: Valhalla, religious fanaticism and its resulting sectarian violence are the narrative’s driving force. Again, the Christians generally come off as the villains in that narrative.
Leif arrives in Kattegat as King Canute of Denmark (Bradley Freegard) has summoned all Vikings to avenge the massacre. Leif and his sister Freydis (Frida Gustavsson) are Greenlanders, and, as such, the butts of some jokes suggesting that they are the Viking equivalent of country bumkins. Leif and Freydis have come to Kattegat unaware of the massacre. But they are steadfast pagans, and they seek their own revenge on the Christian Viking (Leifur Sigurðarson) who years earlier raped and branded Freydis on the back with a cross.
In the series, Leif arrives at Kattegat after Vikings have already established a settlement in what is now Newfoundland, and after Christianity has come to Greenland, though neither event is mentioned. Vikings: Valhalla is also not hesitant to blur the lines between fact and fiction. Rather, because of his prowess as a sailor, Leif is swept up in the plan to avenge the massacre and conscripted by the devout Christian Olaf Haraldsson (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) to captain the invasion’s lead ship. Indeed, the series labels him Leif the Lucky, but for reasons different from those recorded in the sagas.
Kattegat here, as it was in several of the later seasons of the original Vikings, has become a matrilineal society ruled by Jarl Haakon (Caroline Henderson). Like her counterpart back in England, Emma of Normandy (Laura Berlin), Haakon is a thoughtful, just, and wise leader in contrast to her Christian and pagan male counterparts who are political animals, and often not very successful ones. Haakon adds further diversity to the series’ cast in that she is a woman of color—the daughter of a Viking marauder and an African mother whom he encountered in his voyages around the Mediterranean.
The scenes in each episode switch back and forth between England and Sweden. Leif defuses a near mutiny on the voyage from Sweden to England. Vikings sack Kent. Aethelred dies, and he is succeeded by his immature and impetuous son Edmund (Louis Davidson). The Vikings move against London pulling down much of London Bridge and defeating the English. Back in Sweden, Freydis journeys to the pagan shrine at Uppsala to seek her destiny. We subsequently learn that she will be “the last daughter of Uppsala.” On her journey, Freydis encounters the series’ most fanatical character Jarl Kåre (Ashbjørn Krogh Nissen), a wild-eyed berserker intent on exterminating all pagans and destroying all traces of their religion. Kåre will dog Freydis’s steps for much of the rest of the series as he nearly succeeds in destroying all that is pagan. In a final battle, Freydis, now a shield maiden, beheads him.
But before that deadly encounter, various plots and intrigues find Canute landing back in Denmark to fight the Vends, Sweyn Forkbeard (an always-snarling Søren Pilmark) landing in England to rule as regent, and Olaf seeking support from Canute’s wife Ælfgifu (Pollyanna McIntosh) to become the first King of Norway after his army and that of Jarl Kåre succeed in annihilating the pagans at Kattegat. Jarl Haakon’s plan for the capital’s defense includes the sacrifice of a willing young pagan (Adam John Richardson) to the gods who is assured that he will immediately enter the Halls of Valhalla—cf. the motivation of some contemporary suicide bombers. On a more strategic note, Leif organizes a defense of Kattegat from possible attacks by land or by sea. Haakon and many of her followers are killed, and Kattegat falls to Olaf, but only briefly since Sweyn soon arrives with the Danish fleet. The first season of the series ends with a close-up of an enraged Leif covered in blood from head to toe bellowing over the loss of his beloved Liv (Lujza Richter) who died at his side in the final battle for Kattegat.
Sam Corlett as the blood-covered Leif in Vikings: Valhalla
The Viking legacy in popular culture is often an uneasy mix of the heroic and the violent. The historical Leif is remembered annually on Leif Erikson’s Day (October 9) in half a dozen states and one Canadian province, and there are separate legislative attempts in both the United States and Canada to acknowledge the day nationally. The final shot of season one of Vikings: Valhalla is of a blood-covered Leif looking more like a berserker than the storied heroic European who brought Christianity to North America. The most recent feature-length Viking film, Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2009 Valhalla Rising, was as violent and bloody as it was meditative. Notices for Robert Eggers’ The Northman, due to be released in the United States on April 22, certainly suggest that the film does not shy away from depicting violence.
Since the late nineteenth-century American embrace of the Viking narrative as a pre-Columbian founding myth, the Vikings have often been elevated to an heroic status that glosses over any association that they may have had with violence. Vikings: Valhalla opens and closes with massacres. It depicts ethnic cleansing, sectarian strife, even a young willing martyr to his cause. Throughout the series, pagans and Christians constantly fight, blood is spilled, limbs are hacked off, and the body count crises. In some cases, characters recover from their initial wounds only to be killed in later battles. Modern parallels are less than subtle. Television (and film) producers may indeed like the Vikings, but any attempt to sanitize their exploits is clearly no longer in vogue.
Compared to Vikings: Valhalla, both the original Vikings and The Last Kingdom were restrained in their depiction of violence. Vikings was content to retell the multi-faceted history of Viking incursions across Eastern and Western Europe, albeit with a decided mix of fact with fiction. The Last Kingdom offered a fictional hero, a sort of updated Prince Valiant, whose nobility and steadfastness stood in stark contrast to the supposedly more civilized Christians whom he fought against or served. Vikings: Valhalla, however, uses the character of Leif Erikson as a hook to ground its narrative in the familiar and then abandons any attempt to portray Leif as he is usually portrayed in the sagas or in popular culture. In future seasons of Vikings: Valhalla, we can only assume that Leif as berserker will exact vengeance for the death of Liv. He will be a source for continued violence, and he will bear little resemblance to the supposedly heroic first European to land on the shores of North America.
Vikings: Valhalla created by Jeb Stuart for Netflix. Produced by Metropolitan Films International and MGM Television. Season one of three, each with eight episodes, streaming from 25 February 2022 on Netflix.