It’s an interesting feature of this amazing future amusement park we currently inhabit that we talk about the “TV binge” where once we referred to the “TV marathon”. Slowly TV is becoming human foie gras as complete seasons of TV shows are now made to be inhaled in one sitting. It’s been great for people who want to make risky, engaging storytelling, but perhaps not so great for audience members with 9 to 5 jobs who have to battle the just-one-more-episode syndrome, as illustrated in the urban documentary series Portlandia.
Seriously though, unless they’re invalids or closed captioners on a deadline, most people won’t finish a season of telly in one sitting. I get it, 10 or so hours in one blat is a tough ask, but if we have to break up a season over a week aren’t we going against the intention of our favourite TV marketing teams? This, then, is an attempt to watch a season of TV in one sitting, record the experience and note if this method of consumption adds anything to the TV viewing adventure. Prayers accepted, but only if accompanied by cash donation.
I’ve decided to go for season one of the History Channel production Vikings. The show dramatises the legends of Norse hero and king Ragnar Lothbrok who raided the shit out of England and bedded so many lovers he’s basically a race unto himself. The series is still going strong after three seasons, so I’m betting it has something going for it. The chance of many major battle scenes is high, so I should be able to keep awake. Additionally, the norse sagas were the binge TV of their time, so thematically it’s on point.
This is the serious end of that point. As a modern media masticator I can’t feed my eyeballs without also feeding my guts. I’m looking forward to an orgy of cheeseballs and red licorice when Spinoff editor Duncan Greive emails: “Hey man, might be fun if you eat Viking food!”
1. According to research Vikings had a pretty varied diet ranging from fruit bread to roasted vegetables to fish. However, as I live with a vegetarian I’m going for the meat option. Behold Viking meat soup. Chunks of chuck steak boiled in salted water until they turn deathly grey. As a token gesture I throw in some herbs. My vegetarian girlfriend says she can smell it from upstairs.
2. Vikings generally drank ale, but on special occasions they got stuck into mead (fig. 2) which they made from fermenting honey in water. I drive around all morning searching for the stuff and finally find a bottle of it, or a version of it, in a Liquorland outlet.
“I think that’s the only mead we have,” says the bloke behind the counter.
“I guess there’s not a lot of vikings around here” I quip.
“Nah,” he says with a straight face, “they got too many hassles because of their ponytails.”
I walk out the door genuinely confused. A day later John Key is forced to apologise for constantly tugging on a waitress’ ponytail. What is the universe trying to tell me?
3. Wholemeal bread. I’m not a monster. I always pre-hunk my bread.
Vikings starts off well, that is it starts off really trippy. The series opens up on a Scandinavian battlefield where Ragnar, who is basically the Viking Age’s Brad Pitt, is killing off enemy stragglers. As will happen a number of times over the season Ragnar experiences a vision of Odin, the King of the Gods. Odin looks a bit like the wizard Nicodemus from the classic Fighting Fantasy gamebook ‘City of Thieves’. And they both look like a bloke I saw once selling dreamcatchers at the Coroglen farmers market.
So far the show is looking great. There’s tons of expansive fjord footage, there’s a lot of detail in the sets and there’s lots and lots of beards. And some pretty awesome hats.
Man, this mead is quite good. It’s going down very well. There’s a lot of drinking in this show and, amazingly, a good portion of it is being done by Ragnar’s son, Bjorn. He might be only 13 years old, but Bjorn is getting stuck in thanks to the encouragement of his elders. You could write a best selling child care book based on the Viking method of parenting: Don’t Waste The Child, Get ‘Em Wasted.
I’ve ploughed through the meat soup and judging by the sounds my stomach is now making it might do the same to me. The future worries me. I can feel the dozen or so meat nuggets sitting in my guts like Mafia victims encased in concrete and thrown into the sea. There’s a feast in this episode and I immediately realise I could have been more ambitious in my snack choices.
Ragnar is also concerned with the future. He’s convinced that rich lands to plunder lie over the sea to the east. Unfortunately, the local chieftain Haraldson (played by Gabriel Byrne) disagrees and always sends raids to the poor lands to the west. This sets up the major drama and conflict for most the season as Ragnar and Haraldson maneuver for power.
I decide Haraldson is my favourite character. Byrne plays him almost exactly the same way he played Satan in the Schwarzenegger film The 6th Day – just stares at everyone like they’ve got a turd slowly sliding down their face. Everyone refers to him as “the Earl,” but I pretend Earl is his first name and he’s pissed off because he always hated it. Sucks to be you, Earl.
We finally get some raid action. Ragnar and his bros have made it across the sea and they’ve hit England! I can’t wait for them to hand out some violence to some snooty private school toffs. I’m very ready for this.
Unfortunately they end up attacking a monastery filled with polite and waifish monks who apparently spend their time being chill and doodling in big leather books. They pretty much either get mowed down – Ragnar’s brother ends up stomping out the brains of a monk – or drowned.
I thought the viking dudes were GCs?
It’s one of the strengths of the show that it doesn’t shy away from reminding you that vikings killed a lot of people who weren’t soldiers. However, the makers of the show do pull back from showing Ragnar murdering the general citizenry. He hangs out while his posse do the killin’ ‘n plunderin’. Presumably someone thought it wouldn’t make sense to depict the hero of the series, and someone you’re supposed to root for, as a raging killer. History butts up against the apparent need to make your protagonist likable.
The mead is all gone. It was imported from somewhere where they don’t have to display alcohol content on the bottle, so I have no idea how much booze I’ve ingested. Can’t be that much because I feel great! I think I’ve got more beer upstairs, I mean it’s midweek and before midday, but who cares!
My head is pounding and I think I’m starting to smell. At least I think it’s me. It might be the leftover soup that’s been sitting on the coffee table..
I’ve been wanting to go to the toilet for the last half hour, but I just sit there on the loo like some kind of idiot and nothing comes except for a dull, lead feeling in my intestine. It’s times like these I feel most like what I, and the rest of the human race, really are: big, puffy tubes for processing manure.
The vikings are explaining to a captured English monk what Ragnarok is. Ragnarok is the viking apocalypse where the titans return and lay waste to all the earth. It’s preceded by three days of darkness and that feels exactly where I am now. Ragnarok is here and it’s in 720p and there’s a green couch and I’m sitting on it… waiting for the end.
I start drifting off and then snapping back to what’s on screen. For around 15 minutes I’m convinced they’ve replaced Gabriel Byrne with another actor and not told anyone. “They can’t fucking do this,” I say to myself.
My mood flips when I release Ragnar’s brother is called Rollo. I spend the next five minutes giggling when I realise why the name sounds familiar.
The final hours ticks away. Outside a ruru calls into the night. I feel like my spine has fused and I need someone to come and take care of my sores. I don’t feel like I’ve watched nine hours of television, I feel like I’ve someone’s taken out my internal organs, given them all a good slapping, and put them back inside me.
The first season of Vikings ends with all the major characters in completely different positions to those they held at the beginning. The next season is firmly set up with a new conflict waiting just off stage. In many ways what Vikings succeeded at is treating its subject as a gang saga a la The Sopranos or The Wire. Everyone has the same motivation: seize power and keep it, but it’s complicated by a network of subtly shifting alliances.
Ragnar becomes less and less likable by the time we get to the end of the season. Unfortunately Travis Fimmel lacks the charisma James Gandolfini brought to Tony Soprano. Ragnar clearly feels there’s a divine purpose to his journey to claim power, but it still appears to be motivated by pure ambition and greed. Is Ragnar just a thug? The show is conflicted on the issue and can’t quite navigate it skillfully.
Still, it’s an exciting watch. Norse mythology is nicely woven through the season and there’s a good sense of authenticity around the sets and particularly the more unsavoury or unusual aspects of viking life. I’m slightly tempted to dive straight on in to season two, but maybe I’ll wait a while before firing it up. At least until I can wash the smell of meat soup out of my skin.