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Vikings Day: Ragnar Lothbrok, An Antidote to the Antihero

Matt Suddain finds the simple, brutal heroism of Vikings a refreshing change after more than a decade under the anti-hero’s glare. // 

There’s a great term for blood in Old Norse: ‘sword-water’. That’s a kenning, a kind of condensed metaphor used in Norse sagas. Other kennings for blood are ‘wound-dew’ and ‘dew of sorrow’. Basically, any show which calls itself Vikings better have substantial amounts of sword-water.

Every weapon should be coated in ‘arrow-lube’. Every fallen warrior should ooze ‘axe-cordial’. It should seem as if so much ‘death-spunk’ has been spilled on the fields of battle that it’s somehow entered Scandinavia’s precipitation cycle.

‘Looks like rain, Thragnob. Better get the sheets in.’

And I don’t care if this makes me sound like a cave man. If a character isn’t playing a real-life game of Operation with an enemy combatant then they should at least be shouting at someone, or defiling themselves with an attractive member of the opposite sex – preferably while talking about someone they’re definitely going to kill when they’ve finished. Otherwise the show might as well be called Viking’s Anatomy, or Desperate Viking Housewives. You might as well call it Sword-water and the City and kick off Season 3 by sending the cast on a merry jaunt to Paris*.

(*Wink.)

Vikings starts well, gore-wise. The opening shot tracks away from lightning hitting a tree, across the blood-spattered face of a blue-eyed man who we follow as he flits gaily across a corpse-strewn Baltic meadow to ram his short-sword through the abdominal cavity of a man dressed like a waiter at a Mongolian barbecue restaurant. The blue-eyed man is Ragnar Lothbrok, the show’s main character. The man dressed like a waiter at a Mongolian barbecue restaurant is just happy to be working again, and is definitely going to add this as a speaking role to his CV, even though his only line was ‘GAAAAAARRRGGGHH!’

Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) is a Viking going places. He has big dreams. He also seems to possess some sort of Nordic version of the Shining. He has visions of a white-bearded man with a raven on his shoulder, who I guess is the god Odin, or possibly a time-hopping Mick Fleetwood. Despite this talent, Ragnar somehow lacks the insight to see that his brother, Rollo (Clive Standen) wants to plough his hot wife and former shieldmaiden, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick.)

Lagertha is vexed because Ragnar wants to take their twelve-year-old son, Bjorn (Nathan O’Toole) to the town nearby so the boy can become a man. Becoming a man apparently involves meeting the Jarl, being given a bangle, then watching a man have his head cut off. (There are Russian kindergartens with more intense hazing rituals, but never mind.)

Ragnar is at odds with Jarl Haraldson (played with ample menace by Gabriel Byrne). Ragnar wants to sail west to raid this year, instead of boring old east, but the cautious Jarl doesn’t want to risk his boats. Ragnar has secretly commissioned a state-of-the-art boat from a mad genius called Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård.) The Jarl sends someone to spy on them. The spy reports back on Ragnar’s boat-building activities. It’s hard to know exactly how building a boat is a transgression, unless it’s a boat specifically designed to only sail west. But that’s basically the set-up. Swarthy Viking antihero tacking towards a collision with authority.

Today’s great shows are antidotes to the refined values and political sensitivities of our age. We’re nuts about antiheroes. There’s nothing we like more than projecting ourselves into the life of a mob boss whose world is changing, or a mild-mannered science teacher who wants to start a meth business.

The antihero can rebel against a “decent” society, like Walter White, or lash out at a corrupt world, like Batman. They can be the reformed criminal, like Axel Foley, or the bad guy with a heart of gold, like Gru in Despicable Me. Or, my personal favourite: the nihilist you somehow can’t help loving. Lorne in Fargo. Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. Godzilla. These are the morally ambiguous characters you switch on for.

But Ragnar Lothbrok isn’t an antihero at all. He’s just a Viking doing Viking things, and the only thing he’s rebelling against – in the early stages at least – is a budget-conscious Jarl. He’s a hero in the classical sense, a guy who excels in men’s popular activities of his age: stabbing, plotting, satisfying women.

So the challenge for writer Michael Hirst (The Tudors, The Borgias) is how to make him antiheroic, and therefore vaguely interesting to watch. He could make him moral. ‘Maybe we should, I don’t know… NOT stab people so much.’ Which is boring. He could turn him into a deconstruction of a classic Viking warrior – as he’s done with the show’s most intriguing character, Floki.

The interesting choice would be to make him a super-nihilist, someone even other Vikings think goes ‘… a wee bit far’. Or he could be a progressive: a man ahead of his time, someone who tries to lead his people away from the ‘raidy/stabby’, and towards the ‘farmy/housey’ lifestyle.

‘And we will sail west, brothers, and we will soak the fields of England in their blood!’

‘HA-ZAAAAAAH!’

‘And then we will set up small holdings in Northumbria! And establish a sophisticated agrarian infrastructure!’

‘UUUUGGHN?’

It will be interesting to see where Ragnar ends up. Vikings isn’t groundbreaking television, but it delivers on sword-water, the cast is as good as anything out there, and there are some fine early moments, including Gabriel Byrnes’s turn as the Jarl, and a no-eyed soothsayer who looks like how the director of a Tool video might conceptualise Rupert Murdoch’s soul.

Even if, like many people, you’re just treading water until Game of Thrones comes storming back, you should definitely dip into Vikings’ blood.

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