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Netflix’s Vikings: Valhalla hacks through new history, but familiar territory

The old gods meet the new

Zosha Millman (she/her) manages TV coverage at Polygon as TV editor, but will happily write about movies, too. She’s been working as a journalist for more than 10 years.

Sequels, reboots, and the sometimes unholy union of the two (“Requels”) are everywhere these days — notably on Netflix, where what is dead may never die and the streaming service has resuscitated more than a few dormant or waning projects. See: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, You, Manifest, Designated Survivor, and Lucifer; all Netflix originals now, in one way or another.

But Vikings is a whole other ballgame. The original series was History Channel’s first stab at fiction TV, and a massive ratings success out the gate. The exploits of the great Ragnar Lothbrok, Bjorn Ironside, Lagertha, or Ivar the Boneless was like a smaller-scale Game of Thrones, with an emphasis less on complex political intrigue than a world audiences knew coming into a new period. Plus, incredibly bloody raids.

Netflix’s spinoff, Vikings: Valhalla, aims to capture that lightning again, just a bit further down the timeline in Vikings history. And it comes to TV when ax-swinging imitators are much more common. Put another way: Valhalla has to do more to set itself apart from the pack — of historical fantasy epics and the Netflix glut alike.

What is Vikings: Valhalla?

Canute and Harald stand on a hill in Vikings: Valhalla Photo: Bernard Walsh/Netflix

Set 100 years after the events of the History channel original Vikings, Valhalla picks up as the age of the Vikings is just about coming to a close (though the Vikings on the show certainly don’t know that).

When the show arrives in Kattegat, it’s hard to know exactly what will be the biggest contributor to the downfall of the civilization. But there’s certainly a lot to choose from: The Viking infighting spurred on by religious differences? The waning influence in Europe? The ever-expanding empire Vikings have carved out and rule with an iron, often bloodied, fist?

Who’s behind Vikings: Valhalla?

Vikings creator Michael Hirst stepped aside as showrunner for this one, but he’s still on board as one of the executive producers. In his place is Jeb Stuart, the creator and showrunner of Valhalla. Stuart has a background in blockbusters, penning the scripts for classics like Die Hard and The Fugitive.

Also of vital importance to the show is Richard Ryan, a stunt coordinator who helped choreograph the fights of Valhalla, as well as Troy, Sherlock Holmes, The Dark Knight, and the original Vikings.

What’s the pilot about?

Haakon and Canute sitting at the feast table in a still from Vikings: Valhalla Photo: Bernard Walsh: Netflix

Valhalla being a Vikings show, things start off with a bit of bloodshed: the St. Brice’s Day massacre, when the British killed the Viking communities on their shores. Barely escaping with his life is Harald Hardrada (Leo Suter), who has designs on someday being the King of Norway. A year later, he joins the rest of the Vikings summoned to Kattegat by King Canute (Bradley Freegard) to launch a counter attack on the English.

Among those arriving in the bustling port city are Leif Erickson (Sam Corlett) and his sister Freydís (Frida Gustavsson), who have an ulterior motive for attending the Viking get-together. But while they show up with other missions in mind, they can’t resist getting caught up in the glory of Viking life in the 1000s.

What’s it really about?

While Vikings: Valhalla has gotten a lot of ink for being about the end of an era, the show’s first season investigates the waning days of a culture on a much quieter level. The more things change, the more they stay the same. For as much as the Christian and pagan Vikings disagree with each other, they act and raid nearly identically. They share clothing, hairstyles, even philosophies. Each side may mount its attacks against the other, but the bad guy, an Assassin’s Creed-style Christian Viking named Jarl Kåre (Asbjørn Krogh), still calls his soldiers “berserkers.”

And so Valhalla’s guiding ethos as it moves forward is about how to deal with a mammoth cultural shift that is taking its time. There’s no sense that the Vikings will stop engaging in behaviors they’ve done for hundreds of years. But the Norse/Viking identity is undeniably changing, either as a result of the wider net of religious idolatry or geographic location.

When Leif and his company of Greenlanders arrive in Kattegat, they feel like a throwback to an earlier era of Viking culture, more interested in doing their business and returning to a quiet life. What we know of Leif’s future means the shifts in Viking culture will push them further and further into the frontier, until they finally reach a realm they once thought mythical: North America. But their sense of Viking identity will be challenged well-before they make it to the New World.

Is Vikings: Valhalla good?

Freydis being held back by other Vikings in a still from Vikings Photo: Bernard Walsh/Netflix

Valhalla will deliver, particularly for those who mostly just crave good Viking conflict. Battles are bloody, and the soldiers berserk.

In its best moments, the first season lets complicated beliefs rest easily next to each other. These beats provide a softer look at the cultural divides that are often misrepresented as a dichotomy in the eyes of history; people can hold different views within the same culture and it’s not actually a reflection of their morality as a person. Freydís, a Pagan, is brutal and vengeful, but not pointlessly cruel. Olaf Haraldsson (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) is a dick, and also a believer in merciful Jesus Christ.

Ultimately the hardest part for the series will be stepping out from under the shadow of the original. The arc of Valhalla’s first season is broadly very similar to that of the original Vikings: You’ve got different Vikings factions scheming against each other. Eventually they make their way to England, where the internal politics of the English start interweaving and complicating the situation. Even the religious undercurrents aren’t that far off of Ragnar’s early flirtations with Christianity. It’s not that there aren’t interesting moments within these conflicts or gripping battle sequences, but there’s a feeling of having seen it before.

Plus, it’s not quite as unique as it once was. Where Vikings felt like little else on TV at the time — the obvious comparison to Game of Thrones leaves out a level of broodiness that felt more akin to HannibalValhalla feels entirely like TV of the moment. There’s a sheen to the whole affair, literally brighter on the screen than its forebearer. Vikings had more of a detached artfulness guiding the tone and style, allowing it to feel a little strange; Valhalla is more propulsive, but loses some of the weirdness of the original.

Perhaps the best example in their differences comes from the opening credits: Set to the otherworldly “If I Had a Heart” by Fever Ray, Vikings’ was all moody ephemeralism, portending doom and conquest all at once. Valhalla’s — when it plays in full in the pilot episode — is winding string instruments and chanting played over closeups of silver runes flying against a nondescript background. It’s almost exactly the template Netflix used for The Witcher.

The choice seems representative of how much TV has moved within the few years since Vikings left us. Fantasy epics, historical or otherwise, aren’t as unique as they once were. In just a few weeks, Netflix will launch the fifth and final season of The Last Kingdom (another Netflix rescue). Outlander is still going, as is Kingdom and Britannia, and that’s all before House of the Dragon or Witcher comes back. Valhalla isn’t terrible. But it feels mostly like more of the same, without having much of an identity to itself. In a crowded landscape, that doesn’t give it a lot to fight for.

When and where can I watch Vikings: Valhalla?

All eight episodes of Vikings: Valhalla are now streaming on Netflix.