Based On Nordic Legend, History's Deluxe 'Vikings' Is A Marvel Of Modern Storytelling

Last season we had the jaw-dropping Red Wedding on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” It is still one of the most talked about sequences on any television series in 2013.

This season we had the similarly nerve-frying Blood Eagle on History's “Vikings.” It closed the seventh episode of the season, three weeks ago, but my skin still crawls when I think about it. (If you follow “Vikings” but have fallen behind, or if you have yet to watch this fine series you may wish to stop reading and revisit this column at a future time.)

The Red Wedding, as you probably know, featured the brutal slayings of two main characters on the immensely popular HBO series, plus the slaughter of a pregnant woman. The Blood Eagle depicted the killing of only one character, the villainous Jarl Borg, who had been orchestrating much murder and mayhem and causing all kinds of trouble for Ragnar Lothbrok, the Earl of Kattegatt, his family and the people of his territory. (Ragnar, by the way, is played by Travis Fimmel, a former Calvin Klein underwear model and star of the short-lived series “Tarzan” on The WB. Given his resume, it may be surprising to learn that he is perfectly cast in this series and has given life to one of the most distinctive characters in this golden age of television drama.)



Jarl Borg finally got his comeuppance, and then some. His was one of those gruesome demises that people eagerly anticipate in movies and television series, when the bad guy gets what’s coming to him. (It may not have packed the same power as the recent murder of nasty little King Joffrey on “Game of Thrones,” also at a wedding, but it was similarly satisfying.) Of course, the big difference between the Blood Eagle and the Red Wedding is that the people who died so horribly and surprisingly in the latter were some of the good guys.

The Blood Eagle -- for those who, like me, had never heard of it until “Vikings” put it on shocking display -- is a legendary method of supposed Nordic execution in which a person is killed by having his ribs cut away from his spine and spread to look like the wings of an eagle. The person’s lungs are then removed through the terrible wounds in his back and draped over his shoulders. The person is not allowed to cry out during this extended torture for fear that he will not enter Valhalla.

Remarkably, Jarl Borg didn’t make a sound throughout his killing. Interestingly, the Blood Eagle was performed by Ragnar, the hero of the piece.

Is the Blood Eagle, like much of the action and behavior in “Vikings,” fact or fiction -- or some combination of both? It really doesn’t matter, except to the most particular of historians. I only know that everything about this show has most assuredly been carefully researched, because “Vikings” was created and is written by Michael Hirst, who created and wrote “The Tudors” and executive produced “The Borgias,” two historical epics for Showtime. Hirst is one of those very gifted writers who know how to ground historical dramas in fact while enhancing certain aspects of the characters and their stories to maximize their value as contemporary entertainment.

I’m calling attention to “Vikings” today because the final episode of its second season will be telecast tonight. “Vikings” is a major success for History, but it deserves more attention than it has been getting from the television and entertainment press. It is well written and directed, handsomely produced, perfectly cast and filled with enough sex and violence to keep fans of the genre satisfied. It’s graphic at times, but somehow also a bit restrained -- the Blood Eagle sequence, for example, was as tastefully done as a scene of such extreme torture could possibly be. I sometimes wonder how much farther the show would go if it were on pay cable (or FX), and if it would be more successful there, given that stories about Vikings should be filled with the kind of explicit brutality that keeps “Game of Thrones” humming along. 

But as an action-drama on basic cable “Vikings” hits all the right notes with its sweeping stories of warriors protecting their own while also conquering other lands. On another level “Vikings” is also a deeply involving soap opera -- especially when the story focuses on the loves of Ragnar’s life, his first wife Lagertha and current wife Aslaug. Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick, as singularly terrific as the aforementioned Mr. Fimmel) is an especially fascinating character in a story set in ancient times. Humiliated when she learned that another woman -- Aslaug -- was pregnant with her husband’s child, Lagertha chose to leave him and, with their young son at her side, start a new life in another territory. She later married a man who proved to be even more trouble than Ragnar ever was and again, only put up with so much grief before asserting herself in a most surprising way and becoming the earl of her new homeland.

If there is one quibble to be made in the midst of all this it’s that Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig), the teenage son of Ragnar and Lagertha, has a very expensive looking ABC Family hairstyle and is never to be short of whatever product is required to keep it in place. Otherwise, everything about “Vikings” seems perfect.







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