The third season of the television show “Vikings” (2013 – present) premiered on the History Channel on Feb. 19 with an episode full of medieval intrigue and breathtaking battle sequences. The Irish-Canadian show focuses on the exploits of famed Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel). While “Vikings” is similar in essence and tone to “Game of Thrones” (2011 – present) largely due to the two shows’ similar medieval settings and filming location of Ireland, the former is far less complex and overwrought than the latter. This simplicity in theme is actually an advantage, as it allows characters to be more strongly developed and the plotlines to remain clear.
The beginning of the third season picks up right where the second left off. Ragnar, having successfully become king of the Vikings, is now returning to Wessex in England to reclaim land promised to him by King Ecbert (Linus Roache). As the characters travel via longship, the viewer is reminded of the power of “Vikings” as an incredibly atmospheric show. The colors of the landscape are bleak and muted, highlighting the sharp coldness of snow and water. (This desolate, wintry ambience is especially familiar to viewers in Boston.) “Vikings” particularly succeeds in world-building: from the costumes, to the hairstyles, to the use of Saxon and Norse languages in dialogue, the setting of the show seems intimately real. The audience is transported to a more brutal time, made harsher by the unrestrained Viking culture. Vikings are particularly fond of fighting, sex and glory, all of which the television series is more than happy to show.
In typical “Vikings” fashion, the third season premiere culminates in an epic, adrenaline-filled battle sequence that highlights the savagery of the protagonist and his army. It is a beautifully choreographed episode of violence. As the camera flits from one main character to another, the audience is somehow drawn to support them in their gruesome efforts. As the blood splatters with artistic panache across the Vikings’ faces, the viewer is exhilarated but also confused. It almost feels wrong to be supporting the characters in their rampages, but it is a testament to the skill of the actors and three seasons of development that each of the Vikings is engaging and often likable.
Fimmel continues to shine as Ragnar, bringing a powerful intensity to the role that is both engaging and terrifying. However, his underlying humanity is evidenced by his relationships with others. Seeing Ragnar support his eldest son Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig), play with his younger children and converse with his former-slave-turned-confidante Athelstan (George Blagden) reminds the viewer of the man who exists behind the legend. Katheryn Winnick gives a similarly strong performance as Lagertha, Ragnar’s ex-wife and Bjorn’s mother. Like Ragnar, Lagertha is a natural leader, just as willing and capable of commanding an army as Ragnar. “Vikings” is Lagertha’s saga just as much as it is Ragnar’s, as the last season saw her become the Earl Lagaertha of Hedeby. They are both learning to rule on their own terms, slowly accumulating power with each passing season. Generally, “Vikings” treats women as equals to men in terms of fighting capabilities and strength, an aspect that elevates the depth and quality of the show.
The premiere episode primarily set the overarching storyline for the rest of the season, showing the new relationships between King Ecbert, Ragnar and Lagertha while also establishing conflicts that are set to plague each character. The aftermath of battles and certain shifts in loyalty will doubtless play out during the remaining episodes, but the first episode succeeded in creating dramatic tension and heightening the stakes for Ragnar and his associates. The third season looks to be just as engaging as the previous two, with interesting development and action set against a bleak yet beautiful backdrop.