Historians could probably have a field day picking through Vikings: Valhalla, the epic new series from Netflix. The rest of us can enjoy it for what it is: a lusty adventure with a Hollywood script and a cast of manly warriors who look as if they’ve just stepped out of a salon.
It is a spin-off from the original Vikings, which ran for six years on The History Channel and Amazon Prime Video, but you don’t need to have seen that to watch this: the action is set 100 years later, beginning with Æthelred the Unready murdering England’s Danes in the St Brice’s Day massacre. Cue a bunch of Vikings out for vengeance, led by King Canute.
The Game of Thrones comparisons are inevitable, but it’s nothing like it: no dragons, no nudity, no great complexity. Really, it’s closer to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, just without the jokes. The writer is Jeb Stuart, whose credits include Die Hard and The Fugitive. Characters say things like: “I will not stop until I get my revenge!” A woman reveals that she is on a mission to track down the evil man who raped her, then whaddayaknow? He’s the very next person she sees.
A key character is Prince Harald, played by Leo Suter (familiar from period dramas Sanditon and Beecham House) as a buff action hero with lovely hair and a perfect tan. Suter is English, the actor playing Canute is from Pontypridd, while the rest of the cast are from across the globe, and they’re all making their own guesses at a Viking accent. It doesn’t really matter, because Netflix has its eye on a global hit and most of the world will be watching with the subtitles on. There are also plenty of extras whose sole line is “heuugghh” while taking an arrow between the shoulder blades.
After a well-paced opening episode the plot starts to drag, mainly when it focuses on a female character, Freydís Eiríksdóttir (Frida Gustavsson), back in Scandinavia while the main action takes place in England. It is much better when giving us battle scenes, or the machinations involving Æthelred's callow son, Edmund, and shrewd wife, Emma of Normandy.
Most of the characters are based on real historical figures (although in the name of diversity they’ve gender-swapped the Norwegian ruler Haakon Sigurdsson and made him a black woman). It will likely lead to a surge in interest in Viking history – I was prompted to look up the people and events depicted here, as well as googling how often Viking men really washed their hair.