'Vikings' Season Premiere Review: The Sly, Smart Epic Returns

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·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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The cast of 'Vikings'
The cast of 'Vikings'

The opening episode of new third season of Vikings culminates in a fine, blood-spattering, arrows-flying battle, with our hero Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) surging across the battlefield less like a Viking and more like a superhero. Really, it strains credulity to imagine that not one muddy enemy could land a blow on Ragnar as he strides, oblivious to the carnage being wrought all around him, to stare the leader of an opposing army right in the eye.

It’s both an exciting and over-the-top start to this sly, smart new season, as the History Channel’s hit continues to cross Game of Thrones-style spectacle and intrigue with the heightened realism of a thousand Viking-period costume-dramas, with up-to-the-minute craggy sexiness.

Ragnar, having risen from farmer to the status of Earl, risks taking on the kind of gloomy weight of responsibility that settled too heavily upon the shoulders of Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy, and dragging down the pace of Vikings in a similar manner. But fortunately, show creator Michael Hirst knows how to take the gassiness out of any scene. Rather than seem baleful or self-aggrandizing, Ragnar chews contemplatively on the low, plodding work of accruing and keeping power when the character remarks, "I never asked for power. Power is only given to those who are prepared to lower themselves to pick it up." This seems at once refreshingly obvious and contradictory: lowering to arise, picking up power as though it lay upon the ground? Yes.

Related: 'Vikings' Newbie Ben Robson Talks Kalf, Fearlessness, and Fandom

The most lively element among the main characters continues to be Katheryn Winnick’s Lagertha, Ragnar's ex-wife and now a leader herself. The season premiere engineers an amusing scene between the intelligent, charismatic, and super-tough Lagertha and the smirky King Ecbert (how freed-up and loose-limbed Linus Roache is in his post-Law & Order period — the best thing he did was get out of America again). Ecbert digs Lagertha, as turned on by her as any audience fan, and it's fun to see him drop his regal pose to try and get on her good side.

Vikings king Hirst has a firm grip on this material. His previous experience producing shows such as The Borgias and Camelot inform the way he renders character through action, and he renders centuries-old conversational styles in a manner that isn't distractingly contemporary. Thank heaven, here is a series for an American audience that grants us the intelligence to be able to read subtitles, which are deployed to help convey the tart flavor of the various tongues spoken in the show. Combine this with the show's frequently lovely visuals, and Vikings remains the kind of burly soap opera that appeals to an ever-wider audience.

Vikings premieres Thursday, Feb. 19 at 10 p.m.