Angela Hicks and Calder Hudson were both Creative Writing MSc students at the University of Edinburgh for the 2015-16 year. They began watching History Channel’s hit series Vikings in late 2016 after hearing many recommendations for the show. After completing the show’s first season, both sat down to discuss it and consider its strengths and weaknesses.
This discussion contains spoilers for Vikings’ first season.
Workshop: Vikings, Season One by Angela Hicks & Calder Hudson
C: First and foremost, we should explain what we’re doing here in this piece. We both studied Creative Writing at university, and one aspect of our course that I think we both enjoyed was workshopping pieces by our fellow writers—and in turn having our own pieces workshopped.
A: Though I now find that I reflexively analyse everything I read, imagining what suggestions I’d have made if it had been brought to workshop.
C: Exactly. So that’s what we’re going to do here with Vikings. This will be in part a review, in part a discussion, and in part the things we’d change if we had the opportunity to workshop Vikings’ script.
A: The many, many things we’d change.
C: [laughs] Yeah, I also feel we ought to mention that neither of us are… big fans of the show. With that said, we’re going to be as fair as possible, and we’re going to make any criticisms that we have as constructive as possible. The basic rule of a good workshop, I think, is to stick with the main premise of the piece but to consider ways to improve it within that framework. Also, because we’re writers, we will be focusing on the narrative rather than any other aspect of the show.
A: So we won’t be looking at set or costume or tech, which is a shame since I quite liked those bits.
C: That’s true—there are a lot of positive visual and stylistic elements, which we may not necessarily focus on too closely here, so sorry if we seem all doom and gloom—it’s just that it’s a shame to see something like Vikings, which has so much potential and promise from its outset, not follow through on so much of the good stuff it sets up.
A: It’s true; thinking back to that first episode, the opening scene is pretty good.
C: To summarise those first few minutes, Vikings opens with the words ‘Eastern Baltic 793 A.D.’; then there’s a fight between a character whom we later learn is Ragnar Lothbrok, the protagonist, and some stock enemies. Ragnar wins, and he and his brother, Rollo, embrace—
A: You forgot that first Ragnar kills another random “enemy” who is running away.
C: [laughs] Yeah—and then there’s a moment when Ragnar apparently sees Odin and several Valkyries. Then we get the opening credits and the main story begins, which is all about Ragnar now travelling west to England. But—to stay with that opening scene for the moment—what did we think of it? It’s pretty engaging, right?
A: …Sure. I mean, it’s not unengaging. But I think looking at it within the context of the rest of the show, we see a lot of the ways in which Vikings is flawed and fails to deliver. We never find out any more about this specific situation, but the Vikings have clearly travelled to the East Baltic to raid. That means that they’re unequivocally the bad guys in this scene, and then it’s made worse by the fact that Ragnar kills a terrified, fleeing man, having apparently already murdered all of his friends. I don’t understand who I’m meant to be rooting for right now. Is it really Ragnar, the murderer who is covered in the blood of helpless Slavic peasants?
C: This is definitely an issue. Some of TV’s big success stories in the last few years—Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, that sort of thing—do revolve around nuanced, flawed protagonists; these shows prove that audiences are prepared to watch morally questionable characters, but they also need to see, firstly, their conflict, and secondly, reasons why they are the way they are. As far as the viewer can tell, Ragnar just isn’t bothered about being a terrible person—even by the standards of the time.
A: But his brother Rollo is worse! I mean, I think we’re meant to feel sympathy for him because he lives in Ragnar’s shadow constantly and also has a thing for Lagertha, Ragnar’s wife, but in one of the early episodes, he rapes someone.
C: Which never comes up again, by the way. And the Lagertha-Rollo storyline also falls by the wayside almost as soon as it’s been introduced… but yeah, I agree, despite the set-up suggesting that Rollo should be conflicted, he’s mainly just—I don’t know, sulky? It’s really frustrating because the dynamic between the brothers ought to be interesting. You have to actively try and mess it up to make it mundane—yet Vikings manages to do just that.
A: And, in order to counter the fact that the protagonists are uncharismatic thugs, the antagonists of the show have to be even worse. They’re like pantomime villains.
C: [laughs] Like Aella?
A: Do you mean King Aella of Northumbria, the king who always wears a crown lest the audience forget who he is? Also he—and all the English really—are painfully stupid.
C: Yeah—all the battles which occur in the show are incredibly one-sided. And by making the Viking characters—be they major or minor—effectively invulnerable in battle, the show completely diminishes the tension in fight scenes.
A: Completely. It would up the stakes if a few Vikings did actually die in battle, and not just at plot-specific moments. But back to our original point: I think that one of the first things we’d change if this was brought to one of our workshops is the depth—or lack thereof—of the main characters, especially Ragnar, but also Rollo and Lagertha.
C: We haven’t really discussed Lagertha—and I’m aware that we have a lot of other points to make, so we don’t really have time to analyse her fully—but, to give credit where it’s due, her character does have some sort of development. Early on, she’s presented as this tough, badass shield-maiden, but in later episodes she spends most of her time fretting over whether or not she’ll bear Ragnar enough sons. Neither of these depictions are inherently bad—though they’re certainly a little superficial—but the transition between them can barely be called a transition; there’s no progression at all… Lagertha just sort of switches personalities mid-season. The show could have created a really compelling plot where Lagertha struggles against the gendered pressures of a feudal and tribal society, but instead she’s just one archetype or the other.
A: Exactly. If I were to make a change to her character, it wouldn’t be to get rid of either aspect of her personality but, as you say, to have them come into conflict much more. And I’d make Rollo’s goals and desires more nuanced, but also more clear. What does he want—is it power? Is it love? Is it just to be better than his brother? And then to watch him get more involved in the political situation as he tries to achieve these aims.
C: While Ragnar could have far more conflict about the morality of his actions. In the opening scene, he has a vision of Odin and we understand that his culture is about glory and dying on the battlefield, while later in the show he meets Christians who have an entirely different faith and outlook on the world. It would be interesting to see him have an internal struggle as he tries to balance his desire to create a powerful legacy for his sons with the realization that there isn’t glory in killing people who don’t fight back. Whereas in the show he kind of just sits back and lets his men murder a lot of monks—he doesn’t get too involved and doesn’t seem to emote about it at all, really.
A: Speaking about Odin, that’s another interesting aspect of the opening scene which the show doesn’t follow up on. Ragnar sees the All-Father—looking eerily similar to Terry Pratchett, for some reason—and although he does reappear once or twice in the next couple of episodes, his appearance never has any impact! Why have Odin at the start if you’re not going to use him again?
C: The opening is a very dramatic and spiritual scene. If the show worked to incorporate this representation of Ragnar’s religion throughout, it’d be a strength, not a problem.
A: Moreover, in the sagas, Odin’s advice is always slightly dodgy, and normally comes with a high price, so it would be interesting to see that on the screen.
C: Exactly. But instead, the way in which Vikings portrays the relationship between characters and their faith completely changes after the first three-or-so episodes. And a lot of characters fluctuate between absolute cynicism and devout belief without really spending much time between those two extremes.
A: We’re left continually in doubt as to whether many of the characters actually believe in the gods, despite seeing some of said gods. Lagertha goes to Uppsala and makes pleading sacrifices, but also invents falsehoods about the gods at other times. She doesn’t really seem to mind annoying them, except when she does.
C: So our second workshop suggestion would be to actually develop some of the things which make the Vikings so fascinating as a historical group—religion being a big example. Vikings’ narrative introduces the gods from the get-go, and that’s the most difficult part—having established Odin as a character, we just need to continue feeling his presence and influence throughout the show.
A: That mention of the Vikings as a historical group really nicely segues into another point that I wanted to make. Now I realise that I am overly-particular about accuracy—
C: We should take a moment to acknowledge that you are incredibly knowledgeable about Vikings’ source material. If I’m not mistaken, your undergrad degree at UCL was in Viking Studies.
A: Indeed—I have four whole years proving that I can be snobbish about this show.
A: And also, this show aired on the History Channel, so I feel like it should make time to be accurate. I’m willing to sacrifice some historical facts for a the sake of plot and audience interest—a good point made by M. Dobson in his take on the show—but some of the inaccuracies feel quite sloppy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the attack on Lindisfarne takes place in January 793. Even if, as lots of historians think, that’s a misprint for June, we’re still saying that Ragnar and company are fighting in the Baltic earlier that year—and there’s no frost and everything’s green, so it’s not that early in the year—then get back to whichever part of Scandinavia they’re from, talk to Floki the shipbuilder, get an anchor and stuff made, then set sail. Couldn’t they have just made it 792 in the opening?
C: Suffice to say we’d like a bit more research done.
A: But really, my main point before I got side-tracked was about the internal inconsistencies in the show.
C: This is something which we’ve both commented on quite a lot. In the beginning, nobody believes that there’s land to the west, but Ragnar has heard a rumour and is determined to go—
A: And happily the Vikings strike lucky on their first voyage, turn up at Holy Island and go: “oh my goodness, there’s some people here, let’s kill them. Also: treasure.”
C: The sheer amount of luck the main cast enjoys gets pretty annoying.
A: But to return to the Vikings’ apparent lack of knowledge about England—from an historical perspective, it’s nonsense, but also within the show itself it’s proved idiotic almost immediately. Firstly Aethelstan, the priest the Vikings bring back from Lindisfarne, can speak Old Norse because, as he tells them, he has travelled around Scandinavia. So at least some Scandinavians know about England. And secondly, Haraldson—Ragnar’s boss, who we’ll touch on shortly—later mentions that he knew that the rumours were true and that England existed, he just didn’t want to share that knowledge with Ragnar—
C: And how did Haraldson find out about England when none of the people around him knew? This inconsistency is really annoying. And there are a lot of other examples we could bring up here, like how well the Northumbrians and Scandinavians can understand each other.
A: Right. Regardless of the fact that Old English and Old Norse were similar enough that in reality they could probably have communicated with each other just fine, the show is weird about who can understand whom when. If it’s important to the plot, only Ragnar can speak to the Northumbrians, but at other times all his men can understand them.
C: One of the most frustrating things about these inconsistencies is that—like so many of the show’s problems—they wouldn’t be all that difficult to get rid of, if just a little bit of time was taken.
A: Okay, I have one final major complaint about the show that I’d like to workshop. We mentioned Jarl Haraldson just now.
C: [laughs] Don’t you mean…Earl Haraldson?
A: [sighs] Why do they change out the original Norse titles—earl comes from jarl; they could’ve kept it. And why is he called Haraldson? That’s not how Old Norse names work—it’s effectively a surname. It’d be like calling Ragnar “Lothbrok” all the time. If they called them these names consistently, then sure—but why is it that one character is only given a patronym? His father isn’t even mentioned, so it’s not for a plot-specific reason. It makes no sense. No sense!
C: Point taken. What did you want to say about the jarl?
A: So this is a bit long-winded, but we open with that scene in the East Baltic with everyone dead apart from Ragnar and Rollo. And we also find out later on that the jarl’s sons, in an entirely separate and never fully-explained event, were randomly murdered, which is sad but… weirdly irrelevant. Well, I’d like to tie those two events together.
C: Yes! The “Haraldson’s murdered sons” subplot is brought up—pretty close to the end of his, uh, time in the show, too—in a very major, significant way… but never at any point afterward is it addressed, mentioned, resolved, anything. It would be great if that story led somewhere or felt relevant beyond just… poorly justifying Haraldson’s cruel rulership.
A: I feel like throughout Vikings there’s no follow-through. Plots are begun and then dropped so quickly that it feels like nothing has any consequence. We spoke earlier about Rollo raping a slave girl as well as his weird obsession with Lagertha, which are shown in two significant moments which are promptly forgotten one episode later.
C: And there’s also the part where Haraldson has a child killed to guard his treasure.
A: Which is entirely nonsensical. People bury treasure in times of war; as the jarl, he should be giving it away as gifts to show off how awesome he is, not hiding it. A.E. Larsen goes into more detail on Haraldson than we have time to do here, but I still wanted to touch on the most outlandish parts of Haraldson’s story.
C: But to get back on track. I think you were saying that you wanted to know how this massacre in the east has affected Ragnar and Rollo—what happened when they went home and had to admit to their neighbours that everyone with them had been killed?
A: Precisely! And a great way to make that opening scene connect to and impact on later events is if Haraldson’s sons had been part of Ragnar’s company and had died there instead. It would explain why he and Ragnar don’t get on, while also making the jarl a more interesting, more developed character.
C: You wouldn’t even need to change the opening scene. You could just have a later scene—or a line—between Haraldson and Ragnar about this. Adding a real, palpable dynamic between the show’s hero and villain—one we get to witness and understand as viewers—would’ve made a great addition. It’s so disappointing that Vikings misses so many easy fixes.
A: It often feels like the show has a five second memory about everything—who everyone is, what they’re doing and why…
C: What I think makes that particularly inexcusable is that Vikings only has a single writer! There’s no team and seemingly nobody to provide, I don’t know, literary checks and balances—the show’s writer, Michael Hirst, works entirely alone. I’d assumed—I think we both did—that the reason the show was disjointed was because it switched writers halfway through. Instead it just seems like Hirst is, I don’t know—easily distracted. I think that shows the benefit of getting feedback and insight from other people and, well… workshopping.
A: To summarise, the things we would change about Vikings if we had the chance to workshop it are: characters with more depth; continuing with storylines which have been dropped; fixing small inaccuracies; and having more consequences. All the potential is there—Vikings just doesn’t follow through on much of it.