Netflix’s New Hit Is Terrible as History—but Fantastic as a Delivery System for Sexy
Vikings: Valhalla, which is in the Netflix Top 10 this week, is a continuation of the History Channel show Vikings, which followed Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his descendants during the Vikings’ peak years of raiding and expansion. The original Vikings was surprisingly fun to watch, for a show from the channel mostly dedicated to ancient aliens and Nazis. Valhalla is set in the eleventh century, a hundred-plus years after the original series concluded, with characters who speak of Ragnar Lothbrok as a legendary figure of the past. The Viking people, having pushed beyond Scandinavia, now absorb the cultures they encounter and are changed by them. Like Vikings, Valhalla was filmed in Ireland, and like Vikings, Valhalla is chock-full of dirty, gorgeous people wearing leather armor and hacking each other up with swords and axes.
Medievalist David Perry has a good rundown in Smithsonian of the places where Valhalla aligns with and departs from the actual history. Leif Eriksson (played by the almost-too-pretty Sam Corlett) was the famous explorer from Greenland who, according to the Vinland Sagas, visited North America long before Columbus. Freydís Eiríksdóttir (Frida Gustavsson), in those same sagas, went with her brother Leif to North America and was, apparently, a fierce fighter who may or may not have screamed a whole hell of a lot. Harald Sigurdsson (Leo Suter) is based on a real Norwegian king and world traveler, Harald Hardrada, who visited Constantinople, Sicily, Bulgaria, and more—though he wouldn’t have known Eriksson, since, by the evidence we have, he was about five years old when Eriksson died. Since Harald, Leif, and Freydis did not meet, so far as we know, much of the plot of the show is wholly made up: never did Harald fall in love with Freydis; never did Leif accompany a Viking force into a battle for London, forging a combat-tested bond with Harald.
The Vikings of Valhalla have a very particular look to them: scummy, as would befit people who sail across the ocean in an open boat for weeks at an end without stopping—but also, somehow, in the peak of health, stunning and vital, with shiny hair and strong teeth. We don’t know whether Vikings partially shaved their heads, like Ragnar Lothbrok did in the last series; we aren’t sure whether the men had long hair, or did it up in braids or man-buns, like Leif Eriksson does in this show. As historian Andrew E. Larsen details in an extensive blog post about the physical culture of the original Vikings, the armor in these shows is all wrong: The historical Vikings would have worn loose-fitting garments, not these tightly-tailored leather outfits that make young actors look so great. But this is also a show where the actor who plays Leif Eriksson is wearing leather armor made of cactus, because he is vegan and didn’t like being covered in cowhide. This is not your mother’s Viking show, and these are not your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother’s Vikings.
Instead, Valhalla definitely takes place in a universe where Game of Thrones exists. Kings and local nobles fought amongst themselves for power in the historical England, Norway, and Denmark, so we get the excuse for writers to work in a bunch of Thrones-ish court intrigue. One king has married two queens, who then scheme to get one another out of the picture! A counselor fakes a king’s accidental death, to move court politics in his direction! And so on. That counselor, Godwin (played by David Oakes), is just like Petyr Baelish, a.k.a. Littlefinger; the Boy King, Edmund (played by Louis Davison) is (as a fan noted) a dead ringer for the annoying and super-evil Prince Joffrey.
Vikings scholars, Perry writes, may especially like Valhalla, despite its tenuous relationship with the historical truths of the era, because it shows how diverse and interconnected the Viking world became in this time. In the series, Jarl Estrid Haakon, the ruler of the fictional city of Kattegat, is played by Black Swedish actress Caroline Henderson. (Yes, the usual kinds of people who get mad about the presence of non-white actors in historical fiction are mad about Jarl Haakon—maybe even madder than usual, because their dear Vikings are especially precious to them.) This city is a hub for trading, a cosmopolitan place, where the ruler has made a special point of keeping things relatively free and open. Not so free and open that slave traders don’t set up in the market—Vikings practiced slavery as a matter of course—but at the very least, there is the freedom to worship either the pagan Norse gods, or the Christian ones.
I’d have thought the people angry about Jarl Haakon would be madder about another major driver of the plot. This show features (by my count) at least three Christian zealots who kill and rape and plunder in the name of “cleansing” pagans from England and Scandinavia, plus many of their Christian followers who see no problem with these raids. While the pagans can get violent, too (there are several scenes of human sacrifice, which the Vikings may or may not have practiced), it’s the Christians who are the villains here. It’s interesting to see, on a top-ten Netflix show, a Christian named Jarl Kare (played by Asbjörn Krogh Nissen), with an aggressive wedge of a beard and wild eyes, murdering multiple villages of women and children in order to achieve what he believes is his destiny. Perry points out that such large-scale religious wars as occur in Valhalla weren’t common in Scandinavia: “Mostly, faiths overlapped in a more or less easy coexistence, with gradual movement toward Christianization.” But easy coexistence and gradual movements don’t get you in the Netflix Top 10.