Recently, I watched Roland Emmerich’s “Moonfall,” and wondered who in this crazy moment would want to escape to a disaster movie populated by tsunamis, towering infernos and moon chunks cratering the Earth? As it turned out: no one. But don’t we crave escape? When I want a psychic getaway, I’m always satisfied by the visceral weirdness of “Vikings.” So, how great is it that Michael Hirst’s historical epic, which started in relative obscurity in 2013 on the History Channel, lasted for six whole seasons and made stars of Travis Fimmel as legendary warrior Ragnar Lothbrok and Katheryn Winnick as his sword-slinging ex, Lagertha, among a horde of others?
Now, Hirst has passed the shield to Netflix and creator Jeb Stuart, famous for writing such classic star-driven thrillers “The Fugitive” and “Die Hard.” That means that “Vikings: Valhalla” has a narrative elegance and drive without sacrificing the pillaging, passionate sex, pagan rituals and political intrigue that is played out everywhere from the pluralist port Kattegat in Norway to Britain’s London of the falling bridge.
Set in the early 11th century, 100 years after we bid a final skol to Ragnar, the series begins with legendary explorer Leif Eriksson (Sam Corlett). The young Greenlander has navigated the harrowing Northern seas with his equally fierce sister, Freydis (Frida Gustavsson of “The Witcher”). Vengeance drives Freydis: A Christian Viking raped her, carving the large cross that scars her back. Together, the siblings are testing their fates beyond the shadow of their ginger-haired father Eric the Red who created the first European settlement on their native Greenland. And, given that these are Vikings, an honorable death in battle is a direct ticket to Valhalla, so the pair and their shipmates embrace death as if it were a ticket to the best party forever.
Over the show’s eight-episode first season (at least two more seasons are in the works), the conflicts are multitude. There’s the vengeance that drives the siblings from Greenland to the thriving and cosmopolitan port of Kattegat off the Baltic Sea in what’s now Denmark – where they discover an ally in Harald Sigurdsson (Leo Suter), the future King of Norway. There’s the pitched battle between the Old Norse gods and Christianity, both within Viking society and between the pagan Vikings and the English. There’s the dream of incorporating England into a Northern Empire held by King Canute (Bradley Freegard), who irks the existing English heir, Prince Edmund (Louis Davison), and seduces Edmund’s widowed stepmother, Queen Emma (Laura Berlin).
King Canute’s ambitions – to seize the English seat of power in London – leads to one of the show’s more amazing set pieces. In an exciting “MacGyver” moment, set up slowly and carefully, the episode demonstrates how the Vikings, on a crazy scheme devised by the Greenlander, exploit their knowledge of structural engineering and the tides to destroy the bridge that leads to the fortified capital – and sack the city. Stuart gets bang for his buck in these big tactical sequences while keeping them human-scaled.
But it’s not just the battles that generate this level of detail and suspense. Freydis’ pilgrimage to the holy Temple of Upsalla, an incense-fogged woodland shrine, reveals a fascinating level of detail about Norse religious rituals, which occasionally include human sacrifice as offerings to the gods. While the sacred rites are discreetly pictured, make no mistake about the triggering practice that drove at least one significant warrior into the arms of Jesus. Before long, the Christians manage to ravage the holy center and its pilgrims, an echo of how the Vikings frequently decimated English churches and monasteries — and slaughtered priests and monks — in the previous series.
Badass women abound. They range from fearless shield maidens like Freydis (who, according to legend, single-handedly held off a hostile enemy war party while half-naked, pregnant and screaming ferociously). While Freydis would prefer blood on her face to 11th-century Maybelline, the elegant bejeweled English Queen exploits her beauty as she plays her royal game of thrones. The Norman Emma proves herself a shrewd strategic thinker – and woe be to those, like stepson Prince Edmund, who ignore her counsel.
If valiant death in battle is a straight shot to Valhalla, the road to an epic escape from modern confusion and catastrophe leads straight through the mayhem of “Vikings: Valhalla.”
“Vikings Valhalla” debuts on Netflix on February 25.