“Vikings,” which will include a bifurcated and expanded fourth season beginning with a flurry of 10 episodes, has become History’s poor-man’s answer to “The Walking Dead.” And based on the opening salvo, success hasn’t spoiled these pillaging Norsemen, with the show essentially picking up where season three left off — after the bloody siege of Paris — operating on several parallel tiers. Heck, there’s even a “Revenant”-like encounter with an angry bear, as showrunner Michael Hirst distinguishes the basic-cable series as a premium-level commodity.
For starters, Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) was badly injured, leaving something of a power vacuum in the early going. Not surprisingly, there is no shortage of aspirants to fill the void, including his wife Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) and son Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig), although since Fimmel is the star of the show, nobody should count him out just yet.
The fallout from season three, meanwhile, continues with the exposure of Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) as the murderer of Ragnar’s pal, the former monk Athelstan; and the exploits of Ragnar’s brother Rollo (Clive Standen, especially good in these early chapters), who has stayed behind in France, where plans of an arranged marriage don’t exactly go smoothly. Finally, there’s Ragnar’s warrior-maiden ex, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), who faces threats to her earldom as well.
The Vikings, obviously, are a perfectly organic vessel through which to explore lust and violence, but Hirst has gone well beyond that in terms of developing intrigue and strategy — including machinations by the only slightly more civilized Europeans, like King Ecbert (Linus Roache), to make just nice enough with Ragnar and his ilk to prevent them from pillaging their strongholds. That reached a dazzling peak with last season’s protracted attack on Paris, which raised the bar on what was already a pretty impressive show.
Hirst (working on the first couple of episodes with director Ciaran Donnelly) once again balances all this with plenty of action, from a harrowing raid on a castle to Bjorn’s solitary efforts to prove his manhood by retreating into the wilderness, which includes a sequence recalling a current Oscar nominee that a lesser critic might call unbearable.
Most impressively, “Vikings” captures the grim reality of these times and the limitations of these characters — barbarous, superstitious creatures that they are — in a manner that draws one into their world without necessarily evoking sympathy for it. And even the ostensible good guys, like Ragnar, are prone to do very bad things, without making them any less watchable.
There has always been a certain romance surrounding the Vikings, which explains why there’s another series (BBC America’s “The Last Kingdom”) set in virtually the same historical era. Still, what Hirst and company have accomplished in terms of creating an appointment series on a channel with at best a modest scripted portfolio is no small feat. And in TV, as in the bloody eighth century, to the victor go the spoils.