If “Vikings” was a cheeky, pleasant surprise in its first season, this History series has blossomed into a genuine pleasure on its second voyage, with little guilt involved. Parlaying its success into a deeper cast, and thrusting ahead in its storytelling with the lusty abandon of a Scandinavian raider, the scripted drama takes big chances in the four episodes previewed, and most pay off. The show may have benefited from “The Bible’s” lead-in initially, but series creator-writer Michael Hirst has clearly decided that if “Vikings” dies, it’s going to be with a sword in its hand.
Season two continues to follow Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), whose foresight in expanding the Vikings’ plunder by raiding lands to the west (namely, England) has made him the leader of his people. Yet Ragnor must deal with no shortage of headaches, among them shifting, fragile alliances with two other mercurial Earls (played by Donal Logue and Thorbjorn Harr) and his own unsettled family situation, with his brother Rollo (Clive Standen) having grown jealous and turned against him.
All that would be quite enough to digest, but “Vikings” not only plunges into that plot, but in relatively short order leaps several years ahead, forcing the audience to recalibrate many key relationships in order to get its bearings. That also includes a rift with Ragnor’s fierce wife (Katheryn Winnick) triggered by his dalliance with another maiden (Alyssa Sutherland) on one of his seafaring adventures.
It’s a gutsy storyline that delivers and then some, especially when Ragnor’s latest overseas adventure puts him in conflict with the British king of Wessex (Linus Roache) who, we’re told, is very much like Ragnor — smart, strategic and not to be underestimated.
To his credit, Hirst proves generally unflinching about the more sordid and ruthless aspects of Viking behavior, including the brutality of Ragnor’s pillaging band. Yet the show’s forward momentum also drags viewers further into the arcane world of Viking politics, almost like a sociologist with a front-row seat for examining the rituals of eighth-century primitives.
“Vikings” probably won’t possess quite the same pull without “The Bible” helping steer viewers its way, but given the cliffhanger that ended season one and the strong start to this second campaign, the show has a more-than-passing chance of emerging as yet another basic-cable drama that yields the kind of ratings loot (and especially demographics) that most broadcast networks would like to have with a 10 p.m. drama. Indeed, in some respects, the series feels like “The Walking Dead” companion AMC has yet to develop.
If so, Ragnor and company (or at least, the luckier members among them) just might have the chance to experience the sort of glorious death savored less by the Vikings, perhaps, than TV executives — namely, old age.