Do you have to have watched the History Channel’s “Vikings” series in order to fully appreciate “Vikings: Valhalla”? For this newcomer, at least, the answer is…well, yes and no.
The eight-episode season of “Valhalla,” which dropped on Netflix on Feb. 25, takes place 125 years after the events of the original “Vikings” series, with Christianity taking over Norse traditions and England’s power on the rise. So while “Valhalla” undoubtedly contains enough “Vikings” references for longtime fans to recognize, both sly and overt, the new spinoff slash sequel series prioritizes the building of a new narrative for new characters that won’t require the rather substantial foundational knowledge of “Vikings” to understand. It also incorporates historical figures like explorer Leif Eriksson (Sam Corlett), Harald Sigurdsson (Leo Suter), and Queen Emma of Normandy (Laura Berlin), though of course with enough artistic license to twist their stories into more useful arcs for the story “Valhalla” wants to tell.
With Jeb Stuart (“The Fugitive,” “Die Hard”) taking over the franchise from Michael Hirst, “Vikings: Valhalla” wastes no time dropping viewers straight into the bloody action at hand. The inciting incident of “Valhalla” is the St. Brice’s Day Massacre, a true 1002 event in which King Æthelred of England ordered the indiscriminate killing of Danes. In the series, this massacre inspires the Vikings, both Christian and Norse, to swear revenge upon England once and for all. Though the series has already attracted some dubious “Game of Thrones” comparisons, this version of a “Red Wedding” feels most apt in that respect — and yet, the “Vikings” version misses out on a key component of what made that “Thrones” episode such a barnburner. “The Rains of Castamere” didn’t happen until the end of the third season, at which point the audience knew the characters involved intimately enough to truly mourn their visceral murders. “Vikings: Valhalla,” however, gets the shock over and done with in the opening of the first episode. It’s easy enough to understand why such a mass killing would inspire a thirst for vengeance, but there’s an opportunity lost, here, to make viewers feel the Vikings’ pain in such a way that would reverberate throughout the season to come.
That being said, once the season gets going, its brisk pace becomes its most major asset. Whenever the Vikings and raids start to blend together, the episode moves along quickly enough to another bombastic set piece or character’s journey, such as enigmatic leader Jarl Estrid Haakon (Caroline Henderson) or Leif’s warrior sister Freydis (standout Frida Gustavsson). Despite the heavy, often grim material at hand, “Vikings: Valhalla” rarely drags. It even occasionally finds bold ways of portraying what could be typical battles, such as the third episode’s attempted raid through dense marshes, in which a costly failure is lit almost seductively by torchlight.
So, sure, the show can sometimes feel like a montage of strapping, bearded men introducing themselves to each other before beating each other up. But “Valhalla” also demonstrates enough ambition and handle on its characters and pivotal time period to justify diving into its world, no matter how much you may have known about it before taking the plunge.
“Vikings: Valhalla” is now available to stream on Netflix.