Vikings, which opens its second season tonight on History Channel, caught a lot of people (including me) off-guard when it premiered last year. Much as he had on The Tudors, series creator Michael Hirst took historical information (about 8th-century Scandinavia, in this case), including some real-life figures, and added liberal amounts of imagination, sex and soap-opera melodramatics to present an instantly addictive yarn about the adventures of visionary young warrior Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his countrymen.
Season 1 followed Ragnar and his warriors as they ventured westward in search of the rich plunder to be found on the shores of medieval Britain. By season’s end, Ragnar’s exploits had attracted the attention of his monarch, King Horik (Donal Logue), who dispatched Ragnar to settle a bitter land dispute with the leader of Gotaland (modern-day Sweden), Jarl Borg (Thorbjorn Harr).
The Season 1 finale of Vikings followed that mission, which did not go well when Horik stubbornly rebuffed Jarl Borg’s offer of a compromise. For all its brevity, however, that trip gave Jarl Borg a chance to drive a wedge between Ragnar and his devoted brother, Rollo (Clive Standen), and for the beautiful Princess Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) to seduce Ragnar and conceive a son by him. Meanwhile, back in Ragnar’s home village, his stalwart wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) was left to battle a horrifying pestilence that decimated the population, including young Gyda, her daughter with Ragnar.
Tonight’s Season 2 premiere of Vikings opens with the inevitable outcome of the bitterness between Horik and Jarl Borg as the two leaders and their armies face off with Ragnar on one side and Rollo on the other. It turns out to be a fairly brief and pointless scene, which at least allows the focus to shift to the real meat of the episode: Ragnar’s homecoming.
Lagertha is predictably furious to learn that, while she was desperately trying to save their neighbors, Ragnar was off playing hide-the-Yggdrasil with Aslaug, but he placates her by vowing never to see the princess again. Aslaug, however, has a very different opinion on that subject, showing up heavily pregnant a few months later and putting Ragnar’s previously cozy domestic life to a serious test that culminates in a four-year time jump between episodes one and two.
History Channel very helpfully sent out the first four episodes of this new season, which finds many favorite characters taking new paths and confronting new personal epiphanies and, occasionally, some genuine horrors. While there definitely is a strong soap element in the narrative, there’s also a satisfying complexity to most characters that keeps them from being stereotypes. The principal “hero,” Ragnar, has some grievous blind spots when it comes to the people around him, and even Aslaug – who would be the Joan Collins character in a less interesting series – starts to develop some compassion and even sympathy.
With the time jump, Alexander Ludwig (The Hunger Games) takes over the role of Bjorn Lothbrok, Ragnar and Lagertha’s son, while the excellent Linus Roache (Law & Order) joins the cast as King Ecbert, the ruler of Wessex, England, who shares Ragnar’s visionary talents for looking outside the box. Fan favorites George Blagden (the former monk Athelstan) and Gustaf Skarsgard (the wily shipbuilder Floki) also return for this new season, along with Jessalyn Gilsig as the widow Siggy, who never met a pot she couldn’t stir.