Vikings: Should you be watching? I think 'yes'

In the first scene of the series, lightning strikes a dark, hulking tree overlooking a ravaged battlefield. Our show's protagonist, Ragnar Lothbrok, is on a pillage in the Eastern Baltic. After a devastating battle, he stands victorious alongside his brother, Rollo—the last two warriors left alive.

Drunk on bloodlust, Ragnar watches the ravens swooping over the mass of dead and, for a few moments, believes he sees his god Odin walking among them with his wide-brimmed hat, with his Valkyries carrying dead friends to Valhalla. Rollo calls to Ragnar and snaps him out of his vision.

The scene sets the tone for Ragnar's character throughout the series: his desires exceed his understanding. Ragnar's tendency is to grasp at everything within reach—sometimes striving confidently, sometimes fumbling blindly—in the hope that he will know the object of his yearning once he has found it. Looking lost now, craving something so close yet intangible, Ragnar turns and begins to wander the field with purpose.

When looking for a new show to dive into, "wandering with purpose" seems an apt descriptor. I hope to convince you that Vikings is exactly what you've been looking for. Vikings is not merely Ragnar's story, but also—and to the same extent—the story of his entourage, which includes many strong women.

If the idea of multiple well-written, strong, layered female characters set in a historical drama about a legendary Norse hero appeals to you, then you need to be watching Vikings. As the show is in the middle of its fourth and biggest season yet (20 episodes!), there has never been a more exciting time to be a fan.

So, what's the story?
Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) is a farmer and warrior with high ambitions. He's married to Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) the most badass shieldmaiden you're likely to encounter—she will become your new queen. Lagertha and Ragnar have a son, Bjorn (portrayed from Season 2 onwards by Alexander Ludwig) and a daughter, Gyda. Ragnar also has a giant, envious, and treacherous brother named Rollo (Clive Standen), and a wacky, eyeliner-wearing friend name Floki, who is a renowned boat-maker and engineer.

"You couldn't kill me if you tried for a hundred years."

Ragnar and Floki, best of friends, scheme to sail a single boat across the sea to pillage a mysterious and uncharted land to the west (England, to the rest of us). Doing so puts Ragnar at odds with the regional leader, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) in Kattegat. The Earl never approved of Ragnar's excursion (despite being entitled to a share of the spoils) and Ragnar's moxie is seen as an insult to his authority.

The game is on.

That's great, but isn't this just another Game of Thrones? In the bad, gross way?
(CONTENT WARNING for discussion of rape)
Many Vikings fans (including Rebecca Pahle for The Mary Sue) have called Vikings "a smaller-scale Thrones minus the fantasy elements." This is a fair assessment considering the setting, the ambitious characters, and the bloody violence. Ultimately, what sets Vikings apart from Thrones is series creator Michael Hirst's thoughtful and conscientious approach to writing women.

When interviewed by Jill Pantozzi for The Mary Sue at SDCC 2014, Hirst spoke on his approach to writing women and Lagertha in particular:

For women, I think then and now, the Dark Ages and now, there were just more problems. More issues, more things to solve, more complications to life. So I don’t write the women differently, but I write them in the same way, so the women are as interesting as the men, and they don’t just decorate the show.

When depicting a world that unavoidably deals with issues of sexual violence (as Vikings in history are generally known for "raping and pillaging"), Vikings succeeds by not doing what Game of Thrones does; while Game of Thrones is notorious for making rape part of the decor, depictions of sexual violence are few and far between in Vikings. And where Thrones is rightly criticized for its excessive and even intentionally titillating rape scenes, Vikings does not make the same mistake.

Though the first season stumbles in a few parts with regards to these matters—with one egregious case that ultimately served little narrative purpose—later seasons opt to depict sexual violence less and less. Some story lines focus instead on the recovery from such assaults, many years past (and not seen on screen). The issue is treated with the sort of gravity and caution it deserves.

You mentioned strong female characters, yes?
Yes. Oh, yes. Lagertha is not only a force on the battlefield; she has ambitions of her own, and makes keen power plays to secure what she wants. We're introduced to other women: princesses, queens, freedwomen-turned-shieldmaidens. "Cat fights" are not a focus here; we are shown women's real struggles—how they come to grips with a harsh world, how they support each other. Each of these characters is layered, with their own stories to tell. To keep spoilers to a minimum, I'll simply add that season 2 introduces us to a character fans nicknamed "vegetarian murder princess," and leave it at that!

So what's the upshot here?
Vikings is a thoughtful, well-acted, well-written, and exciting historical drama about a fascinating group of Nordic raiders. Female characters share the screen with the men and are not secondary. In the second and third seasons, the cast expands further to include new communities, with new families and their intrigues, in locations like England, Paris, and the rest of Norway. The current fourth season even has a character from China!

If any of this appeals to you, dive in. The current season is nearing its mid-season break, and then returning at the end of the year, giving you plenty of time to begin a slow binge before its glorious return.

Adrian Martinez is a graphic designer, comic book letterer, hobbyist writer, and all-around geek living in New York City.