It’s official: all of us are mad about Vikings now. Thor: Love and Thunder was 2022’s eighth-highest-grossing film despite reviewers greeting it with the kind of reception usually reserved for serial killers. Meanwhile, game journalists everywhere hailed God of War: Ragnarök as the game of the year, and in the land of music, Amon Amarth used their burly, Norse-inspired metal to conquer arenas. And this obsession is, in large part, Vikings’s fault.
When Michael Hirst’s grisly saga debuted during the demand for prestige TV post-Game of Thrones in 2013, it was a mammoth victory – especially considering The History Channel was far from lauded for producing top-tier drama at the time. It remained so in demand, even after six seasons, that announcing a spinoff accompanied news of its ending. Then, people watched the first instalment of Vikings: Valhalla for a combined 250 million hours within its first five weeks of streaming on Netflix.
Season 2 follows the same ensemble of dirt-smothered, battle-scarred and suspiciously white-teethed Northmen as its predecessor, picking up directly after the fall of the city of Kattegat we witnessed last year. Leif Eriksson (Sam Corlett), Freydís Eiríksdóttir (Frida Gustavsson) and Harald Sigurdsson (Leo Suter) are outlaws on the run while political manoeuvring resumes across the North Sea in England.
The first season of Valhalla set a hundred years after the conclusion of the original series, was far from ground-breaking television. Even as it leapt between locations, it maintained the same brown and grey aesthetic to the point that you wonder who inadvertently smeared the camera lens with mud. Its legions of newly introduced, dark-haired, bearded, Scandinavian muscle men were as distinguishable as ketchup and catsup. Plus, the writing proved susceptible to lapsing into cliche. However, Valhalla’s well-paced hop from action setpiece to action setpiece, well-executed effect to well-executed effect and charismatic performer to charismatic performer made it a charming switch-your-brain-off cavalcade. It makes sense when you see that Die Hard co-screenwriter Jeb Stuart is the showrunner.
After that summary, it’s difficult to resist the urge to reach for the ctrl+c and ctrl+v functions since Season 2 carries both the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor. However, those pros and cons manifest differently during this second go-round.
For starters, the acting across the board is convincing – no mean feat, considering this is a show strewn with Brits and Aussies attempting Scandinavian accents. Gustavsson continues to dominate, much like last season. As she acts her way through some of the most potent physical pain glimpsed in these episodes, her performance transcends into the genuinely haunting territory. Her stiffest competition (both in the story and as an actor) comes from Bradley James as Lord Harekr, who’s the best bastard this series has seen thus far.
Furthermore, the gore effects are just as expertly realised – when they actually appear. And that is the core issue of Valhalla Season 2. Especially at its outset, it is a slow-paced and action-free meander, with no sense of pressure crushing what should be protagonists in exile and pushing them into high gear. It’s an exercise in wondering about, seemingly aimlessly, from point to point and encounter to encounter. The result is that much of the investment and drama is snatched away.
Combine this stately pace with all the issues from last year returning unresolved – the monotonous colour scheme, stale shot compositions, uninspired dialogue – and it becomes difficult to recommend this second visit to Valhalla. What was last time around, a mindless distraction has seemingly run out of ways to tug you from reality. All that remains is characters, believable as they are, strolling about without rhyme or reason, their aesthetics as grey as their lines.
Vikings: Valhalla Season 2 is streaming on Netflix from 12th January.