1. The story so far…
Vikings follows Ragnar Lothbrok as he rises from a Dark Ages farmer to a powerful warrior king. In the first two series, he heads across the seas to explore, pillage and settle in England before returning to Scandinavia a hero.
By the end of series three, Ragnar has seized a form of victory after a bloody attempt to take Paris – but he’s on his way home to Kattegat in a critically ill condition. While he teeters close to death, the people who want to overthrow him mobilise, creating a tense battleground for series four.
Meanwhile, his ex-wife Lagertha struggles with her calculating, former second-in-command Kalf. Ragnar’s ever-untrustworthy brother Rollo betrays the Vikings again and stays in Frankia. And religious fanatic Floki is seized for the murder of Ragnar’s beloved Christian priest, Athelstan.
There’s also a lot of feasting and sex.
2. It’s a global smash with pedigree
Written by Academy Award-winning Michael Hirst of Elizabeth and The Tudors fame, Vikings has been a massive international hit. When they first announced the show, History Channel general manager Nancy Dubuc said, “People think they know about the Vikings – we see references to them all the time in our popular culture from TV commercials to football teams – but the reality is so much more fascinating and complex, more vivid, visceral and powerful than popular legend.”
3. It’s based on real historical figures
The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok, upon which the show is loosely based, is an old Scandinavian story thought to be a broad representation of historical events in the Dark Ages. The stories themselves fell into oral tradition – and were usually written up to 400 years after the events were said to have happened. Ragnar’s tale is not necessarily a 100 per cent accurate account, but he and his companions were most likely real people.
4. The show isn’t restricted to Scandinavia
Series one saw Ragnar as a lowly farmer deferring to a small-minded earl. By the end of the series , he’d built a new longship and, with his brother Rollo and wife Lagertha (also a warrior – or shieldmaiden as they’re called) managed to discover, raid and pillage Northumbria, in modern-day North England.
The raids continue in series two, with return trips to England and the establishment of a Viking settlement in Wessex. By series three, Ragnar’s waging a full-scale war against the Frankish in the fortified city of Paris.
5. Religion plays a big role
The Danes were pagans. They worshipped the old Norse gods such as Odin and Loki and believed that they regularly walked among them, tricking, testing and tempting mortals. They also watched over them in life and battle, and the reward for honouring the gods and dying in battle was a place in Valhalla – the rollicking hall of the afterlife. Ragnar’s faith is a constant source of concern, from his personal involvement with a Christian monk, to questioning his Norse faith and the betrayals and chaos this creates for him and his followers.
6. War and lust aren’t just for the boys
The show is brimming with tough female characters – from warriors like Lagertha, to the steely, conniving Queen Aslaug and Frankish warrior princess Gisla. Unlike a lot of medieval-themed shows, the girls in Vikings don’t take a backseat to the boys. The shieldmaidens are based on the old Norse sagas, and women regularly fought in the frontlines of Viking raids. In medieval Scandinavia, women had more freedom to choose their sexual partners than elsewhere, particularly if they wanted to remarry after their partner died or left them.
7. Pretty much everyone gets betrayed at some point
It’s easy to say the show is in the tradition of Game of Thrones, but there are some major differences. There is little in the way of fantasy, but the betrayals are real and no one, not even the main characters, is spared the axe of fate.
The constant jostling for power in the Danish kingdom means none of Ragnar’s relationships can be relied upon. From his brother Rollo’s constant duality, to Queen Aslaug, his subjects, son and even his best friend, Floki, the series is a constant whirl of betrayal, scandal and murder.
8. The battles are dangerously close to reality
Vikings has some of the largest and most complex battle scenes filmed for TV, choreographed by large teams of experts and based on a mix of historical facts, weaponry and well-trained actors.
Creator Michael Hirst told Complex that they don’t work with CGI – the fighting’s for real. “The actors are always told to turn up several weeks before we start shooting so they can go through the choreography, because it’s actually quite dangerous,” he says. “We have real weapons and we have people jumping. We have hundreds of people fighting and it’s not recreational. These people have to literally charge into each other.”
9. The hair is as epic as the story
The hairstyles in all three series so far are famous and have been trend-setting in their own way. (We’ve certainly taken notice.)
From braids and mullets to faux-hawks, shaved heads and beards of all shapes and sizes, Vikings has it all. Many of the looks – though they appear to be pulled from a recent underground gig, are based on historical fact. Vikings were the original punks.
The new series of Vikings continues Wednesdays at 9:30pm (AEDT) on SBS.
Missed it? Every episode will be on SBS On Demand after it airs.