Okay, okay, we can probably all agree, HBO's Game of Thrones has been a pretty incredible show. Since the Stark children found their otherworldly direwolves in the Wolfswood of Winterfell we've all had Game of Thrones fever. Anxiously anticipating another shocking execution, a head-crushing fight-to-the-death, or Daenerys Targaryan feeding someone else to her dragons, the levels of violence and excitement in this show leave you feeling like a Roman plebeian watching a chariot race in the Colosseum circa AD 85.
But when the season wraps up and we skulk back to our everyday lives trying to forget about Jon Snow and the Whitewalkers, we realize there are other television shows that are just as epic as Game of Thrones, and some would argue even better. Take, for example, Vikings, the Irish-Canadian television drama based on the Norse legends of Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons, the Viking King who became legendary for his raids and conquests on England and France. Created by Michael Hirst and airing on the History Channel, this fast-paced, wickedly violent show is made all the more poignant with its exquisite cinematography and fine storytelling. Turning even Winterfell's staunchest defenders into fast fans of Vikings.
According to Scandinavian folklore, a shield-maiden was a woman who chose the life of a warrior. There are historical accounts of these woman fighting in battle, including the legendary Battle of Bràvellir between the King of Sweden, Sigurd Hring, and the King of Denmark, Harald Wartooth. Many bodies of these daring shieldmaidens were found among the dead.
In Vikings, there are many shieldmaidens who fight and raid alongside the men including Lagertha, a furiously beautiful warrior and former wife of Ragnar Lothbrok. Played by the gorgeous Katheryn Winnick, Lagertha distinguishes herself as a fierce warrior time and time again. With an army of shieldmaidens at her side, Lagertha rises quickly among the Viking rulers, becoming an Earl and leading the ground attacks on Paris.
In Game of Thrones, Brienne of Tarth is the only female knight in Westeros and instead of being treated as an equal, as shieldmaidens are in Vikings, she is constantly being harassed about her physical appearance and gender. For a story that's supposed to exist in a medieval fantasy world, you would think they would have more women donning armor alongside the men.
In Game of Thrones, there are three different religions that divide the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The major religion is The Faith of the Seven and is predominant through the south of the region, whereas in the north, many worship the Old Gods of the Forest and in the Iron Islands, the Drowned God. Throughout Westeros, religious rituals and ceremonies are limited to weddings and worshiping at Great Septs or, for the north men, Weirwood trees. Although the stories behind all of their different religions are interesting, it seems the characters only mention their Gods in passing.
In Vikings, the presence of the Gods is a theme that runs deeply throughout the story effecting each of the characters differently. From the beginning of the show Ragnar has visions of Odin. In the village of Kattegat there is a Seer, or oracle, who can speak with the Gods on someones behalf. Many characters visit the Seer to learn their fates. Floki, a friend of Ragnar's, begins existing more and more in the world of the Gods. Because the vikings practiced the Norse Religion of Germanic Paganism, the show doesn't shy away from ritual sacrifices of both animals and humans. This aspect of the show really draws on how different the Viking Age was to our time, whereas the values in Westeros are more closely linked to modern religion.
Vikings is a television series that plays with time in a much more interesting way than most, and if you tuned into the Season 4 finale then you already know. In Vikings, time passes. Characters get older, boys become men, men grow old, and so forth. This freedom with time has allowed Vikings to become a more believable story than Game of Thrones. In Westeros, months could pass between each episode, yet this doesn't seem to translate on screen or in the characters motivations. In Vikings, sometimes years pass between episodes and suddenly a young boy is will become a man. They replace the actor and that's it, they keep going. It's these constant changes that keep the makeup departments on their toes, keeping the costume and set looking creative and fresh from season to season.
One of the coolest things that Vikings has going on is undoubtedly its ability to demonstrate, quite successfully, the ingenuity of these ancient Scandinavian warriors. Thanks to Floki, the highly intelligent boat builder and architect of numerous contraptions, audiences of Vikings are able to see these near impossible inventions come to life. In Season 1, Floki builds the viking ships that take the warriors to North Umbria, ships that Floki makes even more badass for the attacks on Paris. In the latest season, when King Ragnar decides to pull the ships up a cliff and portage back into France, what Floki creates is so unbelievable we had to know if this was something that the vikings really did... and it's true. During the Viking Age, warriors would use portages to move across mountain ranges from river to river. Floki also designs large decks that can sail across the ocean, connecting three viking ships to each deck, and in the season finale, fans were delighted to see a full blown battle take place on the water.
Something that naturally makes Vikings more interesting right from its conception is that the story is taken from real-life legends and mythology that has been passed down from the Viking Age into modern times. The legends of Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons, Bjorn Ironside, Ivar the Boneless and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, have been prevalent in Old Norse poetry for a thousand years. Although some historians dispute whether Ragnar Lodbrok really existed, there is no argument as to the existence of his sons and the amazing adventures they carried out in their lifetimes. And after the Season 4 finale, fans can look forward to seeing Ragnar's sons become chieftains and commanders.
On the other hand, Game of Thrones has had to rely on the writer George RR Martin to dictate the plot and this has caused a lot of frustration and controversy among fans of the show versus fans of the books. It has become a real concern that George RR Martin might actually die before he finishes the series. And at this point, the newest season of Game of Thrones has now surpassed the books, giving HBO writers more freedom from the original story. Maybe there's something to look forward to after all.
In Norse mythology, a Berserker was a Viking warrior who was so intense during battle it was thought that he could not be killed and some believed these men to be warriors of Odin. Derived from the Old Norse word serkr which referred to the pelt of a bear often worn by such warriors and the word ber or bare, which referenced that they did not wear armor in battle and were bare-skinned, these legendary men were cooler than anything George RR Martin has thought up.
In Season 1 of Vikings, Rollo is often seen fighting in a crazed state without any armor. In the latest season, Ragnar's son Bjorn Ironside went off into the wilderness to "find himself" and during this retreat transformed into a berserker himself. Fighting and killing both a bear and a berserker, Bjorn returns to his village with the fur of a bear draped over his body and the ring of the King who tried to have him killed.
Okay, obviously we all like to watch some steamy sex scenes from time to time or see the topless slave girl pour some ale for the Prince. But with HBO, the nudity on screen can become so predominant that it begins to take away from the plot itself. Most of the time, the nudity in Game of Thrones could be done away with altogether but they continue to throw these naked women in scenes to distract you from the fact that nothing is happening. Probably the most frustrating part about watching Game of Thrones is how slow-paced some of the episodes can be. No one wants to watch a bunch of men blabbering on and on about how powerful they are, they want to see these men prove it on the battlefield. On the History Channel's Vikings you won't see any breasts but you won't care because the story is so interesting and moves so quickly you won't ever feel cheated when you sit down to watch an episode. Besides, the women and men in Vikings are still extremely sexy, you just have to imagine what they look like naked, if you can still do that.
Of course, HBO's Game of Thrones has a budget big enough to employ a wonderful costume and makeup department, but even with the budget that they have, they seem to lack real creativity when it comes to depicting the characters, and more important, the way that they might change overtime. Since season 1, Jon Snow and the rest of their beloved cast look the exact same. It seems no time has been taken to think any costume changes through. Okay, maybe Jon Snow might look different after he rises from the dead, but this is already season 6 we're talking about!
In Vikings, the costume and makeup departments really take it to the next level. Since the writers aren't afraid of passing time in the stories, wardrobe and makeup have to keep up, and they do so in a commendable way. Characters, whether major or minor, all undergo changes that reflect a more realistic storyworld. Ragnar has changed so dramatically from season to season that one could pinpoint the correct episode based on his hair alone. Not to mention, the elaborate tattoos or scars that just appear on characters, showing you that months or even years have passed, making them look like the seasoned viking warriors that they are supposed to be.
Portrayed by the Canadian actor and model Alexander Ludwig, the Vikings character Bjorn Ironside is one of the main reasons that everyone should be watching this show. When the series began, Bjorn was just a young boy of 12. Yet, as the seasons have progressed, audiences have watched Bjorn grow from a boy into a young man, from a young man into a fierce warrior called Ironside, and possibly the next King of Sweden. Allowing for so much time to pass in Bjorn's life, fans feel an attachment to this character that goes unmatched in most television shows. He grows in strength and determination every episode ready to continue the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok into the next season. It's hard to believe that this seemingly trivial side character has transformed into the main focus of Vikings, and we're not complaining.
If you still aren't convinced that Vikings is better in almost every way than Game of Thrones, you just have to sit down and watch one of the many fight scenes. Unlike Game of Thrones that seems to build anticipation for a singular battle that may or may not culminate at the end of every season, Vikings delivers battle after battle that's so well choreographed you'll forget that you're watching a television show. From the beginning of the series that opens at the end of a battle, it seems the characters are always dirty, covered in blood and ready to kill.
Although producers of Game of Thrones have promised more epic battles in the upcoming season, that's a promise Vikings doesn't have to make since they've consistently delivered gruesome and violent fight scenes in nearly every episode. Hats off to Richard Ryan and the rest of the stunt coordinators and crew of this truly epic show that successfully brings to life the formidable vikings of Old Norse mythology.