History Channel’s first ever scripted drama, Vikings, drew in over six million viewers in the U.S. alone with its premiere episode, “Rites of Passage” on Sunday, March 3. The show, created by Michael Hirst (The Tudors, Elizabeth), owes much of its considerable success to its attention to historical detail, compelling story, and stunning visuals; however, equally important to the success of the show is its complex characters and the cast of incredibly talented actors who bring them to life.
Tall and imposing, with strikingly blue eyes that seem to light up of their own accord, Australian actor Travis Fimmel portrays Ragnar Lothbrok, the series’ main protagonist. Prior to his role in Vikings, Fimmel is best known to American audiences for his titular role in Warner Brothers’ 2003 television series, Tarzan, as well as his role alongside Patrick Swayze in A&E’s 2009 series, The Beast. As Ragnar, Fimmel plays not only a Viking warrior, but an inventive navigator, a determined explorer, a shrewd leader and a father whose thoughts are as much with his family as on his own exploits. All of these individual facets come together into a single character in Fimmel’s nuanced performance as Ragnar attempts to pursue his goals while also maintaining his family at home.
In a departure from her roles on the hit television series Bones, and more recently, in the 2012 film A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, Katheryn Winnick appears on Vikings as Lagertha, the famous shieldmaiden and Ragnar’s wife. Powerful and a skilled fighter, but also a fiercely protective mother to her children, Winnick’s portrayal of Lagertha as well as her hand in the often intense, sometimes humorous, but always engaging Ragnar/Lagertha dynamic has quickly rendered her a fan favourite. As a result, though her abilities, both martial and domestic, have already been on display in the first three episodes, viewers are itching for a chance to see even more her on the battlefield.
As Ragnar’s rebellious and sometimes unpredictable brother Rollo, Clive Standen may be easily recognizable to fans of the BBC series Robin Hood, in which he played the title character’s brother, or as Sir Gawain in Starz’s Camelot television series. Where fans have found Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar immediately likable, Standen’s performance of Rollo has given audiences a very different look at how the men in Viking society sometimes behaved. His bluntness and disregard for the authority of most anyone apart from himself makes him an interesting foil to Ragnar’s calculated risk-taking and willingness to treat most other characters as his equal, while his treatment of those around him, and hints in the narrative regarding his loyalties have made him the target of suspicion and distrust by many fans.
Taking on the role of Vikings’ primary antagonist, is Gabriel Byrne, who viewers will recognize from Hollywood films such as Excalibur, The Usual Suspects, and The Man in the Iron Mask as well as more recent television roles such as in HBO drama In Treatment. In Vikings, Byrne portrays Earl Haraldson, a lord over Ragnar’s home region, whose paranoia and fear of losing his power should Ragnar’s raids prove successful drive him to commit increasingly desperate actions. Despite this, Haraldson is a shrewd political power, and Byrne endows him with as much dry wit and dead-eyed ruthlessness as paranoia, making even the show’s blatant antagonist an enjoyable character to watch.
At the right hand of Earl Haraldson sits his wife Siggy, a beautiful and politically formidable woman portrayed by Jessalyn Gilsig, whose work in television has included Boston Public, Nip/Tuck, and more recently, Glee. Just as Byrne brings powerful moods and dry wit to Haraldson, Gilsig imbues her character with a dangerous edge of political ruthlessness and shrewd strategizing mixed with just a hint of seductiveness. Within the first three episodes alone, Siggy wields political influence, and advises her husband behind the scenes, and where Lagertha is a more traditional warrior, Siggy uses both her beauty and her mind as a weapon against potential enemies in her husband’s court, making her one of the most intriguing – and potentially dangerous – characters on the show.
Another early fan-favourite is Gustaf Skarsgård’s portrayal of Floki, an eccentric shipbuilder and close friend of Ragnar, who secretly builds a new kind of longship capable of making the difficult voyage to England. While a relative unknown to most American audiences, Skarsgård is better known in his home country of Sweden for his role in the Oscar-nominated film Evil, though some American viewers might recognise him from the 2010 film The Way Back, in which he acted alongside Mark Strong, Jim Sturgess, and Colin Farrell. As Floki, Skarsgård brings to the show both a sense of comic relief and sheer unpredictability, as his character’s eccentricities are both a source of amusement to his comrades and an element of chaos which sometimes causes trouble for the raiding party.
The last member of the main cast to be introduced (but certainly not the least) is the Anglo-Saxon monk Athelstan, who is portrayed by rising star George Blagden. Blagden, who recently received international attention for his role as Grantaire in Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Les Misérables, brings an outsider’s viewpoint on Viking society to the show. Originally from the Lindisfarne monastery, Athelstan has everything that he has ever known taken from him when Ragnar’s men sack his home and he is taken as a slave. Left with only his faith and a copy of the Gospel of St. John, Athelstan finds himself thrust into a world that he does not understand but which he must learn to live in, and that sense of absolute confusion mingled with devastating grief and loss comes through in Blagden’s portrayal, making him an intensely relatable character and a lens through which the viewer sees the world of Ragnar and his family.
Do you have a favorite character on Vikings yet? Let me know in comments!