Episode 1 of Vikings: Valhalla begins in 11th century Europe. This is far removed from the tales of Ragnar Lothbrok, who is but a legend at this point. In the 100 years following, Vikings have left their northern homelands and settled across Europe and England. The thing is, this has become a continued threat for the Saxons, who turn to King Aethelred II to find a solution to the Vikings problem.
One of these settlements, near London, happens to be called the Danelaw. It plays host to Prince Harald Sigurdsson, who has decided to leave and head back home.
That’s probably just as well because up in London, Aethelred’s loyal guards, the Sten, are poisoned, with orders against them and other Vikings or immediate extermination. Fires rage up and down the coast as men and women are slaughtered and houses and villages destroyed.
It’s a bold move, one that’s likely to ignite the flames of war. This is later known as the St Brice’s Day massacre, purging all Viking settlements from the English shores.
King Canute of Denmark notices what’s happened and sets out on a crusade to exact revenge. Among those who join are siblings Leif and Freydis. We first meet these two characters on the sea as they brave the elements and manage to navigate a frighteningly large wave that threatens to engulf them. They’ve come from Greenland, braving the open waters and the elements to make it to their destination. This happens to be Kattegat in Norway.
Unfortunately, a lot of the ships with Harald’s have been destroyed, hundreds have been lost but Harald himself has survived.
Now, all of these Vikings have gathered to discuss revenge against the Englishmen. For Leif Eriksson, his reasonings are very different. He’s looking for someone wearing a cross. It’s an English cross so it seems the only Viking who would wear this is someone from England.
The thing is, Freydis is also looking for him. It turns out this man abused her and he could well be on one of the many ships inbound to Kattegat. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long to find him – a charismatic man by the name of Olaf Haraldsson.
Leif and Freydis launch an expedition to track the man down but unfortunately he makes camp within a large settlement holding an entire army of soldiers. Unfortunately this makes their mission seem hopeless at this point, unable to gain revenge given the sheer number of Viking brethren among them. Freydis is stubborn, but as she watches from afar, she regrets not taking her chances at the docks when she could have done.
Olaf arrives to see King Canute of Denmark and tries to strike a bargain. In exchange for knowledge on the English coasts and how to properly strike them, Olaf suggests a mass conversion given all the pagan tribes are gathered together. This could spark a civil war but without this knowledge of the English defences, they’d be hitting a blank. Well, regardless of his knowledge, the King refuses his offer.
That night, Canute gathers the Vikings and speaks passionately about the attack in England, urging them to take up arms and strike back. Among those in attendance are the Greenlanders, as Leif starts to question his purpose.
Unfortunately, despite working up the crowd and getting them invested in the cause, fighting breaks out between the Christians and Pagans. Harald manages to talk them around, giving an impassioned speech about Viking blood and inadvertently undermining Canute’s rule.
The only one not among them though is Freydis, who sleeps up on the hillside. She’s visited by a woman called Estrid Haakon, who tells her she’s a long way from home. She encourages Freydis to head towards Kattegat, which Freydis relays on to the other Greenlanders that night.
Leif meanwhile, is confronted by a bunch of Vikings who claim his father wronged them, committing murder. Surrounding him, Leif is forced to fight but manages to best the warriors – and catching the attention of Harald as a result. He encourages Leif to join him for the glory of battle, needing good ship captains for his cause.
Although Leif agrees to think about it, he also dissuades him from Freydis, given he’s a Christian and that’s not going to sit well with her.
At Kattegat, Freydis sneaks in the main hall during the festivities. With Leif serving as the distraction, intending to let Freydis act, she leaps on Gunnar Magnursan and carves a cross on his chest. It wasn’t Olaf after all.
Olaf wants punishment and promises to burn the city to the ground unless that occurs. Harald sticks up for Freydis though, encouraging her to show off her scars as proof of what she’s had to endure. Although this does sway the crowd a little, it’s not quite enough to fully convince them, as she’s taken away to await her judgment.
The Episode Review
Vikings: Valhalla gets off to a pretty decent start here, with lavish set design, great action and solid tension to boot. It also helps that a lot of this feels very authentic to the time period, and the characters certainly look the part.
I’m not quite sure why they gender swapped Haakon and the heavy-handed manner this was presented is a bit of black mark in what’s otherwise a very good episode.
However, the drama works well to introduce various different characters and pays homage to the Amazon Viking series too. The constant throwbacks to Ragnar and his motley group gives this a sense of time and place, while also quickly establishing the battle lines and how our characters fit into this story.
With Freydis’ fate hanging in the balance, it’s all up to Leif and Harald to try and save her. But will they be successful?