I have been rowing my way on a rowing machine through the fifth season of Vikings. It is a gloomy slog for the times I am deep involved in my own gloomy slog. Two things stand out to me, in watching this fifth season of History Channel’s not-really-particularly-historical television series about Vikings called, of course, Vikings. First, it seems overly focused as the seasons progress on things that aren’t actually particularly historical, but which make for exciting television, in the traditional male power fantasy sense. Second, the people in my community who seem most inspired by the signs and symbols of the Vikings are also the ones who are mostly inspired by the Nazi Party, and the history of World War II’s most monstrous ideas. During the convention for the pro-rightwing idealogues, particularly the ones most inclined towards fascism and one-party control of government by any means necessary, where the sacking of the Capitol complex was a celebration with many CPAC participants active at the pre-violence rally and in the actual mob punching police officers and desecrating our seat of governance… Well, during this convention, they had a Norse rune as a stage, which was borrowed from the Nazi military uniforms, which was, itself, borrowed from the very world and ideas being presented in this troublesome, little television show. (They deny it, of course, but their denial rings very hollow in a community so inspired by White Supremacist symbols.) A fascist leader has risen in Kattegut and raises a statue to himself as a living god. A king rules in Wessex that is religious in Christian faith and humble and brave and good. The show punishes women for the sins of their men. Mothers murder children. Daughters of violent fathers throw themselves off cliffs. Nothing good is ever granted free, and must be taken by the sword and held by the sword. What magic or wonder exists in the landscapes and artifacts of these rugged and wild landscapes, it is swiftly beaten out of the viewer by profane violence. It is a slog towards tedious power, and this power has no reason, no higher purpose. Perhaps Ubbe is the only exception with his drive to colonize as his father once wished, but his story is pushed aside and simplified into a kingly fiefdom.
I recall there was wonder and a sense of history, once. The camera used to linger on the artifacts that made their world possible. The religious ceremonies were celebrations and recreations of ancient ways. When Aethelstan visited Odin’s temple, with the massive wood carvings, and human sacrifice, and the loss and mystery of their ancient faith, the viewer shared his wonder at the scale of paganism. The methods of production were always present. In early seasons, Ragnar’s farm was shot with love and a close eye for the details of how a Viking family lived on her ground. In the battle scenes, as much time was spent detailing the technology of defense and counter-attack, overcoming obstacles, as was spent slaughtering and killing. All of this is absent from this fifth season. It is mere war, betrayal, and war again, with swords waving and arteries spewing, and actors screaming at each other over the din of battle. The laziest of screenwriting is always full of death. Death is so easy. The problem is resolved. The winner is clear. Survival is complicated, not death. Perhaps this is the allure of the series to those viewers who remain loyal, but I am left with a pang for the absence of the stories of everyday life, everyday ceremonies and gestures. I long for a time when women were more than just shieldmaidens and cannon fodder and bargaining chips. I wonder that in a show once celebrated for its women, they seem to be reduced to their relationships to men, alone, now. It’s a joyless slog, now. A march towards war, I suppose, was always joyless, but there was once an explorer’s heart beating at the center of the epic, and I wonder when mere power became more important than the search for the next great deed.
It is a complaint reminiscent of a certain sub-branch of our current political climate, where the purpose of the power is power, itself, and defeating those who oppose is more important than knowing whatever it is we are supposed to be doing with the people’s power.
At this point, at the end of Season 5, I wonder if there is even a reason to make these sorts of shows, anymore, if all they do is devolve into fantasies of power for the men and women who find in the past a mythology of power that causes so much harm to us, who do not share these fantasies. I’d prefer the next attempt at a big, grand, historic epic not to invoke the kind of symbols and signs and energy that continues to inspire men who would take their kingdom by force of will and bloodshed. There are so many imitators, now, filling the screens with the myth of great nations built upon great bloodshed. This was never true. I guess it makes for better television than women raising children slowly, farmers tilling soil, and people trading goods and ideas in peace.