It’s little exaggeration to say that Vikings – writer Michael Hirst’s historical drama about the Norsemen of early medieval Scandinavia – was a phenomenon. Obsessed with blood, sex, and paganism, this was a show that saw people crucified, burned alive and having their lungs pulled through their ribcage. It was fabulously demented – and became Amazon Prime Video’s most watched show ever during its final season in 2020. Obviously, there was always going to be more.
Enter Vikings: Valhalla, a new spin-off out on Netflix this weekend (February 25). The series picks up about a century or so after the original – and a new band of warriors are ready to make a bloody bid for power. When we meet them, we do so in the wake of the St. Brice’s Day massacre of November 13, 1002. King Aethelred (Bosco Hogan) has ordered the murder of every Dane living in England. Back in Kattegat, Norway, the warring tribes aren’t having this at all and set out to seek revenge.
We caught up with the show’s writer and cast, to find out why this new story is as essential as the last. Pour yourself a curved horn of mead, raise it to Odin, and let’s begin…
The new hero is great
Within that hundred-year or so jump forward in time, the Vikings have apparently brought moisturiser back on their raids. Where the old gang often looked like they exfoliated with pig slop, the show’s new hero, Leif Erikson – played by Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s Sam Corlett – is more boybander than brute. Season one is best summarised by Leif’s journey from well-intentioned Greenlander to a bona fide, blood-drenched berserker intent on spearheading the final golden age of Viking.
“Leif’s story is basically that of trying to escape the shadow of his father,” explains Corlett to NME. “There’s a lot of darkness to his father, and over the course of the season, we start to see Leif accept that shared energy he shares with him and use it for something good.”
But it’s not a one-man show
“I have loved playing this part,” smiles Frida Gustavsson, who plays Leif’s sister, the legendary Freydís Eiríksdóttir. When we first meet her, she has just arrived in Kattegat to murder her rapist. “The first time I had to have my face covered in blood, it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever got to do. Problem was, I forgot to take it off at the end of the shoot. I walked into this little grocery store in the coastal town of Greystones, in Ireland, where we film. My face was covered in blood. I think that was a bit of a shock to some people.”
Eventually, Freydís becomes a shield maiden and undertakes a gruelling initiation process. More than she doesn’t, Freydís can be seen sporting the crimson mask. “Unfortunately, as a woman, you rarely get trained to get bigger. This role required that. I had to shape my body to carry large weapons and wear real chainmail and leather armour. It was great!”
You don’t need to have seen Vikings to enjoy it
Although Hirst hasn’t returned to lead Valhalla, he’s left us in good hands with new writer Jeb Stuart. He wrote Die Hard. Die Hard!
“I was a huge fan of Michael’s original series,” says Stuart. “But I also knew that I didn’t just want to make series seven of Vikings. I’m a different writer to Michael and I had different ideas of what I wanted to do with this new group of characters. I wanted to create a character-based action show. A lot of it is about the way the characters interact with each other. The way they fight, their humour, all those types of things. There’s a lot more focus on theology, which I’m really interested in. And I had to write a show where more is known about the characters from the era than what Michael was working with, simply because it was a point in history where more people were writing things down.”
Everything you know about Vikings is wrong
Well, not everything. They’re still mega-hard bastards who love a ruck, of course. Partial to the odd trunk of gold too. But a notable element of Valhalla is its reveal of Viking society as more diverse and progressive than how we’ve come to know. Not that Swedish-born Caroline Henderson, who plays Jarl Estrid Haakon – Kattegat’s new ruler and matriarch to the shield maidens – knows anything different. “I learned all this stuff at school – how fierce the women were, how powerful they could be. It’s an honour to be able to portray that onscreen.”
As a Black actress, Henderson – who’s perhaps better known for her career as a jazz singer – is keen to make it known that people of colour existed within Viking lore. Though her character is a new creation, she’s certain that such a person would have existed.
“What we know about the Vikings,” she says, “is they were travellers, and on a massive scale. They travelled to Asia, America, Africa, Russia… and they brought back knowledge and beliefs. There was more to what we know about Vikings than men with beards. We know that for a fact.”
Get ready for more gore
Rest easy Vikings fans, Valhalla is loaded with gruesome battle scenes – and the cast loved every second. “The thing with actors,” says British telly stalwart Bradley Freegard, who plays King Canute, of the amount of limb-hacking and torso-stabbing that we’ve come to expect from the franchise, “is there’s rarely a time when you’ll be on a set and think, ‘this is too much’. I want to gallop into the shot. I want to fight the horde of 100 on my own. Let’s push harder! Let’s go further!”
‘Vikings: Valhalla’ is streaming now on Netflix