Vikings: Valhalla was one of last year’s most surprising Netflix packages, exploding out of the blocks with a ferocious and rich retelling of the dying days of the Vikings. Its second season aims to keep up that momentum but, as it widens its world away from the shores of Scandinavia, its wandering eye means the historical series loses some of the feverish intensity that made it such an initial hit.
Fresh off Olaf’s rout in Kattegat, our heroes Leif, Harald, and Freydis find themselves – yet again – on very different paths. The second season is spread out across four major locations and it’s Leif and Harald who benefit most from Vikings Valhalla’s more explorative tone. The budding bromance, which bubbles with tension after Harald’s dalliance with Leif’s sister Freydis, first heads to the icy locale of Novgorod before a road trip (of sorts) down the River Dnieper as Harald attempts to rally an army in his bid to become King of Norway.
Their journey, fraught with peril and shadowed by a barbaric new group known as the Pechenegs, is the season’s undoubted highlight. As the pair’s seafairing group grows to include a motley crew of slavers, merchants, fighters, and prisoners, it only serves to highlight an emotional core that was sorely lacking from the first season’s wild flurry of wars and invasions. It immediately pays dividends with Leif, still grieving over the loss of Liv, finding new kinship in the scholar Mariam. Their fledgling relationship acts as an efficient and tidy way to dig deeper into the season’s overarching theme about broadening one’s horizons.
That’s not to say Valhalla isn’t without its intense moments. Despite having fewer big set-pieces than expected, the emphasis on more intimate character work culminates in one stellar standalone episode. The boat crew’s crisscrossing dynamic simmers to the boil and pays off several emotional beats against a backdrop of heart-pounding action and unflinching violence that marks itself out as the show’s best hour to date.
A whole new world
Vikings: Valhalla’s other new location, Jomsborg, is less of a triumph. Dubbed ‘the new Uppsala’, Freydis finds herself in the welcoming arms of its pirate rulers for a listless and an altogether-too-long arc. The Keeper of the Faith’s journey not only drags its heels to an unsatisfying conclusion thanks to a one-dimensional villain that feels (and looks) like a Jamie Lannister rip-off, but it also magnifies how Vikings: Valhalla continually misuses one of its strongest characters. Two seasons in and Freydis, despite actor Frida Gustavsson’s best efforts, feels more than ever like a walking archetype instead of a living, breathing character.
Over in London, Emma’s position as ruler may be secure, but the court around her has changed. Where Valhalla’s early time across the Channel in England felt like the greatest hits of Game of Thrones bundled into one unrelenting package, the second season almost entirely removes the verve and political intrigue for an assassination plot that coils around the season and throttles the life out of one of its best characters.
Godwin, one of the first season’s most conniving and combustible forces, has lost his edge. Doe-eyed and seemingly blinded by love, the one-time Machiavellian puppet master in London has been defanged this season – even if there’s more to his courtship of Emma’s maiden than meets the eye.
Despite that, Godwin’s torn loyalties between crown and his new beloved reach emotional heights that the show hasn’t dared broach up until now, while one last delicious twist recaptures any lost goodwill and ensures moving one of Vikings: Valhalla’s key players away from the corridors of power for much of the season isn’t all for naught.
The fourth location – the familiar settlement of Kattegat – is where Vikings: Valhalla season 2 feels fit to burst across its eight episodes.
Things start promisingly when Olaf, humiliated by Forkbeard’s arrival, is given an impossible task to protect Olaf’s grandson Svein. That partnership soon becomes an afterthought as each episode races to pack in a quartet of warring storylines that almost never intersect or interact with each other.
Throughout, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the gentle hand of history is contorting Valhalla’s characters to avoid stepping on the toes of real-world events. If you’ve had a sneaky look at Wikipedia (a treasure trove of potential Valhalla spoilers), it’s clear that some people can’t meet, at least not yet. As such, the second season feels more like a fragmented anthology than a coherent, gripping whole.
The first season’s relentless pacing, then, has largely been replaced by the complete opposite here; events don’t really get moving on a larger scale until an admittedly brilliant one-two punch of episodes right at the season’s end. Olaf’s pursuit of Harald in particular – which should have been at the forefront of this season – quickly fades into little more than background noise. By splitting up its main characters, Vikings: Valhalla loses a little of what made last year (and the show’s original run) such a brutal – and brutally entertaining – hit.
All told, Vikings: Valhalla season 2 gives the impression of a ‘bridge’ season. The foundations are still there, with Leif and Harald gamely marching on and becoming more well-rounded and likeable characters with each passing episode. But stops in London and Jomsborg give the impression that the series is holding back under the promise of more epic and action-heavy seasons to come. Luckily for them, a third season has already been filmed – otherwise the trigger-happy Netflix could have sent Vikings to Valhalla after a good, but not great, sophomore year.
Vikings: Valhalla season 2 is streaming on Netflix from January 12. For more, check out the best Netflix shows available now.