TV Tuesday:Vikings again (again)

(Contains spoilers for the ninth century.)

So it’s been quite a while since I last updated my ongoing account of watching Vikings. And in that time, well … a lot has happened. The fourth season is now wrapped up and things are pretty different from back when they started. Honestly, back in season one I assumed that the plot currently developing — the death of Ragnar and the invasion of England by the “Great Army” — was going to be the main plot of the whole series, but now we’re halfway through the second part of season four, a group of episodes that I still maintain is actually season five. So let’s get down to it.

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Now, I thought the first part of this season — oh heck, let’s call it season 4.1. 4.1 boldly hacked away all the plots no one gave a crap about, like Yidu and whatever Odo was up to, killed off the characters and forgot about them. But it looks like 4.2 is warming up to kill off all its main characters and replace them with an entirely new generation. Ultimately the show is gonna be about Alfred vs the Ragnarssons.

Now, that is very in keeping with the idea that this is a saga, isn’t it? A generational story full of revenges and curses and what have you. If you were going to make a Viking story, that’s the kind of story you would make, even if the details don’t marry up with any particular saga or any particular series of historical events.

But it’s an odd kind of television series. Actually, now that I think about it, I suppose that’s very close to its most obvious model, Game of Thrones, which has shed quite a lot of main characters and gained new ones along the way. Still, Game of Thrones does keep a number of its leads from its first series, while by the time this is done there’s going to be almost no one left in this thing. Like I said, interesting.

As always, the historical accuracy is pretty … approximate, and the costumes and sets are more Skyrim than early middle ages. It continues to look good — it’s well shot, and they’ve clearly spent some money on it. The writing still lags behind the production, although many of the performances are excellent.

Anyway, I have six or seven episodes to cover, so I will just give a quick overview of the points that caught my attention:

  • I do like the way that they have sort of split up elements of Ragnar’s personality among the sons: Ivarr the devious little bastard, Bjorn the warrior, Ubbe the politician, Sigurd and Hvitserk the … other ones. UPDATE: I guess Sigurd is the sensitive one.
  • The geography of the show continues to be maddeningly unclear. In this season they talk as if they’re from Norway, but I could swear that in previous seasons they were in Denmark. Hedeby is undeniably in Denmark, despite its icy mountainous landscape. They talk about Sweden as if it’s the moon — people have come from as far away as Sweden! — but didn’t they go to Sweden back in season 1?
  • Egbert remains simultaneously interesting and infuriating as a character. Writers often want to make a character devious but struggle with the external constraints that would make that deviousness work, since that kind of worldbuilding is not considered to be good television.
  • I like the way Lagertha’s shieldmadiens have turned into a sort of elite corps/personal bodyguard in an army that otherwise includes both women and men.
  • I assume Ivarr wears a scarf over his face when riding his chariot to hide the fact that he’s a stunt double most of the time?
  • Harald’s love interest(ish) is called “Elisif,” which I always thought was a Norse way of saying “Elizabeth,” which is weird in a pagan culture, no? Also, is it just me or does that plot go precisely nowhere? It’s not like the narrative isn’t pretty crowded already.
  • Gustaf Skarsgard has been the high point of pretty much each season, and nothing changes in this one.
  • I do like the idea that political and military turmoil back home happens when the army is off invading places — this was a very real feature of medieval warfare.
  • Aelle is, once again, a circumstantially convenient idiot. He’s totally taken aback by the size of the Ragnarssons’ army, because … his guys who spotted the attacking force don’t know how to count ships and multiply them by the number of dudes in a ship? Again, the “heroes” get to look good by the simple expedient of having their opponents take a dive like idiots. See also breaking formation to do a wild infantry charge at approaching cavalry.
  • Rituals and magic continue to be eerie and interesting. Is this the first time this series has had genuinely supernatural omens? I mean, Harbard was left ambiguous as best I remember, but to be honest I wasn’t really paying attention after he turned out not to be a trash-talking magic ferryman like the actual Harbard.
  • The destruction of the Winchester sets we’re so familiar with is surprisingly moving.
  • In terms of defensive strategies in a town made of wood and thatch, starting a huge fucking fire seems like it should be toward the bottom of the list, but filmmakers are obsessed with the idea of lighting things on fire.
  • Aw, poor old Torve. Didn’t see that one coming ha ha j/k they gave her a line about how she would definitely see Bjorn again. What did we think was gonna happen?
  • Hey, it’s Jonathan Rhys-Meyers! Playing The Sex Bishop! That’s not what I think of when I think of Saint Heahmund but to be honest I have never really thought of Saint Heahmund until this very minute, so.
  • Main character death count so far: Aslaug, Ragnar, Helga, Egbert. Not-main-but-important characters dead: Aelle, Torve. Who-gives-a-shit characters dead: Egil, Elisif, whatsername (aside: if this show was gonna have only one Muslim character, I don’t know about making her a war orphan / suicide knifer, no matter how richly Helga deserved it). Are the only characters left alive from Season 1 Floki, Rollo and Lagertha? I mean, OK, Bjorn was in Season 1, but different actor. Was Aethelwulf in Season 1? I don’t remember.
  • Perhaps all my criticisms simply amount to “it looks good but don’t think about it too hard.”

 

TV Tuesday:Vikings again (again)

TV Tuesday: the saga continues

So it’s been a few weeks since the last time I wrote about my continuing … love-hate relationship isn’t right. Enjoyment-bafflement relationship? … with Vikings. So let’s take a look at what’s been going on since then.

So Lagertha and Aslaug are set up as rivals this season, a rivalry that gets off to a good start when Lagertha imprisons Ubbe and Sigurd and takes Kattegatt back from Aslaug. In the meantime, Ivarr and Ragnar get shipwrecked on the English coast. The irritated crew mutiny, but Ivarr stabs them up to reinforce the point that he is not to be messed with. Bjorn, together with Halfdan and Harald plus Floki, rocks up to Rollo’s castle to meet the kids. Rollo decides to tag along on Bjorn’s Mediterranean adventure because, I dunno, he longs for the old days of sailing the wide world etc.

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Anyway, Ragnar and Ivarr arrive in Winchester only to find out that Ecbert isn’t home, the one thing they were not counting on. Aethelwulf does what Aethelwulf does and has them locked up. Aslaug gets one of yer Viking funerals that everyone loves so much while Lagertha gloats. Ecbert comes home and gets Ragnar out of the dungeons to do some devious Ecbert stuff with him. Young Magnus shows up for the first time in his older version, and Ragnar says he never had sex with whatsername, which messes things up a little. There are a lot of children of dubious parentage at the West Saxon court, aren’t there?  Anyway, Ecbert has a good old jaw with Ragnar about the absurdity of religion or destiny or something, or maybe just their shared love for Athelstan. Ragnar sets up his plan to introduce — dare I say it? — the main plot of the series! And only 40-whatever episodes in.

This show has a real problem with deviousness, which I think is a combination of budget concerns and the influence of Game of Thrones. See, in Game of Thrones, everyone is always going into negotiations with uncertain allies and then getting assassinated. This is because the setting of Game of Thrones is a functional medieval society that is now falling apart. So people keep relying on outmoded concepts of law or political influence to protect them and discovering that they no longer apply, while a new breed of bastard and/or hero thrives.

But we’re supposed to believe that this is pretty much how things work in Vikings. And logically, all the characters should know that. That being the case, why doesn’t anyone act like it? Lagertha makes a peace agreement with Aslaug — who is, remember, widely believed to be descended from a literal god — and then shoots her in the back as she walks away. In front of everyone! That has got to be a blow to her reputation, surely.

(Does that mean that when Aslaug was sleeping with Harbard she was having sex with her own grandfather? Ick.)

Anyhow, my point is — given that Ubbe and Sigurd presumably know that anyone could turn on you at any time, why would they just walk into a trap like a couple of idiots? If Aslaug knows (and remember, she’s supposed to be the politically savvy one) that Lagertha, a famous general with a full-sized army, can march into her town without anyone knowing until she’s forming a shieldwall at the city limits, then why on earth would she allow Bjorn to sail off with all the warriors? (Unless Bjorn’s in on it, of course, which would be kind of neat, but still.) Over and over, this show sets up a political dispute and then has it resolved by someone getting knifed in ways that make dramatic sense but little real-world sense.

Now, I’m not saying people don’t get assassinated or massacred in real life. But successful assassinations and massacres as means of ending conflicts are probably quite rare. Usually killing one guy or even one group of guys doesn’t solve the problem like you’d hope it would. Whack a Viking warlord, and you may find that they have uncles, cousins, brothers, followers, whatever, who will come back to haunt you. Those people (usually) don’t exist in this show because of principles of narrative economy, but I dunno, it feels like a cheat. I’m aware I’ve said this before.

TV Tuesday: the saga continues

TV Tuesday: Reign

So I got a few votes here and on G+, and the verdict was that I should write about Reign, the pretty-people drama about the early life of Mary, Queen of Scots. I have written about Mary in a previous Movie Monday, so you can check that out if you want to.

I’ve only watched the first episode (maybe two by the time this article gets done), but let’s talk about the obvious things first:

  • this is a romantic drama show looooosely inspired by the life of Mary, and bears very little relationship to the actual history apart from the sort of general premise.
  • And that’s OK.

At the same time, I’m still going to point at some of the changes because I find trying to figure out the train of thought interesting.

Let’s start by talking about the accents. There were three ways that the show’s creators could have approached the question of Mary’s accent:

  1. They could have given her a Scottish accent, for sentimental purposes. This would have been silly in a way, but roughly consistent with the idea that her character is, you know, Scottish. This is the obvious approach.
  2. They could have given her a French accent. This is the “interesting historical fact” approach. Mary’s mum was French and she lived for years in France. Presumably these conversations are happening in French, and this would be incongruous enough to be jarring. This is the approach taken by Liz Lochhead in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, in which Mary speaks in kind of a weird Scots-French hybrid.
  3. They could have given her an Australian accent, since the actor herself is Australian. This is the approach taken by Mary of Scotland, where Katharine Hepburn just uses her own voice, or at least her own stage voice. This is the “minimal interference with the actor” approach.

Instead, they do none of these things, giving her an English accent instead. You guys don’t need me to tell you that this makes no sense, right?

They change the names of some characters in a way that makes obvious sense — in reality, all four of the noble women who accompanied Mary during her time in France had the same name: Mary Beaton, Mary Seaton, Mary Fleming and Mary Livingston. It makes sound dramatic sense for them not to do this.

They change things to be sexier. For instance, Nostradamus was in his 50s at the time of this show, but he is presented as a younger, better-looking guy, because the CW.

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Certain characters have been removed, including most of Mary’s court, presumably to build up the theme of Mary being a stranger at court rather than a visiting dignitary with a substantial entourage. I think Antoinette de Bourbon would have been a fun sharp-tongued old grandma character a la Game of Thrones.

No one mentions the idea that Mary is queen of England, an idea that was important to the French.

Now, this is not a history lesson, it’s just a derpy fun TV show. It’s not really my kind of derpy fun, though, so I don’t know if I’m going to persist with it unless something really weird or interesting happens in the next few episodes.

TV Tuesday: Reign

TV Tuesday: The Pinkertons

While recovering from binge-watching Luke Cage (or possibly while warming up to binge-watch Luke Cage), my wife and I found this thing on Netflix. It’s a 2014-15 Canadian detective show based on the career of Civil War spy and detective agency founder Allan Pinkerton (Angus Macfadyen), his son William (Jacob Blair) and fascinating historical character Kate Warne (Martha MacIsaac). Like perhaps a lot of historical television dramas, it suffers from the fact that both Kate Warnes and Allan Pinkerton were actually stranger and more interesting in real life than their fictional counterparts (although we’re only a few episodes in, so perhaps they’ll weird up).

We’ve watched a couple of episodes, and it’s … OK. It plays down all the weird things about Allan Pinkerton and just makes it into a classic bickering-detectives police procedural show in a historical setting. Now, as it happens, I like a good bickering-detectives procedural show as the sort of narrative background noise of an evening. It is, I am not making this up, officially licensed by the Pinkerton detective agency, which immediately makes it both dorkier and shadier.

The other funny thing about this show is that MacIsaac and Blair play their roles completely straight while Macfadyen is, well, Angus Macfadyen, playing the genial version of the nutcase he plays on Turn.

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It drags in a lot of historical figures — there are cameo appearances by a lot of people who might have been around in 1865, from a young Jesse James to Edwin Booth and Abraham Lincoln’s lazy-ass former bodyguard. This was actually weirdly educational for me, although most people probably don’t watch a TV show with Wikipedia open, constantly going “is that really true?” I knew some of them, but a lot of the characters were new to me (American history is not really my strong suit).

It’s not … I mean, it’s a perfectly average TV detective show, a cut above Houdini and Doyle but maybe a cut below the mainstream. The leads are fine, the production is fine, it’s better the more it leans toward comedy, and it’s an enjoyable way to pass the time. The historical setting is moderately well-realised in a way that acknowledges some of its complexities — like lawlessness in the post-war west and its relation to politics — and that makes it interesting from this blog’s perspective.

TV Tuesday: The Pinkertons

TV Tuesday: Vikings Season 4 so far

I can’t tell whether it feels like ages since I wrote about the History Channel’s Vikings or whether it feels like only yesterday — and considering this show’s head-spinningly weird blend of time periods, maybe that’s appropriate. I did spend the first ten minutes of the first episode (I’m up to three so far) trying to remember who the hell all the characters were, particularly in the Lagertha plotline.

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From left to right: why do we put up with this asshole, cute little future murderfiend, I know why we put up with this asshole, why does anyone put up with this asshole, poor old dumbhead, Stabs McGee, some asshole, poor old dumbhead

I don’t want to go into too much detail — I’ll save episode-by-episode recaps for when I’m catching up one at a time — but here are my impressions so far:

  • I understand why characters in TV shows never wrap up properly for winter. Band of Brothers did it, with the result that it was hard as hell to tell the characters apart. But maybe don’t send Bjorn out into the freezing snow as a challenge of survival, and then show scene after scene of him running around without so much as a hat or scarf. Or even hair!
  • Mind you, I’m not convinced that “the interior” (of Jutland?!) is the icy, mountainous hell the show makes it out to be, but I think we’ve long since just resigned ourselves to the fact that these Vikings live in Skyrim.
  • One of the problems that writing about history creates is that you have to move as much of the action as possible into the “present” of the story because showing a character discovering something is a better way of introducing it than just having someone explain it. Sometimes this works OK-ish, like with Bjorn discovering fractional freezing, and sometimes it is absolutely stupid. Like … the Franks hire Rollo to defend Paris, and when he explains to them that maybe next time some boats would be handy they act like he’s some great strategist. Guys you are on an island in a river.
  • I do like that, battle scenes and weird mystical interludes aside, this is ultimately a show about politics rather than a saga of heroic warriors. Or, better yet, that it understands that battle scenes and weird mystical interludes are an important part of politics. I can forgive it a lot of silliness for getting that fundamental point about the atmosphere right.

So yeah; I will keep watching, obviously. Hell, I watched The Last Kingdom and that was not nearly as good. It’s a compulsion.

TV Tuesday: Vikings Season 4 so far

Non-movie Non-Monday: Vikings

I touched on the current History Channel series Vikings in my review of 1958’s The Vikings, not to be confused with my review of 1928’s The Viking. So as you can see there’s a certain amount of Viking presence on the blog already. I watched the first season on Lovefilm back when it first appeared there, and now that the second season is available and I have nothing in particular to do this evening, I thought I’d sit down and watch the first episode and just sort of … ponder on it.

Before I begin with the second season, let’s think about the first.

I’m not one of those people who complains when the change the history in — no, I can’t keep it up. I’m totally one of those people. But I usually try to understand why those changes have been made — to make the story easier to understand, to simplify things, generally to make a confusing mixture of circumstances more story-like. But I find some of the changes made in Vikings to be absolutely baffling.

I get that if there’s a famous Viking anti-hero, it’s probably Ragnar Lothbrok (Ragnar, I am not making this up, “Hairy-breeks”). And I’m _maaaaaaybe_ willing to accept that he is sufficiently famous that some people who don’t really know much about him have heard of him. (The real answer is Erik Bloodaxe, but his story resists being the kind of story this show wants to tell.) But I refuse to believe that there is anyone who has heard of Hrolf/Rollo/Robert I but who doesn’t know anything about him. Anyone who isn’t French, anyway. Robert I isn’t exactly Billy the Kid or Robin Hood, a name that stands for a certain type of adventure. So if you’re going to make him Ragnar’s brother and effectively a completely different character — and get his names inexplicably backward — why even bother making him Hrolf/Rollo in the first place? It’s really weird.

I’m not going to nitpick detail mistakes in this show, because we’d be here all night. But let me state before we jump in to Season 2 that my impression of Season 1 was that as history it was balls but as a show it was a lot better than I was expecting. I wasn’t expecting much, though, so will Season 2 suffer from the expectations raised by the previous one? I’m just going to blog my thoughts about this thing as I watch it. Necessarily this involves spoilers.

Anyway, we begin with Ragnar and his ally King Horik about to face off against Rollo and his ally Jarl Borg. Horik is Donal Logue, which is so weird. I know he was on TV in some show I didn’t watch, but to me he’s always Dex from The Tao of Steve, or possibly the guy from Blade.

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I think it’s super interesting that this kind of desaturated, greyish colour has become the signifier for gritty, historical action-drama. It doesn’t have an earlier pedigree than Saving Private Ryan, does it? Because it’s in fucking everything.

Anyway, there are some tense pre-battle negotiations. I like Rollo as a character — this really capable, gifted guy who somehow can’t stop screwing up and feeling inferior. The battle is about to commence. The battle shows one of the reasons the show tells the kinds of stories it does: because its budget doesn’t stretch to proper battles. There are only a couple of dozen guys on each side, and it doesn’t look very impressive.

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No doubt a lot of work and expense, but still.

The battle scene is nice and visceral, very dramatic and exciting, with even the ordinary vikings getting to show off a bit before Rollo goes Kung Fucking Foo on a bunch of guys, including weaselly little villain whatsisname, you know, Gustav Skarsgard’s character, The Crazy One.

The music here is like Scandinavian folk-rock stuff, which of course has shit-all to do with the Viking Age, but at least it isn’t the same old pseudo-Lord of the Rings bombast that’s in every movie. Can I say also that the opening credits to this show are great?

Damn, Rollo is going to town on these guys? I do not think it makes a huge amount of sense that he is behind Ragnar’s lines and no one is paying him any attentions, but it’s very dramatic.

Oh, the battle just went into ears-ringing-o-vision, just like Private Ryan again? Did a shell go off next to their 8th-century heads?

Rollo gives up and decides he isn’t gonna fight Ragnar anyway. It would have been nice of him not to kill like ten fucking guys first.

The battle ends inconclusively, I guess, and the two rivals hammer out peace talks, which I think is not too unreasonable. Ragnar suggests that they can team up and loot England rather than squabbling over Denmark. (One of my Norwegian students pointed out that this is a very stark and dramatic looking Denmark.)

Gustav Skarsgard’s guy is called Floki.

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OK, this looks pretty good. I’m not gonna lie. The village looks pretty good too, and the outfits on the women and other civilians aren’t too terrible. I mean, not accurate in every particular, but, you know, wool dresses and cloaks and stuff. I know that the reason there isn’t a lot of T&A in this show is probably just that the History Channel can’t get away with it, but it’s such a relief in a way that you don’t notice until a few episodes have gone by without any gratuitous nudity. Also, did I know that Rollo’s wife is the actress who played Mrs Schuester on Glee?

Bjorn has a great Norman haircut. He looks like he just came off the Bayeux Tapestry, which is to say he looks pretty stupid, but almost-authentically stupid.

Ragnar’s infidelities are starting to come back to haunt him. His wife doesn’t take any crap. Part of me wishes she could be a take-no-crap character without having to swing an axe at people. I’m not wholly committed to that position, but I think there’s a case to be made. I like that Ragnar is kind of high on his own success and thinks that he can get away with anything.

The gold coin that Ragnar shows Bjorn is huge.

The “assembly” at “the law rock” has aspects of both town hall meeting and lynch mob, which I think is true to the sagas, although I have my doubts about its procedural accuracy.

What the hell do they sew up the seams of their clothes with? It looks like electrical cable. Ragnar’s simultaneous judge-bribing and goo-goo-principle spouting is inspiring. What a dirtbag. Rollo says “I wanted to step out of your shadow.” No shit, Rollo, everyone knew that but you.

Everyone in this show emphasises their t-sounds really hard. It’s strange. Is it because pronouncing them like ‘d’ sounds really American? Ragnar is sad about his dead daughter, in a scene that has this weird interesting blurry effect. The scenery is doing a lot of the emotive work here.

Oh Christ, then fucking Aslaug or whatever she was called shows up. I didn’t think much of her last season, but I have to say this is a nice shot. I like the kind of quasi-uniform her attendants are wearing, but also how they’re just four ordinary-looking women, not some nymph brigade, which is what I was afraid of. Aslaug is knocked up. Is she gonna be Ivarr’s mum? They said Ivarr was going to be a character, but considering he hasn’t been born yet they’ll have to jump pretty far forward …

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Great touch: as Ragnar and his family get their shit together to receive the visiting princess, some little goats come along with them, mehh-ing through the welcome and all the social tension. Lagertha does a great job with the whole “I am being formal and welcoming because my status requires it, but I want to stab you” bit. There is a goat on the table at dinner! Ragnar cuddles it. It’s a bit exaggerated as a way of stating the whole “Ragnar may be hot shit, but he’s a hick compared to Aslaug” thing, but it’s pretty cute.

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Ragnar’s “hoo boy this is awkward” face is great.

Aslaug’s father is Sigurd — the Sigurd. Bjorn deploys his murderface at full strength. I hope we do skip forward in time so we can see him grow up to be a stone-hearted son of a bitch. Ragnar — still cuddling a goat! — gives him an inspirational Viking speech about how unhappiness is more common than happiness and he needs to grow up because one day all his friends will be dead.

Lagertha and Siggy do their gossiping while weaving, which I thought was a nice touch.

Floki’s little-shit villainy is predictable, but it’s well-executed. He gives Ragnar a crazy-eyes sheep-murderer look and Ragnar’s just like “oh my crazy buddy Floki.” This isn’t going to end well. I straight up do not remember who this mid-hair-length, blond-beard Viking dude who keeps periodically turning up is, which I guess is why everyone else has silly haircuts, wears guyliner or (in the case of Rollo) is fucking huge.

Ragnar proposes some kind of polygamy set up. Check out his desperate face here.

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I guess his second wife would be according to the customs of the Danes, except that of course so is his first wife. A little 11th-century humour for you there. I’ll be here all week.

He gives Lagertha a big spiel about how he has to take care of the ickle babby. Lagertha decides to leave instead; blonde-dude (is he Torstein?) is concerned. He gives Bjorn a talk about how he should stay with his father or regret it. Bjorn is not happy, but stays. Lagertha is not happy, but goes. I can’t imagine this coming back to haunt anyone. Ragnar comes back to find this all happening and goes hammering off after them on his horsey, but fails to stop them. Bjorn decides to go with Lagertha instead. The towering mountains of southern Denmark behind them are really distracting.

And that’s yer lot.

Because this is primarily a personal episode, there isn’t as much violence done to history in this as in others. Obviously, they’ve doubled down on the whole idea that discovering England was a new and radical thing in the 8th century, which, um, probably not. It might be the 9th century by this point, who knows? The battle was exciting but unconvincing. The ships were nice. The cinematography in this is good but kind of derivative. I like the performances. I’m gonna watch the next one.

I don’t have a dog in the fight over whether this show is good or a travesty, but I probably come down on the side of good. I have this … I have this weird compulsion to watch programmes and read books that have Vikings in them. This has lead me to watch Pathfinder. Once you’ve seen that filmic punch in the eye, anything looks good. But I think that, in its own right, this show is actually pretty good. The dialogue could use a little less bald literalism, but then on the other hand there’s precedent for that in the literature.

Anyway, it’s on Lovefilm so if you have that you can watch it online. I don’t know about Netflix, but probably. It’s worth checking out, if only for the smirks. It has a lot of good smirking. And goats.

 

Non-movie Non-Monday: Vikings