The Daily Stream: Let Vikings Bring You To The Gates Of Valhalla

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Series: "Vikings"

Where You Can Stream It: Amazon Prime, Hulu

The Pitch: The year is 793 AD. Ragnar Lothbrok, a Viking warrior, is consumed by curiosity about what lies to the west of his homeland of Norway. Hearing stories of a country called England, rich with loot for the pillaging, Ragnar secretly plots with his friend Floki, a boat-builder, to lead an expedition to the west across open ocean. If they succeed, they'll become the first Vikings to lead a raid on England, and get all the wealth and glory that goes along with it. If they fail ... well, they'll end up at the bottom of the ocean and history will forget them.

It's not much of a spoiler to say that Ragnar and co. do successfully complete their journey, and "Vikings" season 1 in many ways resembles a "first contact" story straight out of science fiction. To the defenseless monks at Lindisfarne, watching a brewing storm on the horizon as they painstakingly ink the words of the Book of Revelations, the approaching Norse warriors are something terrifying, alien, and primordial — descending on them without mercy. The Vikings themselves, who arrive in England expecting a good fight, are instead baffled to find men with rooms full of gold but no weapons to defend it. 

Curious about the English and their Christian God, Ragnar captures one of the monks, Athelstan, as a slave and brings him back to Norway — the beginnings of both an unlikely friendship between the two men, and centuries of conflict between Scandinavia and Britain; between the Christian God and the Norse pantheon.

Why it's essential viewing

"Vikings" originated on the History channel, and while it takes plenty of artistic liberties with its source material, it maintains a genuine love of history that's visible in every detail of the costumes and rituals and politics. Exploration, not warfare, is what's really at the heart of the show and its protagonist. Though Ragnar's exploits as a warrior, military leader, and eventually as a king are legendary, his campaigns of violence are really just a pretext to search for the only thing he really values: knowledge. "Odin gave his eye to acquire knowledge," Ragnar tells his son, Bjorn, in season 1. "But I would give far more."

Perhaps more than any other historical series, "Vikings" resembles "Breaking Bad." It's the story of a man whose fixation becomes an addiction, which builds him up to greatness and then eventually strips him of everything — his title, his reputation, his family, and even his gods. Though it doesn't have dragons like "Game of Thrones," it feels mythic; in the opening scene, Ragnar has a vision of Odin wandering among the dead after a battle. The characters in the show themselves become analogs for their gods; there's a recurring motif of one of Ragnar's eyes being hidden in darkness, with a single blue iris peering out, in an ode to Odin's missing eye. Floki, meanwhile, lives up to his namesake as a wild card and instigator of chaos. And Athelstan ... well, let's just say that his resemblance to traditional depictions of Jesus isn't accidental.

If you're a history nerd, this one's for you. If you love beautifully shot, staged, and paced battle scenes, "Vikings" is the show for you. If you love friendly philosophical discussions between enemy leaders who are fascinated by each other's worldviews, allow me to introduce you to Ragnar Lothbrok and Ecbert, King of Wessex. They get along surprisingly well!

But as mentioned above, "Vikings" might appeal to "Star Trek" fans more than anyone else. It's set during an age of exploration, and at the start the Vikings really have no idea just how big the world is, and how many more countries are out there. Even though the show's storytelling wobbles in the later seasons, that spirit of exploration is kept alive as Ragnar, his allies, and his sons discover more new worlds — Iceland, Greenland, and eventually even North America. It's a wonderfully rich deep dive into the Viking Age, and now that it's come to an end, all six seasons of "Vikings" are ripe for binge-watching. And what better time than now, with the sequel series, "Vikings: Valhalla," just around the corner!