On February 25, Netflix released the highly-anticipated first season of Vikings: Valhalla. They announced the show as a spin-off of Vikings, a History Channel series that premiered in 2013. After the success of the original, fans had high hopes for Valhalla.

After all the suspense and build-up, the new show received mixed reviews. One can find countless five-star ratings with viewers praising the action scenes and binge-worthy pacing. On the other hand, many people complained of historical inaccuracies. The most prominent criticism was of the sequel failing to live up to the expectations set by Vikings. However, despite hundreds of reviews, people seem to be missing the show’s fatal flaw: the introduction was an utter disaster.

Any good storyteller is familiar with the words “show, don’t tell.” It serves as the primary rule for writing. Telling, or overexplaining, gives the story a condescending nature towards the viewer. Showing by using figurative language and clever writing not only remedies this issue but it adds depth to the story.

Valhalla immediately violates this law by opening with a sprawl of text. It sets the wrong tone for the show, but with the gruesome and exciting action scenes that follow it, one can overlook the poor choice. That is until five minutes later when the show hits the viewers with yet another page of text to read. Worse yet, a more engaging visual scene could easily take the place of the text with minimal effort.

It goes downhill from there. The show introduces two pivotal characters in the next moment, but on a boat packed with side characters. It’s impossible to pick them out on the first viewing. We then find a recurring issue; the characters’ traits bleed together. It’s one thing that they all look alike, but more importantly, they seem to all share one personality. 

Take one of the central characters, for instance: Leif Erikson. His debut scene is on the aforementioned boat. The viewer can gather that he is the captain and is exceptional in the role (on the second watch, at least). He approaches danger with courage and is a natural leader. 

He shares this scene with his sister, Freydis Eriksdotter (though, for some reason, it isn’t revealed they are siblings until further along in the episode). She reacts to the situation the same as Leif, down to echoing his lines. She approaches danger with courage and is a natural leader.

Almost every central character follows this same pattern: they are all hard-headed, firm in their beliefs, and take to the role of leader well. It could be intentional; they are Vikings, after all, and isn’t this precisely what they’re known for? Even in that case, though, there has to be some diversity among characters. Two people with the same trait will exhibit it differently.

Let’s take a look at one of the antagonists, Olaf Haraldson. Classically, he is “introduced” before the writers show him. In this case, Freydis speaks of a man who attacked her as a child. This is a well-known device used to build up the villain and evoke fear. The longer the writers hold off introducing the character, the more suspense.

Olaf introduces himself – quite literally – in the scene after Freydis mentions him. Not only does this fail to induce an emotional response, but it moves so quickly it’s hard to grasp that this is a crucial moment at all. At this point, the viewer is overwhelmed with three identical characters and a confusing plot. Olaf passes right under the radar. 

Then there’s the problem of Olaf not being the central antagonist. Furthermore, the person who happens to be in that spot isn’t even revealed in the first episode, making it impossible for the viewer to follow where the plot is heading.

The show improves slightly as the season progresses, but it doesn’t surpass mediocre quality. Characters suffer from chronic stagnancy, and if they do happen to shift their beliefs, it occurs in a matter of minutes. The plot never truly picks a direction, and the show itself won’t choose a side in the war it creates. Admittedly, the action is exciting, and there are moments of genuine tension. Leif isn’t a bad character. However, the introduction sets the foundation for the story to come; with Valhalla, they built theirs out of straw.

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