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Vikings returns in fine, ferocious form


Brothers in arms: Ragnar and Rollo of Vikings. History channel photo

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Tough love, Vikings style, is flaky Floki the shipbuilder telling his wife, in frustration, “You’re so horribly good, Helga!” So he just has to get away -- on another raiding expedition.

Or, in a later episode, it’s the newly crowned King Ragnar Lothbrok fuming at his strapping oldest boy, Bjorn: “You have the strength of a man but the will of a little girl. I cannot believe you are my son!”

Vikings is back, with a 10-episode Season 3 setting sail Thursday, Feb. 19th at 9 p.m. (central) on History channel. Grimy as ever -- and gripping, too -- its compelling storylines are a match for the impressive production values of a series that falls short only of Game of Thrones in its medieval ferocity and sharply drawn characters. Series creator Michael Hirst continues his mastery, inventing new perils and relationships for his multi-flawed but shakily noble anti-heroes.

Season 2 ended with the gruesome execution of devious King Horik (Donal Logue, now playing a corrupt cop in Fox’s Gotham). This makes Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) the new King of Kattegat. Otherwise it’s business as usual, with his Viking warriors waiting out another very icy winter before taking their ships to sea.

But Ragnar initially isn’t as bloodthirsty or conquest-happy. As part of a deal with King Ecbert (Linus Roache), who rules over England’s largest of five kingdoms, the Vikings have been awarded a big parcel of lush farmland. But wait. The throne of Mercia has been usurped by the brother and uncle of Princess Kwenthrith (Amy Bailey). She wants what’s supposedly hers, and King Ecbert is on board with that. So most of the Vikings agree to take Mercia back by storm while Ragnar’s ex-, the warrior Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), is left behind to farm the land while being wooed by the smitten Ecbert.

Ragnar’s principal comrade in arms again is his restive brother, Rollo (Clive Standen), whose loyalty is not always steady as she goes. Ragnar’s son, Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig), also fights by his father’s side. In Season 3, he’s succumbed to the entreaties of his new girlfriend, Porunn (Gaia Weiss), by taking her along for the combat to come. And oh yeah, Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard), who’s still the wild card in this deck.

History channel sent the first three episodes for review, with hours one and three both marked by fierce battles. Meanwhile, back in Kattegat, Ragnar’s second wife, Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland), tends to their brood of young children, including a deformed baby boy. It gets a little weird, though, when a mysterious stranger named Harbard (Kevin Durand), wanders in with one hand dripping blood and the other holding a ball of flaming snow. It’s exactly how Aslaug, Helga and fellow gal pal Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig) dreamt it. Ominous signs soon begin multiplying and dividing.

Amid all this, the onetime monk Athelstan (George Blagden), left down on the farm with Lagertha, remains torn between pledging allegiances to Jesus Christ or the Viking god Odin. A temptation of the flesh is also in play. Yes, there’s a lot going on this season, and this is but a small sampling.

Vikings remains at the top of its bloody game, with Fimmel still commanding the role he was born to play in a series that fully immerses itself in a world of wonder and plunder. All involved are dedicated to the cause of making Vikings one of television’s most striking series. It’s also emerged as one of the best, evolving from a guilty pleasure at first to a first-rate tale of substance and even subtlety mixed with the cold steel of primal warfare.

GRADE: A-minus

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