Fortune favors the bold — a common proverb, and one that can be heard in the trailer for Vikings: Valhalla Season 2. Regardless of the context within the series itself, when applied to the season as a whole, the phrase is an accurate one. In Season 2, creator Jeb Stuart and his talented team take the series in a bold, breathtaking new direction that pays off immensely and sets a high bar for television in 2023.
The new season picks up shortly after the events of Season 1, with the settlement of Kattegat in the hands of King Sweyen Forkbeard (Søren Pilmark) following Olaf’s (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) failed siege of the city. However, shifting alliances and loyalties mean the Viking stronghold is no longer a safe haven for Leif (Sam Corlett), Freydis (Frida Gustavsson), and Harald (Leo Suter), who are forced to go on the run. The trio quickly separates, with Freydis off to seek her destiny in one direction, while Harald seeks his in another. He is accompanied by Leif, who doesn’t yet know what destiny has in store for him, but as history tells us, he’s got something grand just waiting in the wings.
Things are better, but only slightly, in London, where Queen Emma (Laura Berlin) and Earl Godwin (David Oakes) have a hold on things in King Canute’s (Bradley Freegard) absence, though even in relative peacetime, things at court never stay quiet for long. The ongoing courtly intrigue provides a needed balance with the more action-adventure-oriented story happening elsewhere, with the combined storylines all working together to showcase the power of a truly talented ensemble cast, including series newcomers Bradley James, Hayat Kamille, Sofya Lebedeva, and Tolga Safer.
With the three seasons of the series conceived as one large arc, there is no question that the middle chapter will crank things up both in terms of tension and scale. Where the primary motivation for every character in the first season was, in some form, survival, the new season pushes them past that boundary. Safety and security are far from guaranteed, and the world around them is changing. Therefore, the characters, no matter where they find themselves on the map are forced to reckon with what this new world looks like, and grow to fit it.
For Freydis, this means discovering and fully embracing what it means to be Keeper of the Faith in a world that makes it more and more difficult to practice said faith. For Harald, it means becoming more assertive and seizing what is his, when society at large is determined to deny him his due. In theory, Freydis and Harald’s wants haven’t changed much since Season 1, but the story takes them far past their comfort zones and asks them to consider what the cost of obtaining those wants truly is. Both Gustavsson and Suter do a fantastic job at portraying this kind of subtle human growth, a change in increments through hardship and lessons learned rather than an abrupt about-face. For as clear as Freydis and Harald’s journeys are to them, Leif starts Season 2 unsure of his. Corlett turns in a thoughtful performance of a young man right on the edge of unrealized greatness, slowly putting together what Stuart referred to as a “toolbox” so that when destiny does come knocking, he will be able to embrace it fully.
Though they occupy a position of relative stability, even Emma and Godwin must decide what the new power balance in London means for them, as the chaos of obtaining power settles more into the quieter challenge of maintaining it. Berlin does a wonderful job portraying Emma’s determination to remain calm and collected in situations that make such a thing increasingly impossible, all conveyed through a quiet subtlety that makes her occasional, louder outbursts of emotion land that much harder. Oakes, for his part, brings such versatility that, much like in Season 1, Godwin remains possibly the most terrifyingly ambiguous character in the whole series.
On a larger storytelling level, Vikings: Valhalla Season 2 succeeds in making the story and the conflict feel much bigger without heightening for heightening’s sake. This is not to say that Season 1 was small, by any means — London Bridge literally fell down, after all. But even just by expanding the story map beyond Kattegat, Uppsala, London, and the surrounding wilderness, the scale of the story naturally feels so much larger, even as the conflicts the characters face turn much smaller, and more personal and intimate.
The series also does a remarkable job of remaining accessible for those who have only a vague understanding of the history, and of just who these characters were in real life. As with any historical adaptation, things have naturally been condensed or simplified to fit the television drama format, but they are never so absurd as to beggar belief, or so rigidly accurate as to drag the whole thing down. As much as the series expanded and heightened things in the new season, it also thankfully did not lose that which made the first season so incredible. The pacing remains top-notch, with tensions drawn out until their natural conclusion and not artificially prolonged past the point of logic. These resolutions mean more time devoted to exploring consequences and make for a much richer story overall.
And then of course there is the romance. There is action and drama, and plenty of it, but the writers also left plenty of time for the romances both old and new to continue to blossom onscreen. When once a series of this nature might have treated “romance” as something irrelevant or gratuitous for shock factor, it is refreshing to see it taken every bit as seriously as the rest of the story. It also made for some of the season’s sweeter moments, a much-needed reprieve in the face of so much unknown.
From start to finish, Vikings: Valhalla Season 2 is a non-stop, breathtaking, utterly relentless foray, following beloved characters into the unknown as they seek their destinies. It is both utterly satisfying and so rich and packed with even more to come down the line that the wait for Season 3 now feels longer than ever.
Vikings: Valhalla Season 2 begins streaming January 12 on Netflix.