When Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive) signed on to take over and continue the Vikings franchise with Vikings: Valhalla, Michael Hirst, creator of the original History Channel series, gave him just one piece of guidance: He wanted the Netflix spinoff to feel nostalgic.
“I [knew] what he meant immediately,” Stuart tells Polygon. “The goal of the show is that, as we move from season to season, there’s parts of it we’re going to have to give up. So my goal would be, at the very end, that you suddenly look back on this incredible period of time of both shows and say, ‘Wow, it was really good when they were just killing those Saxons. I miss the purity of that moment.’”
If “wistful” isn’t a description typically applied to the brutality of both Vikings and Vikings, allow Valhalla to correct the narrative. Set 100 years after the final episodes of the original series, the Vikings have found themselves in conflict with the English (who burned the Danish encampments on their shores in what’s come to be known as the St. Brice’s Day massacre) but also themselves. The old gods of the pagan Vikings offending the new Christian Vikings, who would prefer everyone just get on board with Christ already.
True to history, Christianisation played a major role in the dissolution of the Viking era. Stuart notes that Scandinavia was the last part of Europe to be Christianized (“Those Catholic monks stood up there, you know, in northern Germany, in the Netherlands, and they looked across the Baltic. And they said, […] I don’t want to go there. They kill people over there!”). And in true Viking fashion, conversion was fitful, violent, and unsparing.
That conflict is set across a new cast of characters, including the legendary Leif Erikson (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s Sam Corlett) and his sister Freydis Eriksdotter (Frida Gustavsson of The Witcher), who leave Kattegat with their own goals and their own thoughts on religion.
“If you’re an action writer it’s a good place to be working,” Stuart says of the conflict-philic Vikings at the heart of the story. Having minted his writing career with action classics of the 1980s and ’90s, Stuart wanted Valhalla to have “more action”, particularly in his vein of “character-based action” writing. “In other words, it all comes from the people that you know, that you’re watching […] as opposed to, you know, a comet is about to hit Earth or something like that.”
In that sense, Valhalla provides Stuart a strange playground: like the original series, historical events can root the drama (the massacre that kicks off the pilot happened on Nov. 13, 1002) and also ellide some other facts (to the English, the “massacre” wasn’t as unprompted as Valhalla would have you believe). Historical events like the Danish invasion of England or the London Bridge falling down are inferred from sketchy records and nursery rhymes. That leaves a lot of room for Valhalla to fill in the blanks with cunning strategies from the new generation of Vikings.
Still, the part of his research that most drew him in wasn’t rooted in the bloodshed or the major arc of history. It was two people, who each represented the wild options available to women at the time.
“I latched on to Freydis, who I thought was a spectacular female character. And one of the things I love about the era, especially from a writing standpoint, is women [in Danish culture] could own property and they could rule kingdoms,” Stuart says.
Then he found Emma of Normandy (played with cool resolve in Valhalla by Laura Berlin), who, as Stuart puts it, had come from Normandy around 15 years old, “just a piece of her father’s property. And then she became one of the richest women in Europe by the time she was in her early 20s. How did she do that?”
Those journeys balance out the more standard Viking fare, each in their own way complicating the historical narrative. Perhaps, more than anything else, that’s the ethos that Stuart is taking into the world of Valhalla, which is just as prone to demonstrate how incredibly progressive Vikings were for the time as it is to remind its audience that they were barbaric in many ways as well. The duality is something that Stuart couldn’t find himself nostalgic for, even as he kept it at the forefront of the story.
“I would really love to say, sitting here in the 21st century, that we’ve got a much more enlightened view of other cultures,” Stuart says. “But […] when I was working on the show, we were locking up kids on the Mexican-Texas border. And our view about that humanity aspect, kind of resonated with me.”
Like Vikings before it, Valhalla isn’t interested in perfect characters. Rather, the show seems most interested in how the more things changed around Viking power the more it stayed the same: there’s still violent religious tension, England still remains the primary land to conquer. The practical reality of the Vikings doesn’t seem to have shifted too much — but we know it will.
That endpoint Stuart says the jump freed him from having to write “Vikings season 7”, and offered him the chance to create something new, its own animal. The show itself has more of a sheen to it than its History Channel counterpart; even the theme song feels less avant garde than the moody Vikings one, and more in line with The Witcher, another Netflix sword drama. But ultimately Valhalla benefits from Stuart’s aims to not shy away from conflict, but rather to power through it. After all, it’s what the Vikings themselves would’ve done.
Vikings: Valhalla premieres Feb. 25 on Netflix.