The Best Part of ‘Vikings: Valhalla’ Is Still Its Women
I love my Viking gal pals
Season 1 of Vikings: Valhalla had some amazing female characters. Set roughly a thousand years ago, the series centers on a fictionalized Leif Erikson (Sam Corlett), who travels to Norway from Greenland and gets caught up in the raids and political struggles of the various Viking clans in Northern Europe. Leif is great—along with Prince Harald (Leo Suter) and the other Viking men in Norway and England—but the complex, driven women were arguably the best thing about season 1. Plus, although any historical drama is going to take liberties with its source material, Vikings: Valhalla‘s portrayal of women isn’t too far off from reality. After all, the remains of a Viking warrior found in Birka, Sweden turned out to be female.
Season 2 dropped last weekend, and although it isn’t quite as overflowing with fantastic female characters as season 1, it still has a lot to offer! Here are some of my favorite characters in season 2.
Freydis, Keeper of the Faith
In season 1, Freydis (Frida Gustavsson) embodied the Viking ideal of a warrior: she was both incredibly skilled in battle and deeply spiritual. When Freydis became a shield maiden for Jarl Haakon, she joined a holy order. At the end of the season, she received a sword in Uppsala with the words “keeper of the faith” inscribed in runes.
In season 2, Freydis lives up to the title. After fleeing occupied Kattegat, Freydis accepts an invitation to go to Jomsborg, a hidden enclave of pagan Vikings. There, the leaders of Jomsborg invite her to become temple priestess. All along the way, people recognize Freydis as Keeper of the Faith, and regard her as a protector of the old ways.
However, once there, Freydis learns that the Viking Harekr (Bradley James) is using her as a way to pacify the refugees from Kattegat, whom he sees as not pure enough to join Jomsborg proper. Harekr wants the refugees to live in the forest and perform menial labor for the Jomsborg Vikings, and when Freydis starts to shake things up—for instance, worshipping with the refugees instead of keeping her distance—he decides to eliminate her.
What’s interesting about Freydis’s journey in season 2 is that her fighting skills are tempered by a strain of naïveté that we didn’t see in season 1. When a girl recognizes her, Freydis initially denies who she is in order to stay safe. When she arrives in Jomsborg, though, she’s so focused on the danger outside its walls that she fails to see the threat right in front of her. Maybe Freydis is distracted by the wish fulfillment of living in a pagan community and being free to worship the gods she chooses. Maybe everyone’s adulation of her goes to her head.
Still, Freydis proves that she’s worthy of the title of Keeper of the Faith. When she’s too weak to fight off Harekr and get her baby back, the people of Jomsborg show their love for her by stoning him to death. She comes up with a brilliant plan to singlehandedly destroy Olaf’s troops and negotiate peace with Kattegat. And at the end of the season, when another girl recognizes her, Freydis proudly acknowledges who she is. When we leave her, Freydis has proven herself to be a capable leader, priestess, warrior, and mother.
Mariam, the gentle scholar
Mariam! Mariam’s character is admittedly less developed than other characters, seeing as her main job is being Leif’s love interest after the death of Liv. Still, Hayat Kamille plays her so well that she won me over anyway.
Mariam is a mathematician from Aleppo who accompanies Leif and Harald on their journey from the Rus to Constantinople. Mariam knows everything there is to know about math, science, reading, and how an astrolabe works, and her intelligence is matched by her kind and gentle demeanor. She teaches Leif to read Greek, and even has him spouting Latin by the end of the season. If you ever find a partner like Mariam, hold onto her tight. She’s a keeper.
However, we find out that Mariam is terminally ill when, early in the season, she turns aside and lets out one small cough. By the time she and the others reach Greece, she can barely move, and one night around the campfire, she announces that it’s time for her to die. That way, Leif can brood over the loss of not one, but two lovers! That’s twice as much character development!
All joking aside, though, it really is a shame that the series kills Mariam off—especially after killing off Jarl Haakon, another amazing woman of color, in season 1. I would have loved to get to know her more in season 3.
Queen Emma of Normandy
Emma (Laura Berlin)’s storyline is devoted to a game of cat and mouse she plays with the ambitious Lord Godwin (David Oakes), Vikings: Valhalla’s answer to Littlefinger from Game of Thrones. At the beginning of the season, an assassin tries to kill Emma by poisoning her communion wine, but Godwin stops him. Who hired the assassin? Who is this Bear fellow who seems to be at the heart of it? Emma has to know.
Emma finds out the poisoner is the brother of one of her ladies in waiting, Aelfwynn. Aelfwynn is also Godwin’s fiancée, and Emma’s paranoia leads her to torture Aelfwynn to get more information. However, she ends up killing Aelfwynn without learning anything useful—aside from the fact that Godwin wants his future children to rule England. Did Emma murder an innocent woman? As Godwin mourns, Emma is plagued with guilt and doubt.
King Canute offers Godwin another bride, Gytha. Unlike Aelfwynn, Gytha comes from a royal bloodline, giving Godwin a shot at producing an heir to the throne. After finding a connection between Godwin and her assassin, Emma is suddenly thrown back into uncertainty: Did Godwin set her up to kill Aelfwynn so that he could marry Gytha? Was he playing a tortuous long game? At the end of the season, Emma is left certain that Godwin was behind the assassination attempt, although he denies it.
What I love about Emma’s character is that, even though she’s calculating, she’s not a mastermind. Obviously, she shouldn’t kill people. No one should torture people to death, and the fact that she does means she’s not a very good person. But she’s a very powerful woman in very dangerous circumstances, and her decisions can only be as good as the information she is able to access. Emma makes some serious mistakes in season 2, and she’s undeniably cruel—but she has enough humanity left in her that there’s hope for some kind of redemption.
(featured image: Netflix)
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