Patrick Freyne: Curious about the Scandinavian social model, I switched on ‘Vikings: Valhalla’

The hunky, vengeful, axe-wielding warriors expose flaws in the Nordic social model

As a classic lefty newspaper columnist, I am, of course, obsessed with the Scandinavian social model. So this week I've taken it upon myself to research some Nordic policies that could be adopted here in Ireland, albeit less blondly and with roundier heads.

I think what I like most about the Scandinavian social model is the obsession with revenge and honour and murdering those who have slighted them with an axe. They’re always on about that, the Scandinavians, leaping up on tables in their great halls, quaffing mead and having a good old roar.

Meanwhile, here in Ireland they don’t even teach “revenge” in schools any more, having replaced it with “podcasting”. Then, if you tell your nephews that “the sweetest drink is the tears of your enemies”, that’s considered inappropriate and your wife makes you send an apology card. And I rarely walk into a brainstorming meeting at The Irish Times to see “how to get revenge” circled in red on a whiteboard. They don’t listen if you suggest an article in order to “avenge my honour” or to “stick it to that guy”, even though “avenging my honour” and “sticking it to that guy” are mentioned in the articles of the Irish Times Trust.

Anyway, a lot of my information about the Scandinavian social model comes from a new series on Netflix called Vikings: Valhalla, which is a sequel to Vikings but set 100 or so years later, when the Scandinavian social model is even more advanced. In the first two episodes there's lots of talk of revenge. If you were to pick a character at random from the cast list and ask me about their motivations, I can safely say "revenge" without looking.


The first episode starts with a rag tag crew of hippies coming from Greenland to Norway in a rowboat (another important part of the Scandinavian social model is mucking about in boats) in order to seek revenge on a Viking who viciously assaulted one of the crew.

They are led by lush-haired hero Leif Erikson (Sam Corlett) a real-life person who is famous in Norway for both starting a successful telecommunications company and also finding America. Erikson gets to impress us early on in classic action-drama fashion by being underestimated by a thug in a tavern before besting that thug in combat. You'd think thugs in TV dramas would have long given up on their taunting behaviour by now, given how frequently they're humiliated by dramatic heroes in order to establish those heroes' fighty credentials. Surely the thug would have taken one look at Erikson's hunky face, listened to his earnest dialogue and concluded "this is clearly the protagonist in some sort of television drama series; I'm just going to leave it".

Leif agrees to captain a ship to England and help the Viking attack because not only is he the best at fighting and bear murder, but he's the best at captaining a ship

Of course, every man dreams about some day being underestimated by a thug in a tavern. Sadly, in real life we’re usually pretty accurately estimated by thugs in taverns. Another thing we learn about Erikson: he once won a fight with a bear. They make their point: he’s not just an ideas man.

All the Vikings are gathering in a pleasant Norwegian coastal town in a sort of festival of revenge in the wake of King Aethelred II violently murdering all the Vikings in England. The Vikings are trying to put aside their differences in order to go get revenge on England – the entire landmass. Some of the Vikings are pagans and some of the Vikings are Christian and they are all at each other's throats over which mystical metanarrative forged to offset a cold and meaninglessness universe is best. Luckily they are united in their hatred of England, and they have a cunning plan to infiltrate an English city with the help of the guy who built that city's walls. Oh no! Leif's sister Freydis has killed the guy who built the walls, stabbily with a knife. He was the object of the Greenlanders' revenge! Now the builder's friend, a big beardy Christian Viking leader, wants revenge on Freydis, which endangers the revenge everyone else wants to have on the English. I'm beginning to see some flaws in the Scandinavian social model. In order to spare her life, Leif agrees to captain a ship to England and help the Viking attack because not only is he the best at fighting and bear murder, but he's the best at captaining a ship.

This is all relatively good gory fun so far. This said, I have some general issues with the uniformity of style running across all historical or fantastical dramas now, in which pompous medieval rockers emote in dimly candlelit rooms before cutting to too-big CGI armies all soundtracked by someone keening or moaning over drums, electronica and a string section. This is partly why I enjoy Britannia (Now TV) so much, because why not have your Roman empire-dwelling characters just tripping balls to psychedelic colours and a soundtrack of Hurdy Gurdy Man by Donovan? I mean, the 1960s were the old days too, if you think about it.

Crumbling Josh Hartnett

At one point in The Fear Index (Wednesday, Sky Atlantic) a scientist turned hedge fund manager played by Josh Hartnett catches a glimpse of a man looking back at him from the mirror. It's Josh Hartnett! But wait! There's another man in the mirror, too, who has a different, creepier face and Josh Hartnett saw him breaking into his home and now he keeps seeing him everywhere and it's all happening the same week as his wife's big art show and a very important meeting at work with some smug billionaires who want to see the lucrative results of the hedge fund algorithm he's invented. Work-life balance is very difficult to achieve these days.

I'm still no clearer as to whether he's at the whims of some intricate conspiracy or is, indeed, having a paranoid collapse

Is our anti-hero cracking under the strain? Is he being manipulated? What is real? What isn’t real? The Fear Index isn’t telling. It’s a classic “psychological thriller”, which basically means: “We’ve not really consulted any actual psychologists, just go with it.” In fairness, Josh Hartnett is impressively panicked and vulnerable in the role. And I like the fact that instead of responding to his disorienting situation by suddenly becoming a competent action hero who knows kung fu, he’s just crumbling. On the other hand, the plot is moving very slowly. After three episodes I’m still no clearer as to whether he’s at the whims of some intricate conspiracy or is, indeed, having a paranoid collapse. One way or another he’d get the treatment he needed if he lived in the Scandinavian social system. A wonderful people, the Scandinavians. That treatment would, of course, be: revenge!