Vikings is pretty damn great. And its lead Travis Fimmel plays a big part in that.
Ragnar, the enigmatic protagonist of the History Channel show, has to bridge two worlds: The established viking society on the show, circa 13th century (ish), and the 21st century audience watching it. The role of Ragnar has always had to thematically be a man of his time and a man ahead of his time, because he needs to lead his people appeal to an audience who wouldn’t be so on board with the vikings tendency to plunder.
It’s not an easy idea to broach, but thanks to Fimmel’s acting it’s never been too much of a problem. Fimmel plays Ragnar with a sort of bemused caginess; watchful, playful, and always-dreaming, but never fully betraying his intentions.
What seems clear is that he’s the sort of man who doesn’t want for a lot but doesn’t want to have any roadblocks in his way. And while many leaders have viewed Ragnar’s ambitions as a lust for power (and felt challenged by it) it’s always seemed to be that he only lusts for freedom—and those who impede on it should beware.
But even that is a bit of a leap: What drives Ragnar Lothbrok can really only be answered by Ragnar Lothbrok. While he has made it clear what matters to him—exploration, family, honor—what ultimately drives him is just out of reach.
Vikings‘ Ragnar is largely non-verbal, observing those around him, often smirking in response, but ultimately playing a game we don’t know the answers to. It can make for a thrilling (if a bit of deus ex machina) arc to see a character who is either so blindly confident or that many moves ahead to take the board, such as in season two when King Horik makes moves against him. But the show manages to sell a sense of inside his head without ever fully explaining it, and from there it can take those thoughts and twist them around. With that kind of strategy it’s no wonder Ragnar is such an effective warrior and character to watch.