After four seasons, being a Game of Thrones fan feels remarkably similar to being a Lost fan at that point in the latter show’s run. Even as we’ve grown more attached to Thrones‘ characters, the plot’s accumulated quirks have started to become dangerously unwieldy. Here, as in Lost, there’s also the sneaking suspicion that the creators themselves have as little an idea of where the show’s heading as its viewers do—a suspicion that’s even more acute in the case of GoT, since it’s looking increasingly unlikely that George R.R. Martin will be able to finish the next book in the series before the TV version catches up to his narrative.
But for all of the unresolved plot points Thrones has piled up—not to mention its deeply frustrating habit of killing off beloved characters unexpectedly and in undignified ways—even viewers with GoT fatigue will tune in when it starts back up in April. For all its flaws, the show’s done one thing absolutely perfectly, which is to get people hooked on a deviously calibrated combination of sex, violence, and large-scale drama among cultures not very far removed from their pre-civilized pasts.
But there’s another show that offers the same particular sort of high in a much more efficient dose—and that show is Vikings, which begins its third season tonight on History.
Vikings wasn’t the same out-of-the-gate sensation that GoT was, and it’s still in the process of building an audience. But jumping in late isn’t hard, since unlike GoT, Vikings doesn’t take an afternoon and a whiteboard to explain the plot so far.
Through cunning and more than a little bloodshed, Viking farmer Ragnar Lothbrok has become a powerful regional leader whose stock rises even further when he inadvertently discovers the land that will eventually become England—gand a bunch of people there whom the Vikings find almost comically easy to conquer. Lagertha is a shieldmaiden who was married to Ragnar, but dipped out when his ego started to get the best of him. (The show’s depiction of Viking society as intensely egalitarian makes it fertile ground for strong female characters.) She eventually became an Earl herself, thanks to her own cleverness, ruthlessness, and outsized ambition.
On top of that, there are Empire levels of drama, a lot of sex (at one point Ragnar and Lagertha attempt to recruit a captured Anglo-Saxon priest for a threeway), more than a little slapstick comedy, and a few generous dashes of mysticism (including a supremely creepy shamanistic seer who pops up from time to time to dispense maddeningly vague prophecies). Taken all together, the show hits the same brain centers that have made addicts out of so many GoT viewers.
And there’s more than enough violence to satisfy the most bloodthirsty Thrones fan. For proof, check out the episode “Blood Eagle” from Vikings‘ second season, which culminates in one of the goriest scenes in TV history. You might fall off your couch.
Season three is more ambitious still on several levels. Ragnar’s raids will take him further afield—all the way to Paris—and the writers are busily adding more knots to the relationships between the leads. But based on its first few episodes back, the show remains as efficient and entertaining as it was from the start. This could even be the point where critics and fans stop holding up Vikings as an interim fix for between-seasons GoT junkies—and start talking about things the other way around.