Game of Thrones is co-run by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss because they’ve taken Westeros’s lessons to heart: A television show is a lot like a the Iron Throne. If you try to go at it alone with absolute power, things are going to get bloody and messy. Nowhere is this exemplified more than in Vikings’ Michael Hirst, who seems to be traveling down the same path as Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter — even outside of casting lead actors who look eerily alike.
Seriously, look at Vikings protagonist Ragnar Lothbrok:
And now look at his great-great-great grandson, Sons of Anarchy’s Jax Teller:
It’s weird, no? But unfortunately, their shows share more than just the lead’s improbably close DNA.
Even the most diehard Sons of Anarchy fans have to agree that the show’s seventh and final season was not its finest. Less kind viewers might call it abysmal. Like the Song of Ice and Fire books, episodes were indulgently long where they needed to be short, and it seemed nobody was on board with telling Sutter “no.”
When Lost and The Leftovers creator Damon Lindelof spoke to Inverse, he knew exactly why The Leftovers is better than Lost: “Nobody is drinking the Kool-Aid,” he said. “There are many ideas that I throw out there and people look at me and say, ‘That’s so fucking stupid.’ Then I go, ‘Thank you for giving me a reality check.’
No one gave Kurt Sutter a reality check. Same goes for Michael Hirst, it seems. Now in it’s fourth Season, Vikings has become Sons of Anarchy: a once promising show that lost its way. It was never high-art, but it was entertaining, visceral, and gave you the feeling that it said what it needed to say — no more and no less. At its best, it can surprises the viewer with its good acting and nuance.
At its worst, it tells a sloppy, disjointed story with characters who act in nonsensical ways that contradict their personalities, purely for the convenience of the plot (Juice’s entire story arc from Season 4 forward on Sons of Anarchy; any arbitrary “I suddenly hate you now!” that Rollo has done on Vikings).
Kurt Sutter not only ignored his critics, he actively rallied against them. In one of his most memorable rants, he said “do people actually pay these assholes for these episodic opinions. …or are their lives that fucking empty that they feel compelled to get daddy’s attention every day on the interweb.”
Aside from being hilarious, this polar-opposite approach to the Damon Lindelof method demonstrates the folly of dismissing criticism: If you don’t listen to people who tell you why your show is getting bad, it will continue to be bad.
Vikings showrunner Michael Hirst is far too English to go on rants calling bloggers “cunts.” Nonetheless, in Season 4 of Vikings he is showing some dangerously Sutterish tendencies. Season 3 was widely criticized for its wavering focus from the vikings in favor of court politics with minor characters nobody cares about.
Has Season 4 taken that into account? Nope, its second episode it devoted half the screentime to characters and politics nobody cared about. All Michael Hirst needed was for somebody to tentatively say, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t do the thing that nobody found interesting.” Better yet, Damon Lindelof should have knocked on his door and said, “trust me, that’s fucking stupid.”
But like Sons of Anarchy before it, Vikings is drinking its own Kool-Aid. A showrunner needs a small council to tell him when he’s making a false move. Otherwise, one-man armies can only go so far.