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Netflix Drama Ends too Soon

The third season of Netflix’s “Vikings: Valhalla” continues to be the historian’s answer to all those “Game of Thrones” fantasies: Populated with characters who actually existed, grittier (some might say cheaper) looking, no dragons.

Yet Jeb Stuart’s “Vikings” spin-off series still tortures actual timelines like a zealous Christian convert would an obstinate pagan. The “Die Hard” writer’s team slams together famous, 11th Century personages who may have met in melodramatic ways that they certainly did not. The show piles up coincidences, hair’s breadth escapes and heroic showdowns so Hollywood phony, it makes you long for the relative realism of a White Walker attack.

Overall though, “Valhalla’s” imaginative interpretation of ultra-interesting history is clever and reliably rousing. Each episode should motivate the curious to learn the truth about the events and people depicted here. The non-do-your-own-research crowd will be more than satisfied by all the political intrigues, family resentments, pageantry and bloodlust on display, even if the bigger battles are marred by jittery step-printing. With at least four, far-flung plotlines going at any given hour, the narrative never drags, nor hangs around anyplace long enough to get too stupid.

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Leo Suter and Sam Corlett in “Vikings: Valhalla.” (Bernard Walsh/Netflix)

Set seven years after the events of Season 2, this eight-episode run opens up a new theater of operations in the Mediterranean, and does so with a bang. Now the respected leader of the Byzantine Empire’s formidable Varangian Guards, Norwegian Prince Harald Sigurdsson (Leo Suter) strategizes the best way to take Syracuse and kick the Saracens out of Sicily. He’s immensely aided by his best bud and traveling companion Leif Eriksson (Sam Corlett), who’s become the ultimate medieval autodidact while still rocking that Hot Jesus look.

We’re expected to believe that Leif invents the infamous incendiary weapon called Greek fire, a move he guiltily regrets when jealousy-fired Greek General Maniakes (Florian Munteanu) applies the compound to helpless civilians. After their triumphant return to Constantinople, Harald and the hissable Maniakes chart a sneaky, gory collision course, while the troubled Leif decides to sail west — way west, ultimately, with a dream of setting foot on the American landmass the Greenlander once glimpsed as a child.

But first, Leif wants to know what’s happened to his sister. A lot, as it turns out. Fightin’ shield maiden Freydís Eiríksdóttir (Frida Gustavsson) is now high priestess and leader of Jomsborg, the last unchristianized European Viking colony. She’s also the fiercely protective mother of a son Harald doesn’t know he shares with her, is always getting captured and escaping, and wants to lead her people to that genuinely green land her brother told her about when they were kids. Their dad, Erik the Red (Goran Višnjić), is not crazy about that idea.

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Frida Gustavsson in “Vikings: Valhalla.” (Bernard Walsh/Netflix)

Meanwhile, in Rome, Canute the Great (Bradley Freegard), ruler of the Denmark/England/Norway North Sea Empire and none too thrilled about renouncing his Asgard-worshipping ways for political purposes, is conducting amusing, decidedly not pious negotiations with a corrupt Vatican. His second wife, England’s Norman Queen Emma (Laura Berlin), and her Machiavellian Saxon advisor Earl Godwin (David Oakes) — both multi-dimensional in their quietly calculating ways — lend their unparalleled skills to the papal intrigues. Visits to Normandy, Denmark and London follow, where assorted nasty youths destined to claim English and Norse crowns are introduced. By season’s climax most of the surviving players end up in Kattegat, the series’ fictional Norwegian capital.

These include younger versions of Harald Hardrada, Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror (a toddler Harold Godwinson can be spotted too). They’ll all become key figures in 1066, the year both the Viking Age and Anglo-Saxon rule in England end and everyone’s French cousins take over. But that’s decades away — not sure how long exactly, considering those mutilated timelines — from where this run of “Valhalla” ends. This is the series’ final season, which is more disappointing than for most shows Netflix pulls the plug on too soon. Perhaps a third series could show us the history-altering battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings — but Leif and Freydis still need to find Newfoundland, goddammit!

Forgive the profanity, but “Valhalla’s” increasingly sophisticated examination of religion this season is its smartest thematic element, and dare I say inspirational in the way it distinguishes this show from the plague of Middle Ages sword-swingers out there. While earlier seasons emphasized fanatic, cross-wearing barbarians, this round digs into how the power of the Church was wielded as an instrument of control and consolidation. For all the radiant charisma and strength of character Gustavsson brings to Freydis, we know the monotheists’ might will overcome her Odin’s in the end (canonizing St. Olaf, whom Freydis slew last season, requires a pleasing bit of savage ingenuity). And while it can’t be said that Corlett totally sells Leif’s dual nature as man of science and unstoppable swashbuckler, he does convey the Catholic-curious hero’s nagging moral quandaries.

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Leo Suter in “Vikings:Valhalla.” (Bernard Walsh/Netflix)

Since Munteanu plays Maniakes as pure evil in every conceivable way, it’s no surprise that the character is also the series’ number one Islamophobe. This is not a big part of the season, but it’s a noteworthy acknowledgement that some things have not changed to this day — and a reminder that, before the 11th Century’s end, the Crusades will be in full, ghastly swing.

So yeah, lots here for history buffs to drink in, despite the hangovers it may give sticklers. Language snobs may rightfully wince at clumsily written lines such as “Vikings are NEVER lost” and “Take these to the kitchen, there is much cooking to be done!” Yet “Valhalla’s” faults fade as one binges on through its eventful plot, impressive-enough locations (Ireland for the Northern climes, Croatia for the Mediterranean parts), and longboat-sinking, battleaxe bludgeoning action. I still don’t buy that drunk crows can set an imperial city on fire, but aside from things like that, I believe in “Valhalla” like Norse warriors had faith in their afterlife reward.

“Vikings: Valhalla” Season 3 premieres Thursday, July 11, on Netflix.

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