For all its intermittent bloodshed, Vikings continues to excel at mood. A sequence halfway through “Boneless” sees the Norsemen preparing to sail off on their raid on England. Ships are loaded, goodbyes are said, and the camera takes time throughout to visit the faces of characters—some known to us, some not—as they prepare for this risky venture. The palette of these harbor scenes is, as ever, flint and iron, a choice which never seems to grow tiresome or trite but instead makes the faces, clothing, and equipment glow with a dull strength and thematic resonance—as Bjorn says matter-of-factly in parting to his slave girl love Porunn, “I will probably die in battle.” And (if he were not a main character) he probably will. Throughout the scene, the score asserts itself unobtrusively but insistently, a steady, ominous drumbeat marching inexorably toward the ships’ departure while a low chanting echoes of both sea shanty and lament.
Drawn to their shared journey, the main characters all arrive, wrenching free of their individual stories to join the others in this one, which now takes precedence. Bjorn runs to Porunn and receives a declaration of love (and some over-the-clothes action). Rollo and Siggy have something like a reconciliation, with her “I will be here when you return if that is what you want” answered with a tender handclasp. Floki, seen in a striking overhead shot luxuriating idly in a field with Helga, muses on his nature, and his decision to sail with Horik, rather than Ragnar. And Ragnar himself, having chosen not to kill his crippled newborn son, shares his pain with Aslaug in the most intimate moment we’ve ever seen between the two before finally striding to the docks, his strapping son Bjorn at his side. Ragnar is Vikings’ prime mover, and his arrival slows the camera even as his men scurry to fall in behind him. The music swells, glances are exchanged that express more about characters than any two pages of dialogue, and then the boats are sailing inexorably away while we see the women of Kattegat watching sadly from atop a green cliff. Yes, Vikings does a lot of things well, but its confidence with this sort of visual storytelling is enriching season two immeasurably. The whole sequence is stunning.
Not a lot happens in “Boneless.” Or, rather, the many things that happen serve to prepare the ground for what is clearly going to be an eventful last two episodes. (The fact that History keeps hyping the season’s denouement as “the most shocking event in television history” or some such may also be a clue. Note to History: you’ve produced a very good show right out of the gate—take it down a notch.) Here, apart from the development with poor little Ivar (“Ivar the Boneless,” according to history), a brief detour for a revelation about Lagertha’s rise to power, and some sexy shenanigans at Ecbert’s court, there’s not much action until the final twist sheds some blood. Instead, all the conflicts and relationships brewing through the season come bubbling to the edge of the pot without boiling over. I suppose those who tune in to Vikings for the berserker thrills were disappointed. I was riveted.
Opening on the harrowing birth of Ivar, we see something we’ve not seen before—Ragnar terrified. It’s a brief shot of him reacting to Aslaug’s agony, but it’s there and I don’t know what else to call it. The whole Ragnar/Aslaug marriage has never been a crowd pleaser as Ragnar/Lagertha was, but throughout this episode Travis Fimmel and Alyssa Sutherland show shades to their relationship we’ve not seen before either—for all the increasingly tedious prophecy stuff (which has stood in for much of Aslaug’s character), in “Boneless” the two actors are simply united in grief and pain. It’s the first time they’ve ever seemed intimate. And Fimmel is just astoundingly good in the episode. He’s always made so much from the little that Ragnar gives out, but in his scenes with Aslaug and Ivar, his inner turmoil is expressed with silent eloquence. I don’t know what a guy has to do to win an Emmy, but I know his scene at the riverside where he contemplates killing his son should be the clip they show. Its equal is in the embarkation scene. Watch him walk to the boats—the pain and exhaustion in his eyes, the downward cast of his head as he, turning from thoughts of Ivar, glances aside at the healthy, eager Bjorn, and then at Lagertha looking back at him in something like sympathy, and then to the increasingly untrustworthy Horik. If there’s a more subtle and skillful piece of silent acting on TV this season, I haven’t seen it.
Meanwhile, things are going all Tudors over in Wessex, with King Ecbert welcoming visiting Princess Kwenthrith (Amy Bailey) from neighboring Mercia, where she’s just killed her brother and set off a civil war amongst her Borgias-esque family. It’s all sort of fun, with the bluntly sexual Kwenthrith asking the clearly perturbed and tumescent Athelstan about the Vikings’ sexual practices before nearly humping Ecbert to death. (He sends in a few of his soldiers to finish the job, much to Kwenthrith’s delight.) One of Vikings’ chief failures has been finding a worthy adversary for Ragnar. I’m still holding out hope for Linus Roache’s Ecbert, who seems to have more cards than he’s showing, but all this broad, rumpy-pumpy stuff is not especially on point. (It is pretty entertaining.) In his final, wordless scene, watching a handful of grain slip through his fingers, there’s the sense that he’s got wheels in motion that we can’t see. I sure hope so, as Ragnar needs a truly formidable foe for the dramatic stakes to be maintained.
At one time, it seemed that King Horik was that adversary—an astute game player whose worldly wisdom was a match for Ragnar’s innate skill. However, as much as I like Donal Logue’s burly presence on the show, his Horik has revealed himself to be less than he seemed. He’s a schemer, sure, but he’s awfully obvious about it and his final move here, dispatching increasingly Joffrey-like son Erlender (Edvin Endre) to ambush Ecbert’s son and his emissaries (whom Ragnar had promised safe passage) is a blunt play. Horik seems Hel-bent on avenging his other son at Ecbert’s hands and ignoring Ragnar’s long game, marking Horik out as another lesser antagonist to fall eventual victim to Ragnar’s vision. Perhaps Horik’s still got a few unexpected moves left, but the character’s been a disappointment.
In the end, “Boneless” leaves Ragnar facing threats from Horik and Ecbert and possible disloyalty from allies Floki and Lagertha, with only his wits to serve him. It’s to Vikings’ credit that it’s by no means certain which way things will to go.
- Katheryn Winnick, too, has a stealthily great episode, with Lagertha revealing that her play against her loathsome husband wasn’t as ill-considered as it first appeared, and disarming the now equally-loathsome Einar’s knife-wielding rape attempt with nothing but words and contempt. People on this show should just get the message that attempting to assault Lagertha never goes well.
- Winnick’s equally good in the embarkation scene. Her look back at the clearly tormented Ragnar is a heartbreaker. And I loved her little smile earlier when Bjorn defiantly says of Porunn, “She is a servant. A slave. And I am in love with her.”
- And let’s not forget the slow-motion horse charge alongside her female warriors. Quibble all you want about the concept of a female Earl—Winnick makes Lagertha plausible. And formidable.
- Ragnar bites the umbilical cord because of course he does.
- Still hoping that the whole “Floki turning on Ragnar” plot is some sort of long con, but the scene where Gustaf Skarsgård explains his actions to Helga is as evocative and mysterious as it gets. “I am crazy and cracked. There is something wrong with me. Which is why I choose to travel with King Horik. He understands the gods better than Ragnar.” To Helga’s, “That is not possible,” he replies, “I mean the real gods. The darker gods. The gods that haunt me.”
- And the following exchange gives me hope: King Horik: “It is my judgment that a boatbuilder is worth ten earls.” Floki (smiling): “And how many kings?”
- “The only person you could kill was a dying man. That’s how brave you are.”
- Bjorn could do a lot worse than having Uncle Rollo by his side. Their brutal training session—and frank talk afterward—is the very essence of what an uncle is. You know, minus the imagined disemboweling.
- As silly as the whole Kwenthrith story is, Linus Roache’s “I don’t know how I can…be of help” made me laugh through my nose.