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Vikings flails for a new direction as the sons of Ragnar seek revenge

“It is almost tiresome to hear the poets talk of all your exploits.”

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Katheryn Winnick (Photo: Jonathan Hession/History)
Katheryn Winnick (Photo: Jonathan Hession/History)
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Vikings

"The Great Army"

Season 4 , Episode 17

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Vikings’ leaps forward in time have always been a refreshing storytelling strategy. Tuning in to see characters grown older, or in new and unexplained circumstances is bracing. For one thing, it’s testament to the series commitment to its vision as historical drama—as attached as we become to these characters, their susceptibility to the unforgiving sweep of time lends their actions resonance. For another, it’s welcome to see a TV show that trusts viewers enough to keep them off balance. Playing catchup is energizing.

So “The Great Army,” which sees Lagertha’s plan to fortify her newly-won kingdom rise in battlements and walls and masses of busy Kattegat citizens hard at work, signals that the rough stalemate between Lagertha and Ubbe, Sigurd, and Ivar remains. The main problem with the episode is that that stalemate, time-jump or not, has gone slightly stale.

Ivar—his sculpted razor cut grown into a shaggier mane—sharpens weapons and glares at his brothers for what he sees as their inexplicable cowardice in not avenging their mother. “Oh, there he is. The voice of reason. I hate reason,” taunts Ivar when elder brother Ubbe counsels patience. If Ubbe is the measured one he’s been, Sigurd keeps plucking the same sour string, resentfully countering Ivar’s taunts by repeating his complaints against the departed Aslaug. “To me she was cold and distant,” he tells his “momma’s boy” brother, leading to another of their bullying confrontations—only this time, Ivar lashes out with what sure looks like a murderous axe-blow. Only the lightning quick intervention of a friendly blacksmith appears to keep Sigurd’s blood where it belongs.

Katheryn Winnick (Photo: Jonathan Hession/History)

As for Ubbe, the brothers’ plan to raise a massive army to avenge Ragnar sees him both counseling patience and provoking Lagertha. Openly freeing sometime lover Margrethe in front of the queen and inviting Lagertha to join them on their raid, Ubbe attempts gamesmanship, but Lagertha is ahead of him. She knows of their plan before he tells her of it, and, when some of the sons’ gathered warriors drink in her great hall, she counters his threatening pronouncement that no one know how long she will be queen by looking Ubbe over and telling him evenly, “You look just like your father looked when he was a young man. When I first knew him.” Ubbe, with his lean, handsome face does favor Ragnar more than any of his brothers do, but Lagertha’s words serve to point out to the young man that he is not his father.

When Ubbe and Ragnar spring the trap they’ve been planning with significant looks and half-spoken words all episode, the tension is solid—until the first Bjorn-centered twist of the night deflates it. That Ivar and Ubbe (and their newfound allies) could get the drop on Lagertha and her rigorously trained shieldmaidens is believable enough, I suppose (although the staging of their coup involves a lot of awkward and perfunctory knives to throats), and when Ubbe and Ivar call out the suddenly vulnerable Lagertha, the moment bristles with genuine danger. For one thing, we’ve recently seen Vikings do the unthinkable in killing off Ragnar. No one is safe with Ragnar Lothbrok in the ground. So when Ivar once again drags himself toward Lagertha with hand-spikes and Ubbe challenges the steely Lagertha so openly, there’s the very real feeling that another main character will have to die.

Alexander Ludwig (Photo: Jonathan Hession/History)

And then Bjorn shows up. Returning in the nick of time from his aborted raid on the Mediterranean, Bjorn kicks open the barred doors, his plain “If you kill her, my brothers, you have to kill me too” an intended big moment that serves only to suggest that, without Ragnar driving the action, Vikings’ storytelling is relying on cliché. The conflict between Lagertha, Ubbe, and Ivar is a legitimate one, one that could have served to solidify each character’s claim to true protagonist status in a post-Ragnar world. Here, Bjorn—reappearing from across untold miles at just the opportune second—hijacks the moment from them and leaves their conflict right where it was. On hold, everyone stewing.

As Bjorn continues, “We have to avenge our father. That is why I came back. And that is what we are going to do.” In signature Bjorn fashion, it’s a terse restatement of someone else’s more eloquent sentiment, as Ivar’s malediction from tonight’s first scene still hangs in the air. “In the name of our dead father. In the name of Ragnar Lothbrok, the greatest hero of our country. And in the name of Odin. We declare war on the whole world.” To that end, as Sigurd says, “We do deals with kings and earls that we hate,” a plan to build an army twice the size of Ragnar’s Paris forces that signals the unpromising elevation of perpetually untrustworthy allies Harald and Halfdan to significant antagonist status heading into the season’s home stretch.

King Harald’s plan to betray everyone in sight was evident from his first appearance, and now—returning with a boatload of female slaves and his usual complement of shifty glances—he and his brother, again, exchange furtive words about how they’re going to betray Bjorn and conquer Kattegat once the time is right. Joined by a new partner-in-betrayal (Charlie Kelly as the scarred and sneering Egil), the brothers spend every moment of screen time in the episode dropping hints that, soon—betrayal time. Again, the internecine scheming of the house of Lothbrok is where the potential lies after Ragnar’s death—waiting for the Harald betrayal-bomb to finally go off is not nearly as interesting.

Gustaf Skarsgård, Alex Høgh (Photo: Jonathan Hession/History)

More compelling are the final scenes between Floki and Ivar. Dragging himself to visit his father’s old friend, Ivar first further terrifies the catatonic young girl who Helga continues to insist will be their new adoptive daughter. (The poor girl shrinks back and shrieks at Ivar’s touch, which, from what we have seen of Ivar, suggests the child has good instincts.) That whole plotline remains uninvolving otherwise, as the always grounded Helga’s obsession with replacing her dead daughter still rings false. However, Alex Høgh and Gustaf Skarsgård make Ivar and Floki’s relationship land in just a few expert touches, their initial hostility (“It’s very sweet of you to drag your crippled ass all the way over to see me.”) revealed as mere game-playing when they can’t help but laugh and embrace. (Ivar also repeats the teasing, “Come on, donkey” he used on his father when Floki is carrying him later.) Floki’s love for Ragnar has always extended warmly to his sons, and seeing his rapport with Ivar here is the most engaging element of “The Great Army,” especially when the ever-ingenious Floki reveals the chariot he’s built to aid in Ivar’s plan to raid with his brothers. Skarsgård embodies Floki’s contradictory strains of fierce love and bloody-mindedness with a gleam of maniacal poetry, and his words to Ivar (“It’s your legs Ivar. It’s your wings.”) are musical. When Ivar, donning a menacing armored hood for the occasion, gallops through the dark woods and whoops in liberated joy, Floki’s answering cries are exhilarating.

But Bjorn spies on what they’re up to, leading to the episode’s second groan-worthy development, as he then advances menacingly on Lagertha’s lover Astrid—before the two share a passionate kiss. Again, it’s melodrama substituting for direction, something Vikings without Ragnar Lothbrok sorely needs.

Stray observations

Clive Standen (Photo: Jonathan Hession/History)
  • Bjorn drops the reluctant Rollo off back in Frankia, telling the Rollo that “there is too much bad blood” for him to accompany the Norse on their English raid. Floki concurs, but his “You are no longer a part of us, Rollo,” is answered by Rollo’s enigmatic, “Well what is us Floki is changing, only you won’t accept it.” He then offers the Vikings the chance to farm in peace in Frankia.
  • Clive Standen continues to make Rollos’ conflicts resonate, as in his farewell to Helga (the only one to offer him an affectionate goodbye). “Thank you Helga. I won’t forget. I won’t forget anything.”
  • Floki, to Bjorn: “You should have killed him when you had the chance. Because I have a bad feeling that he will reach more fame than any of you.”
  • Rollo is then rather impressively beaten up by Gisla once they’re alone back in the throne room. (I don’t speak Frankish, but pretty sure I heard words for “whore” and “dog” in her curses.)
  • Over in England, Judith travels to warn her parents about the inevitable Norse revenge, getting a healthy dose of slut-shaming from them over her continued relationship with father-in-law Ecbert. Judith’s come a long way since we first saw her, however, landing the meticulously delivered burn on King Aelle, “As for you, father, you may enjoy the aridities of heaven without my discomfiting presence, and that of every other woman whose only crime was a desire to be free.” She also urges her younger sister to learn how to read.
  • On the other hand, it remains disappointing how passive a character Margrethe has turned out to be. Ubbe frees her and she follows, back to being the plaything of the sons of Ragnar. (Ubbe’s stated plan to marry her notwithstanding).
  • Ecbert tricks young Alfred into barfing up a great deal of wine in order to get the future Alfred the Great to think for himself.
  • Bjorn’s abuse of Torvi is especially petulant: “. Nothing else matters right now, woman. I did not come back here to be told what to do. Not by you. Not by anyone!”
  • Ubbe to the visiting warrior mocking Ivar: “His name is Ivar, and he’s my brother. So I would stop laughing at him right now. If you want to stay alive, I would learn to respect and fear him. That would be my advice.”
Alex Høgh (Photo: Jonathan Hession/History)