Vikings’ growing pains are Ragnar Lothbrok’s. Introduced as a scrappy, unheralded underdog, scoring stunning successes with unforeseen ambition, and then settling in for an awkward transitional period as that success mandates roles unprepared for—the parallels are pretty striking. I don’t know who expected much from the History Channel’s first scripted series, but I know it wasn’t me, and so the show’s first season raced out to a level of accomplishment that often left me speechless in admiration. Indeed, like Ragnar, Vikings may have raced ahead too fast.
Ragnar’s character is built for action and speed, and so is Vikings. When Ragnar’s lightning ascent pauses for him to assume roles he is less suited for (administration and governance as the new Earl, domestic squabbling with the introduction of the pregnant Aslaug), he often appears both impatient and uneasy, and so does the series. Which isn’t to say that Vikings is some boneheaded action machine—both the level of characterization and the authenticity of its world-building have been major reasons why the show has been so impressive. The series just isn’t as adept at presenting the everyday lives of its characters without rendering them mundane and all too ordinary.
As in the season premiere, Vikings is at its worst when its characters’ dilemmas and dialogue are too relatable to modern sensibilities. When Ragnar and Lagertha’s fight about Aslaug’s arrival and Ragnar’s infidelity came to a head, their dialogue—indeed, their every reaction—could have been pulled from almost any contemporary drama, from soap operas to Mad Men. It’s worrisome if Vikings’ dramatic appeal cannot extend beyond the novelty of its milieu and the promise of bloodshed and hot Viking sex—then all the promise of its initial season seems doomed to bog down into a morass of unconvincing melodrama. Thankfully, “Invasion” hints at the series’ strategy for staving off such a fate and, unsurprisingly, it’s the enduringly subtle and charismatic work of its lead.
Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar has the entire show on his back, and it’s to Fimmel’s credit that Ragnar is able to overcome the show’s lapses into predictability. A lot is made of Fimmel’s eyes—and those icy blues do have some spooky charisma lurking there—but there’s a reason for that. Ragnar’s always been presented as a Viking ahead of his time, and Fimmel’s had to convey that fact through a character not generally given to long speeches or explanations. Apart from the anomaly of this season’s premiere (where there was some unaccustomed speechifying), the necessary fact of Ragnar’s conflict as a man both of and ahead of his culture has rested on the subtlety of Fimmel’s actions—his body language, his wordless reactions, and, yes, those eyes. When forced to lay out what he’s thinking (as in the post-battle speech last episode), the character’s magic disappears, undermining his mystery with mouthfuls of prosaic (and, it must be said, indifferently accented) verbiage.
But look at the opening scenes of tonight’s episode (arriving, shockingly, with the legend “Four Years Later”) where Ragnar, with two new sons (and another in Aslaug’s belly) preparing for his long-promised raid on England. When Floki (exhausted with building Ragnar’s fleet of raiding ships, and still hobbled from Rollo’s brutal assault), teases Ragnar that people are starting to compare him to the stolid, unadventurous leadership of Gabriel Byrne’s late Earl Haraldson, Ragnar’s response is a knowing look, a sly smile, and a rejoining “Oh, is that what they think?” before he announces to the full banquet hall his plans to raid again in the summer. It’s not that he is goaded into doing something, but that he’s been biding his time (building ships and replenishing the stock of warriors after the plague of four years ago) and no doubt enduring the sidelong glances and murmurs of those without his vision and foresight. And Fimmel does it all with a look, a smile, and some body language. It’s like Ragnar’s actions are designed to allay the viewer’s fears as well as his subjects’.
That underplayed authority carries over to at least partially defuse what was also the prime failing of the premiere, when Aslaug (turning out to be as much of a pill as her previous appearances predicted), seeing Ragnar chatting with a serving wench, starts berating him about what she perceives as a wandering eye. Here again, the dialogue itself borders on deadly (“You don’t know you are flirting with other women and showing you want to bed them?” “Yes you are, women know these things”), but Ragnar continually steals focus from the dreary domestic drama with an array of focus-pulling bits of business throughout, flopping dead on the bed before engaging with Aslaug’s accusations, rolling his eyes unseen before every response, and kneeling playfully to enlist his unborn son’s help in refuting Aslaug’s suspicions. (“Tell your beautiful mother that I’m not doing what she thinks.”) And while the jury’s out on just how faithful Ragnar is to Aslaug (he was giving the servant girl the eye—although she may just reming him of Gyda), his restless mischievousness here and elsewhere plays as an essential part of Ragnar’s nature—he simply has bigger fish to fry than internecine squabbling and domestic disputes. Ragnar is impatient for the world to catch up to his needs and, too smart to rush into action before the time is right, his impatience manifests itself in sly humor and an eerie glint. When Ragnar is on his game, he’s mysterious and menacingly unknowable—to the other characters and the viewers.
It’s a trait that gets a lot of work through the first half of “Invasion,” with Ragnar having to deliver bad news to both Rollo and King Horik’s sometime enemy Earl Borg. Rollo, roused from what has become his customary place—freezing and drunk in the gutter—by Siggy, is up first, begging to be reinstated both as Ragnar’s brother and as his raiding companion, and his two scenes with Ragnar benefit from Fimmel’s cagey demeanor, and also the episode’s hints that there may be, finally, a little more to Rollo than we’ve seen before. Largely portrayed as Vikings’ resident looming meathead and betrayal engine, here Rollo, despite being goaded into action by the ever scheming Siggy, edges, improbably, into tragic hero territory. Sure, it’s impossible to trust Rollo at this point, but Clive Standen brings some unaccustomed pathos to the guy, who seems broken by his long history of failure and duplicity and heartbreakingly sincere in his wish to be reconciled with his brother. When Ragnar delivers his final judgement that Rollo is now considered Ragnar’s brother once again—but that he will not accompany him on his raid—Standen’s restrained acceptance of his brother’s lack of trust and forgiveness barely registers on his face, but hints at the pain underneath. Those hints run even deeper when Rollo, visited plucking a (lute? Viking ukelele?) at his fireside, delivers a stunning rebuttal to the similarly rejected Borg, who tries to lure his former conspirator back to his side. (Neither Borg nor myself saw that one coming.) Like his brother, Rollo is beginning to reveal (or discover) some added dimension, and it looks good on him.
Which is a good thing, since, with Rollo’s failure, Siggy seems ready to find a new person to manipulate. Siggy remains a character I’m lukewarm about, but when not saddled with her too-obvious Lady MacBeth role, Jessalyn Gilsig has brought some welcome shades to the former noblewoman. (A relief, since she’s clearly set to play a larger role this season.) While it’s apparent that the former Earl’s wife has always had plans to will herself back into power—most likely over Ragnar’s dead body—she’s always showed an intriguing kinship with the series other female characters. Lagertha was nominally her enemy, but when she miscarried Ragnar’s son, there was nothing duplicitous about Siggy’s shared grief with the wife of the man who had killed her husband. And here, when Ragnar’s new wife—also pregnant with Ragnar’s heir—calls Siggy to her bedside to call a temporary truce, their conversation, as guarded as it may be, is similarly pregnant with a knowing understanding. (“Women should stick together.” “And we should rule.” “All things would be better.”) And while I remain unimpressed by Alyssa Sutherland’s Aslaug as a character, this parallel current of female consciousness can only benefit two characters seemingly destined for more screen time.
Meanwhile, with Ragnar and Horik’s ships on their way to England, Vikings reasserts itself with a solid final fifteen minutes of the sort of intelligently staged and gripping action last season did so well. There’s much to like in the band’s assault on the English coast this time around—the show makes compelling use of its color palette both in the gripping sea voyage and the Vikings’ eventual battle on a lovely, serene riverbank. Also, in contrast to the battle scene last week, which was too busy and replete with flabby visual storytelling and improbable heroics, the ambush here, with hidden Brits’ arrows catching the Norsemen napping before the Vikings’ regrouped tactics gradually turn the tide, is tight, exciting, and strikingly shot. And Athelstan’s heroics forge a new link in the ever enigmatic relationship between him and Ragnar, again just in time for the larger role the former enslaved monk is destined to play in his first return to the land of his birth. After a rocky start, Vikings seems to have begun righting its ship.
- I’m giving in on the whole “Earl” vs. “Jarl” issue. Either term was in use at the time, and while the first season very clearly used “Jarl,” “Earl” is coming more into fashion this season. Fine! I surrender!
- As good as Andre Braugher’s Frank Pembleton was at getting confessions, I bet his success rate in the interrogation room would be even better if he got to hold the dripping severed head of the suspect’s accomplice while he did it.
- I’m glad the ocean crossing this time was a difficult one, as it underscores that, even with Ragnar’s navigational skills, the Vikings’ journey on their open boats was never a sure thing.
- The theme of magic and superstition in Viking society is coming up more and more, with both Aslaug and John Kavanagh’s creepy Seer making dire predictions to Ragnar.
- By the way, when Aslaug claims to have special powers, Ragnar teases her that she is a “völva,” which was a Viking prophetess. Get your mind out of the gutter.
- As the sound of the waves crashing on the looming, jagged rocks of the English coastline send everyone else scurrying to man the oars, the singular look on Ragnar’s face staring into probable crushing disaster—eyes cold aflame and a smile at his lips in indefinable emotion—is the first time this season that he has looked...other. I’ve missed it.
- Donal Logue’s Horik, delivering some Viking wisdom before the battle: “Do not be dismayed. Meet everything head on. Whether we live or die today is already in the hands of the gods. They already know if we sup with them tonight, so fear not. Fight well. And if you fall, fear not. Surely Odin will take you to Valhalla.”
- We meet Ragnar’s English nemesis, Linus Roache’s King Ecbert of Wessex, in the final scene, lazing in his enormous bathtub and delivering but one seemingly innocuous line to the anxious soldier come to tell him of the Vikings’ victory. With his calm command, Ecbert’s already more formidable than blustering King Aelle and his pit of snakes.
- Plus, Athelstan has heard of Ecbert and is clearly unsettled, telling Ragnar, “He is just like you.”