(While scrappy little Vikings doesn’t get a shiny “experts” alternate review like big, bad Game Of Thrones, this is going to get necessarily SPOILER-y. Be advised.)
First, a digression. While I’m not remotely smart enough to claim I saw the ending of The Sixth Sense coming on initial viewing, I sure knew something wasn’t right. People weren’t speaking to each other like, well, people, and I had the sense that this Shyamalan guy didn’t know how to properly craft a screenplay. (I will take credit for spotting that in advance of his later output.) When the twist was sprung, I was as wowed as the next guy, but still remembered how unsatisfying much of the human element of the movie had been while I was watching it. Did the neat twist invalidate the dramatic unease? Or, to bring it home to “The Lord’s Prayer,” Vikings season finale—is a satisfying reveal sufficient to retroactively erase unsatisfying drama?
First introduced taking Ragnar’s measure over a game of skill at the end of season one, Donal Logue’s King Horik was always intended to be a skillful manipulator. But while he was ever an antagonist upgrade over Gabriel Byrne’s stolid villainy, his character never developed a real complexity either. Either his plays made inconsistent sense (the waffling over Jarl Borg), or they were ham-handed and obvious, as in his attempted manipulation of Floki. There is the briefest of moments in “The Lord’s Prayer,” when his men are pulling some Viking ninja moves on Ragnar’s guards, where it seems Horik may have something further up his sleeve and that Vikings might have something more daring in mind going forward. But then, with an appropriately prosaic, “I’m watching over you—like I promised your father,” Floki keys Bjorn in to what’s been clear for half the season. Ragnar’s got the plan, Floki’s not a traitor, and alas, poor Horik.
This may seem contradictory, since I’ve been complaining in these reviews about how unconvincing Floki’s sudden resentment toward his buddy Ragnar and his susceptibility to Horik’s plotting has been. But the big reveal is simply a case of being careful what you wish for, as the long con that Ragnar and Floki have been pulling makes what was unsatisfying about one of Vikings’ most entertaining characters this season dramatically unsound as well. Yes, Michael Hirst and company laid the groundwork for this twist well in advance, but in doing so, they not only reduced Floki’s effectiveness as a character, they tilted the latter half of the season off-kilter to do it. In short, they made us think they had lost control of the show in order to pull off the trick. Which made the show significantly worse. Again, I’m feeling Shyamalan-ed.
It’s not that Ragnar’s endgame isn’t an ambitious dramatic gambit on Hirst’s part—it’s that it forces the show away from the show’s main strengths (character, ambiguity, a sense of place) in favor of the sort of plot-heavy machinations found in more traditional period court dramas. And the episode isn’t even particularly adept at keeping the ruse going. When Floki visits Rollo, smushing some suspicious mushrooms in the still-weakened Rollo’s mouth, the scene is set up to make us think that he’s murdering Rollo. But when we see Rollo alive later, there’s only one conclusion. The same with Torstein—there’s no follow-up to his purported death. And then with Floki watching Bjorn and Porunn going at it in the ferns. All set to the repetitious hum of Horik’s supposed testing of Floki (“I don’t know if I can trust you,” “Kill someone and I’ll trust you,” “You killed someone and now I trust you”), the prosaic structure of the episode blows the gaff, even before the big reveal in the great hall. (Torstein showing himself was neat, though—I’m not claiming the ending isn’t fun.)
So when Ragnar finally lets Horik (and the viewer) know he’s been in control all along, and enacts all-encompassing vengeance on Horik and his entire family, it’s all of a piece with Vikings’ conception of Ragnar Lothbrok as the baddest, smartest Norseman around. But he’s also been more than that. What Vikings has done so admirably in the character of Ragnar Lothbrok is to deconstruct the idea of the “white male antihero” so prevalent in modern TV drama. Ragnar isn’t looking back to an idealized time whose brutality allows him to feel like a man. He lives in a brutal time and place and his vision is the first glimmer of something like a modern, civilized soul. Looking forward and across the ocean for new worlds, Ragnar thinks in terms of brutal conquest—but, alone among his people, he also sees his traditional conqueror’s role as the path to something like peace, and knowledge. That war inside Ragnar has been the engine that’s driven Vikings from the start and made it far more complex and interesting a show than initially expected. (Certainly more so than I expected.) In subordinating that complexity in service of an elaborate sting over these last several episodes, Vikings’ second season ends as it began (regardless of the victorious Ragnar’s steadfast perch overlooking his new-won kingdom)—on uncertain footing.
Episode grade: B-
Season grade: B
- Ragnar says precious little in the episode, another clue to the denouement. For once, Travis Fimmel’s half smiles and knowing glances all point in only one possible direction.
- Several great tableaux in the episode. While Ragnar’s lofty cliffside perch at the end and Aslaug and Lagertha watching the storm approach are striking, the composition of Floki standing on the crooked dock while the lightning flashes all around him is a stunner.
- Bjorn clearly learned his two-fisted foreplay technique from his parents.
- As that series of truly shocking head butts should make clear—really not a good idea to threaten Ragnar’s family.
- As ill-considered as I obviously think the whole scam was, there’s no denying Gustaf Skarsgård’s delivery of, “No, King Horik. I only betrayed you” is delicious. Nice to have you back, Floki.
- Thanks for reading along this season, gang. The debates have been a highpoint of my week. See you when Vikings returns in 2015!