Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Katheryn Winnick (Photo: Jonathan Hession)

“I love women. Not just spiritually.”

At its best, Vikings has excelled at visual storytelling, its brisk, propulsive events mirroring the quicksilver mind of former protagonist Ragnar Lothbrok and the hardy, physical lives of his people. And when it did slow down for some talk, the actors involved (especially Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Gustaf Skarsgård, and Clive Standen’s Rollo) had established such an inhabited, stealthily soulful group of characters that the occasional outburst of unaccustomed verbiage could be forgiven if it tipped into variably accented exposition.

But Fimmel’s long gone, and “A Simple Story” teases a Rollo return that never comes. (Standen is still stolidly stomping bad guys as the lead of NBC’s Taken.) Apart from that disfiguring disappointment, however, the episode shows how this frustrating season of Vikings continues to fail at finding a purpose after the departure of Ragnar (and Fimmel). Lagertha remains, but Winnick is bound by a queenly remove and uninterestingly handled romantic betrayal storyline. (As it seems that Josefin Asplund’s Astrid isn’t engaged in a long-term double-cross of King Harald, which would at least liven that plot up a little.) As for Skarsgård’s Floki, his messianic colonization of “the land of the gods” alongside his fractious followers—while affording the actor a chance to show off some of the silent expressiveness that serves Floki best—remains bogged down in the simplistic antagonism of perpetually complaining follower Eyvind.

Both Winnick and Skarsgård are hobbled in their efforts to have Lagertha and Floki take up the series’ reins by conflicts that are the palest shadows of former, far more evocative stories. Lagertha opens the episode by visiting the wounded Christian Bishop Heahmund, and the two have a speech-off that is as dull as it is prosaically overheated. Heahmund’s fanaticism (and sexy sinning) has never established itself outside those narrow parameters, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers falling back on smoldering looks and a Batman voice to nudge the warrior-priest into relief. Here, though, Michael Hirst’s script sends Heahmund and Meyers into disaster, with both Heahmund’s sexy come-ons to his captor and their rote philosophical banter coming across like a parody of the period dramas Vikings once stood apart from.

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Katheryn Winnick, Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Photo: Jonathan Hession)

For one thing, the series had once been not only content but seemingly prideful about not waiting for viewers to catch up, whereas here we’re treated to Lagertha once again, explaining to Heahmund that she doesn’t know why she saved him on the battlefield. (It doesn’t help that the “previously on Vikings” recap shows her saying those exact words not five minutes of running time before this.) If Heahmund—the devout Christian thrust unwillingly among the “heathens”—is to mirror the monk Athelstan’s journey this season, Meyers and Hirst muff it in every conceivable way. If Lagertha doesn’t know why she brought Heahmund along, then neither do we, as his strident denunciations of his captors give way here to a blandly silly catalog of why he claims to find Lagertha so entrancing. Later, asked for the reasons he’s dragged his wounded self through a gauntlet of sneering, bullying Vikings to her tent, Heahmund lists, “Everything. The gods, life and death, my soul, the hanged man, despair, hope, eternal life.” Everything, indeed, with Meyers imbuing Heahmund with a cocky smoothness that makes you want to see Lagertha just beat the crap out of the priest for daring to imagine himself, as he claims, her equal.

For all Meyers’ efforts, Heahmund is simply not an interesting or developed enough figure for Lagertha to bother with. And even if she’s stringing him along for his warrior skills and her own pleasure (I mean, he isn’t unattractive), their seductive gamesmanship plays out in passionless dead air between them. Unlike Norse Ragnar and English Athelstan, this meeting of cultures and minds has no flavor of mutual discovery or curiosity. Like so many developments in this fifth season, their sparring sounds like nothing so much as grinding plot gears, no matter how smokily Lagertha snuffs out those candles, one by one, in her darkening tent.

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As for Floki, his situation is similarly fraught not with character-driven obstacles but with manufactured external conflict. With the obstinate Eyvind pushing back at Floki’s leadership seeming from the first instant the settlers set foot in their new land, Floki here counsels hulking loyalist Kjetill (Adam Copeland) that Eyvind is just trying to provoke a conflict so that he can declare himself leader. We know this, as noted, because that’s literally all Eyvind has ever done, the battle lines for inevitable conflict having been drawn from the start. Floki’s rapturous quest to found an atavistically “pure” Norse society presents far more resonant possibilities than Floki having to cope with a petty, ambitious jerk. When the fight does come tonight, with Eyvind’s sneering henchman Bul burning down the newly constructed temple to Thor (and getting a Floki supporter’s knife to the gut for his trouble), there isn’t so much catharsis as watch-checking impatience. Skarsgård does what he can, the actor making Floki’s anguished determination to avoid petty squabbling in his new paradise at least striking to observe, if not meaningfully motivated by anything but the creaky machinations of the plot.

Floki (Photo: Jonathan Hession)

Meanwhile, the post-battle scheming of the two Norse armies plays out in a series of solemnly inert meetings and conversations, with Ivar sending Hvitserk sailing to France to enlist uncle Rollos’ help—and Lagertha and Bjorn stewing over the fact that Ivar has sent Hvitserk sailing to France to enlist Rollos’ help. (To interject—don’t promise me Rollo and then not give me Rollo.) The Viking warrior turned Frankish nobleman sends only some ships and men (“More than we can count!,” exclaims one of Lagertha’s shieldmaidens, although it looks to be about 25 ships or so), leaving us, once more, Rollo-less. I really do miss Standen, certainly, but Rollo’s absence does more to undermine the credibility of the sons of Ragnar as heroes of their own story. Ivar, lounging insouciantly in Harald’s hall in Vestfold, replies to Harald’s skepticism about his tactical leadership in the wake of their mutual defeat by agreeing to Hvitserk’s Rollo plan, and Harald immediately agrees. So much for their conflict, although when Bjorn comes later to try to broker a peace once more time, Harald does halt what appears to be Ivar’s attempt to kill his half-brother, the king’s furious, “It is not our way!” greeted with a shrug from Ivar, who relents.

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Bjorn’s attempts to secure his father’s legacy here emerge in a speech that restates Ragnar’s vision and character in the most obvious manner possible. Speaking of his illustrious father, Bjorn tells Lagertha, Ubbe, Halfdan, and everyone else in the Kattegat camp exactly what they already know—and what we watching need spelled out for us even less, especially filtered through Bjorn’s mundane words. We know Ragnar wanted more for his people than an existence of constant raiding, warfare, and the unending toil of trying to scratch farms out of the stony, scarce Norwegian soil. In Ragnar’s example (and Fimmel’s) we gleaned that vision through a far more fascinating, evocative mind. Bjorn’s rallying cry here only serves to remind us how Vikings has yet to find a voice to replace Ragnar’s.

Stray observations

  • So much Wessex intrigue this week. Aethelwulf’s death is theoretically shocking—his apparent allergy to bees seeing Moe Dunford’s king bidding a genuinely touching farewell to Judith, Alfred, and Aethelred from his deathbed, where the king lies gasping and grotesquely swollen for want of an EpiPen. Aethelwulf’s always been whatever the scripts needed him to be, but this latter King Aethelwulf has shown glimpses of a more compelling, grounded figure.
  • Still, the resulting debate over the crown is deadly, with the heretofore colorless Aethelred turning resentful and petulant in the face of Judith’s scheming for younger brother Alfred to become king instead. After engaging in some sneering slut-shaming of his mom over Alfred’s illegitimate conception, Aethelred finally acquiesces in a drawn-out sequence of court intrigue that far outstrips in duration our interest in it.
  • Jennie Jacques’ Judith snaps immediately upon her husband’s death into a clipped, pause-heavy delivery as she attempts to sway powerful a powerful nobleman to Alfred’s cause over dinner. The headstrong Judith has always been one of the most interesting of the English, her growing confidence as she navigates her perilous ascent much more human than it seems here, now that she’s made her way to the top. All her arch maneuvering here rings with the worst excesses of Hirst’s Jonathan Rhys Meyers-starring The Tudors, and pulls us away from the main story for far, far too long.
  • Back in Kattegat, Margrethe, too, is awfully predictable in her ongoing power-mongering, here responding to Ubbe’s dull infatuation with the equally dull Torvi (they do make a good match in that way, anyway) seeing her menacingly taunting Torvi’s young children. Ubbe assures Torvi that Margrethe—to whom the care of Torvi’s kids with Bjorn have been unwisely entrusted—would never harm the kids. But Margrethe’s now a scorned free agent, her own Lady MacBeth planning having no outlet but those little blonde children.
  • The ending sequence cuts interminably between kneeling men, as Heahmund pledges fealty to Lagertha, Alfred is crowned, and Floki collapses at the sight of his temple burning and Bul lying dead. Interminable for the incessant slo-mo, the portentous symbolism, and the fact that all the pomp and bombast of the music and visuals are in service of storylines that can’t support them.
  • Even the crowd scenes have become clumsy and prosaic. Heahmund staggers through the mud to Lagertha while we hear offscreen Vikings identically taunting the “Christian,” while Alfred’s nomination to the throne is greeted by ADR shouts of “He’s no warrior!,” “He’s too sickly!,” and “He’s unfit to be king!”
  • “There’s something to be said for simple choices, no?”

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