“I am old enough to know that you can never say for sure what someone else will do.”
When Ragnar Lothbrok finally fell into that pit full of snakes, the world splintered. That goes for both the world he’d largely shaped and the world of Vikings itself, a seismic shift that the series two-part season five premiere, “The Departed,” addresses, from its title on through. Vikings and Vikings continue without Ragnar Lothbrok (and Travis Fimmel’s portrayal thereof), and these first two hours show both the potential and the pitfalls of a world unanchored from its central figure.
The departed is Ragnar, now lying avenged in his grave with his sons’ brutal conquest of the armies and lands of Kings Aelle and Ecbert. But, as the episode marches on, there are more departures, with both Bjorn and Floki leaving the war’s aftermath in the hands of Ragnar’s younger sons, Ubbe, Hvitserk, and Ivar. Meanwhile, back in Kattegat, Lagertha still rules (and how), even as the post-battle return of the treacherous King Harald (Peter Franzén) forces her to confront how tenuous her hard-won position of power is. Should war come, either from ambitious men like Harald or resentful ones like the stepsons Ubbe, Hvitserk, and Ivar, still simmering over Lagertha’s murder of their mother Aslaug, Lagertha knows from experience that power attained is not power eternal.
And that’s not counting the drama on the English side, as newly crowned King Aethelwulf (Moe Dunford), Queen Judith (Jennie Jacques), and Judith’s sickly son (with the late Aethelstan), Alfred, all scrabbling in the muck of their ignominious refuge. Nor does it take in the series’ new antagonist to the Norse, Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ warlike Bishop Heahmund, who spends the episode planning the English counterattack to the Vikings’ invasion, bedding the blushing, virtuous women of the court, and then hurling himself shirtless through thorn thickets in bloody penance for his sins.
This post-Ragnar world was set up for a long time by series’ creator Michael Hirst, establishing the characters and conflicts left after the fall of this world’s most towering figure. The action and drama following Ragnar’s still-shocking death near the end of last season was all motivated directly by Ragnar—the need to avenge him, the puzzle of how best to carry on his legacy. Now, with that immediacy gone—both for the characters and the series—this Ragnar-less world will have to stand on its own. “The Departed” splinters into several stories, each exemplifying aspects of a tale that was all once contained in one, oversized man. That some of those stories are more auspicious than others isn’t a bad place for this season to start, however. In a two-part premiere entertainingly packed with incident and undeniably affecting moments, the pieces all have enough luster to at least give hope that they will fit together in a new, compelling shape.
Still, it’s not there yet. One of the main weaknesses of Vikings hasn’t so much been the inability to find a worthy adversary for Ragnar, as the drive to hitch the show’s narrative to such a conflict. Fimmel made Ragnar easily the most charismatic and visionary character in the world, but he also thrillingly portrayed the very human man attempting to cope with the often conflicting desires that came along with his superiority. Showdowns with a succession of challengers (Jarl Haraldson, Jarl Borg, King Horik, King Aelle, King Ecbert, Emperor Charles, twerps Erlendur and Kalf) were mismatches whose pleasures always paled beside the spectacle of watching Ragnar Lothbrok’s eyes as he scanned for a world beyond them.
The most concerning thing in “The Departed” is that the coming showdown between Ivar and Heahmund appears so preordained as the season’s driving principle. Alex Høgh and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are both possessed of a powerful gaze, but their field of vision appears a lot narrower. Despite the fact that neither character is aware of the other’s existence as yet, both actors have been set at each other by Hirst in a way that looks more limiting. That’s partly a function, on Ivar’s part at least, of his role as the avatar of Ragnar’s rage. The season opens on Sigurd’s funeral, with all of Ragnar’s other surviving sons glaring at the fratricidal Ivar while Ivar hunches alone, a single hot tear rolling down his cheek. When he apologizes for killing his brother, his heartfelt plea that he had acted out of furious impulse (as we saw him, horrifyingly, do as a coddled child) is coupled with excuses about Sigurd having mocked him for his impotence, and disability. Høgh is going to have a lot of heavy lifting to do this season, as Ivar the Boneless lurches into his historical role of “scourge of the world,” as Floki names him. And the actor is certainly compelling to watch, his unpredictable physicality—dragging himself along the dirt, roaring into battle in his war chariot, and, finally, willing himself to his ruined feet with the help of new metal leg braces—combining with Høgh’s own set of spooky Norseman’s eyes to warrant his place.
But even though his parting with Floki allows Ivar a few glimpses of self-doubt, sorrow, and humanity, most often, Ivar is portrayed here as a monster. In his halting, one-crutched approach to his brothers at the end of the episode, there’s an inescapable echo of Shakespeare’s spiderlike Richard III, and loosed upon two terrified kidnapped English boys in order to ascertain the most advantageous time to invade the town of York, he is deployed crawling through the undergrowth like the children’s own boogeyman. If Ragnar’s essence is split among his sons, then Ivar’s wrath (here seen forcing the unfortunate Bishop of York to drink his own church’s molten cross) sees Vikings leaning more toward violent spectacle, especially as Ragnar’s other sons fade into the background. Jordan Patrick Smith’s Ubbe shows his father’s complicated scruples in battle, as he shies away from sadism in the Norsemen’s bloody assault on York, staring on in shock as a young nun who’s slashed her wrists in order to avoid being raped falls dying into his arms. As the older brother, he tries to assert his leadership, but Ivar—excusing his sudden employment of a cadre of hulking bodyguards with a faux innocent “I’m a cripple”—is clearly just biding his time. (Marco Ilsø’s boyish Hvitsek, while still Ivar’s senior, can only watch worriedly at the inevitable conflict.)
As for the outwardly pious Heahmund, Rhys Meyers’ angular magnetism is similarly promising, even if his inner conflict is something Hirst has employed before in Aethelwulf, almost point by point. Torn by temptations of the flesh, the zealous holy man tears his own flesh. Faced with the Viking foes, Heahmund repeatedly dismisses them as “heathens,” “pagans,” “barbarians,” and “worshippers of the devil.” As the episode ends with he and the Norse (and Ivar) set to collide on the already ravaged streets of the refortified York, no doubt the repressed and blinkered fanatic will be forced to confront his one-dimensional view of his foes, but the fact that the bishop’s track is seemingly so entrenched from the start is a shaky foundation on which to build.
On the other hand, I’m intrigued at the show’s choice to literally cut adrift the strongest remaining (male) ties to Ragnar. Last season, Bjorn, having joined with his half-brothers to avenge their father’s death, announced his decision to return to the Mediterranean, and discovery. If Ivar is Ragnar’s wrath, Bjorn is Ragnar’s curiosity (and, sure, brute strength), and there’s a wistful sort of elegance to his choice here. Yes, the poor folk of the Mediterranean coast are in for a lot of pain and pillage, but Bjorn Ironside inherited his father’s restless need to know.
For Floki, the need to leave yet another Lothbrok campaign is even more evocatively perfect, as he tells the shattered Ivar privately that, after Helga’s death, “This world no longer interests me. That’s why I will submit myself to the tides, and the winds, and the will of the gods.” Gustaf Skarsgård has stripped Floki to sinew, his tattooed flesh stretched tight over lean, heedless muscle, and as he defiantly rows his one-man boat away (to a rousing chant of “Hail, Floki!” from the assembled and awestruck Norse), the wise fool shipbuilder carries us with him. Thankfully, we’re taken along for his fate-tossed journey, as Floki winds up shipwrecked in a forbiddingly rocky and volcanic land where a vision of an upward-flowing waterfall and a being within it convinces him he has died—and finally joined Ragnar in Valhalla. We don’t know where he actually is (my guess is Iceland), but I’m most thrilled to discover the world through Floki’s eyes.
Finally, back home in Kattegat, the usual court intrigues are enlivened by Katheryn Winnick’s ever-present badassery as Queen Lagertha, which is good, since the machinations there are the episodes’ creakiest element. The elevation of Georgia Hirst’s wan Torvi to potential challenger isn’t especially promising, in part because her efforts to impress upon now-teen son Guthrum that husband Bjorn is not his real father comes out of nowhere. Bjorn—who can’t be bothered to make a stop in Kattegat on his way to adventure—hasn’t turned out to be a good husband, certainly, but Torvi’s loyalty to Lagertha hasn’t been properly in question in the past, and her admonition to her son to remember his real father, Jarl Borg, seems the flimsiest of pretexts for future conflict.
As for Lagertha, Winnick, as ever, imbues the Queen with a steel backbone. She accepts Harald’s news of the Viking victory and Sigurd’s death with the same equanimity before confronting the runty would-be usurper with his treachery. Here, however, the episode goes stiff with contrivance—even as some of the plot swerves are genuinely fascinating. With Harald in chains, Lagertha visits, taunts, rebuffs his offer of marriage, and then—a knife to Harald’s throat and a few below-camera tugs in preparation—mounts her prisoner and fucks him until she climaxes. Climbing off of the helpless Harald, she stands with her crotch contemptuously in his face for a long, lingering moment, before striding out of his cell without a word, leaving Harald literally spitting in bafflement and humiliation. It’s an unexpected and yet not unwarranted scene, Lagertha once more flipping the power dynamic on a man foolish enough to underestimate her. Vikings has always skirted the issue of rape of captives as much as it could, and here, Lagertha turns Harald’s effrontery in aspiring to her bed into a sexual assault, her final actions sapping any of Harald’s excitement in her placidly smiling disdain as she leaves.
Still, the fact that Harald is next seen kidnapping Lagertha’s lover and staunchest shieldmaiden Astrid and spiriting her away smacks of abruptness—if not narrative trickery. For Lagertha to humble Harald so completely, only for him to inexplicably be on the loose and fleeing with his men (and Astrid) suggests either unforgivably sloppy plotting, or that Lagertha has a Ragnar-esque long game in motion that we’ll only be let in on later. Seeing her own power threatened, did Lagertha pick a fight with Astrid so she’d storm out, thus leaving her vulnerable? If so, is Harald—who makes his same offer of marriage to the pissed off Astrid—part of her plan, perhaps to test Astrid’s loyalty in the face of the growing internal dissension exemplified by Torvi? Either way, it’s unsatisfying. Lagertha is too formidable a character to either be taken advantage of so easily, or to be at the whim of a half-baked plot. I suppose it’s possible that either way could be made to work, but neither serves the Queen of Kattegat particularly well as this season of Vikings begins.
- Not to add more characters onto the season five pile, but Vikings without Rollo (sorry, Duke Rollo) makes me sad.
- That’s Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as the vision-stricken Alfred. Vikings’ reliance on the supernatural works best when there’s some ambiguity about the reality of such things, so the fact that Alfred’s super-specific warning to Aethelwulf about the Norse occupation of York is a bit disheartening.
- Ivar and Floki’s best moment comes when the bitter Ivar calls Floki a coward in front of the assembled crowd. “Stand up and say that to my face,” says Floki, almost making Ivar smile.
- It’s appreciated that “The Departed” takes the time in the midst of all this plot to linger over some striking visuals. I especially admired the thirsty, shipwrecked Floki’s long, silent approach to a puddle on the beach where he washes up, and his arduous exploration of his rocky, unwelcoming new land.
- Same goes for the shocking moment when, discovering that Ivar has slipped navigation tools into his boat, Floki says a gentle, “Thank you, Ivar,” and then pitches them into the sea.
- And when Floki, frustrated that his gods have seemingly abandoned him to a windless death in the middle of the ocean, blows at his limp sails before setting himself to his oars.
- While Harald and brother Halfdan’s obvious treachery is as dull as ever, Halfdan’s decision to join Bjorn in his travels at least seems like a genuine desire to break away and be his own man. Still—eyes in the back of your head, Bjorn.
- On the flimsy plot contrivance front, a monk’s revelation to Heahmund that Ecbert’s gift of land to the Norse is invalid because he’d already passed his crown to Aethelwulf is the sort of legal nicety unlikely to hold much water with the Vikings, or to provide much interest to us going forward.
- Apart from being generally uninteresting, Hvitserk is stuck with unnecessarily clunky exposition, asking Ubbe of the clearly departing Floki, “Is it true? He has completely committed himself to the sea?”
- And we’re back for the A.V. Club’s continuing coverage of Vikings. I’m Dennis, and I’ll once again be your reviewer for this fifth season. Now, as I stride into your comments: SHIELD WALL!