“What will you do? You are all men who are easily bored.”
Honestly, I was more thrilled by “A Final Straw,” an episode about bored men contemplating action, than I’ve been about much of the action-dotted by empty sixth season of Vikings. Partly, that’s because the series has whittled down its cast and storylines to manageable numbers, choosing at least the most central figures to lead the push to the series’ approaching end. But, more, it’s been far too long since everyone was concentrated in the same story, rather than (poor Ubbe’s foundering followers aside) the show plodding back and forth to side-stories (in Rus, Paris, England) with all their variably overstuffed and under-dramatized non-Norse.
Plus, there’s Ragnar. Apart form a pair of judiciously chosen flashbacks to the doomed Ragnar advising his disabled son Ivar how to survive once his death inevitable comes, “A Final Straw” is a viking story, where the entire raison d’être of Vikings snaps back into the foreground. There’s a ticklish undercurrent to that clarity, coming in response to the ennui that Ingrid states will be the inescapable cause of bloody conflict among Ivar, Harald, and Hvitserk upon the brothers’ return to Kattegat. As the returned Ivar and the disillusioned Harald stew over whether governing a relatively peaceful, relatively prosperous trading hub is truly their destiny, we’re put in the position of rooting for a return to the good old days. Meaning expansionism, conquer, and entertaining bloodshed. And so is Vikings.
I have a friend who points to Vikings as appointment viewing for Norse-fetishizing white boys of a certain type. You know, the sort who get rune tattoos and occasionally attempt bloody white supremacist coups against representative democracy. And I get it, I do. But Vikings itself has, at its best (and even with admirable regularity when not) played with the cultural cachet of the whole white power, rape-and-pillage viking berserker stereotype. The fact that the most ardently aligned character on the series is Floki—whose messianic visions of an all-Norse isolationist wonderland collapsed in vicious backstabbing and his literal entombment in the earth—is sort of a clue. Floki’s fascinating, but, when he killed the monk Athelstan to thwart what he saw as the Christian outsider’s deleterious effects on his “pure” Norse hero Ragnar Lothbrok, it was hardly ambiguous how destructive the series considered such blinkered identity politics.
Here, when Ivar and Hvitserk show up on a Rus ship in Kattegat harbor, Hvitserk smiles a wry, “So, we’re home,” while Ivar, glancing over the gathering crowd of understandably hostile Norse on shore, admits, “This might be a mistake after all.” As it turns out, the people (while happy to spit all over the returning brothers upon disembarking) are pretty easily pacified, as King Harald’s rousing blessing, the invocation of the “sons of Ragnar” card, and a self-deprecating, Gene Wilder-esque pratfall from the repentant “god” Ivar (along with a rousing night of drunken celebration) sees Hvitserk spying on one of the most initially hostile Kattegonians who drunkenly bellows and all-is-forgiven “Hail, Ivar! Hail, Hvitserk! Hail, Ragnar!” into the night. For his part, Harald is wary but willing to accept the imprimatur of two sons of Ragnar to his rule, and he and Ivar wind up having their own lonely, drunken heart-to-heart where they confess that none of this is what either of them intended.
It’s an interesting scene, where the two kings commiserate on the hollowness of power. Hearkening back to Ragnar’s long-ago advice to Bjorn about the inescapable traps that are power and ambition, the somber Harald laments, “I thought I could reinvent myself. But sitting on that throne means nothing.” “There is an illusion in power that induces inside you a kind of madness,” Harald ventures, to which Ivar The Boneless answers that it does. As a rule, Vikings stumbles when its characters speechify, but there’s an intimate, no-pretenses (and tipsy) underplaying to all this that makes it work, a vibe carried over throughout the episode, as when Ivar, sitting staring out to sea, is visited by the Seer.
And, yes, I’m very sick of the Seer as a storytelling device. I get that John Kavanagh’s late holy man and prognosticator is intended to function as an externalization of the characters’ intuitive leaps. And there’s some power yet in tying such epiphanies to the characters’ cultural belief and memories. Still, it’s a trick as old as Obi-Wan. Here, though, Alex Høgh makes the ruminative Ivar’s uncertainty (idly filtering sand through his hands for added metaphorical signaling) impressively impactful. Home, forgiven, and freed from seeming certain ignominious death a dozen times over, Ivar is unhappy, and restless. The Seer advises him to look in his pocket, where Ivar discovers the English chess piece of a Norse warrior he took from his time matching wits against the then child-king Alfred. And that’s when we see Ragnar.
Travis Fimmel’s been gone for so long that there’s some power lost in going back to the flashback well at this point. But it’s still bracing to see the aging and battered Ragnar Lothbrok desperately urging the slim, young Ivar to utilize his uniqueness of mind and the underestimation of his inevitable enemies to his advantage. Ragnar knows he’s finished, and that this strange, troubled, and improbably surviving son will be left alone. “Be ruthless,” Ragnar tells the boy, and “the whole world will know, and fear, Ivar The Boneless.” Tying the future of the Norse to Ivar, Ragnar sets the boy on a course, and this Ivar, staring down the prospect of being second or third in esteem to Harald Finehair at the throne of Kattegat, sets his jaw and chooses another path.
That Ivar’s epiphanies are interspersed with Hvitserk’s strange pilgrimage to Bjorn’s tomb is at least tonally of a piece. Whatever plans the series had for Marco Ilsø’s perpetual also-ran Hvitserk, his wastrel’s life of confused allegiance-hopping and intermittent drug blackouts at least gets an affecting airing. Ilsø’s quite good, addressing the long, disappointing tale of his life to his big brother’s spirit in the manner of all such doomed-to-irrelevancy side-characters, usually right before they die, or make a big, ultimately doomed decision. Or, as in this case, spend the night unexpectedly going down on the goddess of eternal youth, Idun.
Jerry-Jane Pears (vaulting past Ragga Ragnars in the improbably awesome Vikings cast name sweepstakes) appears as a mysterious, sun-dappled blonde, introduces herself to Hvitserk as Idun, makes him a drink of freshly crushed (in her hand) apple and ground spices, and tells him he’s to spend the evening with her. Hvitserk, understandably, obliges, leading to a scene of happy goddess-humping, with all the clutched fur bedding and soft focus that suggests. In the morning, alone, Hvitserk walks out into the pouring rain and kneels—weeping, then laughing—in the Kattegat mud. (Getting an Andy Dufresne crane shot for his big moment.) “The gods must despise me,” Hvitserk had said, before Idun appeared to show him that, well, not all of them do. Now, cleansing himself in the empty streets, Hvitserk is reborn—as, something.
In the end, Ivar, sitting sullenly and observing what, to him, appears to be Kattegonians living lives of debased ordinariness (one man is even seen selling his arm ring to an unimpressed money-lender), storms into Harald’s presence. Not, as old, to challenge him, but to agree with Ingrid’s assessment that he, Harald, and Hvitserk are destined to be at each others’ throats under the present status quo. So that evening, Harald addressing the gathered people in the great hall, respectfully dismisses Bjorn’s vision of a peaceful and open Kattegat as trading center, speculates (not unreasonably) that the Norse settlements in Wessex, Frankia, Northumberland, and elsewhere are likely to be retaken once the respective nearby kings tire of their presence, and, essentially, says it’s time for vikings to go viking again.
That the crowd is only half-heartedly into the call to raid once more until Ivar exhorts them with not just the targeted deployment of his father’s name, but some xenophobic bashing of “the Christian plague” in the world, and some old-school “are we not vikings—Valhalla!” populism, that everyone involved truly gets on board. (Their unified cries of “Ivar! Ivar!” sends Erik and Harald searching each others’ faces in worry.) It’s here that I stand impressed that Vikings appears at least belatedly to address its own myth-making.
Ragnar Lothbrok was a farmer who found himself a king. Along the way he made terrible choices, and won miraculous victories. He flirted with Christianity but ultimately found neither it nor his Norse religion sufficient. He imparted different wisdom to different sons, but always remained defiantly curious, and human. Vikings started out as a show about a remarkable individual who could—even if only in incomplete snatches—see over the horizon and glimpse something different than the world he was bound by. What he did with that knowledge was often disastrous, but grounded in wonder. Now, his legacy is left in the hands of his youngest son, Ivar The Boneless, who incites a no-doubt costly and painful war essentially so he won’t get bored, or complacent. Ivar isn’t the new Floki. His rallying cry for the Norse to reclaim their old glories is rooted in muddy waters of ambition, resentment, and the all-too-common restlessness of aging men who imagine that only action and atavistic yearning can restore their wonted purpose. “They tell me that all our great heroes are dead!,” yells Ivar, eliciting the desired, furious objection from the peace-dulled Norse in attendance.
Now a lot of people are going to die, and die bloody. Ivar, Hvitserk, and Harald will find themselves energized and focused. And so will Vikings. Interesting, that.
- Of course, the wild card is Ubbe, adrift and dying of thirst on his quest to fulfill another side of his illustrious father’s destiny. Finally fed up with the enigmatic Othere’s vague prophecies (the tuneless hymn-singing doesn’t help), he snaps and attempts to beat the mysterious older man to death. When Torvi stops him, it’s with the prosaic but on-point cry, “What is the point of trying to find a new land if we behave just the same as we did in the old one?”
- Ubbe isn’t Ragnar. It’d be unexpected if Ragnar, with superior numbers, simply fled out to sea with no provisions, no matter how fearsome Kjetill Flatnose might be. Here, his first follower dies after drinking desperate seawater, and infant Ragnar has begun to refuse Torvi’s breast. If Ubbe becomes a discoverer of the path to the Golden Land (whatever it may turn out to be), it will be through a lot of luck.
- Another fine, quiet moment between Ivar and Harald sees them debating whether the dead (including those loved ones they, themselves, killed) are still all around them, watching.
- Ivar to Hvitserk: “It feels as if I’m in an open boat lost at sea, no land in sight, no purpose, no meaning to my voyage.” Cut to: Ubbe’s boat at sea. Not a subtle show at times, is Vikings.
- Gods help me, when Othere boomed out the first syllable of his hymn, I thought he was about to launch into “Silent Night.” Sorry I doubted you, Vikings.