Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

An intriguing Vikings strikes land, but mostly remains at sea

Adam Copeland, Jordan Patrick Smith, Georgia Hirst, Ray Stevenson
Adam Copeland, Jordan Patrick Smith, Georgia Hirst, Ray Stevenson
Photo: Amazon/History

“Perhaps the golden age of the vikings has gone.”

Perhaps, indeed. Gunnhild, after stoically fielding King Harald’s advances and being faced with a pair of deeply unpalatable choices about her future, muses to late husband Bjorn that, essentially, there’s nothing left in their world to get too invested in. And, again, perhaps. There are some things working against the potential solemnity of the moment here. For one, Bjorn’s tomb gets opened so often since he was sealed inside that the thing ought to have a drive-thru. But, for another, there’s too much that’s too relatable in Gunnhild’s lament for a world where all the good stories have been told, and all that’s left is to play out the skein.

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It doesn’t help that Gunnhild name-checking Ragnar, Lagertha, and Bjorn, and noting the seeming futility of pinning the Norse sagas on the lesser likes of “Harald, Erik, and others” is going to echo in the heads of loyal Vikings viewers. “Lost Souls” is another late-series Vikings, where the machinations of ill-drawn supporting types are presented as sufficient fodder for epic drama. I’ve noted that that in itself could be an intriguing narrative framework, but Vikings, in its last days, appears untroubled about such things as, say, deconstructing the great man myth of human history after the passing of its original protagonist. Instead, the series continues to plod along as if the sagas of Ivar, Harald, Hvitserk, and Ubbe (not to mention non-viking Oleg, who has functioned as this season’s second lead) are enough to satisfy us. Vikings still looks fine (directed this week by Helen Shaver), it’s taken-for-granted period detail and intermittent brutal bloodshed an earthy nicotine patch for those Game Of Thrones aficionados still looking for a cooldown. Hell, there was even a dragon, of sorts, last episode.

Peter Franzén
Peter Franzén
Screenshot: Vikings

There are hints of self-reflection in Harald Finehair’s grasping, strutting bid for the immortality of Ragnar and Bjorn. If there’s one embodiment of what a more thoughtful post-Ragnar Vikings could have been, it’s in Harald’s continually thwarted attempts to command the respect that his dead former rival was granted as seeming birthright. Here, strolling through the cowed Kattegat, Harald Finehair indeed turns heads as he passes, but it’s in suspicion, and perhaps fear—not the awe he so craves. Pitching woo to the hurriedly packing Gunnhild, he speaks right up to the edge of self-awareness. “We all live in the past, although some people don’t understand that,” Harald states to the widow of his onetime enemy and ally.We danced around each other, and we hated, and we loved each other,” he continues to make his case to the impassive Gunnhild, before asserting, “Our sagas are one and the same.”

It’s sort of heartbreaking. Sure, Harald’s a creep. A rapist, an opportunist, and a runty little bully. But in his shifty-eyed plotting—even when, as here, being attended by a harem of hair-braiding women or having Norway’s crown placed on his head—Harald Finehair knows that he is not Ragnar Lothbrok. He’s not Bjorn Ironside. He’s the incomplete little man whose ability to claw at propitious glint of advancement (and a whole lot of luck) has made him the last viking standing. Even tonight, when some cloddish plotting from hulking new ally Skane is foiled by a last-second save from the who-the-hell-knows Erik, Harald can’t help but look shaken and bewildered by the fact that his head (unlike Skane’s) is still on his shoulders. Lured via the easiest honey-trap ever to the grubby dockside cabin which the primping Harald is just certain Gunnhild has chosen as the place to finally give herself to him, King Harald Finehair gathers himself at his latest fortuitous escape, his breathless bravado unable to hide his full awareness that he’s only alive because of things beyond his control.

There could be a Vikings about a world where, stripped of the heroes upon which their cultural mythology is founded, those left behind struggle against a sense of their own inadequacy. Further, a series that itself changed thematic course by examining how its own foundation on the cultural trope of the one great man was a concession to TV storytelling (if you were looking to get the then History Channel to fund its first-ever scripted series) would be a thought-provoking way to go out. But here I’m committing the critical sin of reviewing a show I wish I were watching, instead of what’s in front of me. So . . .

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Oran Glynn O’Donovan, Alex Høgh
Oran Glynn O’Donovan, Alex Høgh
Screenshot: Vikings

Ivar’s plan succeeds, despite being the least-exciting and well thought-out escape in world history. He and Igor (in full daylight, with only hoodies to conceal their extremely recognizable faces) find their hay cart (with Katia and Hvitserk stuffed in the back) rerouted right through the Kiev square where Oleg is being ceremonially whipped as part of the nascent Christian land’s elaborately bloody Good Friday ritual. A burly bishop even does the squint-eyed look at their famous faces before helpfully guiding their horse out of the city gate. This is what you call manufactured tension. In response, Oleg pours wine into the mouth of his first wife’s sarcophagus, complaining about those darned women and plotting elaborate, sadistic, violent vengeance on Ivar and Katia in a tableau all too recognizable in stunted, egomaniacal, half-formed male monsters everywhere. He literally complains about being “cucked,” (“Me! A figure of fun! A stupid cuckold!”), just to drive home the point.

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Danila Kozlovsky
Danila Kozlovsky
Screenshot: Vikings

The Ivar-Igor relationship gets its defining scene, as Igor summons his Norse confidant to his side in Dir’s Novgarod compound to confess his love for his unlikely protector. Igor’s undeniably creepy little rich lord manner crumbles into tears as he confesses that, while he knows Ivar is being truthful when he says he only helped the boy for his own ends, he still loves Ivar The Boneless as the one person who was ever kind to him. Vikings, even at its height, fell flat when it succumbed to prosaic speechifying, and there’s too much on-the-nose anachronistic therapy-speak to Igor’s epiphanies about being “abused” and “damaged,” and of how he imagines the crippled Ivar “saw something of” himself in the oppressed boy-king. Still, there’s a welcome humanity here (Ivar tenderly, if confusedly, takes the boy in his arms and strokes his hair), even if Ivar’s storyline continues to strand Alex Høgh in the unplayable. Before this, we see Ivar, being welcomed as a hero by Dir’s men, turn to Katia (who is actually[?] on board with betraying her husband now) and tell her sincerely, “I love you—whoever you are.” There are no doubt twists coming here—Katia and Oleg’s knowing glance last episode wasn’t exactly subtle stuff—but the real problem is that Ivar’s story is so divorced from the viking of it all that his latest moral awakening (or not) evaporates into the mists of a story we’re simply not invested in.

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Illustration for article titled An intriguing Vikings strikes land, but mostly remains at sea
Screenshot: Vikings

Speaking of mists, Ubbe’s band finds land! But it’s a foggy, barren marshland leading to a flat and seemingly unpeopled interior, without even wildlife or vegetation. I liked this sequence best at first, Ubbe’s group wandering exhaustedly and fearfully ashore echoing Vikings’ initial forays into exploration, when every booted footstep on a land outside their own marked the Norse like astronauts. There’s still the petty nonsense that is Kjetill Flatnose’s ever-incipient betrayal to worry about (here, an episode-ending discovery of a settlement-saving whale washed up on his freshly demarcated property sees Kjetill immediately snapping back into venal ambition mode), but at least Ubbe’s story connects to what we came to Vikings in search of at the beginning. And, sure, the Seer shows up in Ubbe’s dream (or is it??) to warn him that this unprofitable first landing place (Kjetill makes the joke about ironically naming it “Greenland”) is not the end of his fated voyage. (We see more of the Seer now than when he was alive.)

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But I’m still more invested in Ubbe’s branching storyline than anything going on in Kattegat or Kiev. Like poor little Asa’s horrified sighting of the serpent Jörmungandr last episode, Ubbe’s vision of the Seer is Vikings effectively visualizing the Norse relationship with their gods and legends with appropriately spooky ambiguity. Unlike some of the Seer’s far-too-prophetically specific predictions in the past, Ubbe’s warnings are filled with the same snatches of doubt and insight Ubbe would be having in this new, disappointing “Golden Land.” And the Seer’s lines ring with a sparse and haunting poetry as he sums up this new place as “without solace, without even ghosts.” I’d been disappointed in the westward-seeking Ubbe for initially choosing to settle on this, the first patch of dry land he and his meager voyagers stumbled upon. And, as Ubbe’s vision shows the explorer, he was secretly disappointed as well. Confronting the chagrined Othere on the beach the next morning, Ubbe concedes that, yeah, this is just the first place their ships knocked up against after a terrible storm (that claimed his young daughter), and that they will sail on in search of the Golden Land of the mysterious monk’s tales. (Then there’s the part with the whale, which Kjetill will turn into a debacle, but that’s for next time.)

Ragga Ragnars as Gunnhild
Ragga Ragnars as Gunnhild
Screenshot: Vikings
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When history (or the sketchy approximation thereof provided by centuries-old Norse legend) necessitated Ragnar Lothbrok’s exit from the series, Vikings had the whole world to sail in, narratively. As this series prepares to end, it’s perhaps unfair to look for Michael Hirst and company to pull things together in some sort of Ragnar-esque miracle gambit. After all, even Ragnar’s leading man magic fell short in the end. As Gunnhild, placing a trinket on her dead husband’s lap, promises, she’s not going to just go along with what the narrowed prospects are for her future. She won’t marry Harald, even as her fellow widow Ingrid prepares to choke down her pride and do so. “I will not compromise,” Gunnhild tells Bjorn as she apparently prepares to opt out of the role in which she’s become so disillusioned, “I will do the right thing.” For the battered but unbowed Gunnhild, that’s an option. A wrenching, dangerous one, but admirable all the same. Good luck to her.

Stray observations

  • The meeting between Gunnhild and Ingrid is undermined by some of that old Vikings over-enunciation. It’s bracing when the two women basically just cut the posturing so Ingrid can admit that she’s never known if her baby is Bjorn’s or Harald’s. (“No, of course not.”) And, as with Gunnhild’s in-tomb speech to Bjorn, there’s a non-judgmental frankness in Ingrid’s confession that she’s willing to do the unthinkable and marry her rapist (and become queen) because her only other options as the pregnant widow of Harald’s chief rival to legitimacy are something she’s just not interested in. “Can you blame me?,” she asks Gunnhild, and Gunnhild can’t, as much as her final speech suggests her unwillingness to follow suit.
  • Harald, being Harald, undermines his seeming sincerity in telling Gunnhild he doesn’t expect an immediate answer to his proposal by straight-up announcing their planned triple marriage (including Ingrid) the next day.
  • That said, it’s a pretty ballsy move for Harald to gulp down the contents of the vial Ingrid has prepared to slip into his ale. It’s like a runt’s conception of romantic heroism.
  • Speaking of prosaic. Harald’s plan to replace Skane with Erik as bodyguard is overheard by Skane, lurking around a very nearby corner. Torvi’s dead-eyed grief for Asa is interrupted by Ubbe asking, “You thinking about Asa?” At least there’s something compellingly hard about Torvi cutting off Ubbe’s self-blame with a curt and pragmatic, “We will talk no more of Asa.”
  • Dir shaved his torture-beard. Looks good, buddy—sort of a Slavic Pedro Pascal thing going there.
  • As potentially interesting as a series about a newly Christian culture making a grand spectacle of ritual in order to cement the religion’s hold on its people, this isn’t a show about the Rus. Far too much time is spent there this season, especially with Oleg’s announcement that even he’s so over the idea of returning to Scandinavia.
  • And that’s a quick blessaður to Skane. Your blunt ambition will be missed, even if the sight of Brent Burns chomping down on raw fish with his NHL choppers less so.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.