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In preparation for the coming war, Vikings plays chess, poorly

Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha (Photo: Jonathan Hession)
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“We don’t have time to play games. The world is coming to an end.”

When was the last time chess as metaphor wasn’t hokey? Even when deployed with care in the writing, the conceit of someone contemplating their next moves through a chessboard calls attention to itself, hanging a big neon sign reading “clever author at work” over the proceedings. In an episode like “Full Moon,” where Michael Hirst sets up the various factions for the battle for Kattegat with graceless plotting and prose, and perfunctory mirroring of every move, the effect is disastrous.


The pieces. Bjorn comes back to Kattegat with Halfdan and his fleet, disillusioned by his abortive adventure in the new world he’d long dreamt of. He finds Lagertha all business in preparation for Harald and Ivar’s invasion, having invited taciturn northern King Svase—along with his modestly comely daughter Snaefrid (Dagny Backer Johnsen)—to join in an alliance. In short order, Bjorn chews out Ubbe for breaking with their brothers (“You have destroyed our father’s legacy for all time.”), breaks up with long-suffering wife Torvi, and tells his mother to break the ice with Svase so he can pursue Snaefrid. Halfdan tells Lagertha that he can be trusted to join her against his brother Harald, and Bjorn offhandedly assures Lagertha that she probably can. Meanwhile, Margrethe continues to play Lady MacBeth to Ubbe, preaching treason against the woman who killed Ubbe’s mother, while she rhapsodizes in bed about the glory of her own story, should she ascend from slave to queen.

Margrethe (Ida Nielsen) and Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith) (Photo: Jonathan Hession)

In Vestfold, Ivar and Heahmund play chess and talk tough and enigmatic, their ongoing glare-off playing out in elliptical hints of betrayal, fate, and their gods over a long game of tafl in the waxing moonlight. When Ragnar kidnapped the devout Athelstan from England, their enigmatic relationship became the heart of the series, a fascinating courtship of two remarkable minds whose boundless curiosity gradually overrode their antagonism. Ivar and Heahmund play out that same dynamic in the language of tough guy melodrama, with the two sneering foes’ battle of wits and faith coming out in dully arch posturing and gamesmanship. Again, there’s a dramatic logic to the sons of Ragnar being splintered, lesser aspects of their illustrious father, but this season has yet to make the case that any of them deserve our attention enough to stake a claim as Vikings’ central figure. When Heahmund and Ivar (and poor, dull Hvitserk) debate free will versus fate in the context of their contrasting faiths here, their positions emerge as rote speechifying, with little sense of true investment. Throughout, Alex Høgh and Jonathan Rhys Meyers grit and spar for all they’re worth, but when Ivar, tauntingly tracing his knife blade over Heahmund’s cheek, asks his captive foe if he can trust him, Heahmund’s steely “If you kill me now, you deny yourself the pleasure of proving yourself right” provokes more eye-roll than its intended tension.

(Screenshot: History)

The episode opens on Ivar in closeup, staring at the moon and delivering what seems like a monologue on the momentous battle to come, before we see he’s talking to Heahmund. It’s an evocatively Shakespearean touch—I got a distinct Henry V vibe from Ivar’s “lonely in command” ruminations—that devolves quickly into prosaic game-playing. (Literally and figuratively.) Later, when Lagertha gathers her allies (Bjorn, King Svase, Halfdan, Torvi, Ubbe) around a big, round table in her great hall, there, too, the preparations essentially boil down to “But if Ivar knows that we know that that’s what he knows, then...” And as much as a table-setting episode can be a source of delicious anticipation, Vikings has yet provide any of these characters sufficient agency on their own to carry the story. Here, a montage of the various characters’ lonely pre-dawn vigils on the eve of the battle—set to sonorous music and the sound of far away Alfred’s beseeching recitation of the Lord’s Prayer—reaches for resonance and falls inelegantly into mawkishness.

Alex Høgh as Ivar the Boneless (Screenshot: History)

If there is a relationship here that works, it’s between Lagertha and her son, as she and Bjorn share a private talk largely stripped of the archness or artifice that their public roles require. Lagertha confessing, “I still miss Ragnar, even now,” is as quietly moving as is Bjorn’s sincerely admiring, “You have come a long way since then.” There’s a way the sleeves of the hulking Bjorn’s nightshirt hang down over his hands that evokes the little blonde boy we first met, and the love between this very different mother and son here finds a heartbreaking tone of mutual respect, and mutual loss. Plus, Bjorn teasing his mother the queen for wishing herself a farmer again is irresistibly adorable, as his earnest statement “As your son, I am so proud of you” shifts into a goofy prediction of their battle against Ivar being “like Ragnar-rok.”

Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) and Snaefrid (Dagny Backer Johnsen) (Photo: Jonathan Hession)

Bjorn’s story has been oddly truncated this season, a perhaps necessary stripping away of his ambitions of recreating and surpassing his father’s glories that nonetheless has been dramatically unsatisfying. To be fair, Bjorn knows this, his return to the bay at Kattegat marked by a weary disillusionment. He tells Halfdan that his love for Torvi is gone, rues that it’s not her fault, and matter-of-factly asks Lagertha to convey his intentions toward visiting Princess Snaefrid. (Lagertha, with even more forthrightness, smilingly explains to her new ally, “My son would like to sleep with your daughter.”) In short order, Bjorn and Snaefrid are together with the king’s blessing, and the newly betrothed (married?) couple are engaging in some startlingly kinky coitus—even if the suddenly hungry-eyed Snaefrid’s bondage and face-slapping come with some alarmingly graphic (to the bound Bjorn) tales of just how her people “half-castrate” their reindeer. Again, Bjorn’s story hasn’t truly taken hold this season (despite Alexander Ludwig’s endearingly lumbering approximation of his father’s style), but, hey, good for these two crazy kids.

Floki (Photo: Bernard Walsh)

Having opted out of all this intrigue, Floki’s journey with his new followers, unfortunately, carries along this season’s leaden approach to dialogue and conflict. Gustaf Skarsgård is always magnetic, but his followers are a dull lot thus far, either predictably griping at the seeming lies Floki has told them about this new land’s gods-blessed bounty or, in the case of Leah McNamara’s Aud, unwaveringly loyal, with the bright-eyed faith of the true zealot. Still, Floki is fascinating to watch, and the sudden eruption of the hot spring geyser to punctuate his argument with the complaining Eyvind (Kris Holden-Ried) is the sort of impressively majestic sight that goes a long way toward establishing messianic street cred. There’s a lot wrong with Floki’s atavistic, xenophobic vision for the Norse, and he lays out his utopian vision in a particularly by-the-numbers catalog of communal equality, but this story, divorced from the various, inadequately peopled conflicts back home, is at least unique.


Stray observations

  • Aud is credited as “Aud the Deep Minded,” so that’s that characterization taken care of, then.
  • Aud is also pregnant, as revealed when she and her young man gleefully announce that theirs will be “the first child of the new world” while dipping naked in the hot spring Floki found.
  • Astrid is pregnant, too, another complicating factor in just whatever intrigue is taking place among herself, Lagertha, and Harald.
  • Harald’s a creep, but his joy at the news is endearing in spite of it all. There’s something of the runty, stunted little twerp in the king that makes his bewilderment at his good fortune with the formidable Astrid kind of sad.
  • Edge-watch! Kjetill Flatnose bides his time and watches as the debate about Floki’s plan rages around him.
  • Ivar’s amused little eyebrow-raise at hearing Heahmund’s faith in Mary’s holy virginity is easily his best moment this week. (“It was a miracle.” “I would say so.”)
  • Ubbe comes across the weeping Torvi and now they have a thing going? That is not an interesting development.
  • Bjorn stuns stepson Guthrum with the news that he and Halfdan inadvertently ate Euphemius while in Africa. He also gives Guthrum Euphemius’ ornate dagger as a gift, which may turn out to be unwise, considering.
  • When Alfred, on his pilgrimage to Lindisfarne, prays for guidance from his father, he imagines he hears Athelstan praying along with him. My mixed feelings on Vikings’ supernatural elements have been laid out before, but it’s lovely to hear George Blagden’s voice again, if just for a moment.
  • “Maybe I won’t chew your balls.”

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About the author

Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.