“It cannot be as bad as it looks.”
Vikings has always been best the less it says. Exposition, motivation, transition—at its most evocative, the series has allowed its audience the luxury of playing catch-up. Granted, that was an easier task for writer-creator Michael Hirst when Travis Fimmel was in the mix, and Ragnar Lothbrok. Ragnar’s constitutional and calculated caginess lent itself to a narrative unpredictability that imbued Vikings with a mystery that, in Fimmel’s equally enigmatic performance, drove the story. Without either Fimmel or Ragnar at the tiller, however, Vikings has more frequently revealed the weaknesses of Hirst’s dialogue and scripting. In the off-kilter “The Message,” the various machinations in Kattegat, Vestfold, and (briefly) Africa, too often emerge as labored, overheated, or, in one development in particular, disastrously distasteful.
Opening on a scene of King Harald and new queen Astrid frolicking in the woods (only to be interrupted by the herald announcing the arrival of Ivar’s fleet), the Vestfold story advances Astrid’s story with frustrating clumsiness. There is something afoot here. Not least because of the runty Harald’s unimpressive nature, it’s never been especially convincing that the devoted (to Lagertha) and defiant Astrid would succumb to Harald’s grimy entreaties. The question has always been just how many moves (possibly of Tafl) ahead is Astrid playing? Is her abduction part of a long game between Lagertha and herself, with the proud Astrid making unthinkable sacrifices on behalf of her queen and lover? Or is she improvising in the midst of a bad situation in order to get back home? (Any hints that Astrid is actually going to betray Lagertha have been a distant third option, especially since Hirst shows Astrid’s longing visions of her love every time she’s faced with a potentially wrenching dilemma.)
That the message of the episode’s title refers to Astrid’s ham-handed warning to Lagertha that Harald and Ivar intend to attack Kattegat seems to indicate that the middle option is what’s really going on, with the queen pressing a hunky whaler to deliver exactly that information during his journey. Regardless if that’s actually what’s going on here, however, Hirst’s handling of Astrid’s ploy is woefully inelegant—especially considering that it culminates in her sexual assault by the whaler and his crew.
The most difficult part of plotting a fictional diversion is in making the audience feel that the characters’ feints are not only sincere, but somehow inevitable. For Astrid here, either her klutzy decision to enlist a random stranger to her treason is part of a bigger plot or it’s not. Either way, though, it’s unfolded in a prosaic heap of circumstance and dialogue that mark someone—Astrid or Hirst—as unimpressive. After Astrid assents to give the whaler her body as well as her offered treasure, she meets him at his fish-guts-strewn hut and asks if she has to go through with the sex. She spots a young boy spying on her on her way to the hut and sees him watching her with the whaler. There’s a long shot of her reaching for the whaler’s knife while he’s inside her, as if she’s planning to stab him. Never mind that the dialogue throughout this subplot is thuddingly prosaic (“What man doesn’t want to have sex with a queen?,” “And you won’t betray me?,” “If you don’t submit, I’ll tell King Harald how you planned to betray him.”), or that the fact that the untrustworthy fisherman allowing his men to share the queen is as gratuitous as it is predictable. This sequence is handled so ineptly, piling up contradictory elements like the bloody fish carcasses that litter Harald’s dingy seaside kingdom, that, no matter what turns out to be the truth of it, everyone involved is diminished.
There’s a similar effortful quality to the battle of wills between Ivar and the captive Heahmund. Dragged into Vestfold in chains, the haughty Heahmund fairly vibrates with impotent rage, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers alternating between desperate, prayerful appeal to his silent God and bull-necked defiance. (One backlit prison scene sees his entraties to his Lord flecked with constant sprays of pious spittle.) The season has set up the Ivar-Heahmund conflict as a less complex revisiting of Ragnar and Athelstan. And that’s in keeping with Hirst’s depiction of the chaos of a world without Ragnar Lothbrok’s vision to unify it. But their face-offs always teeter on the border of stirring and silly, and the final scene tonight definitely tumbles toward the latter, as Heahmund—tempted to kill some “heathens” by a “join me or die” speech from Ivar—signals his assent by stabbing a taunting Norseman through the throat. Ivar beams in delight, Heahmund clenches his jaws, and, inexplicably and ludicrously, the crown breaks out is what sounds an awful lot like an improbable “Heahmund!” chant. (Think the climax of Rocky IV.)
Meanwhile Ivar’s plan to ally himself with Harald is spelled out in the baldest terms. Ivar tells Harald he only wants revenge on the woman who killed his “beautiful mother,” cutting off Hvitserk’s sputtered objections. Later, Ivar tells Hvitserk he’s only telling Harald what he wants to hear, their exchange making bold text what was barely subtext. (“It’s just words.” “Then why even pretend there is an arrangement?” “It suits everyone—for the moment.”) Instead of allowing us to play catch-up, Vikings after Ragnar too often backs up and waits to make sure we didn’t miss anything. It’s deadening. Alex Høgh continues to make Ivar magnetic in his monstrousness, here pawning off both his brother and Harald by grinningly citing his crippled nature as proof of his harmlessness. But as entertaining as it is to watch Ivar bend people to his malign will with ill-concealed duplicity, Ivar’s gleam-eyed antagonism, too, tips into silliness at times. When Heahmund, forced at knifepoint to choose either death or martial servitude, asks for Ivar’s knife, Ivar’s wary but maniacal smile recalls nothing so much as the clichéd, action movie villain who, impressed by the loose cannon hero’s chutzpah, tells his captive, “You’re crazy—but I like that.”
Back in Kattegat, the more character-driven conflict between Lagertha and Floki is similarly handicapped by some plodding lines, but Katheryn Winnick and Gustaf Skarsgård mine their inevitable collision for some truly human moments. Surprising Floki and his pilgrims’ furtive preparations with some whizzing warning arrows, Lagertha unexpectedly lets them go. Their lifelong friendship informs each line here, Lagertha’s queenly confession, “I have been betrayed very often in my life but I have never got used to it,” answered by Floki’s wounded response to her calling him a trickster, “Oh, Lagertha, not now. Not this time.” Lagertha’s choice weakens her—both in the loss of warriors and of standing (especially in the eyes of the perpetually prodding Margrethe)—but it makes sense enough. And her parting with Floki is lovely not less for how little she and the boatbuilder let each other off the hook. “Do you really think I could have you killed, Floki?,” she asks. “You’ve done worse things than that, Lagertha,” Floki returns, departing with a heartbreakingly tender, “Shieldmaiden, blessed by the gods, farewell.”
Still, when Margrethe can’t wait until Lagertha is out of earshot before preaching treason to husband Ubbe, the contrivance is hardly undone by Lagertha’s later, equally clumsy threat, “You will cease to do it. The stakes are too high. If I hear that you have spoken against me one more time, I will cut out your tongue and enslave you once more.” In Floki’s band, there is a strong-willed young woman name Aud (Leah McNamara) who preaches the opposite of Margrethe’s petulant short-sightedness, lecturing her menfolk about the difference between men and women when it comes to wielding power. Aud seems like a formidable new character, but, here too, her speech over-explains what we already know about Lagertha, and the series’ estimation of her.
In the end, we see Floki’s settlers deeply unimpressed by the rocky, volcanic land he’s brought them to (roaring waterfalls and all), another promising development that promises to allow Floki to essay his own version of Ragnar’s dream. Promising his wavering followers that the hard, flinty soil of “the land of the gods” will reward them after years of hard work, Floki is Ragnar’s mirror, his quest for an insular purity of Norse culture nonetheless partaking of Ragnar’s dream of new, undiscovered farmlands for his people. While Ragnar’s dreams were covered in blood, however, they looked outward, and beyond. Floki’s dream for the Norse is a retreat back to a past—as Floki sees it—unsoiled by the outside world. He wants to plant a society in the barren, sterile soil of an idealized past. And for all his promises, Floki’s grip on the imaginations of his chosen people will depend on his ability to perform a miracle.
- Bjorn’s back, the episode ending on him sailing with his fleet right into the brewing conflicts of Kattegat, his steely look seemingly indicating his disillusionment with his own version of Ragnar’s dream.
- Oh, Bjorn, Halfdan, and Sinric escape from certain death via the sandstorm ex machina set up last episode. Again, it’s a cheap escape (Bjorn’s agency of a well-timed scrotum-stabbing notwithstanding), especially since the three strangers are able to navigate the desert for their flight better than their captors who, you know, live there.
- Vikings Edge-watch: Adam Copeland finally gets a few more lines as Floki follower Kjetill Flatnose—and he’s really good. The stout Kjetill has a sonorous, thoughtful presence to go with his imposing physicality that promises a worthy foil for Floki going forward.
- Ubbe gets in on the episode’s groaning exposition, responding to talk of the coming war with the helpful: “Yes, against my two brothers. Who could ever imagine such a thing? This will rip my father’s legacy apart.”
- Lagertha responds with the Seer’s prediction that it will “tear this world apart.”
- Alfred embarks on a pilgrimage to learn more about his father, telling his mother bluntly that he’s not interested in pretending any longer that her affair with Athelstan never happened.
- Praying to Ecbert in a leaky church, Alfred echoes his grandfather’s vision of a united England—which also echoes Ragnar’s in its way.
- Ivar sneers to Harald, “What is it about the word king that makes even reasonable people behave like idiots?” Still, while he tells Hvitserk that his desire is for fame greater than that of their illustrious father, his ambition runs counter to Ragnar’s advice to Bjorn about what’s truly worth having.