“Too much knowledge is an agony. Prepare yourself.”
There’s a war on Vikings. Without Ragnar Lothbrok to deservedly pull our focus to the often inscrutable vision of one magnetic man, the series is freed to explore. The five-way narrative split so far this season (Kattegat, York, the Mediterranean, Floki’s island, Harald’s kingdom) is bold, but necessary, as Lagertha and the sons, friends, and rivals of Ragnar all pursue destinies of their own in a world without its dominating figure.
And there’s an excitement to that. In “The Plan,” Bjorn’s incursion into Sicily carries the tingle of discovery, as Bjorn strides into a strange new world with nothing but a handful of men and the trust in his own will to brazen out the play. Heeding the advice of the endlessly useful wanderer, Sinric (Frankie McCafferty, last seen translating for Rollo in Paris), Bjorn has pared his expedition down to three small ships, and Alexander Ludwig continues to mine Bjorn’s thirst for adventure and knowledge for Ragnar-like wonder. (Albeit of Bjorn’s more brutish shade—Bjorn has his father’s curiosity, but not his soulfulness.) Presenting themselves as traders to Albano Jerónimo’s Euphemius—the exiled general in charge of a dusty, walled outpost—Bjorn and his men watchfully insinuate themselves into the court, with Bjorn immediately disarming Euphemius after the leader inadvisably tests the invaders’ mettle, and Halfdan leering after the mysterious Byzantine nun captive, Kassia (Karima McAdams) who sings a haunting song at the feast that night.
As Bjorn ferrets out the details of the court—the preening Euphemius is merely the functionary of an African Arab leader named Ziyadat Allah, while Kassia takes secret meetings and threatens to withhold her favors if Euphemius does not bring Bjorn to Africa—there’s an exciting tinge of the unfamiliar. Not just with the new desert settings (we see the unimpressed Halfdan scrawling some Norse graffiti into a wall), but with the sense of freedom and unpredictability that buoys Bjorn like the Mediterranean sea air. Having set himself upon this new world he’d only seen scrawled on a sketchy map looted from a Paris nobleman’s house, Bjorn is clearly disappointed when Euphemius reveals that the Holy Roman Emperor has a cadre of Viking bodyguards already. When he finds himself back on the water, being guided right off the edge of his map, Bjorn breathes deep as he heads into, as Sinric warns him of Africa, “another world” entirely.
Kattegat and Harald’s kingdom (called, as we find out tonight, Vestfold) are linked by Astrid, whose abduction introduced the next challenge to Lagertha’s rule. As we see here, the rumblings of discontent and doubt within Lagertha’s domain (as voiced by former slave girl and current wife of the returning Ubbe, Margrethe) are a potential weakness to be exploited. And Astrid, who, tonight, finally accepts Harald’s offer of marriage and queenship, seems the vehicle for the coming conflict. I’ve said before that I’m not sold on this whole situation—apart from Astrid’s longing vision of Lagertha as she succumbs to Harald, and Lagertha’s seeming equanimity at the loss of her lover and staunchest ally, we’ve seen that Lagertha isn’t as easily rooked as this. Overhearing Margrethe unsuccessfully attempting to urge Torvi to rebel, Lagertha speaks not unkindly to the terrified younger woman about the lessons she’s learned in her journey from farmer’s wife to Queen of Kattegat. “I could kill you for your betrayal,” she tells the trembling girl, “but I am sick of betrayal... Conspire against me if you want to, but if you can find the courage to be loyal, I will respect you like no other. You were a slave who had no choice. But now, now as a free woman, you choose to love me.”
As she does when courting the support of the returned and smarting Ubbe, Lagertha suggests that, in addition to betrayal, she learned a great deal about playing the long game from her ex-husband. When Ubbe initially rebuffs her, musing, “You see, that would make me an ally of my mother’s killer,” Lagertha lets out a long, purring, “Mmmm,” before continuing with a wry, “I know. Your choices are all difficult, Ubbe.” Lying in bed with Margrethe later, Ubbe listens to his wife’s talk of Lagertha’s weakness as a ruler, but, once she sleeps, he can only stare into the darkness, ruminating on just where his actions against Ivar—and the slowly burning machinations of Lagertha—have left him.
As for Ivar, he, too, has his father’s gift for ingenious planning—and a similar unwillingness to share his plots until they’re sprung. With Aethelwulf and Heahmund following the bishop’s plan to starve out the Vikings in the fortified York, Ivar is seen idly feasting, sending elder brother Hvitserk into impatience. Like Ragnar and Rollo, the dynamic is of brotherly rivalry and jealousy, although Marco Ilsø’s wavering Hvitserk is a singularly unimpressive rival compared to Ragnar’s Rollo. And Ivar’s open contempt for his brother is nothing like the conflicted love Rangar had for Rollo. Having thrown in with his younger brother Ivar, here Hvitserk can only whine, “I am no one’s dog, Ivar.” Ivar, apparently unconcerned with the Vikings’ plight, lets out a mocking little bark, sending the humiliated Hvitserk storming out to a chorus of derisive laughter. Naturally, Ivar does have a plan, once again luring the English into the shockingly deserted York after sending up days’ worth of choking smoke to make Heahmund think that his divine vision of the invaders burning their dead has come true. The episode ends with the king and bishop bursting into the church, seeing the holy place not only desecrated with roaming livestock, but with teeming rats. “Why are the rats above ground?,” Heahmund asks finally, suggesting that, once again, the disdainful English have blundered into Ivar’s clutches.
And then there’s Floki, whose sojourn on the desolate volcanic island he imagines the land of the gods sees him apologetically asking Odin for advice. His sheepish, “Forgive me for daring to speak to you. In any case, you don’t need to listen,” is sincere and endearing, as is his enigmatic confession that, as a boatbuilder, he’s “an artist, not a real person.” There’s always been a singularity of vision that’s made Floki as touching as he is frightening, and, here, taking a peal of thunder as Odin’s answer to his prayers, the boatbuilder resolves to set back out to sea alone again, in order to retrieve Norsemen of his unwavering faith to “build a city of true believers” here on this rugged paradise. Floki’s story this season has been informed by his view of his world, with the island’s jagged, unforgiving glory transformed by Floki’s implacable zeal into a setting endlessly fascinating in its possibilities. Any world Floki builds is something I want to spend time exploring—if not living—in.
It’s to Michael Hirst’s credit that all these for-now isolated stories seem part of the inevitable aftermath of Ragnar’s death, rather than half-realized pieces, jangling. The war that’s going on, narratively speaking, however, is in Hirst’s reliance on some hackneyed, clumsy storytelling habits. While the show has its share of unexpectedly poetic moments (I still think of Ragnar’s eloquently simple entreaty for dead daughter Gyda to visit him from the afterlife), Vikings isn’t its strongest in dialogue. And poor Hvitserk is here saddled with the thankless task of asking dumb expositional questions of Ivar, a fate at least as sorry as seeing his younger brother hold him in such disregard.
And the show’s continued reliance on the supernatural for portentous dramatic tension is always a crutch, so the return of John Kavanagh’s eyeless, hooded Seer similarly does work that would be better served by sticking to the human drama. That the Norse hold the supernatural in sincere belief is not the problem. That Vikings continues to use it to lay out enigmatic, invariably true outcomes robs the characters’ journeys of some of their agency—and their interest. Here, we know that the death of Ragnar has set in motion various uncertain forces, and that Bjorn and Lagertha’s positions are perilous. Having the Seer solemnly tell Lagertha of Bjorn, “You will see him again, but in terrible circumstances. The consequences of Ragnar’s death are not yet played out. You have only seen the beginning of the end,” is singularly unimpressive from a dramatic point of view. Still, Katheryn Winnick makes Lagertha’s desperation in seeking to avoid her son’s foretold doom formidable in spite of the contrivance. “It’s a mother’s weakness,” she pleads of the oracle, but, from what we’ve always seen, Lagertha’s weaknesses aren’t likely to get in her way.
- “New cities world people and places, my father would have relished this opportunity. I want to go to Rome. Rome is at the center of the map. Rome is at the center of the world.” There’s something touchingly unformed about Bjorn’s echoing his father’s sentiments while still hemming his limitless curiosity with something so prosaic as a map.
- Jonathan Rhys Meyers continues to ramp up both Heahmund’s contempt for his Norse foes and his clench-jawed chafing under King Aethelwulf’s leadership. While his one-dimensional zealotry is entertaining enough, Rhys Meyers should be mindful of edging the bishop closer to caricature. We’ll see what Heahmund learns.
- That’s the definition of a queen’s move when Lagertha unseats Margrethe from her seat at Ubbe’s side with nothing but a look.
- Halfdan’s leering shiftiness as Bjorn’s companion continues to be handled without the greatest subtlety. When Sinric intones “All things change, this world is impermanent and deceiving. Many things are not what they seem,” we get a quick reaction shot of Halfdan—looking shifty.
- Bjorn reacts to Euphemius’ cheek-kiss with restraint enough not to clock him one, anyway. It’s not Ragnar’s nude bath with King Ecbert or anything, but it shows that Bjorn can similarly tamp down his cultural discomfort in pursuit of the big picture.
- “I am so happy, I could laugh all day without making a sound.” Floki has poetry in him.