At a certain point, the uniqueness of its premise will lose the ability to carry Vikings. At that point, the degree to which Michael Hirst has developed its world and its characters will truly be put to the test.
Moving past the halfway point of the first season, it’s abundantly clear that Gabriel Byrne’s Jarl had to go. I went into the reasons in last week’s review, but essentially it’s that we’ve seen his like before. Vikings has convincingly introduced characters whose actions and motivations seem to spring from someplace we are simply unfamiliar with. It’s the show’s greatest strength: Ragnar and a handful of others (Floki, especially) are products of an alien world and are all the more fascinating because of it. Gabriel Byrne’s Jarl is a hoary archetype of duplicitous villainy, his every move echoing back through all-too-familiar screen history, and therefore far less interesting.
So why isn’t his death more encouraging, or welcome?
The episode begins with Floki delivering Ragnar’s promised challenge to the Jarl: single combat, to the death. When the Jarl’s right hand man (David Pearse’s deliciously wheedling Svein will be missed) declaims against the challenge, calling Ragnar nothing but a common criminal, the Jarl unexpectedly accepts. The stage is set. The series’ central conflict is coming to a head. Unfortunately, the inevitable passing of the Jarl does not immediately usher in a more propitious direction for the show as a whole.
Leading up to the big fight, both Ragnar and the Jarl are given the chance to confide in their respective wives and given over to some prosaic character explanations. Haraldson: “I must kill a man for whom I have the utmost respect. He is what I used to be. Restless. Ambitious.” Ragnar: “Our fates are already decided.” Where there had been subtext, there is now text, and, as opposed to ramping up the tension for the climactic showdown, this pre-fight patter undermines the show’s prime asset. Especially in the Jarl’s case, we’ve heard these words before in other shows/movies, and, more damagingly, we’ve already intuited them here.
Things do perk up significantly in the duel itself, thankfully. Vikings is compelling, bringing us into its convincingly delineated domain, and the buildup to the combat itself (each man gets two shields only), as well as the way Ragnar and the Jarl play out their fight (convincingly brutal and no-nonsense), serve to paint this world in stark and authoritative detail. Vikings’ action scenes remain some of the best-directed and most striking on TV, and in their lethal interaction here, both characters are further developed with each blow they make. And while the outcome is never in doubt (I mean, come on—did anyone expect Vikings to be the continuing adventures of Jarl Haraldson?), at least Byrne gets in some decent storytelling before he’s shuffled off. In contrast to his signature deviousness, Byrne’s Jarl plays this one straight up, fighting honorably and according to the time-honored Viking rules of combat. He gets his licks in (against an ambush-weakened Ragnar, but still), and when he dies, as Mr. Worff would say, he dies well. He’s still not a great character, but in dying, Byrne manages to bring out some evocative contradictions in the man: Having lived long and lost much, the Jarl is, at the end, clearly at peace with his life seeping away at the hands of Ragnar Lothbrok. Especially when he’s reasonably convinced he’ll be drinking with his gods come nightfall.
As for Ragnar? Meet the new Jarl. One of the most enthralling aspects of Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar through the first five episodes has been his combination of cleverness and headstrong recklessness. Sure, he had an idea that there were plunderable lands across the sea to the west, but eventually, he just trusted his luck, his fate, and his courage, and set out in an untested boat into the unknown. And in his conflict with the Jarl, he knew that it would end with one of them dead on the ground, but his plans always hinged on him being able to improvise in the moment, his strength and skill carrying the day. (Fimmel’s signature sly grin and unhinged eyes in such moments remain his most enigmatically charismatic trait.) His transition to the new leader of his people, in Fimmel’s hands, partakes of the same ambiguity: Ragnar, with throne, Jarl’s robes, a new baby in Lagertha’s belly, and unobstructed access to all the England he can raid, finds himself leader. Did he intend to take the Jarl’s place? Did he plan for this from the start? We simply don’t know, and that gives Vikings’ protagonist his mystery. Lagertha, advising him against fighting the Jarl in his weakened state, advises him, “Never fight unless you know the odds are in your favor. That is our way.” In response, Ragnar speaks of fate and smiles and leaves her, and us, to wonder what’s going on in that head of his. That ambiguity and unpredictability is the soul of Vikings’ drama.
Which is what makes the aftermath of Ragnar’s triumph disheartening.
It starts out well enough with the unnerving spectacle of one of the late Jarl’s slave girls being prepared to take her place beside him on the flaming funeral ship. Athelstan, used sparingly up to this point, is our representative here, and George Blagden continues to imbue his captive monk with a captivatingly conflicted moral compass. When we first see him, Athelstan for the first time has shed his priest’s robes in favor of Viking togs. Encouraging Ragnar in his duel and cheering along with the crowd at his elevation to leader (and even happily swilling some mead), Athelstan appears more acclimated to his captivity, perhaps even happy in it.
And then Ragnar, limping along with a walking stick and a gleam in his eye, leads his slave into a lavish tent where a drunken slave girl is being dressed and made up. The first thought is that Athelstan’s virtue is in big trouble, until Ragnar explains that she’s been chosen to accompany her master into the afterlife. From then on, we see these rituals through Athelstan’s eyes, and he sees them through the eyes he’d seemed prepared to relinquish in favor of those of his captors. Watching as the near-insensate girl is ushered into a house to be inseminated by men hungry to send their, um, goodwill along with her to the afterlife, and being snottily bullied by young Bjorn into watching the girl’s throat slit and then set ablaze, Athelstan’s Stockholm Syndrome (get it?) curdles once again into horror. As the Vikings drink and cheer, the monk slips his cross out of his new tunic and, it seems, turns another page in his dark, strange journey.
Less absorbing are the introductions of a pair of new antagonists, whose dimensions look worryingly familiar. First up is Rollo who, scarred at the hands of the Jarl, congratulates his brother’s ascension while, literally in the next breath, whispering, “How will we ever be equal now, brother?” Rollo’s sole motivation thus far has been his jealously towards Ragnar (maybe with a little rape thrown in), and again, this episode of Vikings lays out that motivation in too obvious terms. Couple that with his appropriation of the newly-widowed Siggy, and Rollo is shaping up to be the new Jarl, in more ways than one. Add to that the reintroduction of Ivan Kaye’s British King Aelle, who pulls a Darth Vader and executes the erring lord who led the disastrous assault on Ragnar’s party on the beach, and we’ve got another two-dimensional baddie just itching to strut some dastardly evil. (Did I mention his preferred execution method is a pit of snakes?!!?)
With its sixth episode, Vikings rushes along with admirable briskness, but here’s hoping the series is able to pull off a Ragnar-esque end run around the expected and predictable.
- Athelstan continues his instruction in Norse legend when, asking about Ragnarok, he’s subjected to a disturbing playlet from John Kavanagh’s eyeless seer (plus some suspiciously smoky leaves, convenient lightning, and an ominous raven).
- Upon the Jarl’s death, Siggy immediately stabs to death the fish-reeking old Swede who’s been mounting her daughter. Way to back the wrong horse, old Swede.
- Gustaf Skarsgard’s Floki continues to steal scenes. When he initially joins in with the Jarl’s men as they laughingly dismiss Ragnar, he brings to mind Heath Ledger’s Joker.
- It appears Rollo didn’t get the full Ichi treatment from the Jarl’s knife, instead ending up with some appropriately rugged Viking battle scars.
- Integrated advertising with a certain insurance company’s amphibian mascot hanging with some Vikings does nothing to enhance my enjoyment of Vikings.
- If this were a different sort of website, I guarantee there’d be at least one headline: “Ragnar Rocks!” Thank your favorite Norse gods.