“Peace is a dirty word.”
There’s a liberating dramatic chaos in Vikings without Ragnar Lothbrok that coalesces in an almost entirely satisfying explosion of decisive action in “Homeland.” Ragnar is dead in the ground, and Travis Fimmel’s voice announcing “previously on Vikings” at the start of each episode is a constant reminder that this has been a show without a lead since his departure. And, while some instability in both the show’s long-ago world and the series itself makes sense, the stagnation in both without Ragnar to provide momentum and direction hasn’t always been a satisfying watch. “Homeland” is an eminently satisfying watch, in that it not only breaks out one of the best sustained action set-pieces in series history, but that it also makes a definitive choice as to where the show and the Norse are headed.
The battle for York was set up in the two-part premiere as the matchup of Ivar and Heahmund, two unstoppable, wild-eyed avatars of their respective cultures, headed for bloody conflict. The death of Ragnar pointed up how his thrillingly complex persona has been split among his sons, and tonight, Ubbe loses, repeatedly and enormously. The eldest of Ragnar’s sons with Aslaug, Ubbe embodied the man of peace through strength that sought to conquer not for vengeance, glory, or the thrill (although Ragnar attained and reveled in all three), but to move his people forward. Conquer, negotiate peace, settle and farm—Ragnar Lothbrok’s visionary goals live on in Ubbe, but Ubbe lacks his father’s presence and skills to pull off the nigh-impossible goals he set. Jordan Patrick Smith reveals himself to be a more canny choice the more we see Ubbe attempt to fill his father’s shoes—and fall short. After the Norse rout Heahmund’s Saxon troops (thanks to Ivar’s fiendishly effective strategy), Ubbe wakes younger brother Hvitserk in the dark of night and steals away to King Aethelwulf’s camp to negotiate for the lands Ecbert had promised them.
It’s a daring move that we’ve seen Ragnar pull off with King Aelle—striding, vastly outnumbered, into the enemy leader’s compound and demanding terms, Ragnar’s boldness and sheer presence enforcing his will. Here, Ubbe tries to be his father, flashing his startling pale blue eyes in approximation of his legendary father’s ineffable menace, and it seems to work on Aethelwulf and the serene Prince Alfred, for a moment. But the story is told in flashback by a badly beaten and humiliated Ubbe—to Ivar—so we know how much he’s miscalculated his abilities, even before we see the contemptuous Heahmund kill Ubbe and Hvitserk’s men and brutally pummel Ubbe before sending the brothers scurrying back to York, a flock of squawking geese pacing them on their way out of camp. Back in York, and in front of the other Norse, Ivar relishes the chance to humiliate his older brother further, mocking, “You didn’t let them get away with that, huh?,” the ugly gleam of the bully in his eyes. (One of which, after the carnage of the day before, glows with a red ring of blood.)
The brothers’ eyes contrast only more sharply in the morning when Ubbe (having told his youngest brother, “I will never accept that,” in response to Ivar taking the lead of their army) appears with his right eye swollen shut. His one working eye still recalls Ragnar’s preternatural blue, but all Ubbe can do is blink away his disbelief that, not only have the overwhelming number of the Norse chosen Ivar, but that Hvitserk, with a look of apology, finally joins them. Ubbe sails away home to Kattegat a crushed man, seemingly taking the hopes of Ragnar for a Viking settlement in England with him, while Ivar sneers, “You see! Everyone is with me!” The command, the army, and the fate of the Norse in England is now utterly in the hands of Ivar the Boneless.
Putting Ivar unquestionably in the driver’s seat—of the Viking army and Vikings—is a masterful coming-together of character and narrative. If Vikings has been drifting without Ragnar (and it has), putting Ivar front and center provides missing focus, Alex Høgh’s growing magnetism and physicality matching purposely with Ivar’s concentrating power and confidence as the Norse score one decisive victory, and prepare for more. Ivar’s blunt, bloody single-mindedness of purpose suits his army (and older brother Hvitsek) as well, drawing the fractious Norse together in a narrow blade of easily articulated and understandable will. “Our father would have hated you for sundering and splitting his family,” states the defeated Ubbe, to which Ivar responds icily, “I don’t think so.” To Ivar, his father’s legacy is one thing, whereas to Ubbe, it’s another. What the indeed sundered sons of Ragnar Lothbrok can’t see, however, is that Ragnar was both, and more. Ragnar Lothbrok was a man ahead of his time, whose inability to reconcile all his warring elements contributed to his fall. But his sons, at least at this point, see only their father’s fall, their limited response to latch onto only one aspect of his legacy.
Ivar is Ragnar’s wrath. Fueled by his own overcompensating ambition as much as by Ragnar’s example, Ivar has transformed himself—body and mind—into an avatar of Norse fury. His transformation comes complete in the battle where, seeing Aethelwulf on the verge of escape from the deadly trap he had designed for him, Ivar lurches himself from the high perch where he’d been observing the slaughter of the Saxons and gallops into the fray in his war chariot. Immediately unseated by a brutal blow, he lies, seemingly helpless on the ground for a long, echoing moment, and then roars into action, dispatching his attacker, and several others. Pulling himself to a sitting position against a cart, Ivar sees Heahmund and an assembled squad of Saxons facing him, swords and bows ready. “Don’t you know who I am?, he bellows defiantly, hurling one of his hand-axes into the crowd, “You can’t kill me! I am Ivar the Boneless!” An arrow pierces his leg and he barely reacts as Ubbe, Hvitserk, and their men attack, leaving the wild-eyed Ivar laughing and screaming, “You’re going to die!,” his face dripping with blood in the sudden pouring rain. To the equally resolute and rageful Heahmund, Ivar looks and sounds the very embodiment of the heathen devils the zealot bishop had warned they were.
The battle sequence itself, which takes up the middle third of the episode, is a remarkable piece of work, springing twists and shocking bursts of violence with a crisp, even witty sense of geography and space that makes the action thrillingly comprehensible, even in the midst of chaos. (Credit to episode director Stephen St. Leger.) It also allows for a pair of canny moments where both Ivar and Heahmund are held up as the larger-than-life heroes they imagine themselves to be. In addition to Ivar’s defiance in the face of a Saxon horde, Heahmund faces down the hail of arrows that make up the first salvo of Ivar’s trap with almost comically badass bravado, standing still and determined even as the Norse arrows flinging out of the covering smoke take down everyone around him. Heightened to the pinnacle of action hero awesomeness, these moments walk right to the edge of ludicrousness as well, but that’s part of their purpose. Ivar and Heahmund are both zealots, both tortured by inner demons, and utterly convinced both of their own innate cultural and personal superiority and the mirroring inferiority of their foes. When Ubbe goes to Aethelwulf, Heahmund spits at the talk of negotiation. Faced with a small army of Saxons, Ivar spits in contempt that the watery English could ever match the Vikings’ prowess. These are men without compromise, without curiosity.
They are also, in their own way, quite mad. We’ve seen Heahmund—the unbending religious warrior, excoriating his own flesh after, once again, giving into its temptations with the willing women of his flock. And tonight, we see Ivar summon a comely slave girl (Alicia Agneson) with menace and mischief in his spooky eyes, only for the girl to enigmatically stun Ivar to silent awe by stipping naked, straddling him, and whispering, “Your deformity means that the gods favor you especially.” Ivar, seemingly stirred physically as well as mentally by the girl’s strange intensity, frees her and sends her away, his face a mask of beaming, terrifying confidence in his own destiny. That these two men have been set on a collision course presages nothing but blood.
That makes for a hell of a battle scene. It also makes for the sort of gore-drenched, gung-ho spectacle that some suspected Vikings was going to be all along. But Vikings isn’t that. For all its undeniably exciting martial thrills, Vikings is rooted in the march of history, which is—as much as Heahmund and Ivar would deny it—a halting, blundering, but undeniably human story of discovery, and compromise as much as conquest. The battle of York here is stellar—the feint-and-counter-feint plotting of the armies’ clash is easily one of the finest the show’s done. But a Vikings consisting of nothing but battle scenes between two men hell-bent on domination is a recipe for both numbing repetition and historical simple-mindedness. And, as unsettled in purpose as Vikings has seemed at times since Ragnar’s death, the series has never been foolish enough to settle for mere spectacle.
- Floki continues his fevered exploration of his forbiddingly gorgeous new land. Again, simply watching Gustaf Skarsgård’s Floki experience his own heedless journey of discovery is, in its own way, as fascinating and thrilling as any battle scene. Here, he continues to see visions (a woman filled with bees, a woman made of ravens, the shimmering, helmeted figure emerging from a suddenly reversing waterfall) that are—a product of Floki’s fevered mind and infected, stigmata-like hand wound or not—mysteriously compelling.
- Astrid continues to use her wits to survive as Harald’s captive, as she’s brought to the king’s conspicuously grubby domain. (So many fish guts.) Josefin Asplund’s raw, wiry intelligence makes Astrid’s caginess a lot more interesting that her position as captive suggests, especially when she smilingly allows the drunken Harald into her bedroom, before responding to his clumsy caresses with a brutal shot to the honker.
- Peter Franzén, too, finds ways to make Harald Finehair’s runty villainy more compelling than it’s been. Harald’s an asshole, sure, but Franzén keeps adding layers to the self-made king’s ambition that are almost relatable in his desperately lonely inadequacy. When Astrid leaves the banquet he’s thrown for her, Harald allows himself to be mocked into following by his roistering subjects. When he returns with a broken nose, he raises his flagon and laughs with them, “What am I supposed to say! I have no luck with women!”
- There’s still more to this Astrid kidnapping story than meets the eye. Mark my words. (For one thing, we don’t see Lagertha at all in the episode.)
- In the episode’s third non-York thread, we see Bjorn begin to bond with the heretofore-untrustworthy Halfdan as Bjorn’s fleet approaches the Mediterranean. I still wouldn’t trust Halfdan as far as I could catapult him, but his explanation of why he decided to join Bjorn over his brother Harald (“I just want to live. But I want to live with the greatest intensity.... I want to be more than just alive, if you understand me.”) echoes Ragnar’s advice to the young Bjorn to a haunting degree.
- The move where the trapped Aethelwulf walks over the bodies of his own men as they lie screaming in on of Ivar’s spike pits is especially effective in depicting how nasty this conflict is going to get.
- Harald’s runty populist appeal to his people that he will make their crappy town “the capital of Norway” has a decidedly familiar ring to it. (“MNGA”?)
- Floki’s wound heals. Miracle, or something in that hot spring? You decide.