“I don’t want to leave my country and my home. I am tired of fighting, and yet, let’s do it. Let’s go to England.”
Vikings was built on a rock. With Ragnar Lothbrok gone, Vikings has wobbled mightily on its remaining foundations, creator Michael Hirst shoring up his surprise hit on its shaky way forward with heaps of uneven smaller stones. Culling some of the overstuffed cast in the climactic, largely thrilling battle that formed season five’s midway point was an exercise in jettisoning the good with the bad, even if the show was in dire need of a cleanup. Halfdan died just as he came into his own as a character—even though his death was a necessary part of his evolution. Astrid’s death at Lagertha’s hand was a narrative mercy killing, her waffling loyalties and multiple indignities having gone beyond ambiguity all the way to tiresome inconsistency. Poor woodland warrior Snaefrid was snuffed out before her unsatisfying whirlwind marriage to Bjorn even registered, and the unfortunate Margrethe’s journey from promising and ambitious newcomer to perpetual plaything and victim concluded with her seemingly losing her wits after the battle. (She spends almost the entirety of “The Revelation” chained up and ranting in a pigsty.)
Now, with Kattegat captured by Ivar and Harald (and Rollo’s loaned Frankish troops, and perpetual disappointment Hvitserk), and Lagertha, Bjorn, Ubbe, Torvi, Heahmund, and their handful of supporters in hiding, season five continues to search for bedrock. Ivar and Harald drunkely process their victory in Kattegat’s roisterous main hall, culminating with Harald bemoaning the loss of his brother, wife, and unborn child, all in one day, and Ivar gleefully pissing on the absent Lagertha’s throne. Meanwhile, Lagertha, her hair having gone pale white at battle’s end, argues in her band’s hovel hideout over what to do about Ivar’s inevitable revenge, as lover Heahmund proposes to take the Norse back to England, where he assures them his position and favor with King Aethelwulf will shield them from harm.
All this second-half table-setting is dispatched in Vikings’ unfortunate latter-day habit of stilted exposition. It’s a regrettable tendency that’s only grown into more of a crutch with Ragnar’s death, which seems to have taken the series’ occasionally striking capabilities for visual and wordless storytelling with it. There are a few leavening touches remaining here: Ivar must interrupt his throne-whizzing to join in on Harald’s drunken toast to Ivar’s ascension, awkwardy tucking his drinking horn under his chin while he fumbles with his junk. And he later calls for “the queen” to be brought before him, revealing a tiny goat that he perches on Lagertha’s pee-dripping throne for all to laugh at. Meanwhile, Lagertha’s near-catatonic state post-defeat has given way to her signature steely defiance, as she sums up her seemingly untenable position by stating, “I refuse to accept that this is the end of my story [. . .] I am worth more than that.” Still, for much of the episode, the conflicts and players are set up in the most uninteresting of dialogue. “I have a hollow feeling inside,” over-explains Harald, while the love story of Lagertha and Heahmund staggers on over thudding exchanges about Heahmund’s vows of chastity back in England and his prosaic praise, “You are an incredible woman, Lagertha.” We’ve known that for ages, pal.
Thankfully, there’s Rollo. Teased at the end of the last episode, Duke Rollo finally arrives in Kattegat to greet his nephew—and heavily indebted new ally—Ivar. (Oh, and Hvitserk, I guess.) Striding into the great hall, Rollo explains the practical reasons why he’s decided to accompany his men to Norway before concluding with a twinkle, “I missed the old place.” Clive Standen gets only a “special appearance by” credit in “The Revelation,” and the way his story plays out here suggests that’s an accurate description of his participation going forward. But that’d be a shame, as Standen’s ever-conflicted, secretly soulful Rollo has been one of Vikings’ sturdiest pillars since the beginning. Even if Rollo’s perpetual scheming and loyalty-pulled perfidy has sometimes left him a plaything of the gods (or Hirst), Standen has always found the core of a man whose warring ambitions and heart leave him, always, the loser.
And Rollo loses here, too, even if his position doesn’t outwardly seem to support the idea. A Frankish nobleman with a Norse kingdom now deeply in his debt, Rollo sits regally among his nephews in the great hall he’s coveted all his life. His terms to Ivar for his assistance are extravagant and burdensome enough that Ivar’s post-victory smirk fades and he whines that Rollo asks too much. “For I am in a position to do so,” explains Rollo smilingly to his power-hungry nephew, having boasted earlier to Harald, “I rule over enough cities and lands to satisfy the ambitions of any man.”
But Rollo’s ambitions and his heart are simply not compatible, as we find out once again when he silently rouses one of his soldiers to accompany him to where he knows Lagertha is hiding. (It’s the same place they all had fled to after the momentary successes of Jarl Borg.) It’s there that Rollo makes his competing pitch that Lagertha and Bjorn sail not to England, but back to Frankia with him. Lagertha and the furious Bjorn are incredulous that Rollo, having allowed Ivar to usurp the throne of Kattegat with his aid, would then come offering safety and luxury to them in their defeat. But they shouldn’t be. Standen (finally cut loose from his Taken series gig) has always imbued the towering, glowering Rollo with a wrenchingly human longing that had far less to do with power and riches than with a confused and contradictory need for the love and acceptance of his family, especially Ragnar and Lagertha. And, as we find out in the episode’s big swing at the major revelation of its title, Bjorn—who Rollo claims is actually his son with Lagertha.
As to whether this development works in the grand sweep of these characters’ arcs, I’m neither swayed nor angry. Vikings has done yeoman’s work in showing how Norse conceptions of sexuality and monogamy are both fluid and matter-of-fact. Ragnar and Lagertha initially invited captive monk Athelstan into their bed, if you recall, and, more recently, we saw brothers Ubbe and Hvitserk make a relatively civil polyamorous arrangement concerning Ubbe’s new bride, Margrethe. So the idea that Lagertha slept with both brothers near the time of Bjorn’s conception doesn’t diminish any of the three, and perhaps even deepens Rollo’s long-smoldering longing for the woman who ultimately chose Ragnar over him, regardless of Bjorn’s true parentage. It’s dropped here, in fact, like more of a narrative bombshell than its characters see it as, as Bjorn, confronted with his treacherous uncle’s claim of fatherhood, contemptuously spits on his sharpening knife and, just as contemptuously, asks Rollo, “Who do I resemble more in spirit and principle?” Later, the stewing Bjorn prepares to kill the unprotesting Rollo for his betrayals, only to relent, sneering, “You’re not worth the time it takes to clean the blood off my axe.”
When we see Rollo for the first time in “The Revelation,” his grizzled beard is shown to be just the first sign of his advancing age and decline. While still the bear-like figure he’s always been, the silk-swaddled Rollo walks with a lurch, breathes with a wheeze, and confesses he’s not allowed to fight anymore (“I am too . . . important,” he smiles), as he sips an unnamed potion from a crystal flask. This Rollo has attained more in terms of fame, power, respect, and wealth than the young, strapping schemer Rollo could have ever imagined before Ragnar’s more far-sighted ambitions opened up the Vikings’ world. But, as he finds through Lagertha and Bjorn’s ultimate rejection here, he’s lost. If Rollo is truly gone back to Frankia and out of Vikings for good, the show is the poorer.
Especially considering the show’s intention to make us care—again—about England. (And about Floki’s fundamentalist utopia, but we’ll get there as the rundown of barren and unpromising splintered sub-narratives continues.) With Ferdia Walsh-Peelo’s wan Alfred assuming his bee-stung dead father’s throne, Vikings sets up a fresh round of Tudors-esque English court intrigue as inelegantly as possible. Alfred wants more defenses to fend of the invading Norse (we see some Danes get routed by Alfred’s bellowing, warlike half-brother Aethelred), and for the church to start educating the peasantry (which the clergy airily claim he is in no position to command). Oh, and mom Judith (Jennie Jacques) wants him to produce some heirs on the quick in order to shore up his position, leading to the uninterested Alfred asking archly, “Can we not put walls before weddings?” With Lagertha and company accompanying Heahmund (who learns, to his chagrin, about benefactor Aethelwulf’s death) back to England, only to be paraded to Alfred’s court in a cage, Vikings, too, returns to the site of some of its weakest and most diffuse conflict. Will Heahmund choose Lagertha once he’s back in England? Stay tuned, if that’s your bag.
The same indifference greets the perfunctory return of Floki’s story. As much potential as his pilgrimage to “the land of the gods” with his uneasy followers has to further the series’ exploration of Floki’s zealous love of his culture and religion, the internecine squabbling and (literal) backstabbing that’s marked this storyline remains ploddingly obvious. Offering to give himself up as sacrifice to the gods for his failures in leadership, Floki’s fate comes down to a dull vote between the two sides, settled when the son of aggrieved father Eyvind pulls the old last-minute switcheroo by announcing, “I’m sorry Floki . . . but I have to refuse your offer of sacrificing yourself.” I’d like this offshoot of the main narrative to function as intended, as an examination of the cultural cul-de-sac promised by Floki’s fundamentalism, but it’s been here that Vikings’ propensity for dull speechifying has festered most. It does still have Gustaf Skarsgård going for it, of course, and he makes Floki’s initial offer of sacrifice ring with the mystical madman’s deep well of regret as he laments, “Perhaps we have proven once and for all that we cannot change . . . that we are what we are.” It’s in glimmers like this that Vikings continues to tease that it can yet be more than it has been since the death of Ragnar Lothbrok.
- I was tickled that, in the midst of his dull speechifying, Evyvind stammers that Floki has led them all to “this shit-place.”
- Edge-watch! Adam Copeland’s stout Kjetill Flatnose regretfully joins sworn enemy Eyvind’s call for Floki’s death, since both men’s sons have fallen to the colony’s infighting. Honestly, the guy does quite a bit with the little he’s given to do.
- Ivar’s frustrated ambitions are soothed by the angelic-looking former slave girl Freydis (Alicia Agneson), who continues to praise Ivar for overcoming his deformity. It’s basically the arc it looked like Magrethe was headed for, so here’s hoping Freydis’ association with the unstable Ivar is more fruitful, for all our sakes.
- Oh, Margrethe is freed from Ivar’s clutches by former lover Hvitserk in what promises to be a storyline that exists.
- After the awkward pause caused by bringing up Harald having killed Halfdan, Rollo offers lightly, “I tried to kill my brother once.”
- Another blessed moment of lightness comes when Lagertha, after Heahmund explains how being bishop once more will mean he cannot openly live with Lagertha, tells him, “Well, I hope it makes you sad.”