We need to talk about Jarl Haraldson.
One recurring theme, both in the comments and, you know, from me, has been that the Jarl is a poorly imagined character and that his scenes in Vikings have been forgettable dead air amidst otherwise compelling TV. As with all seemingly unanimous judgements, however, it’s a good idea to examine such things more closely, especially as tonight’s episode, “Raid,” is so Jarl-heavy. I mean, it’s possible that we’re all just misjudging the character, right? (Spoiler alert for the episode: No. No we are not.)
With Ragnar laid low for most of the episode by yet another Haraldson ambush, the last half of “Raid” is given over largely to a depiction of the Jarl’s machinations, his relation to his family and kingdom and even spares time to explore some of what makes him tick. If ever there were a time for this character to be redeemed dramatically, this episode is it. Sadly, all this extra screentime accomplishes is to more clearly illuminate why Vikings’ main antagonist is also its main weakness.
The episode begins by playing to one of its enduring strengths, with Ragnar and his slave, the captured monk Athelstan, sharing some post-fishing hang time. The growing relationship between the two has provided invariably compelling dramatic tension so far: Travis Fimmel’s convincing otherness colliding with George Blagden’s more-relatable (to us) wariness as they negotiate their singularly prickly kinship is rapidly becoming Vikings’ most consistently fascinating pairing. Tonight, Athelstan’s direct attempt to define what his position is in his captor’s household is met with a typical, and typically enigmatic, response. Asking “Am I still your slave?” Althelstan attempts to get a straight answer but is met with only a series of lightly mocking questions in return: Ragnar, lounging while toying with an open candle flame, answers the priest’s questions with the parrying verbal judo of a Zen master (but, you know, with an axe and crazy eyes). It’s clear that Ragnar, apart from finding the priest’s intel on his home country useful, has some fondness for his slave. It’s less clear to what degree that fondness goes and how far it will protect the monk if he gets too forward, as he does when he lets his bemusement at the Viking gods show too clearly. Ragnar’s hairtrigger anger, flashing those quickly roiling, sea-blue eyes and asking menacingly, “And what do you know of our gods?” is the sort of unknowable, quicksilver unpredictability that marks the best, most satisfying moments on the show. The uneasy friction of these two cultures, as embodied by these two men, continues to be damned captivating.
And then we turn things over to the Jarl.
Having exhausted every other avenue designed to rid him of this troublesome Ragnar, the Jarl essentially just says, “fuck it” and leads the titular raid on the Lothbrok farm, his thugs indiscriminately slaughtering men, women, children, and livestock. Before now, the Jarl has tried to simply let Ragnar die on the open sea, only to see him return, laden with treasure and glory. He’s gone to the Viking legal system to do the job, only to see Rollo undo his unsuccessful frame job. Failing that, he’s sent a stealth ambush, receiving in recompense only a haywagon full of dead minions for his trouble. So this frontal assault seems the inevitable next step. Except that the Jarl has been such a stock villain that there’s been little sense of dramatic ramp-up to these proceedings. They make sense, but only because he’s such a prosaic, predictable figure.
The blame for that goes mainly to Michael Hirst: Gabriel Byrne may not be enlivening this character, but there’s only so much even an actor as talented as he can do with the material. (Although Byrne does little to differentiate the Jarl from other villainous roles he’s played: That “clenched jaw, slightly offset” move is awfully familiar at this point.) No, it’s that Hirst didn’t lay the groundwork: Ragnar, being Vikings’ hero, needed an antagonist, I suppose, but Hirst essentially stopped at “antagonist,” failing to imbue Byrne’s character with much else. It’s just that the Jarl is a type we’ve seen before (and often), while the rest of Vikings’ world is more uniquely, enigmatically alien. Why does the Jarl oppose Ragnar’s plan to take a small boat into uncharted waters, even though the possible rewards are so great? Because he’s designed to. Sure, there’s some back-story about the murder of his sons, his fading potency, and so on, but essentially any time he’s on screen, the tension dissipates because his character is on rails. Byrne’s Jarl is the predetermined dastardly villain, destined to be overthrown. And so far, so little else of Vikings has been so familiar, or predictable.
Take tonight’s episode. Aside from his blunt-force raid on Ragnar’s home, we get the most melodramatic Jarl-ian evil so far. Double-crossing a seemingly repentant Rollo (shocker!), the Jarl has him waylaid by some goons (double shocker!) and bound down on a handy torture table (say whaaat?). He unsuccessfully interrogates Rollo about Ragnar’s whereabouts, delivering a Bond villain-quality speech and then seemingly carving Rollo’s mouth into an Ichi The Killer smile. (There’s some basic cable discretion to the shot, but that seems like Rollo’s fate here.) Throw in some uncharacteristically overdone bad guy music, and this is exactly the sort of clichéd sequence Vikings has successfully avoided. You know, when the Jarl isn’t on the screen.
When Hirst gives Byrne his big scene, emotionally recounting the humiliating details of his sons’ murder to his weeping wife (Jessalyn Gilsig, too, continues to do nothing for me), the effect is blunted by the fact that we have precisely nothing invested in these people. What should be a sympathetic moment remains inert, and all I could do was think about how silly Byrne sounds solemnly reciting the line, “They put their faces against their asses… as a sign of disrespect.” I mean, that shouldn’t provoke giggles, right?
In contrast, look at the scene where the grievously injured Ragnar and company take refuge with Floki, who works up some holistic Viking poultices in a feverish attempt to cure him. Lagertha and the children aid Floki, and, amidst the action, Athelstan desperately recites Ecclesiastes and prays, “O Mary, mother of God listen to me: Do not let this man die.” In that one sequence, Athelstan’s place in the family, the family’s relationship to him, his evolving sense of his place in this world, and Floki’s heretofore visceral antipathy towards anything remotely Christian are all addressed, all commented upon. It’s a profoundly exciting, dramatically resonant exchange. And no one has to strangle a little boy after making him dig his own grave to build the drama.
“Raid” seems to have been conceived as a means to humanize the Jarl and to raise his standing dramatically before the inevitable final showdown with Ragnar, whose episode-ending challenge promises to presage the Jarl’s imminent end. All it succeeds in doing is whetting our appetites for the day when Ragnar cleaves us free into a Jarl Haraldson-free Vikings.
- I can’t be the only one who got a “Westley in the Pit Of Despair” vibe when the Jarl had Rollo strapped down shirtless on that torture table, right? Or the only one who thinks that, for Vikings, that’s not a good sign?
- When Ragnar seems to be drowning after his plunge off the cliff, it’s Althelstan who shoulders Lagertha out of the way to dive in and save him. It continues the monk’s evocative journey, but why the Hel isn’t it the fearless shieldmaiden who plunges in after her husband here?
- The action at the farm is as convincing and well-directed as ever, but its end, where the Jarl pauses for a gloat long enough for Ragnar to trick his way out of certain death, is right out of every Bond movie, too.
- There’s a subplot about the Jarl arranging the marriage of his lovely teenaged daughter to a black-toothed old Swede some 50 years her senior to consolidate power or some such. I’ve watched those scenes three times now, and feel sleepy trying to remember more. Apologies.
- Comparable to the prayer scene is another quiet night at Floki’s when the Vikings and the Christian simply swap religious myths over dinner. I could have watched another half-hour of that.
- The surfeit of Jarl this episode is nearly offset by a generous helping of Althelstan. George Blagden’s watchful intelligence onscreen remains riveting.
- Floki’s medicine sounds delicious.
- Apparently, Vikings is going to continue to hammer home the “Viking threesome” idea. This time, it’s Floki, his saucy lady Helga, and one of Ragnar’s men. Who is much, much more into it than was Athelstan.