“If we must fight then we must fight, but first let us discuss the alternatives.”
To revisit an old point, Vikings initially succeeded in large part due to foiled expectations. The first fictional series by History, of all places, was a dicey proposition, a seemingly unprofitable pairing whose undeniable and unexpected qualities the network has yet to replicate. Much of the credit for that early and continued interest goes to the casting of Australian former model and actor Travis Fimmel, certainly, easily one of the most surprisingly fortuitous matchups of actor and role in recent TV history. But creator Michael Hirst (he of such more silken period dramas such as The Tudors, Camelot, and the two Cate Blanchett-starring Elizabeth films) exceeded expectations as well, couching this more far-flung historical series in visual and performance terms well suited to the rawer milieu.
With Fimmel and his singular creation of Ragnar Lothbrok gone this season, the test has always been whether Hirst could parcel out Vikings’ drama among the necessarily lesser dramatic figures left behind once Ragnar hit that pit of serpents. And, indeed, there have been flashes where the internecine fighting and scattered adventures of the sons of Ragnar felt right. Like the necessary aftershocks from the fall of a great man, where—as with all such losses—it appears that no one person will rise to the same or greater heights. The built-in disappointment to this fifth season has at times functioned as intention, in other words.
But “The Joke” is such a crushing disappointment because it seems all the potentialities of a Vikings without Ragnar Lothbrok lead unprofitably to this—a muddy, muddled slog of lumpen dialogue and showy violence. As all the season’s character arcs (but one) meet in the fields outside Kattegat, each one is revealed as stunted and prosaic, all conflicts and teased hidden depths laid bare in mouthfuls of clunky verbiage, and settled—such as they are—with arbitrary strokes of the sword. (And some blow darts.)
As the two Norse armies mass in preparation for the war that, as everyone has been claiming, will shake the world, every character helpfully restates their motivation for the choice they’ve made. Ivar explains to brother Hvitserk, “Now I can finally fulfill my promise to the gods and kill Lagertha.” Hvitserk, even more helpfully, explains that, even though their mother Aslaug wasn’t as nice to him as she was to Ivar, he’s on the same page. In Kattegat, Bjorn tells Halfdan of their coming fraternal conflicts, “You may have to fight against your brother,” and Halfdan responds, “It’s the same for you.” When the armies are bristling at each other across an open plain, Lagertha suddenly proclaims, “It is not right that the sons of Ragnar should try and slaughter each other,” leading to an exchange of hostages—Halfdan for Hvitserk—so that both side-switched siblings can have almost the exact same conversation with the brothers they’re slated to fight.
Coming together in a colorfully ritualistic wall of two-toned banners in the middle of the battlefield, Lagertha, Ubbe, Bjorn, Halfdan, Harald, Hvitserk, and Ivar all take turns airing grievances they already know—and that, more damagingly, we already know. The only surprise is that Astrid truly seems to have chosen Harald over Lagertha, the pregnant warrior stating limply, “I am married now. I am King Harald’s wife.” There are a few evocative pleas among leaden lines like Bjorn’s “Let’s put aside our differences for the sake of our father” and his mumbly exposition of “a lifetime of revenge obligations.” Lagertha, invoking Ragnar’s spirit, bemoans killing “our young men for a piece of land that is already ours.” And, in response, Harald’s gleam-eyed claim, “On the contrary, we will gain the world,” feelingly rebuts the Lothbrok clan’s scuffling talk of peace with the runty king’s customary overreaching avarice.
But it all comes down to Ivar, and that’s where it all falls apart, too. Alex Høgh’s portrayal of Ivar the Boneless has certainly been the most entertaining of this season, albeit in a much narrower range than Fimmel’s departed magnetism as Ragnar. For all the simmering resentment over his lifetime of treatment due to his deformity, Ivar—as laid bare back when he peevishly bashed a little playmate’s skull open as a child—is a monster. An expressive, entertaining monster, and undoubtedly fun to watch as he has defiantly raised himself to power like he gradually pulls himself upright through willpower and gadgetry. But an implacable, Richard III-style villainous caricature for the most part. Here, his initial quailing in front of his assembled brothers would be more interesting if we believed it for a second. “I still hate myself for killing Sigurd,” Ivar states, seemingly abashed, continuing, “This would be ten times worse. I—I can’t. I renounce my promise to kill Lagertha.” When he reneges on his pledge of allegiance minutes later, smirking as he contemptuously dumps out his horn of mead, it’s a return to the Ivar we know, sure. But there’s little sense that his initial remorse was anything but a ruse—a joke—and a pointless one at that.
It’s doubly frustrating dramatically during the ensuing battle, when Ivar displays an inexplicable irresolution that not only further muddies his character, but undermines the expectation built up all season that Ivar the Boneless is a master strategian. After his odds-defying, diabolical cleverness back in England, Ivar’s waffling here as his army is divided and eventually routed by that of Lagertha is as big a mess as the battle itself. With both sides shown playing at guessing the other’s strategies leading up to the battle, the moves here are stupefyingly blunt and unimaginative. Or, in the case of Lagertha’s allies, the forest-concealed Sami, showily silly, their booby-trapping guerilla methods (here the blowguns come in) decimating poor, dull Hvitserk’s rear guard with what I can only term “Ewok tactics.” Ivar’s indecision might be attributable to an inner conflict about fighting his brothers, or of suddenly questioning his fate in the gods’ favor, but there’s been no groundwork laid for such thoughts, and Ivar’s impotence here is as enervating as it is baffling.
As for the battle itself, the lingering shots of exhibitionistic carnage (an eye gouge, a war hammer to the face, a shieldmaiden bludgeoned in half with a shield, a mangled arm messily dangling) is exactly the sort of empty, showy spectacle I imagine viewers were expecting when Vikings premiered. Vikings has always been a violent show, in keeping with the world it was evoking, but it’s never been so empty in dwelling on the crowd-satisfying gore. The main characters all wade through the muck and guts strikingly, all invincible in their martial prowess until—as with the finally, grievously wounded Heahmund—they are not. The direction (by Jeff Woolnough) isn’t the problem—there’s one impressively mounted overhead shot, for example, where King Harald’s delayed push into the heaving mass of combatants deforms the battle-lines amorphously toward Lagertha’s side of the field. But Vikings used to excel at storytelling through action, and this extended sequence is all planned strategically around ostentatious gouts of blood rather than illuminating the characters’ thoughts and journeys. It’s simultaneously impressive and empty.
In the end, the battle is won by Lagertha’s forces, and she stays Ubbe’s hand in order to spare the wounded Heahmund, for reasons she can’t explain (“Maybe the gods know why”), but which plays out more like Hirst isn’t about to let Jonathan Rhys Meyers go that easily. There’s a quiet grace in how Hvitserk silently climbs in next to the humiliated Ivar in Ivar’s vaunted battle chariot, the two defeated brothers left speechless in their shared loss. But overall, “The Joke” leaves us with the impression that grace is a quality that Vikings has lost, perhaps for good.
- If anyone characters come out of “The Joke” better than when they went in, it’s Harald and Halfdan, unexpectedly enough. Something about these hitherto one-dimensional punks’ glimmers of blunt poetry at their impending conflict elevates them. When the constitutionally untrustworthy Halfdan restates his allegiance to Bjorn, telling Harald simply, “Bjorn saved my life,” there’s an admirable purity to the gesture. And Harald’s final plea for his brother to join him is quite uncharacteristically touching, as he pleads, “I don’t want to have to kill you. The world would make no sense.”
- Plunked gracelessly down in the midst of all the speeches and blood is a similarly predictable conversation between Judith and Alfred about his pilgrimage to Lindisfarne. Alfred wants the priests to be less elitist in preaching the word of God—and for Aethelwulf to build a navy. Citing the king’s stubbornness, Alfred helpfully draws the parallel for us, explaining, “At some ways, he is just like the abbot at Lindisfarne.”
- Floki and his chosen people continue to squabble, their philosophical differences aired just as gracelessly as those back in Kattegat, or in York. Aud continues to spark with an unwavering faith in Floki’s vision of a pure Norse culture that rings with frightening, cultish devotion as she counters the vocal doubts of the disillusioned Eyvind.
- Edge-watch! Kjetill Flatnose (who is apparently Aud’s father, which wasn’t clear to me before) remains watchfully loyal to Floki, stolidly weathering both Eyvind’s insults (“He’s trying to lick Floki’s ass!”), and his awkwardly phrased accusations (“Anyone would think you’re trying to ingratiate yourself.”)
- Still, Floki’s story has Floki, menacingly and mysteriously stroking a raven. So that’s something.