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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A briskly eventful Vikings heads for the horizon

Jordan Patrick Smith as Ubbe
Jordan Patrick Smith as Ubbe
Screenshot: Vikings
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“Things are coming to a conclusion. One has to make decisions.”

There are only two stories left for Vikings to tell. There were three, but the weakest one gets dispatched tonight, when Ingrid gathers mushrooms from the Kattegat woods, curses Erik into blindness, and undoes the departed-for-England Harald’s attempt to make her cede queenly power to the unsurprisingly weaselly Erik. Rendered cloudy-eyed and bare-bottomed, groveling at the throne, Erik is now at the mercy of the “witch” he so confidently pressured into sharing her bed along with her rule. So much for that guy.

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Especially as what happens to Harald, Ivar, Hvitserk, and their 200 ships filled with viking warriors in Wessex will likely determine more of what happens to Vikings’ home town than anything the righteously pissed-off Ingrid can accomplish in their absence. (At least with just three episodes to go.) Equipped, unlike poor Ubbe’s band, with supplies and sunstones, the Norse ships reach England and quietly sail upriver, relying on Ivar’s memory of his father’s advice on the best ground to make a stand. It’s a good plan, as it turns out, with Hvitserk riding in to save Ivar’s neck in a nasty ambush, and the resolute Norse rowing their way to plateau of high ground offering up a commanding view of the English countryside, having left a trail of burned villages and trudging refugees in their wake.

Alex Høgh as Ivar The Boneless
Alex Høgh as Ivar The Boneless
Screenshot: Vikings

From a television point of view, it’s relatively gripping. Vikings has always excelled when there was a clarity of purpose in the characters’ actions. Here, Ivar’s army is in England without much faffing around, and the skirmish, when it comes, is crisply staged, delivering some of that old school Vikings raid-England energy. Ivar proves a decent field leader once more, rallying his people to action (with our first “SHIELD WALL!” of this back end of the season), and making frenzied defensive adjustments on the fly. We get our third decapitation of the returned season, Hvitserk’s newfound, goddess-anointed bravery is pretty kick-ass, and, if you’re doing a viking battle scene and you don’t have an arrow buzz perilously close to someone’s head, then what are we doing here? For all the series’ pretensions to prestige historical drama, here’s to a solidly produced action scene that advances the plot and entertains.

Naturally, the downside to returning to Wessex is returning to Wessex, in the sense that Vikings quickly reintroduces its same old relationship dynamics when it comes to the current English king, Alfred. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo’s Alfred has grown a bit (and a beard) since we last saw him, although it appears that the former boy-king hasn’t quite earned the “The Great” that’s historically to come his way. England is “surrounded by enemies” as he protests to his unimpressed wife, Elsewith, and now he’s got these darned vikings to deal with. Again. Roisin Murphy’s Elsewith is correct in saying that the English response of hostages, agreements, conversions, and land to the invaders has gone poorly. “Basically, they don’t care,” Elsewith states somberly of how well appeasement has worked, while Alfred looks down at his dinner.

Illustration for article titled A briskly eventful Vikings heads for the horizon
Screenshot: Vikings
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The clash of cultures, as much as armies, has always been Vikings’ most intriguing narrative engine. Ragnar (whose name still strikes terror in the English) was changed by it as he changed the lands he attacked. The tentative interchange of ideas between the Norse under Ragnar and the kings of England fairly tingled with singular storytelling tension, the razor’s balance of violence and mutual fascination threatening at every moment to tip over into blood. And there’s an echo of that in Ivar’s incursion—albeit a faint one. Here, the beset and peace-seeking Alfred’s reticence to drive out the vikings once and for all is, in this abrupt reintroduction, reduced to Elsewith telling him not to be such a pussy, essentially, which isn’t exactly the sophisticated historical long view History could have wished. Telling his queen upon their retreat from the royal villa to safer ground, Alfred impresses nobody by telling the sighing Elsewith, “It is only important that Ivar does not capture me, for I am Wessex.” Again, Alfred’s tack of tactically ceding “just land” to the invaders might well be smart, but Vikings’ vision of the English position is disappointingly narrow.

“The sons of Ragnar Lothbrok” are invoked several times this episode by those looking to instill in friends or foes the seriousness of this latest viking invasion. As we’ve seen, the sons themselves are less imposing than their father was, with Ivar and Hvitserk exchanging “King Harald’s days are probably numbered” murmurs, and the entire expeditionary force being shown, last time out, as a cynical spur to flagging manhood and bar to just that sort of internecine squabbling. “The Raft Of Medusa” does acknowledge this, with the vikings’ torch-wielding predation and the inevitable flood of displaced civilians filmed in somber, un-heroic slow-motion. There’s precious little glory in this endeavor, and even less inquisitiveness. There’s a war coming, and its outcome will, it appears, not budge the human element of Vikings very much into enlightenment.

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Alex Høgh as Ivar, Marco Ilsø as Hvitserk
Alex Høgh as Ivar, Marco Ilsø as Hvitserk
Screenshot: Vikings

The voyage of Ubbe’s tiny band of seafarers is where to look for that, and tonight sees the dehydrated, dying mariners at the end of their rope. Literally, as we see Ubbe squeezing ocean condensation from a draggling sail-line and pressing the precious moisture to baby Ragnar’s lips. I still don’t know what makes Ubbe tick as a character, his baby blues fixed, finally, on his father’s discoverer’s goals, and his leadership in serious and perpetual doubt. Begging Othere’s forgiveness for his suspicions, Ubbe weeps while Othere consoles him, saying, “You don’t need forgiveness, son of Ragnar, because I know you always believed, and that is why we are here.”

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Couple things. First, what, exactly has Ubbe always believed in? The vague, changing tales of a stranger with an evocative name. (Which may not be his name.) His father’s dreams, which Ubbe’s never quite managed to articulate? Himself? Here, as the beyond-hope Ubbe spots the outline of green hills on the misty horizon and convinces the dazed Torvi that it’s no mirage (“You must be blind!”), the moment is genuinely powerful, in the way that Ragnar’s first footsteps on English soil were. By the show’s logic and presentation, this is Othere’s Golden Land, land never before seen—or imagined—even by the mighty and brave Ragnar Lothbrok. Ubbe Ragnarsson is an explorer like his father—and has surpassed him. It’s thrilling for what it is, and Vikings’ dramatic legacy will be tied more to how Ubbe’s leadership is tested on these unseen (to the Norse) shores far more than the outcome of the coming clash of Ivar and Alfred.

Yet, there’s power, still, in Vikings’ story, even if Michael Hirst has never managed to maintain it consistently. (Especially A.F., “after Fimmel.”) That the series has whittled down its roster until only Ubbe and the ever-wan Torvi are to be our final eyes into the Norse people’s future in this larger world robs some of that power, sure. But, with just three more episodes to go, at least there are some hints that the series might rediscover itself a bit.

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Stray observations

Lucy Martin as Ingrid
Lucy Martin as Ingrid
Screenshot: Vikings
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  • God, Erik is such a drip/creep. Not even able to wait until Harald sets sail to make a surreptitious grab at Ingrid’s waist, he presents himself in the sleeping queen’s bedroom, demanding admittance. Ingrid’s made her willingness to use what wiles and power she’s got to stay in power (and alive), so she assents, but not before forcing the shirtless and unsuspecting Erik to endure some serious whip-play.
  • Ingrid’s preparations to do whatever it is she did to Erik’s eyes is lingered over with delicious malevolence, as she crushes puffball fungi into the air before cutting blood from her mouth, breast, and hand to make the concoction she hides under his pillow. Don’t mess with a self-professed witch, dummy.
  • Erik, lounging smugly before hitting the sheets where Ingrid’s potion lurks, sighs, “Life is perfect.” (No confirmation if he’d just bought a boat named the “Live-4-Ever.”)
  • While Ubbe’s band looks positively Walking Dead almost-dead before sighting land, at least they never quite reached “The Raft Of The Medusa” for real.
  • Harald, responding to Ingrid’s observation that Ivar and Hvitserk are most likely duplicitous in their allegiance, gets his first laugh from me of the series, telling Ingrid, “We understand each other—I also lie. That’s the way we proceed, and it seems to work.”
  • Sailing away from Ingrid on the Kattegat docks, Harald says to Hvitserk, “I never had any luck with women.” Maybe try not raping them and then forcing them into marriage? Just a thought.
  • The Christian church in England remains consistent, at least, a bishop seen praying Alfred will “repel and slaughter the heathen.”
  • We see no sign of Elsewith’s child, which, if anyone recalls, may be Bjorn’s.
  • The decapitation scorecard this half-season: Erik-1; Gunnhild-1; unknown viking tonight-1.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.