“I am being more honest with you than you have any right to expect.”
Vikings is adrift. With its remaining members of the Lothbrok clan scattered across the globe (Norway, England, Floki’s flinty “Land Of The Gods”), the series has yet to bring any of its fractious family to the fore in the receding aftermath of Ragnar’s death. At the same time, the most interesting characters most likely to have taken up the series mantle as lead (Lagertha, Floki, Bjorn) are receding, too, mired in reactive inactivity or, in Floki’s case, underdeveloped side quests. Meanwhile, none of Ragnar’s other sons—Ivar, Ubbe, Hvitserk—have established themselves as formidable figures in their own right, leaving creator Michael Hirst to indulge his obvious affection for English court intrigue at the expense of what the show was once about. What’s left in “Murder Most Foul” is a numbing mix of leaden dialogue, klutzy exposition, and some overheated romantic intrigue more suited to Vikings fans’ online fanfic.
Lagertha’s is the most irritating story, insomuch as Katheryn Winnick’s formidable farmer turned queen carries so much potential and actual gravitas. Having accepted lover Heahmund’s offer of sanctuary back in his native land, she and her tiny band are imprisoned then freed by King Alfred after she promises to fight for him against the ever-raiding Norse. Left to her own devices, the deposed and grief-stricken queen spends most of the episode wandering in the English market smelling herbs, or riding off with Heahmund for some secretly spied-upon woodland sex. There’s a hint of the conflict to come in Bjorn and Ubbe’s resentment at Lagertha’s trust in Heahmund (Bjorn basically accuses his mother of thinking with her genitals), and Winnick’s watchfulness suggests that she’s got more cooking than she lets on. But for Lagertha, this inaction plays more like deeply disappointing blank passivity.
Floki remains in his own world, the stony, unfruitful, waterfall-rich volcanic land he still claims to his wavering and fractious followers is the chosen land for all true believers. Gustaf Skarsgård is and has always been a magnetic secret weapon in Vikings’ arsenal, and here, confessing tearfully to steadfast acolyte Aud, “The gods are not here. They’re not here!,” his tortured holy man speculates that he may have always just been the fool others’ saw him as. There’s a touch of Lear in Floki’s lonely appeal to the gods, “I don’t understand. Is it a joke? Does it amuse you to see me suffer? Why don’t you show yourself to me as you used to? Perhaps you never did.” Still, Floki remains the only interesting figure in his own narrative this season, as we see the treacherous and murderous Evyind squabbling with the brother of the young man he murdered, and if you’re invested in that story, then you’re welcome to it.
Then there’s Bjorn. Bjorn Ironside, hulking conqueror and feared warrior, now glowering bearlike through the English court after his release from captivity. Alexander Ludwig’s Bjorn has gamely tried to fill out his late and illustrious father’s robes over the years, with varying degrees of success. Sure, he’s easily twice the size of Ragnar—even surpassing uncle and possible biological father Rollo in sheer, axe-wielding, berserker mass—and Ludwig has incorporated a tetchy physicality to Bjorn’s dealings with others that’s at least an entertaining choice. (When former wife Torvi chides him for taunting Lagertha, sneering, “Well, you have never been a fool for love, have you, Bjorn?,” his response is an impatiently amusing and exaggerated shoulder shrug.) But Bjorn, too, is left dangling much of the time since his return from adventuring, his blunted aspirations to outdo his father’s explorations and conquests leaving him bundled and burly and blustering while the world turns around him.
At least here he gets “Murder Most Foul”’s most entertainingly ludicrous subplot, as King Alfred’s would-be prospective queen, Elsewith (Roisin Murphy) immediately turns from her wan, reluctant royal suitor to that hunky, pagan bear-man glaring at her from across the tables at her welcoming banquet. It’s here that Vikings just goes all-in for the shorthand contrivance, as the suspiciously unsupervised visiting princess constantly shares meaningful glances with the ever-looming Bjorn before being pawed in a convenient stable and then relieved of her virginity, visiting the shirtless Bjorn in the middle of the night. Vikings is no stranger to the trope of these repressed English getting entranced by those earthy, unwashed, sexy Norse, but we barely meet Elsewith before her tentative, power-consolidating marriage storyline veers pantingly into a Viking-humping plot device. There’s a nod toward character building in Elsewith’s fascination with shieldmaiden Torvi’s full-out sparring session with Ubbe, but it’s ultimately flimsy window dressing for some “Take me, you savage” Norseman roleplay. For what it’s worth, at least she and Bjorn have a little fun before getting down to business, with Elsewith’s trembling, “God will punish me” answered by Bjorn’s cheeky, “My gods won’t punish you.”
Back in Kattegat, Ivar—positioned since his first adult appearance as the series’ lead-in-waiting—is mired in his own simultaneously dull and overwrought romantic subplot. Announcing that the bold freed slave Freydis (Alicia Agneson) is to be his new queen, Ivar casts worried glances over at Hvitserk and the half-mad Margrethe, both of whom are, indeed, spilling the sniggering secret of Ivar’s impotence to Harald. Alex Høgh’s characterization as the magnetically unhinged Ivar remains both Vikings’ strongest of the sons of Ragnar, and its most inconsistent. Here, he’s paranoid about Hvitserk and Harald’s suspicions about his ability to produce an heir (he bluntly asks King Harald why the hell he’s still in Kattegat), passionately in love with the praiseful Freydis (who promises him that she will, indeed bear his child), and full of the murder-eyed, hair-trigger violence that at least makes Ivar compellingly unpredictable. (It’s always effective when Ivar eschews his various apparatuses and defiantly drags himself along the ground to confront someone.)
But what are we to make of Ivar’s seeming belief in Freydis’ lore-heavy plan to conceive a child using Ivar’s blood? (We see her almost immediately corner Ivar’s now-doomed male slave for some surreptitious, heir-producing manger sex.) Ivar’s inner conflict over his position as “cripple” in a society where only his parents’ tradition-bucking sentiment saved him from being exposed to the elements as an infant is sometimes what drives his maniacal lust for power. (He’s also got a deep vein of straight-up murderous craziness, as a poor childhood playmate found out.) But other times, we see him in the grip of wild-eyed superstition, as when he momentarily halted his final attack in the battle against Lagertha, seemingly beset by superstitious foreboding. Here, he’s shown giving in to Freydis’ effusive praise of him as a god among men, and seeming to similarly succumb (after some blood-licking edgeplay) to his new bride’s mystical plan for a virgin birth. A dream about the with-child Freydis turning into the mocking, murderous Margrethe (who’d tried a similar mock-submissive ego-stroking approach to Ivar’s problem in the past) leaves him rattled, but Ivar’s own conception remains too inconsistent for his conflict to register fully.
“Murder Most Foul” indeed concludes with a pair of murders. Heahmund—after a subplot about his bishopric having been handed over to a spineless rival in his absence—kills the current Bishop of Sherborne for having threatened to tell the king about Heahmund’s vows-violating affair with Lagertha. And poor, plot-buffeted Margrethe meets her end, too, as her tearful appeal for savior and current lover Hvitserk to overthrow Ivar and make her queen results in a cadre of assassins hurling knives into her in the dark of her isolated cabin. Neither death registers much. Who cares about Heahmund’s quest to return to his former position, especially with Jonathan Rhys Meyers continuing his one-note, Batman-voiced approach to the character? (His growly “I am what I have always been, Christ’s warrior on Earth!” plays like a particularly overheated, born-again Dark Knight.) And Margrethe seemed like she had promise once, her free-spirited, scheming former slave quickly devolving into a muddy morass of wet-eyed betrayals and eventual madness. Freydis’ more successful seduction of Ivar is Vikings taking a do-over on the failed Margrethe storyline, and if Ida Marie Nielsen never had enough to work with, her scenes here have a pathetically affecting Ophelia as Lady MacBeth tone to them. It’s an effectively jarring choice to have the first knife hurled into the pleading, insane Margrethe’s back hardly register in her at all. It’s a mercy killing for yet another Vikings character fighting a losing battle against her stunted storyline.
- Alfred wants Ubbe to prove his loyalty by converting to Christianity, just as his uncle Rollo had done years before. Ubbe remains a colorless nonentity, but I did like his irritated response to the nervous Alfred’s shuffling silence, “You asked to see me.”
- Alfred praises Ubbe by saying, in reference to Ragnar, “Of all his sons, you are the closest to him,” perhaps a nod to Alfred The Great’s coming fame for manipulative statesmanship.
- Heahmund and royal brother Aethelred appear to be headed for a conflict over the bishopric, so stay tuned for that.
- Again, remember when Vikings was all about the Vikings? Hirst keeps sidelining his supposed main subject in favor of more and more screen time for the English court’s intrigues. Yes, these cultures clash, but Vikings is increasingly being told through non-Viking lenses that bleed the series of its identity.
- Hvitserk, roused from a drunken stupor by Ivar, blurts to his brother, “You insult the gods!” Not sure what he’s referring to there (it could be a lot of things, really), but Ivar’s mock innocent response is pretty funny: “What? The gods love me. You know that.”
- Heahmund’s reference to the doomed Bishop Cuthbert as a “troublesome priest” foretells the coming church-state conflict by echoing another famous utterance. Hirst would like you to know that he knows his history.