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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A pair of klutzy power grabs at least spur Vikings into motion

Alex Høgh as Ivar The Boneless
Alex Høgh as Ivar The Boneless
Photo: Amazon/History
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“I wish you hadn’t told me that story.”

“The Signal” looks to pay off all last episode’s attenuated plotting with a pair of twists. Gunnhild and Helga’s rivalry to become the Bjorn Ironside widow who takes the throne of Kattegat is interrupted by a typically devious and snarly incursion by the escaped Harold Finehair. And, among the Rus, Ivar, having received the dagger signaling Prince Dir’s readiness to overthrow brother Oleg, attempts to spirit legitimate ruler Igor out of Kiev. Before then, each story putters along with a dedication to active intrigue that’s at least more engaging than “All Change”’s endless talk of wavering alliances, especially since each ends on something of a cliffhanger.

Gunnhild and Helga, their election (via a nifty flints in a balance scale contraption in the Kattegat square) thwarted by Harald and his newest allies bullying their way into the city, are left to listen to Harald’s self-aggrandizing glad-handing about his plans for a Norway united—in some fashion—under the three of them. (As ever, Harald makes his pitch as creepy as possible, essentially wooing both of Bjorn’s wives—one of whom he’s recently raped—into some sort of ruling triumvirate thruple.) Meanwhile, Oleg, kitted out in Good Friday sackcloth for the arrival of the Easter cross on the back of a beefy and bloodied Rus bishop, finally looks around and realizes Igor isn’t in attendance, with Ivar, Hvitserk, Igor, and the apparently complicit Katia attempting the old hay wagon gambit to flee to Dir’s encampment.

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Ragga Ragnars, Peter Franzén, Lucy Martin
Ragga Ragnars, Peter Franzén, Lucy Martin
Screenshot: Vikings

Along the way, there’s a splash of bloodshed (both Kattegat and Kiev are down a few guards), and the grinding wheels of momentum building, which, again, is an improvement over lest episode’s hooded speechifying. Still, we’re up against a host of familiar problems haunting these last ever Vikings tales. Hvitserk and Ivar beat the hell out of each other in the Kiev streets, because that’s the cul-de-sac their characters have been shunted onto. Ivar’s steadfast plan is to throw in with Dir and Igor to maintain some hold on his power in exile, while Hvitserk—now strung out on opium and sneeringly calling his brother “just a cripple” while he contemplates skewering Ivar with his own sharpened crutch—eventually joins Ivar’s caper because, as he says, Since it’s my fate to kill you, it makes sense for me to stay with you, I suppose.” I suppose. Vikings has never had a role for Hvitserk (and Marco Ilsø) that’s made sense for any stretch of time.

Marco Ilsø as Hvitserk
Marco Ilsø as Hvitserk
Screenshot: Vikings

The post-Ragnar world has seen his sons splinter as they contend with what their family legacy means for them as warriors, and as men. It’s fruitful ground, thematically, which the series has made shockingly little of. Bjorn’s saga came closest, the mighty first son of Ragnar navigating despite his father’s shadow to, finally, become something like a whole person. But the rest are a mess. Sigurd and the questionable Magnus were sacrificed early enough that their loss registered rather poignantly as the inevitable casualties of illustrious parentage. Ubbe’s ultimately become placidly content to eschew his father’s political side in favor of exploration. (Although a mid-episode death looks to shake that certainty.)

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Ivar is Ivar. The show’s conceptions of him as understandably embittered and canny underdog (thanks to his disability and place in the birth order) has always jarred uneasily with the idea that the murderous Ivar The Boneless was born bad. Now thrown upon the whims of another culture entirely, his ambitions play out in wheel-spinning isolation. Is Ivar a cynical manipulator, too smart to fall prey to the sentimentality, loyalties, and devotion that have proven exploitable weakness to his forebears? Or is he the easily manipulated dope who actually appears to believe Katia is Freydis, so much so that he spills his entire plan to the wife of his frenemy in a bout of post-coital cuddling? Alex Høgh stomps and sneers with dedication, but what once seemed like Ragnar-esque ambiguity of purpose has congealed into stock villainy, run through with a vein of shoddy writing.

There is no center to Vikings as it steers into its endgame, where once the series fairly jostled with them. Ragnar was irreplaceable, but Lagertha, Floki, Athelstan, Rollo, and, sure, Bjorn, all pulled their weight as variably intriguing protagonists. They were sufficiently tied to the series original conception as a cultural drama as much as a period melodrama. Now, Kattegat is being desultorily pulled between Gunnhild and Helga, with the wan and waffling Erik thrown in. And while Harald’s grand entrance (alongside hulking new buddy Skane, played by NHL bruiser Brent Burns) allows Peter Franzén to mock up some showboating populism for the Kattegat crowd (he even scoops up a child to kiss), Vikings was once invested enough in world-building to make the governmental rituals of the Thing a centerpiece, and not a plot device. After the thwarted election, Gunnhild is cornered dockside by the glowering Skane, in a portentous mini-cliffhanger. (I suspect we’re about to see just how far Bjorn Ironside’s legend has truly penetrated into the Norwegian cultural consciousness.)

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Ragga Ragnars as Gunnhild
Ragga Ragnars as Gunnhild
Screenshot: Vikings

Movement without direction is just noise. Vikings now has seven episodes left to craft itself a fitting farewell that somehow reframes all the last few seasons’ clanging, often rudderless storytelling. I truly wish it well. I’ve been with this series from the start, and, if its initial promise never coalesced completely, it has provided some truly stirring, unique, and lasting television. There’s one moment, captured in the little girl’s quote that kicked off this review, that made me remember that. Again, if just for a moment.

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Those are little Asa’s thoughts to her mother Torvi after hearing the tale of why Thor’s battle against the sea serpent Jörmungandr makes the seas roil under their inadequate-seeming boat. It’s just a storm, of course, but Asa, seeing the panic strike her mother and the rest of Ubbe’s followers upon their shelters being dashed by the wind and waves, points into the maelstrom and sees it. Jörmungandr, impossible and terrifying, and seemingly bent right on her. Bjorn, on his deathbed, lamented that he had two dead children (Siggy, Halli), and one he barely knows. That’s little Asa, ceded to Torvi and Ubbe, and now suddenly and irrevocably lost at sea.

Elodie Curry as Asa Bjornsdottir
Elodie Curry as Asa Bjornsdottir
Screenshot: Vikings
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Killing a child is a cheap gambit, and I got that I was being manipulated by a series so desperate to raise some stakes on Ubbe’s story that sacrificing a little-seen little girl made cynical sense. But that Vikings’ world can still host moments like this—a terrible, swift, and meaningless death where a child’s entire cultural mythology takes form enough to swallow her whole—that give me chills. It made me remember that there’s still magic in Vikings’ world, if the creators can remember how to wield it before the inevitable end.

Stray observations

  • Ingrid bristles at the now-obsequious Harald’s touch, but, before that, she plays not just the Bjorn card, but the Odin card to trump Gunnhild’s colorless plea for the people of Kattegat to choose her as ruler.
  • Gunnhild works up the courage to announce her candidacy after spotting visions (in the form of un-involving stock shots) or Lagertha, Bjorn, and Ragnar. It doesn’t do much, as her eventual attempt to cut through the still-happening Kattegat revelry is about as forceful as a spoon on a wineglass.
  • Ingrid also breaks into Bjorn’s just-sealed tomb to perform a bloody ritual intended to vault her over Gunnhild. Erik watches her, confirmed when Ingrid later says, “You were watching me.” Erik is duller than Kalf. Yeah, I said it.
  • The timeline of Harald’s invasion of Kattegat seems to span a ridiculously long stretch, according to the cross-editing with Ubbe’s voyage. His men killed at least one guard, and it takes forever for anyone to notice what’s up.
  • The entire Katia storyline is an irritation. She’s either Freydis, or Ivar’s mad, or Ivar’s a sucker, or she’s Oleg’s instrument, or Igor’s protector. I genuinely don’t care which at this point.
  • With Brent Burns joining WWE’s Adam Copeland and MLB’s Josh Donaldson in Kattegat, Vikings continues to be the reason why Canada-adjacent athletes occasionally grow out their beards. Burns doesn’t get to do much here than look menacing, but it sure looks like King Harald’s fate is in his mighty defenseman’s hands.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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