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A wrenching Vikings examines its characters' paths forward, and delivers a horrible death

Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha
Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha
Photo: Jonathan Hession/History
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“The Norns weave it, and so we believe it.”

“All The Prisoners” shows how Vikings has enough strong pieces to drive an episode, even when the machine is rusty. In most respects a table-setting episode for greater events to come, yet each discreet event here is well-calibrated, and mostly avoids the elements that haven’t been working as well in the past few seasons. Or maybe it’s just the senseless death of a child that cuts through all the clutter.

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That’s poor Hali (Ryan Henson), who finally lies dead in grandmother Lagertha’s arms, the final victim of the bandits’ unsuccessful raid on Lagertha’s newly fortified homestead. Picking up a defeated bandit’s sword as the exiled murderers flee from Lagertha’s ragtag army of peasant women, old men, and children, Hali is cut down spitefully by the bandit leader, Lagertha’s anguished flail at the bandit’s horse coming a second too late. It’s dirty pool to found your episode’s dramatic impact on the shocking murder of an adorable little kid, but there’s at least the hint here that Michael Hirst has something more in mind with Lagertha’s response to Hali’s death. Lagertha’s whole story arc in this brand-new season has been the whiplash reversal of her pledge to give up a life of power and violence because, as she tells the gods, she’s seen too much death. Her decision to whip her improbable little band into a self-defensive fighting force was seemingly a too-abrupt abandonment of whatever storytelling direction the former queen was going in, but understandable enough, considering how the apparent helplessness of the women of her new home was being brutally exploited by marauding men.

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Now she’s lost someone even more vulnerable, and more innocent, and “All The Prisoners” leaves it open as to just how deep Lagertha’s (and Vikings’) examination of the show’s culture of violence will be. In the lead-up to the inevitable bandit raid, Lagertha, after rousing her new followers to action, walks Hali and even more adorable little sister Asa (Elodie Curry) through the bustle, and tells them why they needn’t worry. She and the others will look after them, plus they are both “Viking, son and daughter of great warriors.” From our vantage point, she might have counterbalanced those points with “they’re too adorable to live,” which turns out to be half-right at least, when Hali, mimicking the bloody heroism he sees around him, decides to play warrior.

Illustration for article titled A wrenching iVikings/i examines its characters paths forward, and delivers a horrible death
Photo: Jonathan Hession/History
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Katheryn Winnick is unsurprisingly strong in Hali’s death scene, as she holds the dying boy and attempts to comfort him with promises of Valhalla, and sitting beside Odin, and, presumably, his illustrious grandfather, Ragnar Lothbrok. Little Ryan Henson is heartbreaking as, in Hali’s childish lucidity as he bleeds to death in the dirt, he desperately looks to his grandmother for validation of what she’d told him earlier in the day—that’s he’s brave, and a Viking, and that he, as all good Vikings seek to do, is dying well. Winnick holds back Lagertha’s tears until the boy is gone, spinning tales and answering the boy’s straightforward query, “Am I dying?” with the bluntly honest, “You are dying Hali,” adding, “but the gods are here.”

Maybe they are. But, in Lagertha’s second bracing speech over the shroud-wrapped bodies of the nine people (including three children) killed in the raid, the question remains just how far (if at all) Vikings will delve into the seemingly abortive narrative of Lagertha’s renunciation of her former ways. Stirring her fellow mourners to make the choice whether to continue to fight—and die, and mourn—in defense of themselves and what they’ve built, the episode trots out a representative sampling of unanimously supportive villagers, led by the tiny Asa, who, laying a petal on the dead Hali’s breast, pronounces solemnly, “I don’t leave my brother.” Lagertha is a warrior, of course, and has nothing left to prove from a character standpoint in that regard. But the episode posits that this Lagertha, in choosing to go back on her pledge to abandon war, is also abandoning something more. Hali died because he, emulating the stories and glories of his father Bjorn, mother Torvi, and famous grandparents, scrambled out of his safe hiding place alongside Asa because Vikings don’t hide, even when they’re small, and have no idea just how fragile tiny bodies truly are. Last episode, I called Lagertha’s unearthing of her sword a cliché, and it was. In the coming episodes, we’ll see whether Michael Hirst intends to do anything more interesting with that choice than indulge our desire for simple vengeance narratives.

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A suggestion in support of the more interesting path comes in Bjorn’s story, where, brought before the always-ranting King Olaf, he’s presented with a choice ringing with a familiar voice of old. Steven Berkoff’s rotund old king has, in his half-mad invocations of fate, has always been Shakespearean in conception, and now his erstwhile echoes of Lear turn to Prospero as he, spinning tales of a single, unified Norway under King Bjorn Ironside, speaks of his uncertainty over whether his visions of the future—good and ill—are madness, or insight. “If nothing is real, we must still act as if it was,” he tells captives Bjorn and Harald, speculating that, if a dream, their whole world might simply “melt into air—into thin air.” As entertaining as Berkoff’s outsized Olaf is, there isn’t enough to him as a character to truly take center stage in Vikings’ ongoing story, but that makes sense, too, as his fragmented vision to unify his beloved people sounds like the half-formed gathering up of Ragnar’s dreams.

King Harald Finehair (Peter Franzén) and King Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig)
King Harald Finehair (Peter Franzén) and King Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig)
Photo: Jonathan Hession/History
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There’s a funny moment when Bjorn, patiently sitting through Olaf’s elaborate preamble to his plan, asks his captor politely, “Would it be possible for you to explain what the gods have revealed to you?” But (while the sickly Harald stands uncomfortably glowering beside him), Bjorn, perhaps recognizing the shadow of his father’s lessons in Olaf’s whirling words, accepts Olaf’s offer of a summit of all the fractious kings and jarls of Norway. Calling the internecine squabbles of the various Norsemen seeking their own claims to power and glory “simply ludicrous,” Olaf—sitting resplendently on a heap of skins inside a ring of fire—makes a case founded on “the greatest interest of our people.” Is Olaf mad? Scheming? Maybe. But, presented as he’s been as an old man driven to something like fatalistic hope for his people, he’s presenting Bjorn with an opportunity to carry on the farsighted, incomplete plans of his father. Plans that Bjorn—for all his strength and success—has not been able to forge on his own. As with Lagertha’s story, there are any number of ways for this narrative thread to go, but “All The Prisoners” leaves us poised, expectantly and hopefully, at what could be a truly intriguing turning point.

Ivar’s story might be less momentous in prospect, hinging as it still does on the plans of the entertainingly evil Prince Oleg to invade all of Scandinavia. As before, the machinations are the draw here, as we see Ivar continuing to groom the captive young Prince Igor, here openly telling the boy that “Oleg is nothing—but you, you are everything.” I still don’t have a handle on what they’re doing with the increasingly spooky little Igor (we see that he’s taken to sleeping in an oversized bird’s nest in his chamber), but Oran Glynn O’Donovan makes the rightful heir to the Rus’ throne subtly unnerving, which is a better fate dramatically than the boy hostage he was introduced as. Visiting Ivar in the night, he asks Ivar to restate his assertion that it’s Igor’s country to rule, and not Oleg’s—before telling Ivar that Oleg wants to see him.

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Danila Kozlovsky’s Oleg ain’t a subtle creation, and only becomes less so here, as he rails at Ivar’s objections to being Oleg’s eventual “puppet” king by dropping all pretenses to their previous bro-bond (and his warped but idealized conception of the wife he murdered), and tells Ivar plainly that he doesn’t believe Ivar’s whole “I’m a god” line, and that Ivar should be grateful a cripple like him yet has some use. “Don’t mess with me,” is about as blunt a revelation of Oleg’s stripped-down villainy as we’ve gotten, and, as hammily diverting as Kozlovsky has been, the real intrigue here is how Ivar intends to turn the tables on his new pal. Making a surreptitious nighttime visit to the humiliated and caged Dir (Ivar literally brings him a bone to gnaw on), Ivar elicits a desperate promise from the maimed and ailing prince that, should Ivar make a move against Oleg, Dir will provide. “I don’t care too much about the castles,” Ivar responds, smiling, to Dir’s litany of promises, leaving us at least a bit more curious about just what this Ivar is interested in. If his story is to be all-in on the scheming, this is at least an energizing development.

Igor (Oran Glynn O’Donovan) and Ivar (Alex Høgh)
Igor (Oran Glynn O’Donovan) and Ivar (Alex Høgh)
Photo: Jonathan Hession/History
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Of the four stories currently vying for attention this season, Hvitserk’s continues to be a sneakily effective dark horse. Found in a reeking flophouse by brother Ubbe, the drunken and delirious Hvitserk is informed of his impending responsibility for a Norse trade mission along the Silk Road. Marco Ilsø and Jordan Patrick Smith are, as Hvitserk and Ubbe, the forgotten sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, due jointly to their position as less-accomplished siblings to famous brothers Bjorn and Ivar, and, well, because neither has ever done anything particularly compelling. But the two here, embracing while Hvitserk weeps and apologizes to his older brother, suggest that there may finally be enough substance built up in their relationship to warrant their elevation through the cast list. Ubbe’s horrified and not a little disgusted by his little brother’s perceived weakness, but his confession, “I don’t think our family has ever truly recognized your talents,” at least brings some things out into the open. It’s affecting.

And Ilsø is making the most of his descent into guilt-fueled, delusional, drunken madness this season, as his fevered brain and blood-rimmed eyes continually conjure visions representing his past failures, or what he perceives them as. Locking himself away in a Trainspotting-esque attempt to sweat (and vomit) out his addiction, Hvitserk’s wretchedness is poignant, even more so when he fails. Brought trembling and repentant in front of Ubbe on the morning his delegation is supposed to leave, he’s cast out, big brother telling him, “I love you brother. I always have and I always will, but you have just betrayed me for the second time in your life.” Ubbe’s being more than a little unreasonable (the editing makes it appear that he’d given Hvitserk about a day to dry out before sending him to lead a cross-continental expedition), but being torn between his love for his little brother and his newfound responsibilities ruling Kattegat in Bjorn’s absence looks good on Ubbe as a character. And Hvitserk, scorned and mocked as he shambles—hallucinating a demonic and murderous Ivar—through the pouring rain, is as interesting as he’s ever been. Being a younger son of Ragnar Lothbrok means coping with disappointment, both your own and others, and both Hvitserk and Ubbe are finally being forced to confront their legacy.

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If “All The Prisoners” serves to set up all the season’s four main narratives for more eventful chapters down the road, it also allows Vikings to gather itself—and its characters—with a little more clarity and potential for what’s to come.

Stray observations

  • Now Gunnhild’s having visions? Vikings’ relationship with its supernatural elements has veered pretty broadly into the literal over the years, but having the queen have a high-def accurate dream showing Lagertha’s village (which she’s never seen) being attacked is the sort of lazy storytelling prompt Vikings could cut way, way back.
  • Bjorn finally confronts Kjetill Flatnose about what really happened with Floki. And while Kjetill mostly tells the truth about rejecting Floki’s call to reject the signature Norse blood-vengeance (and killing his rival’s entire family), Bjorn’s still not buying that Floki would simply abandon his people. Telling Kjetill that he’s suspect until the day Floki returns and backs up his story, Bjorn’s setting him up for some treachery from the wrathful Kjetill, but at least we’re one step closer to some Floki, seemingly.
  • And I have to give it up to Adam Copeland, who—while having to navigate the hulking Kjetill’s heel turn—is sort of killing it in this, his most significant acting role since leaving the WWE behind.
  • Bjorn meets the duplicitous messenger from King Olaf with an agreement to meet, then a serious head butt, which is Bjorn’s jam.
  • That said, Bjorn does effectively suss out the stalemate Olaf finds himself in, in that his forces aren’t enough to both destroy Bjorn’s remaining army and hold Harald’s kingdom.
  • Lagertha’s plans to defend her land have a certain Ewok vibe to them, the ingeniousness of which is undercut by the graphic deaths of several of the children she employs as lookouts. One offhand horror especially, as a fleeing young girl, after being cut down by a bandit on horseback, is casually trampled by the horse as the bandits discuss strategy.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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