Vikings (Photo: Jonathan Hession/History)

“On The Eve” delivers plenty of action while reaffirming that action for its own sake has always been Vikings least interesting element. Both the attempted takeover of Kattegat (by the glowering, dull Egil) and the Norse invasion of Wessex represent two of the most elaborate action set pieces Vikings has ever done. And yet, each partakes of the sort of glib spectacle that the series is always better for avoiding. For all the hundreds of extras, impressive stunts, and logistical feats involved in staging these sequences, each falls flat thanks to some nonsensical plotting and Vikings’ continuing choice since Ragnar’s death to shoot for flash over depth.

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Take Kattegat. The episode opens with Torvi (Georgia Hirst) in her new role as Lagertha’s badass, crossbow-wielding sentry, deciding something just isn’t right with a group of traders entering the now-fortified town. She’s right, as the guys immediately start stabbing people indiscriminately, and a melee with Lagertha’s shieldmaidens soon has them all very dead. Lagertha, surveying the carnage, surmises that they “were looking for weaknesses in our defenses.” Sure. Except that they’re all dead and can’t exactly report the fact that randomly hacking away at a few merchants isn’t all that effective. (It reminded me of the Judean People’s Front killing themselves and gasping out, “That’ll show ‘em.”) When King Harald left Kattegat, he told the traitorous Egil (Charlie Kelly) to probe Kattegat’s defenses for weaknesses, and so, tonight, Lagertha says “They’re probing our defenses for weaknesses.” There’s a prosaic nature to the storytelling that deadens the suspense and action—even when, later in the episode, Egil’s real attack comes.

Katheryn Winnick (Photo: Jonathan Hession/History)

There, the scene is set up by Lagertha looking over a scale model of Kattegat, seemingly in deep thought about just how the real attack is going to go down. When it does, the sequence shows off the new Kattegat battlements to good effect, with invaders storming the town’s new spike moat and Lagertha sprinting along the parapets, arrows whizzing all around her. But, for all Lagertha’s careful planning, she falls for the old diversion gambit, as Egil’s main force simply sails up to the harbor and starts… indiscriminately stabbing people. “Astrid, we’re in the wrong place,” she tells her loyal (in every way except romantically) right-hand woman/lover and they sprint off, leaving Torvi to lead the defenses. (We see her lying “mostly dead” after the battle, although one, slow eye-blink suggests Torvi’s sticking around after all.)

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Here again, there’s a by-the-numbers aspect to all this furious action. Since Egil and Harald sneered their little plan together, this moment has been coming. Now it’s here, and, for all the running back and forth (and Lagertha’s admittedly cool fire trap that takes the wind out of the invasion), it’s all pretty perfunctory—and artificial. Not only does Lagertha stride out into the middle of the street to face down Egil’s men before roasting them, she gets a cool arm gesture to signal her shieldmaidens to suddenly assemble behind her and rain arrows down on the survivors. Oh, and then she roasts the captive Egil on a spit to find out who was behind his plan. “It was Harold Finehair,” he confesses, provoking gasps from the assembled crowd and yawns from us. We know it’s Harald. The big buildup to the revelation—complete with hot pokers and Egil’s pleading wife brought in for leverage—is all in service of a foregone conclusion.

Over in Wessex, it’s more of the same, just on a larger scale. One of Aethelwulf’s men estimates the “heathen army” at somewhere between three and four thousand, and Aethelwulf, not looking to be swarmed over like overconfident Aelle, has a comparable force. Ivar taunts big brother Bjorn some more before the big battle over who’s really Ragnar’s true heir, and suggests that the Vikings abandon their old “SHIELD WALL!” technique and use the battlefield to their advantage instead. Bjorn, who earlier had belittled Ivar’s claim (with the help of a funny voice and a severed deer’s head), here listens to his brother’s advice, acceding with a very noncommittal and Ragnar-like, “If it works, it is a good plan. If it doesn’t, then it is a bad plan.” It works. But, like the battle against Aelle, it works in a way that’s superficially pleasing. In short, the logistics and direction of the big battle make no damned sense.

The Vikings, including Ivar in his chariot, appear on a ridge, then, after Bjorn and Floki nod, they walk away out of sight. Aethelwulf and his army rush to follow, while we see a brief shot of Bjorn and others sprinting through some woods. Arrows fire out from the woods, and Aethelwulf and his men charge there, but the Vikings are gone. Repeat. Never mind the logistics of a 4,000-man army popping up, silently, at various points on the battlefield without being observed (“There they are my Lord!,” observes one soldier, telling Aethelwulf to simply turn around), this is a long way from the grubby, ground-level engagements Vikings deployed so authentically. For the second episode in a row, creator and episode writer Michael Hirst trots out Bugs Bunny-level traps in order to show those English a bad time, and it’s getting harder to take them seriously.

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Part of what’s missing is a guiding force behind all the mayhem, both on- and behind the screen. Simply put, without Ragnar and Travis Fimmel to imbue the proceedings with some vision and mystery, Vikings’ drama is wearing awfully thin. Alex Høgh and Alexander Ludwig are the strongest of the weak characters that make up the sons of Ragnar, their struggle for control of their father’s legacy at least showing some personality (and a sense of humor) tonight. But Ubbe, Hvitserk, and Sigurd remain decidedly one-note. Ivar’s plan has one good twist to it, as he counts on Aethelwulf’s frustration leading him to go after the Norse ships—where Bjorn and a healthy chunk of their forces are waiting. (Floki helps sell it, first looking shocked and dismayed at the English action before embracing Ivar with a laughing, “Oh you crippled bastard. You were right! You bloody mad genius, you were right!”) Other than that, all the action hinges on improbabilities (if not outright impossibilities), and all the impressively choreographed mayhem provokes skeptical yawns.

Stray observations

  • The elevation of Harald and Halfdan continues to be deeply uninteresting the more blood and violence the show heaps on them. Tonight, Harald takes an axe to the head of the poor guy who dared marry Princess Ellisif (Sophie Vavaseur). Then she comes to him to beg forgiveness for marrying and mounts him while everyone but Harald just knows she’s got a knife hidden in her dress. Halfdan saves his brother by hacking the vengeance-minded woman to death while Harald is inside her, spraying him with gore and us with distaste.
  • Moe Dunford’s Aethelwulf (last seen here leading an inauspicious charge at the episode’s abrupt ending) continues to be drawn as a more sympathetic figure these days. Comforting Alfred (wife Judith’s son with Athelstan), he tenderly tells the boy, “He was a very holy man, Alfred. A very special man. You should be very proud to have a father like him.” It’s a long way since he was the sexually repressed loony flagellating himself before bedtime.
  • Also, his frustration with the dying bishop’s poetical estimation of the Norse numbers (“How many blades of grass are in a field..?”) is eminently understandable. (Him remembering to cross himself after yelling at him while the old bird croaks is pretty funny, too.)
  • He even accepts Judith back after Ecbert tells his daughter-in-law, “There is no need to remain attached to a dying animal like me.” Dunford’s more interesting these days, but all his past characterization is just being swept away.
  • Oh, and Helga is still maniacally fixated on new “daughter” Tanaruz. (Every time we see them, she’s obsessively brushing the terrified girl’s hair.) Again, this characterization doesn’t hold with how sensible a figure Helga’s always been, leaving Floki to roll his eyes a lot in frustration.
  • There is a lovely moment when Floki tracks down the runaway girl and simply sits across from her log hiding place, saying softly, “I’m sorry. You hate us. I don’t know what to do.”
  • Floki taunts the squabbling brothers with Ragnar’s last words about how the little piggies will grunt. So we’re just going with the truth of Odin/Ragnar’s voice on the wind relaying his final message, huh?

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