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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In its return, Vikings pulls its characters from the brink, only to send one over again

Alex Høgh (L) as Ivar the Boneless, Oran Glynn O’Donovan as Prince Igor
Alex Høgh (L) as Ivar the Boneless, Oran Glynn O’Donovan as Prince Igor
Photo: Amazon/History
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Wherein nobody is quite dead.

In a nod to the longer-than-usual hiatus between both halves of this sixth and final season of Vikings, “King Of Kings” offers patient viewers not just a longer-than-usual “previously on,” but sows flashbacks, exposition, and, and leading dialogue throughout. It’s not unwelcome—we last saw Bjorn’s forces being routed by the invading Rus nearly 11 months ago, our time. And even stalwart Vikings viewers might need a refresher on the series’ dwindling (but still overstuffed) Lothbrok clan and their assorted lovers, spouses, enemies, allies, and the occasional mystery man. (Othere, who claims to be an Anglo-Saxon monk named Athelstan, is still imparting backstory to the westward-looking Ubbe in Iceland.)

Vikings’ epic pretensions benefit from binge-watching, where becoming steeped in the sweep of years, shifting alliances, and betrayals prevents events from blending into one, earth-toned mass of new and forgotten names and narratives. After so long away, Vikings’ climactic episode 10 battle, where Prince Oleg and Ivar’s massive invading forces overwhelmed even Bjorn’s canny defensive stratagems, still rings with only the few certainties the mid-season finale was building toward. Harald was dead. Bjorn was dead. Kattegat was conquered, and all of scattered and fractious Scandinavia was next.

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“King Of Kings” undoes each one of those climactic events. Harald lives, dragged alongside the ever-wry Olaf in front of the sneering and victorious Oleg. Bjorn lives, although his anguished breathing and Ivar’s truly ugly and infected sword wound at least suggest a closer brush with the gods. And, as we see in the episode’s improbably stirring conclusion, we’re not to count Norway out just yet. These reversals are a series of cheats, to be sure, the finality of death and defeat yanked away with the cynical narrative flourish of the serial cliffhanger. They also underscore just how little dramatic foundation Vikings has left, as, at least at first, creator Michael Hirst appears to acknowledge that this second generation of Lothbroks isn’t up to carrying even the last half of this last season on their own.

But then Bjorn dies—again.

It shouldn’t work as well as it does in practice, really. Hirst played the fake-out with Bjorn last time, teasing an unaccustomed underdog victory for Bjorn’s suddenly overmatched forces before giving Bjorn Ironside, son of Ragnar Lothbrok and King of Kattegat, the ambiguously heroic demise his character was always destined for. Here, Bjorn does precious little teasing, his wheezing bellows breaths and intermittent bloody spittle hinting that any recovery—should it come—will be far too late to rise to the occasion of defending his people from Oleg and Ivar’s final push. Vikings’ propensity for improbable comebacks notwithstanding, blackened, oozing wounds are saved for the direst dramatic circumstances. Bjorn looks like he’s been saved from an ignominious, sandy oceanside death at Ivar’s hand only to either languish helplessly while the day is saved or lost without him, or to die all over again.

Well, Bjorn dies all right. Seated stolidly on his white horse, he rides slowly and alone toward the massed Rus forces, who are understandably unnerved, since seeming Norse turncoat King Hakon arrived at Oleg’s camp to pledge his allegiance to the Rus—after sadly reporting Bjorn’s death. A Rus archer rides forth to dispel the air of supernatural, gods-granted immortality, firing three long, ugly arrows directly into Bjorn’s chest, while the seeming remainder of Bjorn’s forces assemble on the ridge behind him. “It’s impossible,” says the shocked Ivar, “He’s not a god.” “Neither are you,” says brother Hvitserk, as the rattled Oleg crosses himself, and Bjorn Ironside raises his father’s (and mother’s) sword, signaling his theretofore unseen, late-arriving Norwegian allies to show themselves over another ridge behind the suddenly panicked Rus.

In flashback, we see Bjorn ordering Gunnhild to help him into his armor before the battle, and hear the Queen relating the events of his final stand at what turns out to be the burial ceremony for “the Man Who Could Not Die.” Hirst had teased out the idea of yet another signature Lothbrok family twist to thwart inevitable defeat. The tardy Hakon looked so much like Bjorn that I first suspected Hakon’s hyperbolic statement that the sight of Bjorn in battle “is worth a hundred warriors—no, a thousand warriors” would translate to a body-doubling impersonation gambit. But, for all that he is not his father, Bjorn Ironside is the closest figure Vikings has at this point to an irreplaceable one, and therefore it’s the dying Bjorn turning himself into an arrow-riddled symbol that ultimately saves his people.

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And that makes sense. As the wounded Bjorn gasps out to Gunnhild from his bed, “I wish with all my heart I could go back and start again.” But, as we hear the grieving Gunnhild start to spin the saga of Bjorn Ironside from inside the tomb where her husband is to sit perched on his horse for all eternity, she was aware of all his faults as well as his strengths, and she loved him for it all. It’s a lovely, hard-hearted, slyly political speech from the woman who is now tasked with ruling in her husband’s stead. “Will we ever see his likes again?,” asks Gunnhild as coda to her eulogy and tale, answering herself that, “In some ways,” Bjorn was “even greater than Ragnar.” And, indeed, Bjorn, as she stated, not without some justification, achieved what Ragnar Lothbrok had not, becoming—in spirit if not in ordained actuality—“the King of all Norway.” (Which makes he the Queen of all Norway, but that’s the canny part.)

Bjorn wasn’t Ragnar. In Vikings’ world, that’s a narrative legacy Hirst never adequately transformed into a satisfying role, ultimately. A son always in his father’s shadow can be a compelling center to a story (ask that Hamlet guy), but Bjorn (and, it has to be said, Alexander Ludwig) was never strong enough to shoulder that burden. In his death—propped up on his horse, propped up by his legend—Bjorn is poised to make that leap in his people’s minds at last. The Man Who Could Not Die. The warrior who rose from the dead to lead his people one final time. Bjorn Ironside, the hulking son of a legendary father, absorbing arrows and, in the simple, final act of forcing the last of his formidable strength into his sword arm, surmounting his father’s fame. It’s not a bad way to go. This time.

In a post-Travis Fimmel Vikings, these moments, as manipulative and action trope-hokey as they may occasionally be, are what we’re here for. And “King Of Kings” finally hands us our reward for our patience. For, apart from the time away, the episode requires us to wade through some thoroughly unprofitable stuff. Harald’s resurrection is perfunctory, made even more so by Ivar’s mid-episode discovery that the chained and imprisoned Harald has somehow escaped. As entertaining as Peter Franzén intermittently makes King Harald’s runty deviousness to watch, his double-escape from doom here is just a slippery admission by Vikings that it’s run out of time to build up a better antagonist.

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Which brings us to Oleg. The bro-Christian Grand Prince remains an arrogant ass of a villain, Danila Kozlovsky admittedly having little more to work with than the series’ conception of the duplicitous Rus leader as sadistic egomaniac. (He delights in making the defecting Hakon feel welcome before ordering his man to plunge a dagger into the king’s throat.) “King Of Kings” at least gouges a few chinks out of Oleg’s egotistical armor, allowing us the merest glimpses of the bully’s downfall we all crave. When King Olaf, condemned (unlike fellow prisoner Harald) to burn, claims to feel an invisible someone beside him (someone whose words sound eerily familiar to the Christian Oleg), we see Oleg’s wonted assurance cloud over. And later, upon Bjorn’s seeming immortality, all the decreasingly cocksure Oleg can do is genuflect—before beating a hasty retreat at the sight of Bjorn’s reinforcements. Vikings’ depiction of the culture clash between Christianity and the Norse gods has fallen a long way from the genuinely thoughtful and engaging debate between Ragnar and Athelstan, with the spiritual fate of the show’s world left more and more in the hands of plot twists and one-note zealots. Which, as with Bjorn’s characterization, could have been a resonant narrative thread in its own right, if it were better thought through.

And there’s Ubbe, too, still intent on seizing upon his father’s legacy of westward exploration, and still left as the show’s less-compelling Bjorn. The Iceland saga still holds out hope for the absent Floki’s eventual return, but the intrigue surrounding Floki’s disappearance and the murder of Eyvind’s family at the hands of the ever-more transparently villainous Kjetill hasn’t survived without Floki at the center. A wider narrative scope for the Norse’s post-Ragnar development is laudable enough, but a competing side-plot helmed by Bjorn’s less interesting little brother looks increasingly wan and dramatically inert.

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Stray observations

  • According to the end credits, a resident of Kattegat is officially a “Kattegonian.”
  • Apologies for the relative lack of photos—apparently the risk of spoilers extends to not allowing critics access to relevant stills.
  • Ivar is still Ivar, Alex Høgh’s twinkling menace never quite fitted with the right dramatic framework to take over. Here, his inexpert manipulation of rightful Rus leader Igor is so ham-fisted that he finally has to shush his youthful conspirator because Oleg is riding on his horse literally right behind them.
  • Episode director Daniel Grou employs an inordinate number of slow-focus shots to punctuate big moments. (For realizations, grief, death.) It’s a style, I guess.
  • And that’s a series wrap on Steven Berkoff’s Olaf, the king without a kingdom whose apocalyptic prophecies yet always found room for some leavening humanity and humor. He makes a truly memorable end, urging the reticent Igor to light the oil at his feet with a not-unkindly pep talk. His final, silent acceptance of his fiery fate comes complete with a prayerful pose whose echoes of martyrdom the Christian Oleg cannot ignore, to his disquiet.
  • And, hey, here’s to Hakon, who proves his words to Bjorn were no joke by sacrificing himself to help sell Bjorn’s final gambit.
  • “Why are you being so pathetic?,” Gunnhild asks younger co-wife Ingrid at Bjorn’s bedside, before softening in clear-headed, worldly solidarity upon Ingrid’s revelation that she’d been raped by Harald. Poor Bjorn’s never had a true Lagertha when it comes to finding life partners, but Gunnhild is as close as he’ll get. “You are not a god, Ingrid,” she tells the despondent girl with whom she’s had to share her husband as she holds Ingrid in bed beside the dying Bjorn, “All you could ever give Bjorn was what you could hold in the palm of your hand.”
  • And, finally, as Bjorn laments his past mistakes (“I have lost two children, and a third I hardly know”), it’s the pragmatic Gunnhild who offers her dying husband as fine a benediction as Bjorn Ironside (or anyone) could ask for. “You have loved and been loved. Accept the judgement of the gods.”
  • And we’re back, as the A.V. Club reviews this, the final 10 episodes of Vikings’ series run. Since all 10 episodes are premiering on Amazon all at once, we’ll be putting up a review every other day.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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