Unlike Ragnar Lothbrok, Vikings is making the same mistakes. In this near-disaster of a second episode, the fourth season stalls with a series of narrative decisions that stunt the stories we care about while repeating the same pattern of last season’s worst storyline. And, for good measure, revisiting and expanding that past story itself. Diffuse and scattered, “Kill The Queen” is a disheartening signal that creator (and episode writer) Michael Hirst has learned nothing.

When Ragnar first invaded Wessex, Vikings fairly vibrated with the excitement of the new. Ragnar’s first steps onto the beach saw the show authoritatively plant its flag as Vikings’ convincingly portrayed its sense of place and time. The continued culture clashes (and actual clashes) that eventually carved out a Norse stronghold in England bristled with unpredictability and excitement. Linus Roache’s King Ecbert seemed a worthy foe, a sly charmer with light behind his eyes to rival Ragnar in cunning and foresight.

And then Hirst became enamored with the court intrigues in Wessex, and the entire story—especially once the Norse were treacherously expelled in Ragnar’s absence—turned into a dead zone, dramatically speaking. Now that Wessex is tied to Ragnar only through Princess Judith’s lingering memories (and child) of the dead Athelstan and Queen (of Mercia) Kwenthrith’s son Magnus, who she claims is Ragnar’s. The Norse settlers Ragnar left behind as part of his treaty with Ecbert are long ambushed and dead, and, in “Kill The Queen,” Ragnar mentions none of this, occupied as he is throughout by the escape and capture of Floki. And so fully one third of the episode is taken up with revisiting characters and plotlines Hirst is clearly more invested in than we are.

So Ecbert still lusts after his daughter-in-law Judith, wooing her as ever with flowery speeches whose theme is basically, “We should continue to have sex.” This time out, his strategy is to promise Judith the freedom of learning and illustrating the sacred texts that Athelstan had been working on, a plot thread that comes complete with a new hunky monk (Sean O’Meallaigh as the gloriously named Prudentius) who objects to her unprecedented access to knowledge. Meanwhile, her husband (and Ecbert’s son) Aethelwulf (Moe Dunford) is dispatched on a rescue mission to free the captured Kwenthrith (Amy Bailey) from a Mercian tower, where rebelling nobles are planning to make a move on Ecbert, and have your eyes glazed over yet? The problem isn’t that this tale is told badly—it’s as handsomely mounted as the rest of the show, and Aethelwulf’s assault on the tower is a solid piece of extended action—but that, almost completely divorced from Ragnar as it is, there’s simply no reason for it to exist, especially not to this extent. I’ve said it before, but if Hirst wants to make another flowery court drama called Wessex, it would benefit Vikings at this point to just saw these characters off and do that.

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Moe Dunford as Aethelwulf (Jonathan Hession/History)

The most disheartening thing about “Kill The Queen,” however, is how Wessex is being recreated, brick by leaden brick, in Paris. With Rollo acting as a capably intriguing Ragnar substitute as he assists the Franks in preparing to repel Ragnar’s inevitable return, Paris was the sight of some of last episode’s most compelling drama (and comedy). Rollo’s marriage to the furiously objecting Gisla and his shocking betrayal of the Norse still loyal to his brother promised an integration of the two worlds that partakes of the same vital cultural frisson that marked the best of Ragnar in Wessex. But here, Hirst delves deep into the—wait for it—flowery intrigues of Emperor Charles’ court, introducing new characters and storylines that are so unpromising that I groaned out loud at every new narrative choice. Rollo is given just a few brief scenes—one using models and the very few Frankish words he’s learned to devise an ingenious trap for Ragnar’s ships, and another attempting to pretty himself up for Gisla, earning him a surprised, mocking giggle fit from his bride when she sees him decked out in silks and a shoulder-length bob.

Therese (Karen Hassan) and Odo (Owen Roe) prepare for some decadence (Bernard Walsh/History)

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So now Paris, echoing Wessex, makes inordinate room for the lecherous, ambitious Count Odo (Owen Roe) and his proclivities for 50 Shades-style sexual depravity. (Vikings continues to betray a definite preference for the Vikings’ “primal” sexuality over the “decadent” tastes of the more refined courts of Europe. Sure, the Vikings rape conquered women and slaves, but at least they’re not effete perverts with an insatiable taste for incest and bondage equipment.) And Odo’s submissive mistress, Therese (Karen Hassan) is revealed to herself have a duplicitous lover, one Roland (Huw Parmenter) who lingeringly soothes her whip-welts while murmuring at length about their plans to usurp Odo’s power and so forth. These two scenes—one applying and one caressing the wounds on Therese’s poor back—drag on interminably, mainly because, as with Wessex, they not only take away from the action in Kattegat (and Lagertha doesn’t even appear at all this episode), but that Hirst assumes they hold an inherent dramatic interest that they do not. Wessex and Paris are two Michael Hirst series I would find dreary on their own—pulling focus from Vikings, they are infuriating.

With all this brocaded intrigue going, on, the main story—Floki’s escape and recapture—is left with scraps. Strikingly photographed scraps, to be sure—director Ciarán Donnelly frames both Floki’s flight and Bjorn’s snowy walkabout with an eye toward exploiting the rugged, stark beauty of the show’s Irish locations. But it’s baffling how short-changed this central conflict is in “Kill The Queen,” its truncated screen time even making Ragnar’s customary terseness come off as a glib device at times—Vikings’ main asset, Travis Fimmel works best with time to smolder.

Still, the pursuit is energetic, with Gustaf Skarsgård’s filthy and desperate Floki scampering over rocks and streams, his eyes darting ever with fear, and the search party—led by a surprisingly able and canny Ubbe (Luke Shanahan)—doggedly closing in. Dragged back before Ragnar, who lounges insouciantly in his throne like Branagh’s king at the start of Henry V, the shivering and bound Floki responds with defiance to Ragnar’s taunting, “Why didn’t the gods protect you?” before hearing his sentence pronounced by his king and friend.

You made me suffer and now I will make you suffer. And I’ve got such a wonderful punishment for you. It’s very imaginative and it goes on and on and on. Nothing heroic. No chance to impress the gods.

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The words are cold, and their meaning colder, as Floki is chained in a tellingly crucifixion-like pose between two walls of a dark cave, left near-naked to catch moisture dripping from the dank ceiling, and screaming in impotent rage. Meanwhile, Ragnar responds in very different ways to the two women involved in Floki’s betrayal, bringing Floki’s Helga (Maude Hirst) some food for her and her little daughter even though he knows she freed Floki, and beating Aslaug for mocking Ragnar’s continued anger over Athelstan’s murder. “All he did was kill a Christian,” sneers Alyssa Sutherland’s Aslaug, bringing a series of shockingly brutal blows from her husband, who replies in fury, “This is not about Christ or faith, it’s about loyalty and trust… Something you can’t understand.” In each case, there’s much to be read into who Ragnar is and what he’s planning, unnerving mysteries of the man that are left dangling as Vikings careens back and forth to Wessex and Paris and events and characters far less worthy of our attention.

It makes the episode’s final twist less impactful that it should be, as Ragnar, visiting Helga once more, finds her attempting to chop a grave in the frozen ground for little Angrboða (the adorable Rosalie Connerty). “What did she die of?,” asks the shocked Ragnar, to which the ever-stalwart Helga replies simply, “Does it matter?” Ragnar digs the child’s grave, despite the obvious pain it causes his still-hobbled body, and, when the child is laid in the icy earth, Helga holds his arm and they stare at the child’s cloth-wrapped corpse. King and the wife of his betrayer, united in grief and unspoken things that are far more interesting than all “Kill The Queen”’s far-flung castle scheming.

Stray observations

Alexander Ludwig as Bjorn (Steve Wilkie/History)

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  • Bjorn has trekked deep into the wilderness, finding the hunting lodge he spoke of, and one hard-caught fish from a frozen lake. More to come.
  • Aethelwulf’s assault on Kwenthrith’s prison tower is excitingly executed, with both sides engaging in smart, brutal tactics, and the shouted order to, yes, “Kill the Queen!” putting events on a tight clock. The fact that we don’t really care about the characters is really the only problem, rendering it an empty, if expert, exercise.
  • Kwenthrith naturally doesn’t take this “Kill the Queen!” business lying down, dispatching two of her three female guards before Aethelwulf comes to her belated rescue. But that final, “What took you so long?” is a cheap punchline.
  • Plus, the scene of baby Magnus comically pulling his blanket over his face once the fighting starts? C’mon.
  • The one great Fimmel comedy moment—as soon as Ragnar hears the first murmur of alarm from outside, he rolls his eyes, knowing immediately that it means Floki’s escaped.
  • There is an attempt to continue the parallels between Aethelwulf’s relation to his accomplished father and Bjorn’s to his. One noble snaps at Aethelwulf, “You are a king’s son, what do you know about the burdens of expense?” while Bjorn trudges through a blizzard to learn exactly what those burdens are. Still—the Wessex father-son duo has a lot to prove before it holds the same interest.
  • And Ubbe’s sudden emergence will certainly impact Bjorn’s journey of self-discovery as well.
  • Rangar and Helga make fine opponents: “Did you free Floki, Helga?” “I don’t know. I might have done.” “I don’t blame you. It is your duty as a wife.” “Floki loves you.” “He only loves himself. You know that better than anyone.”
  • Another reason why poor AngrboĂ°a’s death is less potent—the episode signals it by having her emit one ominous little cough the first time we see her.

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