“Always traveling and never arriving.”
Honestly, hands up if you actually thought Lagertha’s peaceful retirement was going to take. Anyone out there? As engaging as Katheryn Winnick remains as the farmers wife turned queen turned farmer again, Vikings isn’t a show that allows its main characters to simply drift out of the current of its overarching narrative. (Even Rollo gets a shout-out this week, the former series antihero’s current status as placid Frankish nobleman and husband portentously tossed back into the water, alongside the long-absent English Kind Alfred.)
Lagertha’s decision to bury her well-used sword in the earth of her new home and raise livestock (and her grandchildren) was presented with the solemnity befitting a major character turning point. That there’s an equally dramatic unearthing of said sword not two episodes later serves to undermine what was presented as Lagertha’s considered decision to opt out of the life of violence and ambition that had robbed her of Ragnar and scores of others she cared for. But, again, nobody was really expecting that to take. What’s more discouraging is how snugly this development slots into the predictable heroic clichés, yet another example of Vikings—without its one true narrative lodestar in Ragnar Lothbrok—floundering in the wake of his passing.
Lagertha’s story isn’t without promise. Setting herself up as the capable old hermit-widow on the outskirts of the neighboring villages was a foolish errand, albeit an understandable one. As the women of the area make a pilgrimage to Lagertha’s humble farmhouse to catch a glimpse of the legendary shieldmaiden, there’s potential in showing how Lagertha’s actual accomplishments and oversized example might have inspired such worshipfulness among the women of a people where such examples of female empowerment are rare. That an old woman kneels to touch Lagertha’s hand in reverence suggests a new role for the former queen that’s full of intriguing storytelling possibilities. That “Ghosts, Gods, And Running Dogs” instead steers Lagertha’s story into what’s essentially a superhero revenge plot is what’s so emblematic of the direction the series has taken.
Not only does the inevitable inciting incident for Lagertha to strap on her armor come down immediately, and predictably, on those same women who’d come to pay homage to her, the various outrages are carried out by those dastardly bandits that Bjorn had branded and exiled. So . . . this time it’s personal. Tony Stark takes his armor out of mothballs. Bruce Wayne un-retires once the Joker returns. Lagertha digs up that sword and tells her new, ready-made shieldmaiden army that it’s time to prepare for war, since, as she tells the bedraggled and grieving women, “Oh, they will come back. Of that I’m certain,” that steely warrior’s gaze returning to her eyes—in episode three.
It’s not all bad. The idea of a self-deposed Lagertha forming a grassroots alliance of Norway’s oppressed women who’ll take from her example the will and strategies to fight back against a world of offhandedly abusive, ravishing, murdering men has its pulpy charm. The women of the area where Lagertha’s settled tell her at first that war, storm, and disease have left them essentially a world of widows, childless mourners, and the abandoned. And when they come to tell her of the attack by the bandits (along with the dead body of that old woman, for extra “this time it’s personal” incentive), their report that “They raped all of us” emerges with a matter-0f-factness that incentivizes the proud and triumphant Lagertha even more. (The bandits also bashed out the brains of one poor woman’s infant because it wouldn’t stop crying, another piece of heightened villainy suitable to any good roaring rampage of revenge story.)
My main objection to this plotline is in how it leaves Lagertha subject to plot machinations rather than allowing her to explore what a life voluntarily removed from power might be for someone as formidable as she. Leaving the throne of Kattegat and her position advising her son the king makes a certain sense—and Lagertha, again, has earned some peace. But having her renounce all violence suggests that the warrior, Jarl, and Queen, whose entire life has been a refutation of women’s vulnerable position in Norse society, would need the massacre of her lamblike new acolytes in order to remember that the world is an unjust and dangerous place for those without power. That her reversal of course comes so quickly only serves to show how, on Vikings after Ragnar, plot dictates character, and not the other way around.
Take King Bjorn, for example. Faced with the prospect of raiding former ally King Olaf in order to fulfill what he sees as his debt of honor to the captive Harald, Bjorn Ironside is saddled with—wait for it—another love interest. Alexander Ludwig’s Bjorn has inherited his illustrious father’s occasionally wandering eye, but, unlike Ragnar, his dalliances are inspired less by an insatiable curiosity about the women he comes across, and more because, as here, they just strip down and hop into his bed. Lucy Martin’s servant Ingrid is all sleepy eyes and parted lips, coming on to Bjorn as perfunctorily as the script requires. There’s some effort into making Ingrid’s allure a tonic for Bjorn’s signature self-doubt (“If you were me, you would never doubt yourself again,” pitches Ingrid, helpfully). But, after resisting Ingrid’s allure at first, all it takes is for her to, yes, strip down in the harbor, stride dripping to Bjorn’s bed, and hop in, while the stolid Bjorn can barely seem to stir himself to unbuckle. Ludwig’s never striven to make Bjorn’s passions equal those of Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar, and that’s a legitimate choice. But too often, Bjorn’s choice of bedmates feels motivated more by contrivance (remember when he mounted Lagertha’s lover Astrid while Lagertha was performing a sacrifice in the town square?) than by any sort of drive, sexual or otherwise.
That Bjorn Ironside will always live in the shadow of his father is a valid—and interesting—character choice. In the wake of a singular figure of vision and charisma like Ragnar, even the most towering king can seem small as he tries to measure up. But Vikings has to decide just who Bjorn Ironside is. Faced with a humiliating defeat at the hands of the ranting Olaf at episode’s end, Bjorn is left literally treading water alongside his dwindling, archer-thinned and waterlogged men. When the angry and untrustworthy Kjetill demands of his king, “What do we do now, Bjorn Ironside?!,” the warrior’s impatience echoes ours. Ragnar had his share of botched plans and thwarted gambits, but he was never less than thrilling to watch, in defeat as well as victory. Bobbing uncertainly in the flaming waters of Olaf’s kingdom, Bjorn just looks lost. Which, once more, would be an interesting choice for Vikings’ de facto new protagonist, if Bjorn’s persistent indecision didn’t mirror Vikings as to just what Bjorn’s course is to be.
With Bjorn treading water and Lagertha gassing up the Lagertha-mobile, we’re left with Ivar as Vikings’ third point of interest. Here, too, however, any thought we might have had that Ivar the Boneless’ many reversals of fortune would turn him away from cartoonish supervillainy toward some much-needed introspection and depth is dispelled the more he hangs with new best bud, Oleg. It’s still something of a novelty to see Oleg the Prophet functioning as Ivar’s new enabler/role model in Caligula-style cruelty, especially since Danila Kozlovsky is having such fun being straight-up evil. Steering brother Dir (Lenn Kudrjawizki) into his ever blood-caked torture chamber, Oleg demands Dir swear on Odin as well as his own Christian god that he will never again dare to cross Oleg. (Not even if, say, Oleg decided to poison their other brother and steal away child heir to the throne Prince Igor.) Unable to join in his brother’s decision to abandon their Christian god for what the power-hungry Oleg sees as the true gods of his Norse heritage, the panicked Dir asks Oleg, “Are you really going to do this? Brother?!” Oleg, leaving Dir to his gruesome fate (wee see just how gruesome at episode’s end), offers up an insouciantly unconcerned, “Uh huh,” in the tradition of hammy, offbeat villains everywhere.
For Ivar—cast out, defeated, helpless in the clutches of a powerful prince with no compunctions about killing anyone in his way—the situation offers up plenty of possibilities. There’s some hint of a bond between the idle Ivar and young Igor, as their magic tricks and guitar solos last week give way to Norse lessons and a leg-dragging Ivar impression from the lad. (In response to which Ivar doe not spring into a wrathful fury. Growth.) As to what we’re to make of the blank-faced captive prince, I’m not sure yet. He’s got a watchful vibe that suggests he’s learning vitally needed survival lessons, while at the same time slyly ending his Ivar impression by positioning his uncle Oleg as Ivar’s puppet, rather than the other way around.
The real question, though, is whether Ivar’s experiences will see Alex Høgh finding new layers to Ivar’s mad, resentful wrath. He looks on doubtfully once Igor starts cruelly barking to taunt his horrifically tortured uncle Dir, caged and grotesquely chained through the cheeks, but then joins in with the callous mockery, echoing how he’d done so with Oleg earlier in anticipation of the deed. (When they were drunkenly bro-ing out getting drunk in Oleg’s wife’s candlelit crypt.) Similarly, his skepticism at Oleg’s supposed prophetic powers in foretelling misfortune for Dir’s bride is dispensed with via over-elaborated exposition (he knew about the marriage the whole time, since the bride was one of his discarded mistresses), followed by some villainous, pally cackling. Like with Lagertha’s sudden rationale to abandon her ways, the fact that Ivar immediately stumbled into just the right narrative contrivance to send him down the most predictable, least introspective channel doesn’t bode well. Especially if Vikings is to steer out of its post-Ragnar crash course toward mediocrity.
- Unexpectedly, the character who comes out best in “Ghosts, Gods, and Running Dogs” is Hvitserk. With blood-rimmed irises and ghostly, pastry pallor, the tortured, ever-drunk Hvitserk has slipped into the DTs, complete with effectively unnerving visions of the horribly burned Thora and a lurking, glowering Ivar. If Vikings wants to examine how living in a giant’s shadow can truly break someone, Hvitserk’s growing madness over his own failures is the most effective example so far.
- Ubbe, on the other hand, remains everyone’s dutiful second-banana, taking over as Kattegat’s lawgiver in Bjorn’s stead, and postposing his plans to find his own fortunes on a possibly mythical hidden island.
- Go-to 1980s baddie Steven Berkoff (Octopussy, Beverly Hills Cop, Under The Cherry Moon) continues to ham it up gloriously as the increasingly mad King Olaf, his debate with prisoner Harald over fate (and what Olaf sees as the doomed fate of their gods) equally intriguing as his Lear-like rants about “the wreck of humanity” as his archers rain fiery death upon Bjorn’s helpless men. The idea of a zealot setting his world on fire before its inevitable conquest by the Christian god because he will be in Valhalla before the ending is evocative stuff. He and Floki need to meet.
- Setting up Bjorn’s coming rout by telling Harald about Olaf’s foreknowledge of Bjorn’s plan, dwarf steward Canute (Connor Rogers) makes a bid for elevated cast status, his good-natured sparring with his prisoner promising there’s more to him than at first suggested. I’m not especially invested in Harald at this point, but their interlude gave more than expected.
- Vikings can still wheel out the spectacle, with both the snowy raid of Dir’s camp and the final, apocalyptic defeat of Bjorn’s fleet in the harbor undeniably striking.
- Still, Dir and his people have less situational awareness than any embattled prince should.
- That Bjorn’s plans for Kattegat (“I want to put Kattegat on the map. I want the world to know that we’re open for business!”), while admirable, emerge like the campaign slogan of a small-town alderman isn’t especially inspiring. Even Ubbe’s later pitch to the townspeople is slightly more rousing. Slightly.