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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ragnar Lothbrok’s legacy haunts a striking but empty Vikings right to the finish

Vikings
Vikings
Photo: History
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“Is that the end?”

Vikings ends in far-off lands, with the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok meeting their fates in accordance—so they waveringly believe—with the will of their gods. As series finales go, “The Last Act” is an entertaining disappointment, studded with manipulative sentiment. And yet, the sentiment works well when it does, and Michael Hirst’s sprawling historical saga pays off its characters, if not its never-settled themes. That there are so few memorable characters left after all the attrition and bloodshed allows “The Last Act” time to linger affectingly over the deaths we expect, and the more surprising fates we don’t. In flashes thrilling, oversimplified, improbably moving, and both over-written and under-dramatized, it’s Vikings in melodramatic miniature.

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Having spent all six seasons with the kin of Ragnar Lothbrok, there’s little more to be said about how Hirst’s worst storytelling instincts warred with his best. At first blessedly centered on the truly miraculous find that was Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar, the series was a sharp blow in the face of traditional TV semi-prestige drama. (Much of it created also by Hirst.) As the series’ conception of a man just enough ahead of his time to come to glorious grief, Ragnar Lothbrok was our striking blue eyes into a world that, at least initially, derived shocking energy and focus from its nigh-alien remoteness. Touched with just enough modern antihero inspiration to get himself in trouble, Ragnar’s boundless curiosity about a world he suspected was greater than his culture’s conception of it was, through Fimmel’s bottomlessly charismatic performance, heartbreakingly doomed. His fumbles as he strove to expand himself and his society were all the more tragic as he inevitably fell under the weight.

Ray Stevenson, Jordan Patrick Smith
Ray Stevenson, Jordan Patrick Smith
Screenshot: Vikings

Now his legacy is pared down to two elements, and the two sons who came to embody them. “You look like him,” Floki the boatbuilder tells Ubbe at series’ end, the two lifelong friends sitting wrapped in the blankets of a new people in what Ubbe contends is the true new world of his father’s dreams. And he (Ubbe and Jordan Patrick Smith) does, a bit, especially after all this time. He’s sailed beyond where his father did, he’s made difficult decisions that, perhaps, his father would have stumbled at, and, even facing an uncertain and perilous future farther from home than any viking has yet been, his legacy as son of Ragnar is secure.

Ivar dies in battle, like his father, on English soil. And, like Ragnar, Ivar is defeated and in agony when he dies at the hands of an English king. (Ivar’s recent mishaps on his crutches culminate here in a series of truly gruesome-sounding bone-snaps.) Having spurned the tough-talking Alfred The Great’s offer of clemency if he and his Norse leave England, Ivar loses this one final gamble—that his wrath, cunning, and the ghost of his father will bring him another, seemingly impossible, victory. If Ubbe is Ragnar the explorer, Ivar The Boneless is Ragnar the conqueror, and the legend. “Your name is a byword for terror all over this world,” Alfred tells the delighted Ivar during their parley, and, having raised himself on his ruthlessness as much as his ingenious leg braces in his despotic career, Ivar The Boneless spurns any thought of changing his tactics now. Offering up the traditional hostages and promises in insincere good faith, Ivar sneers at the fed up Alfred’s order to either leave England for good, or die.

Alex Høgh
Alex Høgh
Screenshot: Vikings
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Ivar dies, stabbed repeatedly by a terrified young English soldier with a small dagger, after telling the boy, “Don’t be afraid.” Before that, and seeing his people’s imminent defeat, the already-injured Ivar staggers himself into the midst of the fray, finally mimicking the death-strokes of his warriors around him, another grandiose show of vainglorious awesomeness, as when he stood and dared an army of opposing archers to shoot him. There, he emerged unscratched, further convincing himself and most everyone else of his self-proclaimed divinity. Here, he dies in the bloodied Hvitserk’s arms, confessing to his little brother, “I’m afraid.”

Ivar’s never been as magnetic or complex a character as Vikings required from the one who essentially became series’ lead, but Alex Høgh and Marco Ilsø are given a long and epic moment, and they make it work. (Despite Hirst—writing the series’ swan song as he’s done most of Vikings throughout—stretching out their “I love you”s a few beats too long.) Hvitserk, ever the Fredo of the Lothbrok sons, is left alone in England, the uncertain guardian of his father’s dreams there. In the end, we see him converting to Christianity, with the forgiving Alfred giving him the new name of Athelstan. That although Ragnar’s history of game-playing with that gesture (and, as with Ivar’s death scene, some deeply clumsy and unnecessary flashbacks) suggests, along with Hvitserk’s unconvincing pious expression, that his conversion may well be his own method of carrying on in Ivar’s stead.

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Marco Ilsø
Marco Ilsø
Screenshot: Vikings

And that’s essentially everyone, excepting the stalwart Torvi, the rediscovered Floki, and Queen Ingrid, thankfully only briefly seen in Kattegat, receiving the news of Harald and Ivar’s death, and Hvitserk’s conversion. (She does appear to have taken her slave girl accessory to Erik’s murder as her royal companion, hinting that Kattegat will once more be ruled by two formidable female lovers. Lagertha and Astrid look down from Valhalla with knowing smiles.) Ubbe and Ivar. Explorer and conqueror. The living and the dead.

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“The Last Act” tries to tie together each brother’s story into a statement about their disparate paths. And it can’t, really. Ivar both succeeded unthinkably beyond what his culture would have imagined for him, the crippled youngest son, rescued from traditional exposure to the elements only through a mother’s love. Taking his doomed father’s advice to be ruthless, Ivar became a monster, and then Vikings worked inefficiently to turn him into a sympathetic, complicated antihero. It never worked the way Hirst intended, Ivar’s outright villainy and unsubtle madness not so much softened by growth as overgrown into an increasingly shapeless figure whose inner turmoil and pretensions to godhood slotted him into the narrative wherever Hirst needed to move the plot forward with some entertaining badness.

Carmen Moore
Carmen Moore
Screenshot: Vikings
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Ubbe, now the leader of a tiny band of Norse settlers among the North American native people (identified in the captions here as the Mi’kmaq), faces down the one telegraphed crisis of his new life, as dum-dum viking Naad (Ian Lloyd Anderson) makes bloody good on his greedy-eyed gold fever last episode. Murdering the younger son of leader Pekitaulet while rifling through the leader’s house, Naad, captured easily by the pursuing and outraged Mi’kmaq, is turned over to Ubbe for punishment, and cements his place as the vikings’ premiere blockhead by sneering to Ubbe about the “savages,” and assuming the old Norse ways will keep him alive. Here’s where I offer up an only half-condescending “gods bless your heart” to Vikings, as the finale offers up a portrait of idealized and schematized cultural rapprochement. It’s a bloody rapprochement, of course, as the whimpering Naad is first sentenced by Ubbe to be “blood-eagled” (still a goofy sounding punishment when used as a verb), then mercifully throat-slit instead by Ubbe in front of the gathered Norse and Mi’kmaq. (“Valhalla’s not for you, my friend,” Ubbe says, not unkindly.)

Before then, Ubbe had been taking counsel from both Othere and Floki, with the Christian monk urging Ubbe to see this new land as an opportunity not to import the faults of their old world into this new and seemingly illimitable one, and Floki enigmatically suggesting that even he—the onetime guardian of the old gods and ways—has abandoned his pursuit of Norse purity. Gustaf Skarsgård is as great as ever, his all-too-brief return to Vikings providing the actor with ample opportunity to recall the series’ former (and not inconsiderable) glories. Telling Ubbe that the Mi’kmaq had discovered him nearly dead, “a gibbering fool,” the boatbuilder explains that, ultimately, the old gods he’d always believed in so unquestioningly finally dissipated under the evidence of their people’s greed, vindictiveness, and violence.

I felt deserted by the gods. I no longer heard their voices. The world made no sense. Everything that I once thought was real was beginning to melt and disfigure, to change its shape, and I was sick once more to my very soul.

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Illustration for article titled Ragnar Lothbrok’s legacy haunts a striking but empty Vikings right to the finish
Screenshot: Vikings

“Being a viking as I still was, I was always able to find a boat,” Floki giggles wryly, and Ubbe notes the past tense. In the end, Ubbe, sitting with the onetime zealot Floki on the beach of a new world and watching the sun set, seems torn—but not too much. He tells Floki that he believes the old gods are here in this strange land, but Floki’s parable of himself as an ant on the forest floor, simply grateful for the shade of a leaf, is the series final word. At Naad’s execution, a Mi’kmaq woman tells Torvi, solemnly (and without subtitles, suggesting some seriously quick language study on both sides), “You understand that when we said you were welcome to this place, we did not mean you were welcome to possess it.” Now, Floki tells Ubbe, son of Ragnar, “You don’t need to know anything. It’s not important. Let the past go.”

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As much more enjoyable as it is coming from Floki, the sentiment is a facile end to the human and cultural questions Vikings once raised. A dead-end happy ending outside of the sweep of all-too-predictable human predation, war, and awfulness—always spurred on by sincere or cynical belief. I was not immune to the last scene here, mainly for Floki’s old man’s resignation that, having thrashed, and flailed, and fought, and nearly died a dozen times over in pursuit of his narrow truth, he finally discovered that the world is simply too big, and too boundlessly rich, to be constrained by any set of rules or beliefs.

“In any case, I’ll be dead soon,” Floki the boatbuilder says, untroubled, staring out over the sea. In their matching moments of desperation on the battlefield in Wessex, both Alfred and Ivar call out to their gods—Jesus Christ and the Allfather, respectively—Hirst giving them each a fruitless and unanswered (even by visions) plea for help and guidance. Nobody answers. Vikings wouldn’t be Vikings if, at the moment of Ivar’s death, Floki didn’t look up in seeming, mystical acknowledgement, but, in its sweet but superficial ending, Vikings leaves us with Floki’s words of resignation and rejection of all faiths other than [fill in the humanist platitude]. It’s unearned but lovely, which means it’s empty, ultimately. For a series that once seemed, like its first and greatest protagonist, to be aiming higher, it’s ruefully fitting that Vikings would settle in the end.

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Illustration for article titled Ragnar Lothbrok’s legacy haunts a striking but empty Vikings right to the finish
Screenshot: Vikings

Stray observations

  • Man, it’s lovely to see Gustaf Skarsgård don Floki’s beard and head-tattoos once more time. The long, searching moment where Floki either can’t or chooses not to recall the grimy end of his Iceland dream is a stunner of wordless acting.
  • Floki does remember Ragnar, of course, telling the amused Ubbe that Ragnar won’t leave him alone. “He keeps asking me to build him a new boat. And I say, ‘What the hell do you need a new boat for, Ragnar? You’re dead.’”
  • Ferdia Walsh-Peelo’s Alfred, exposition machine right to the end: “It’s been a long time. Our fathers died, we both became kings, but we are still fighting.”
  • Upon Ivar’s death, Alfred starts waving his hands like a referee calling an injury time out, and both sides in the still pitched and bloody battle just—stop?
  • Ivar’s eyes flash CGI bluer right before his death, with Vikings flashing back to just last episode, when Hvitserk portentously told of how that meant Ivar was going to hurt himself. Flashbacks in a show that’s being routinely binge-watched are an outdated device, and a debilitatingly silly one in a series finale.
  • Ivar, snatching a bit of his father’s insouciant timing, waits for Alfred to finish his long-winded rebuttal to Ivar’s transparent offer of detente, deadpans, “So that’s a no?”
  • Ivar’s troops had time to whip up some flaming catapults for the final battle, which is fun.
  • Look, I’m all for Ubbe and Pekitaulet’s bands finding unlikely common ground, but some of the speechifying throughout “The Last Act” is howlingly unsubtle. Floki: “The world is more important than we are. We should take care of it, thats all.” Othere: “If murder can be overlooked, there will never be justice or peace in this new world.”
  • Saying much more with fewer words, Hvitserk—who’d long proclaimed his disbelief in his brother’s godhood—responds to the dying Ivar’s repeated, “I’m afraid,” with a tearful, “I won’t tell anyone.”
  • The storytelling is less than clear, but it looks like the widow of the murdered warrior is entombed, after being cocooned in honey-soaked wrappings. Apart from the narrative blurriness, I have no idea what Hirst is drawing from here (a vigorous, furrow-browed Googling didn’t help), but the way the rite is dropped in like exotic, unexplained background underscores my suspicions that Michael Hirst and Vikings are not the right storytellers for the story going forward.
  • Floki, scoffing at Ubbe’s plea for insight on the gods, responds with the sound counsel, “Advice? Always take stones out of your shoe.”
  • For all my critical gripes, I’ve been covering Vikings for the A.V. Club since the beginning. It was my first regular series gig, and I am forever grateful for the opportunity to review this simultaneously fascinating and frustrating show for the past seven years, to my editors Emily VanDerWerff and Erik Adams for entrusting the new kid with this scruffy first foray into fictional TV from History, and to all of you who remain reading after all this time. Sitting on a beach and watching the sun set on a series that’s meant a great deal to me, personally and professionally, seems more appropriate to the mood, but, for old times’ sake—SHIELD WALL!
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.