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The sons of Ragnar pursue separate sides of their father's legacy in the penultimate Vikings

Illustration for article titled The sons of Ragnar pursue separate sides of their father's legacy in the penultimate Vikings
Screenshot: Vikings
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“This is our story . . .”

“The Lord Giveth . . .” is three stories, in precipitously descending order of interest. In Kattegat, Erik and Ingrid’s one-sided power struggle is finally disposed of (along with Erik himself) when Ingrid easily deflects her blinded co-ruler’s clumsy assassination attempt (bye, understandably weepy slave guy) and dispatches a much less conflicted slave woman to run Erik through with a blunt pitchfork. There was no contest here, and precious little more reason to care—Kattegat (as central as Vikings’ home base will be to the upcoming sequel series) remains in dull, placeholder’s hands. There’s some minor enjoyment at the thought of Lucy Martin’s witchy Ingrid assembling her own all-female army (more assassins than shieldmaidens), with her telling Erik her plan to have an emissary knock off that Danish king who reportedly has converted to Christianity. But that’s all background noise to the two main stories left to tell.

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Ivar’s battle against Alfred’s forces comes in the form of a workmanlike, episode-spanning battle sequence that sees Ivar (thanks to some prosaic flashbacks) planning and executing the sort of ruthless tactics he imagine were Ragnar’s lessons to him long ago. His stated intention to “cripple” Alfred’s army turns out to be literal, as he, anticipating Alfred’s approach through the misty woods, sets out bear traps, Southern Comfort-style spike traps, and camouflaged warrior pits in order to, as he tells the appreciative Harald, grievously wound as many of the English as possible. His reasoning, that Alfred the Christian will have to dispatch twice as many troops to care for the wounded and replace their numbers, is nasty stuff, certainly. And that’s not counting the tree stands where Ivar and his archers perch to pick off Alfred’s people from above, dump flaming oil, and pull the old “dress up in the enemy’s garb and kidnap the queen” gambit.

Alex Høgh as Ivar The Boneless
Alex Høgh as Ivar The Boneless
Screenshot: Vikings

It’s on par with Vikings standard action sequences—mainly comprehensible, color corrected too far into the blue, with twists surprising us just as they do the brave but overmatched Alfred. I did groan when, at a pivotal point, the ever-present fog kicked up to end the fracas in opaque confusion, sort of an apt visual metaphor for Vikings limp toward the end. In the aftermath, with Alfred’s army on the retreat, the lost Harald is run through from out of the fog by Alfred’s warrior-Bishop, Aldulf, who delivers a seriously cold-hearted Christian burn, telling the dying, Valhalla-crying Harald, “There is no such place. You will die here, alone and forgotten.” Too bad, Aldulf doesn’t know Harald Finehair like we do, as the priest dies gurgling on his blood from Harald’s dagger, thrust with defiant, final accuracy through the bishop’s throat. Harald, groaning out the viking song he used to sing alongside his brother, is cheered on his way by a vision of Halfdan, the two estranged brothers singing a ragged harmony as Harald’s blood floods a foreign field.

Peter Franzén as King Harald Finehair
Peter Franzén as King Harald Finehair
Screenshot: Vikings

It’s not a bad way to go, especially if you’re a viking. (Getting to stick it to a preening Christian bishop, no less.) And Harald goes out how he lived—scrappy, entertainingly creepy, and a devious little prick right to the end. Alfred, not to be outdone in the wartime vision department by Ivar, spots a bloodied but serene Jesus Christ in the midst of the bloody battle (Alfred had just pulled a viking sword blade fully out out of his own shoulder), spurring him to, once and for all, reject his own, cautious nature. (Queen Elsewith continued her campaign to lovingly emasculate him right before the big fight.) Demanding his men be prepared to rejoin the battle against Ivar’s forces, he tells the bishop, “Jesus Christ is with us. I saw him.”

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Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Alfred The Great
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Alfred The Great
Screenshot: Vikings

If Ivar can have the Seer, Alfred can have Jesus, Vikings’ conceit of the immediacy of faith in this long-ago world manifesting in the flesh proving, once more, to cross cultural and religious boundaries. When the final battle comes in next episode’s series finale, it will be portrayed as between two men driven by their ambition and their faith, with the outcome (as historically predetermined as it may be) settling, ultimately, very little. The stakes have been lowered, or at least rendered the tinny gamesmanship of characters stretched too thin by a series that never found its feet after the staggering loss of direction and focus Ragnar Lothbrok provided. Again, there’s a narrative lesson to be ferreted out there, but it doesn’t change the fact that the once momentous Norse invasion of England will play out in lockstep martial melodrama.

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I’m more enamored of Ubbe’s story, if for no other reason than it’s new, and, apart from one thuddingly obvious heel turn in the making this week, rooted in discovery. Here, the weight of history makes everything that happens in this episode between Ubbe’s band and the Indigenous people of this “Golden Land” achingly lovely and sad in equal measure. Following up the cliffhanger from last episode, the lead warrior of Othere’s “Skrælings” stills the quivering bow of one of his men, holds out an arrow, and snaps it in two. Torvi, holding little Ragnar at her breast, leads the way in trading names, making cautious gestures, and urging the Norse to lower their weapons. Brought in front of the group’s matriarch, Pekitaulet (Canadian First Nations actress Carmen Moore), the first contact between these two disparate people goes according to the most optimistic dreams of anyone wishing the world were different. A little girl pulls on Othere’s snowy beard (“She thought it was seaweed,” Pekitaulet says in her subtitled native tongue), while a fussy baby Ragnar is warily handed over to a friendly young woman, immediately amusing himself with her shell necklace. (Spotting Torvi’s elaborate braids, the local women even start giving each other Norse makeovers.)

Carmen Moore as Pekitaulet
Carmen Moore as Pekitaulet
Screenshot: Vikings
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As in their anonymous gift exchange previously, weapons are compared (Ubbe and a local warrior show off their impressive axe and arrow skills, respectively), the Norse invite their hosts to the vikings’ makeshift camp for a feast, and Ubbe wonders at the one Norse word that Pekitaulet seemingly and inexplicably knows. Othere ‘s eyes perk up at the word “bliðr.” Happy. Picked up by both groups, the word functions as a the keystone of their nascent, halting communication. Names and “happy.” Gifts, and smiles. We hear (thanks to subtitles) Pekitaulet assuring the vikings, “We will make sure that you do not starve. We will be friends with you and respect you.” And if the words are unknown to the strangers, Pekitaulet’s tone, and that one, improbable word “happy” signals intention as clearly as day.

I have to admit to being a sucker for this sort of story, and that I could watch an entire series of Ubbe and Torvi making nice with the native inhabitants of this abundant and strange new land. It would have to be made by someone other than Michael Hirst, I suspect, however. The little we see of these people is warm, and enthralling, and, no doubt, as scrupulously researched and designed as are the vikings of Vikings. And the coming conflict, signaled by one of Ubbe’s band getting immediate villainous greed-eyes over the small gold nuggets left as gifts by Pekitaulet’s people, might be dismayingly predictable—but then again, so is the history of Eurpeans coming to the so-called New World. If Vikings were to have a spinoff, it’s more sensible to make it the 100-years-later, Norse-centric continuity of Vikings: Valhalla. But if a First Nations/Native American production were to tells this tale from the North American side, I’d watch it.

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That word, Ubbe is told by Pekitaulet, the people know from a “crazy man,” and while I knew full well what Ubbe would find when he and his new neighbors rowed canoes upriver, the episode’s final, glorious reveal was still a doozy. Stepping ashore to find trees ornately carved with norse designs (a warrior fighting a bear, a Christian monastery, a bridge under siege, and the unmistakable face of Ragar Lothbrok) hewn into the wood of a tree in this new world, Ubbe smiles. “This is our story,” he says out loud to Torvi, looking to the ingenious little treehouse amidst all this impossible iconography. Pekitaulet’s son Peminuit (Wesley French) calls out in English, suggesting, through the logic of TV translation shorthand, that “Crazy Man” is another norse phrase his people have learned. A counterweight rises, lowering a figure seated on a platform descending on ropes from the raised little house. “Hello, Floki,” Ubbe says, smiling. And Floki giggles.

Gustaf Skarsgård as Floki
Gustaf Skarsgård as Floki
Screenshot: Vikings
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There’s a lot of potential to this story, as riddled with pitfalls as it is, culturally. Floki the boatbuilder, the zealot, the crazy man. Floki the disillusioned self-proclaimed standard-bearer for the old gods and the old ways, among a people who—while not Christian—are certainly not viking. There are so many ways this story could go wrong that I shudder to count them, but Gustaf Skarsgård’s long-awaited return in this unexpected place is such a tonic at the last mile of a long and increasingly unprofitable road, that I am genuinely thrilled to see how it turns out. I imagine it will be in all-too-predictably human tears and blood. And, even if Vikings posits that Ragnar Lothbrok’s explorer’s heart is to rest finally, along with his namesake, in an entirely different world, then I’m prepared to cut loose my skepticism, and the weight of history, and allow this small part of Vikings story to play out in wonder, and hope. Here’s to hope, anyway.

Stray observations

  • Sample Ingrid and Erik dinnertime conversation. Ingrid: “Why don’t you talk any more?” Erik: “You never share.”
  • Erik—clearly not Erik The Red, as it turns out—gets one more prosaic comeuppance when we see his former slaver’s brand on his murderer’s neck.
  • Escaping her abductors, Elsewith fights her way back to her royal carriage where she reveals a secret compartment containing her (and likely Bjorn’s) hidden child.
  • Anyone else get a C3PO and the Ewoks vibe from Othere’s shirtless recounting of his lifetime of adventures?
  • Along those lines, here’s hoping that Hirst doesn’t travel too far down the road of idealizing these new characters. As much as I remain a sap for the idea of a series-ending (if necessarily isolated) viking-Indigenous love fest, there’s a touch of one-dimensionality that is a bit worrisome.
  • Alfred is trying his damnedest to be the inspiring military leader Elsewith assures him he must be. He even gets a “little touch of Harry in the night” campfire scene visiting his worried soldiers before the battle, but his words are as wan and unconvincing as he is.
  • Gods, is it good to see Gustaf Skarsgård again. They made us wait, but it was worth it.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.