“They whisper that I am weak. I fear they’re right.”
The shadow of Ragnar Lothbrok looms over Vikings. “A New God” sees characters repeatedly invoking Ragnar’s legacy. King Harald, stomping into the Norse-held city of York, demands that Ivar’s regent there, Jarl Olafsson, renounce both Ivar and Ragnar, sneering, “In times to come, no one will remember the names of Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons. They will be utterly forgotten.” The older man, before choosing to throw in with Harald’s plan to “rape Wessex,” responds, “In that case, what a poorer place the world will be.”
Throughout “A New God,” Ragnar’s influence informs everything. Back in Kattegat, Ivar—now fully on board with new bride Freydis’ explanation that he is not just a descendent of Odin like his father, but, in fact, a god himself—pitches his plan to offer a significant sacrifice at the ceremony announcing his godhood to the resentful Hvitserk. (Who, while another son of Ragnar, takes a long time to figure out just what Ivar is suggesting.) Ubbe, along with wife Torvi, accepts Alfred’s offer of conversion in order to further the Lothbroks interests in Wessex, a decision that sees big brother Bjorn rage, “Sometimes I wonder if you are Ragnar’s son at all.” Bjorn himself is approached by a pale young man in the marketplace after King Alfred’s marriage to Bjorn’s secret lover Elsewith. The young man (Dean Ridge) claims to be Magnus, Ragnar’s son with the late Queen Kwenthrith, burning with anger against childhood friend Alfred for not trying to find him after Alfred’s father Aethelwulf banished him from the court. Constantly prodding his half-brother about taking refuge amongst the people who betrayed and murdered their father, Magnus looks to the hulking Bjorn Ironside to provide the identity as a Lothbrok that has clearly kept the abandoned Magnus going all these years.
That Ragnar’s shadow has loomed over Vikings since his death (and the departure of Vikings’ chief asset, Travis Fimmel) was clearly part of the series’ plan. With Ragnar’s legacy split among five (now six) sons, all striving to live up to and outdo their illustrious father’s example, Vikings clearly sought to examine how the sweep of history and the pull of reputation were—in times where history was framed in epic terms—intertwined. With Ragnar gone, his sons all sought to both continue his legacy and forge their own, a second-generation conflict that saw Bjorn, Ivar, Ubbe, Sigurd (remember Sigurd?), Hvitserk, and now Magnus struggling to assert themselves while still clinging to the fame their father’s accomplishments brings them. (Poor daughter Gyda never lived long enough to have her own story alongside her brothers.) It’s a rich vein of characterization and themes, and one that Vikings has only haltingly mined in any effective way.
Instead, Vikings after Ragnar has been less an examination of the diffusion of power and direction after the fall of one great man and more a cautionary tale about a series trying vainly to find focus after the loss of its one fully realized character. Ragnar Lothbrok’s story was one of discovery and farsightedness—the farmer-warrior with an inconvenient itch that there was something more than subsistence living, constant raiding, and obedience to the way things have always been. Ragnar’s journey was that of a man doomed by vision, whose unthinkable successes saw him crowned king of a realm unthought of, all while his restless quest for enlightenment meant he could never sit comfortably on his throne. After his death, his gifts are splintered among his progeny, each son exhibiting facets of their father’s enigmatic soul. Again, that’s not a bad thing, In fact, it’s a decidedly human dilemma that parents and children have had to contend with, whether Viking princes or lowly farmers. But Vikings is just not up to the task of telling that story.
Sigurd went down early, Ivar’s axe ending his story with vague memories of dull bullying and boasting. Magnus is a new variable, although here his brash desperation to Bjorn suggests serious limits to his growth as a character. Hvitserk is Hvitserk, his history of poor decisions and constant slights from his siblings leaving him in a perpetual, runty sulk. (He looks more and more like Viking Jason Mewes.) Ivar taunts him tonight by calling him “little brother,” to which older brother Hvitserk can only ineffectually sputter and drunkenly glare. Ubbe remains a stunted, well-intentioned shadow of Ragnar’s desire for forward-thinking progress who, in reluctantly choosing to renounce his gods tonight, also provides a pale echo of the same choice made by his Uncle Rollo, long ago. And Bjorn, most privy to Ragnar’s heart and, at one time, likeliest to carry on his father’s quest for knowledge and discovery, lumbers around in Wessex like a caged bear, roaring at his mother and brother’s seeming subservience while occasionally bedding visiting princesses and glaring at the English folk.
Then there’s Ivar, whose miraculous survival in a society that counted him as lost once he emerged with his crippled legs has seen him gradually twisted into murderous megalomania. Tonight, he is the new god of “A New God,” his warring resentment and ambition leading him to accept the angelic-looking Freydis’ tales of mythological destinies and supernatural conception and, in the final scene of phantasmagorical ascension, proclaim himself divine. His people look on in awestruck terror at the spectacle, as the grotesquely painted and skull-crowned Ivar lurches into view, his similarly costumed royal guard commands all to kneel before “the god, Ivar,” and a single, hooded figure is led in chains to a waiting ship. (We’re led to believe that it’s poor, dumb Hvitserk on his way to be sacrificed, but the episode ends on a cliffhanger, so we’ll see.) Ivar’s story has at least been the most garishly dramatic of the brothers’, even if his sinister presence (he gives Hvitserk his patented Kubrick stare when announcing the sacrifice plan) gets less recognizably human as he embraces his full inner Caligula.
And then there’s Lagertha, season five’s most egregious victim of post-Ragnar narrative malaise. Katheryn Winnick is deservedly first on the cast list in the opening credits these days, but Lagertha has receded into shameful also-ran status on what should be her own show. Lagertha’s journey paralleled Ragnar’s and, in some ways, surpassed it. The farmer’s wife, turned kickass shieldmaiden, turned queen, turned unprecedented female Jarl was always, in Winnick’s formidable performance, transcendent. Lagertha was never anyone’s adjunct, even if she was always—touchingly but hard-headedly—the love of Ragnar’s life. The simple scene where the two estranged lovers and powerful equals share an intimate, horseback moment upon coming together for their mutual interest is indelible because they are, in Winnick and Fimmel’s performances, themselves.
But who is this season’s Lagertha, especially after the losing battle against Ivar? Her hair bleached spontaneously white in grief (admittedly a solid look), Lagertha has allowed herself to be buffeted along by fate and her still-inexplicable attraction to the warlike but unimpressive Heahmund. (Jonathan Rhys Meyers deadening Batman voice only gets sillier when he’s growling about “Alfred.”) Here, as we’re subjected to more English court intrigue thanks to creator Michael Hirst’s wandering attention toward the Vikings of Vikings, Lagertha is reduced to Heahmund’s bedmate, lounging and pillow-talking sentiments like, “I wish I could help,” while twined around the brooding Heahmund’s hunky form. Winnick is adrift this season, and if there’s some grand plan where all this ineffectual passivity is in service of a formerly-characteristic gambit, that’s still not going to erase the unpalatable taste of Lagertha the sidekick.
Floki’s sidelining this season has been more clearly by design, his ill-fated pilgrimage to what he still hopefully maintains is the land of the gods looking more and more like a metaphor for the dead end that is his insular fanaticism, as opposed to friend Ragnar’s openness. But, man, is his storyline stuck in the mud (and rain, wind, and cold) of his and his followers’ unpromising settlement. Here once more, Floki attempts to broker peace between grieving fathers Kjetill and Eyvind, which appears to work until the pregnant Thorunn—to whose unborn child they had all praised as the symbolic hope of their endeavor—turns up missing. Floki’s story has some juice in it—anything with Gustaf Skarsgård at its center would—but boiling down the potential mad glory of Floki’s quest to the bloody bickering of two stolid dads is a major squander.
But in a season beset with failings, Hirst’s increasing shift in focus to the English is most baffling, and disfiguring. Historically, it’s Alfred’s eventual conflict with the invading Norse that earned him his “The Great,” fine. But Vikings is more and more told through the English lens, which saps the series of its identity. The clash of Norse and English cultures was part of Vikings’ DNA from the start, with the improbable bond between Ragnar and captive monk Athelstan forming the backbone of a culture-clash narrative that informed the action. But it was always—always—a story of Ragnar and his people as they, through Ragnar’s adventurous mind and will, saw an unthought-of new world opening up to them, piece by thrilling piece. The show still looks great—Vikings’ care for period and place remains genuinely impressive. But it’s like Hirst feels that his Vikings, having come to England and interacted with the royals there, have exhausted their inherent cultural interest.
We don’t see Alfred’s stuttering courtship of the already-unfaithful Elsewith through the lens of his Norse visitors. Nor are Lagertha, Bjorn , and the others central (or often even present) for Heahmund’s bloody lust for power, Athelred’s seeming treachery against his brother, Judith’s machinations on behalf of her weak-seeming son Alfred, the English clergy’s machinations against the pagan-coddling Alfred, or an increasing number of storylines better suited to the Wessex series it’s become dispiritingly clear that Hirst wants to be making. The formerly fascinating and nuanced foreignness of Norse culture is long gone, the Vikings of Vikings reduced to blunt plot devices and, in the person of Ivar, gaudy spectacle.
- Oh, the Seer woke up, bolting upright in apparent clairvoyant anguish in his hovel as Ivar declares himself a god.
- Rollo’s conversion was a little comic masterpiece, tingling with ambiguity and Clive Standen’s hilariously tentative physicality. Ubbe’s saw Ubbe giving a little grimace when Heahmund made the sign of the cross.
- I would have loved to see more of York than Harald’s prosaic villainy. A Norse settlement held for an extended period on English soil is the sort of culture clash narrative that Vikings should be about more than watching Alfred and Elsewith nervously preparing for their wedding night.
- Still, being undressed by a bunch of priests is not the sexiest wedding night tradition in the history of the world. Poor kids.
- Having served his purpose, Ivar’s hapless slave-guy is garotted while the pregnant Freydis looks on, beaming.
- It’s a funny little moment when newly-baptized Ubbe is caught out not knowing the rituals during Alfred and Elsewith’s wedding ceremony.
- The drunken harness wrestling at Ivar’s court appears to be a form of brokartök, while the one that can only be described as “Viking pillow fight” may be jomswikinger.
- Next week: Is that Hvitserk in the sack? I know, but am bound by reviewer law not to say.