Vikings’ first season did one thing exceptionally well. It presented a genuinely compelling portrayal of a truly alien culture, a feat which imbued each episode with a striking—often riveting—unpredictability. The care taken by creator Michael Hirst and company in crafting Viking society as something essentially other sowed benefits which enriched every character, every interaction, and every encounter with a tingly frisson of not knowing what was coming next. Not in the sloppy American Horror Story: Coven way of “there are no rules so anything can happen,” but in the sense that these characters were operating under rules which, by dint of their remoteness from modern sensibilities, are enticingly mysterious to us. Vikings had heroes and villains but, at its best, each could be counted on to act in a way which was unexpected, but seemingly guided by its own internal moral logic.
Going into its second season, Vikings faces many challenges, the biggest of which is the fact that its novelty cannot be counted on to carry the narrative over the occasionally flat writing. Unfortunately, the season premiere highlights exactly the elements of the series most familiar and mundane to viewers, which only serves to throw a torchlight on its worst qualities. As omen, “Brother’s War” is, well, ominous.
Things begin well enough, with charging horses, massed Vikings brandishing weapons, and the triumvirate of Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar Lothbrok, Gustaf Skarsgard’s Floki, and (blessedly added to the opening credits) Donal Logue’s King Horik discovering that Ragnar’s ever-glowering brother Rollo has betrayed them (again), joining with Horik’s rival in their ongoing conflict over some disputed lands. One of the other virtues of the show’s first season was its brisk, muscular storytelling, and this opening—dropping us into the middle of a new situation and allowing us to play catchup—continues the tradition admirably. Fimmel continues to have the most expressive crazy eyes on TV, Skarsgard’s snaky madman/advisor Floki remains a scene-stealing wonder, and Logue’s facility with twinkly menace marches on unabated. Through their asides and glances, we’re given the opportunity to piece together the situation at hand—just in time for the crazy Viking bloodshed to start. Again, Vikings’ propulsive storytelling is refreshing in a television landscape too often invested in making sure even the slowest viewer is never confused or challenged enough to change the channel. (And just wait until next week’s episode, which stretches this “catch up if you can” ethos to new lengths.)
The ensuing battle, however, is a disappointment. In its action scenes last season, there was a clarity and economy of visual language in these sequences which allowed both character development and world-building alongside the carnage. Here, once the two Viking factions face off with identical tactics (“shield wall!!”), the fighting is a mishmash of handheld incomprehensibility, intermittent slo-mo, improbable over-the-top action (Rollo and others hurdling said shield wall like they’re trying to punch it into the end zone), and the hoary action cliché which allows for identifiable characters to face off in single combat while the nameless rabble rage heedlessly around them. (And Rollo’s spear-end hoisting of perpetual Vikings also-ran Arne is singularly silly.) In the end, it’s Rollo’s eternally-waffling character that sways the fight in favor of Ragnar as, faced with having to fight Ragnar in single combat, he yields, kneels, and says, “I cannot fight my brother.” Clive Standen is fine in the role, but Rollo’s continuing will-he-or-won’t-he betrayal pendulum grew tiresome long ago. (Seriously, he was helping lead an army against Ragnar but quails when he has to, you know, fight him? C’mon, Rollo.)
When Rollo’s surrender allows the quarrelsome parties to air their grievances, it similarly allows Ragnar to rail against what has brought them to this pass in the first place, with the Vikings squabbling over their own lands rather than setting out as he has to plunder and conquer poor, old England. It’s in keeping with the conception of Ragnar as visionary, but the speech itself is a warning sign of what’s to come, with his furious, ultimately successful plea for unity going on long enough to make its point and then some. Throughout, “Brother’s War” exhibits a heretofore unseen penchant for making what had been enigmatic subtext prosaic text.
Especially when Ragnar returns home, captive Rollo in tow, to find that son Bjorn has spilled the beans on his dalliance with cat-eyed princess Aslaug at the end of last season. And thus begins the most tedious and worrisome aspect of the episode, as Vikings becomes a domestic drama of a dispiriting ordinariness. See, Kathryn Winnick’s Lagertha is mad because Ragnar slept with a foreign princess and makes him promise not to ever see her again. And then Ragnar’s honest promise is complicated when Aslaug sails into Kattegat big with what she claims is Ragnar’s child, causing Lagertha to get jealous. And then Ragnar proposes that, as is an Earl’s prerogative, he take two wives, which, strangely, the formidable Lagertha doesn’t care for. And so Lagertha chooses to leave Ragnar, and Kattegat, forcing Bjorn to choose which parent to live with, and wow, it’s hard to stay focused even writing this down. The tricky issue of Viking sexual relationships has been toyed with throughout the series—Ragnar and Lagertha even inviting captive monk Althelstan into their bed at one point—but here, the Lothbroks’ conflict is presented as conventionally as on any soap opera. It’s just plain dull, and for all its faults, that’s not something I’d ever thought about Vikings before.
It’s not that any of the scenes comprising these developments are bad on their own, it’s that they play out in lockstep, all-too-recognizable fashion throughout more than half of the episode. And, yes, to a certain extent Vikings is a slave to history, as sketchy as the details may be, but previously the series has been adept at taking those inescapable facts and running them through a fresh, unpredictable approach to the show’s world. But this stuff—not even Fimmel’s ever-entertaining, sly facial expressions—mixing as they do his alpha dog charisma with a mischievous little boy glint—can redeem the quotidian storyline. And, it’s got to be said, when the characters are as given over to speechifying as in this episode, the uniform Vikings nonspecific “foreign-y” accent sported by most of the cast wears out its welcome. Like Christian Bale’s growly Batman voice, it’s just not built for monologues. (It’s especially egregious in Ragnar’s lonely conversation with his dead daughter—Fimmel is solid, but the length of the speech brings the weakness of the accent conceit to the forefront. It’s distracting, and it undermines the sentiment.)
So is all bleak for Vikings? I’d say no. Travis Fimmel remains a magnetic lead—his eerie pale blue eyes continue to hint at greater depths than even his expanded speeches are given to express. Kathryn Winnick’s fiery dignity makes Lagertha—even burdened with a dull storyline here—a formidable female character (and future episodes hint she’ll have more to do than ever). Gustaf Skarsgard’s Floki endures in slinky, magnetically dangerous comic relief. The show’s look remains stellar, and singular, with the craggy mists of coastal Ireland subbing manfully for long ago Scandinavia, and its meticulous attention to detail looking authentic and lived-in. Even Trevor Morris’ score continues to be used judiciously, to often stirring effect (as in Ragnar’s desperate ride pursuing the fleeing Lagertha). The season’s first episode contains troublesome portents, but as good as the show was last season, it’s hard to imagine it’s lost its compass completely.
- The lawgiver, pronouncing Rollo’s fate, has the most unwieldy line in recent memory. “He behaved in an interesting and unexpected way.” It’s like something out of The Life Of Brian.
- Some other groaners: “Did you have sex with her?! How many times?!” and “How can I make you let this go?” “Never see her again.” I swear, these were cribbed from a Friends episode.
- And Rollo’s “I wanted to step out of your shadow…but when I stepped out of it, there was no sunlight.”
- Ragnar’s face when he first sees Aslaug alight her boat with her pregnant belly is priceless—he half-hides behind a piling and a little smile, composed of mischief and sheepishness, plays over his features. Fimmel remains great at that.
- His dinnertime plural marriage pitch is interesting—Ragnar’s impish bits of business combine with a sheepish wheedling which serves to make him seem physically smaller as it goes on.
- The dress swelling over Aslaug’s pregnant belly has a design like spiderwebs. Is that a good sign, do you think?
- The fact that Alyssa Sutherland’s Aslaug looks like an evil Allison Williams also works against her.
- Pretty sure poor Athelstan gets literally one word of dialogue this episode, which is a shame. George Blagden and Travis Fimmel make one of Vikings’ most interesting pairings.
- Accent and gender issues aside, Ragnar’s speech to his daughter got to me most in its detail. “They say a man must love his sons more. But a man can be jealous of his sons. And his daughter can always be the light in his life. I know very well that you are with the gods. But I will wait here for a while, and if you want to come and talk to me, then come and talk. And I’ll gently stroke your long and beautiful hair once again—with my peasant hands.”