“What an exciting world we live in.”
“The Most Terrible Thing” is an intermittently satisfying episode of Vikings, if you just pluck out the promising developments from the dire. Sadly, that describes the weekly experience of watching this series in this fifth season for those of us who’ve been with the show from the beginning. There’s so much wrong, and what’s wrong is so fundamentally wrong, that the only solution is to re-edit each episode in our minds as it’s happening.
One of the problems with talking about a show with fundamental problems is repetition—the entire structure is dangerously off balance, so that to talk about individual elements while they careen unstably past is an exercise in farce. So, to repeat: Michael Hirst has allowed Vikings to become unmoored from what it was, and seemingly was intended to be. The draw of History’s first scripted series was always the characters, the cultural milieu, the actors, the action, and then the plot intrigues, in that order. Losing Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar Lothbrok was a crushing blow to categories one and three, but it was both necessary and survivable—if Hirst didn’t lose the thread of the second, and overvalue the last. He has.
The episode opens with Aethered’s funeral, where the still-groggy Alfred stumbles in on the ornate ceremony just as his brother is being lowered into the ground beneath the chapel floor. Alfred (the not-yet Great) is a major figure in Vikings’ source material, so he’s going to come into play, fine. But Hirst has, from the first time the Norse set foot on the beach at Lindisfarne, set the hourglass running until the English story overtook the Viking one. Vikings once thrilled with its novelty—not with the expected bloody battles and unfamiliar customs—but in how dedicatedly it attempted to portray what to our modern eyes was a truly, uniquely alien culture. Silences and actions were left to speak for themselves, and we to fill in our own interpretations based on what we could glean about a world whose morality convincingly appeared to spring from a completely different well.
So when we spend half an episode watching English kings scheme against English lords for English power, it’s simply dead space on the screen, no matter how meticulously mounted. When Ragnar first set foot on English soil, the tingle of discovery energized every moment, every interaction. A show about cultures literally clashing from the perspective of the less familiar culture was not just a novelty, it was a raison d’etre. Things were at least a little more entertaining when we had King Aelle blustering around in his suitably rustic keep, or even when Linus Roache’s archly amusing Ecbert circled the invading Ragnar (and Lagertha) with wry fascination. But dear god, is Ferdia Walsh-Peelo’s Alfred a dud.
It’s not all the actor’s fault—he is playing a callow, indecisive king at the start, and Alfred’s inexperience and physical weakness is an intentional counterpoint to his Viking antagonists and allies. The fault lies in Hirst’s thoroughly mistaken assumption that the English story is or has ever been of equal interest. Part of that is familiarity—from Hirst’s own The Tudors on down the royal line, we’ve seen English court intrigues before, and no matter how muddy or bloody the finery gets, that’s not what we come to Vikings for. So the full third of “The Most Terrible Thing” given over to Alfred, Judith, and the English partakes of the show’s increasingly rote exaltation of the English side of things. When Alfred, learning of Judith’s poisoning of Aethelred, trembles, sighs, paces, overturns a table, and thrashes it with his sword, it’s meant to show his mother how unprepared he is to be king. What it does for us, however, is provoke our own sighs of impatience and derision, as Walsh-Peelo’s gyrations look like nothing so much as a thwarted tween’s tetchy tantrum. (I kept imagining Alfred crying, “You stupid, stupid table!” as he whacked it ineffectually with his blade.) Many of the major conflicts on Vikings must inevitably play out in England, but the series increasingly keeps shooting them through the wrong end of the lens.
And that’s a shame, since the Viking side of the story keeps showing flashes of the old inspiration. Floki’s story takes precedence for a change, with the would-be shocking betrayal of the heretofore reliable Kjetill providing perhaps the final blow to Floki’s dream. Not to harp on Adam Copeland’s former career, but Kjetill’s sudden fakeout massacre of Eyvind and his family is more of a heel turn than anything motivated by what we’ve seen of the hulking warrior and family man before. Still, Copeland is just as impressive in both his berserker rage and his flint-cold determination as he has been as Floki’s most steadfast and seemingly reasonable disciple. The scene where he, having murdered all but Eyvind and the innocent Helgi, pretends to consider Floki’s appeal for mercy for the boy while devouring a chicken leg is as darkly comic as it is chilling. And the sight of the fearsome Kjetill waiting stolidly for the half-naked and helpless Eyvind to be brought before his axe—Kjetill singing a little song all the while—is strikingly frightening.
But Gustaf Skarsgård’s wonted way of channeling Floki’s tortured mind is what we’re here for, and the actor doesn’t disappoint. Floki’s horror at Kjetill’s actions registers with the full weight of its implications for everything he’d tried to build for his followers. And the final scene, where most fanatical supporter Aud plunges herself over the majestic waterfall where she admitted to only having pretended to see the gods of Floki’s vision, sees the fur-bedraggled Floki shrieking out in helpless futility. As one of the storylines most tied to an exploration of the Vikings’ culture (and thus most underserved by Hirst’s England fixation), Floki’s colony has never gotten its due. Here, as it seems to have finally collapsed for good, it’s more fascinating than ever.
Would that I could say the same for the doings in Kattegat, but Ivar’s continuing power-trip continues to ping-pong between overblown and under-dramatized. Hirst has abandoned all pretense of subtlety in drawing parallels between Ivar’s monomaniacal authoritarianism and [fill in your own fascist or would-be fascist dictator]. The Nazi-esque banners, the gold-faced statue, the faceless guards helping to enact political theater, Ivar’s all-too-familiar concentration of power amongst a chosen few cronies, and a fear-based demonization of the foreign influences that continue to flock to trading hub Kattegat—Hirst’s making points. Which, fine (although the Nuremberg rally vibe of Ivar’s spectacle keeps landing on on-the-nose silliness), if only the once-magnetic Ivar hadn’t been gradually stripped down to villainous (if entertaining) posturing. After making a grandiose show of telling his gathered subjects that no one can be trusted but him—not even a brother—Ivar sprawls on his bed and muses to Freydis whether or not he should just kill Hvitserk. To Freydis’ “Wouldn’t you rather be loved than feared?,” the sulking Ivar responds, “I don’t know,” with an equally limp “I’m not sure” for (lack of) emphasis.
Across the sea in York, we look to Bjorn to shake this storyline up, as he braces the reluctant Harald to make a surprise, stormy season attack on Kattegat. Bjorn’s own English sulking parted last week to allow him space to ponder just what course his life’s journey is to take next. Here, that ruminative mood remains, and it looks good on Bjorn, with Alexander Ludwig bringing a tired vulnerability to Bjorn that’s new, too. After telling Harald that Ragnar told him of his plan for Kattegat in a dream, he asks the unimpressed Harald, “Don’t you ever dream?” And when Ragga Ragnars’ Gunnhild challenges him about his supposed love for her, Bjorn’s response is uncharacteristically thoughtful. Still showing his signature irritation at having to put his feelings into words, Bjorn yet admits that he admires Harald in at least one way. “He is a man who always wants to be in love,” muses Bjorn of the would-be King of Norway (who’s just made a persuasive secret pitch for Gunnhild’s affections), “I would like to have his heart instead of mine.” Explaining that, while he’s been with many women (not a lie), he’s not sure love has ever really touched his heart. “I am afraid,” he admits, “I am alone. Alone, naked, and afraid.” And while Harald’s incessant erotic and power intrigues color the scene with ambiguity, the fact that Bjorn succumbs to the formidable Gunnihild’s demand to say he loves her before they make love is well played by both.
“The Most Terrible Thing” is peppered with statements about changing who we are. Floki pleads to the blood-lusting Kjetill, “I thought it was possible—you had me believing again, Kjetill.” As he kills Eyvind’s family, Kjetil responds simply, “We are who we are, Floki. The gods have made us so.” (Poor, dumb Eyvind, thinking Kjetill had forgiven him for murdering Kjetill’s son and daughter, greets his former enemy with a grateful, “We have all changed . . . my friend.”) Harald, making his play for Gunnhild, states, “We are always the same. We just pretend to change.” But the episode posits that Bjorn pondering fundamental change is more interesting than Bjorn on a set course, something that Vikings could stand to learn.
- Ivar explicitly calls his farcical town gathering a thing, before announcing that, as god and unquestioned ruler, he’s removing most of the democratic elements of the traditional Norse governing assembly. A most terrible thing, indeed.
- Hvitserk’s post-Margrethe love interest finally gets a name. It’s Thora. Sadly, she’s only around to function as a damsel-in-potential-distress by Ivar to ensure that Hvitserk in fact leaves Kattegat to shore up the alliance with King Olaf.
- Judith packs up the late Aethelred’s wife for a quick journey back where she came from. Their knowing confrontation about what they both know Judith’s done would carry more weight, perhaps, if said wife had been established as a character in any way. Or, you know, if we knew her name.
- Later, Judith is glimpsed checking out her naked reflection, quickly robing herself when her lady-in-waiting asks what’s up. So prepare for that plot twist, Judith enthusiasts.
- Harald’s stunted ambitions run hot-and-cold for me, dramatically, but here’s to his rueful response to Bjorn’s ambitious invasion plan, “What an exciting time we live in.”
- Similarly, the question of whether or not the warlike Gunnhild is playing Bjorn, or Harold, or both, isn’t particularly interesting. But I liked the prickly tension when she brought dinner to Bjorn and offered him the first bite of meat off of the tip of a very sharp knife. Bjorn, looking her in the eyes, takes a long, unconcerned time biting it.
- Torvi has one of her best moments of the series, responding to Alfred’s question about why his presence at the head of the army won’t be the rallying influence he thinks it will: “I have a terrible habit of telling the truth.” (Ubbe’s ultimately takes charge of the English forces, as a 300-ship Danish fleet is on its way.)
- Oh, and since it’s been a while, and since we hear Harald’s men shout it while sparring at York . . . SHIELD WALL!