Evaluating Vikings post-Ragnar Lothbrok presents the unique problem of differentiating between what is second-rate by design, and what is just second-rate. As the Vikings’ massive army makes land (and massacre) in England, there is a power vacuum. (Not that poor, overconfident King Aelle would believe that by the end of an episode that leaves him blood-eagled and very dead, hoisted contemptuously over Ragnar’s grave.) While Ragnar after Paris was never in charge of anything but a raggedy band of malcontents and misfits, yet he (and Travis Fimmel) towered. They were Vikings, the charismatic, enigmatic life of a series that is looking enervated and pale without him.
And part of that makes sense, dramatically. When Bjorn gathers all the sons of Ragnar together before they embark on the invasion, he struts and bellows and proclaims (despite Ivar’s glowering protestations) that he, Bjorn Ironside, is the leader. But Ragnar was the leader, with no need to peacock and rage. Ivar, taking part in that uniquely gross Norse bathing ritual where everyone shoots snot-rockets into the same bowl, lightly flicks water over his unimpressed visage while Bjorn booms. He knows he won’t win this argument, but he—and to a large extent, we—aren’t impressed with Bjorn’s bullying victory.
That’s an interesting element of “second-rate.” If, as with Vikings itself, the death of Ragnar has left power scattered and diffuse in Kattegat, seeing how—and upon whom—it settles carries its own dramatic interest. First there is the hero’s victory. Then there are those tasked with making sense of the mess. The issue with “Revenge,” as has been the issue since Ragnar’s death in general, is that the much of the mess he’s left feels less by design.
Take the sacrifice that marks the departure of the fleet, and the episode’s midpoint climax. As Lagertha says in preparation, “If our army fails, if they are defeated by the Saxons, our people may never recover.” The usual animal offerings to the gods are deemed insufficient. The first time we saw a human sacrifice on Vikings, it stunned us because we were still getting acclimated to the show’s world, certainly. But more than that, the practice was presented so earthily that its very ordinariness in Norse life made it that much more horrifying and mysterious. Here, with Lagertha kitted out in robes and sparkles (with her theatrical pet owl on her shoulder, no less), there’s not only a sense of repetition, but of artifice. Even down to the model-handsome youth selected for the sacrifice (a far cry from stout ol’ Lief back in season one), and the bafflingly misjudged decision to make the sacrifice a perfect counterpoint for Bjorn and Astrid to continue their illicit affair while Lagertha’s busy with the stabbing, the whole sequence is eye-rollingly silly and contrived in the end. (For those still mocking Munich’s assassination/sex juxtaposition, Bjorn thrusting into Astrid while Lagertha sticks the knife in the hunky sacrifice is your new jam.)
The feeling of diminishing returns continues in the reappearance of the blood eagle (Aelle, RIP), and in the recurrence of the Viking threesome idea. (Ubbe decides he can live with sharing Margrethe with Hvitserk after all.) The first time around on each, there was, again, mystery. (Not coincidentally, there was also Ragnar.) And, to repeat, it’s natural that the first glimpses we got of the show’s conception of the Norse capacity for violence, and for unconventional sexuality, were going to have more impact. But the problem is that the theme of repetition doesn’t have to entail a feeling of dull repetition. Like Bjorn’s speech, all the ominous synths, and crunching ribs, and bedroom negotiations smack of effort.
The episode’s big battle scene is another example. While it’s a canny and dramatically daring choice to skip the battle entirely once the outcome is preordained (cut from Aelle realizing he’s screwed to Aelle being dragged unceremoniously behind a horse in the mud), there’s a prosaic nature to the way it plays out. Aelle, with his cockiness and his respectable number of soldiers, sees a small group of Vikings breast a hill, and sneers, “Not such a great army after all.” Then more Vikings come over the hill. Then a whole lot more come over the hill. It’s a fun scene—for all the moral complexities involved in this conflict, we’re prepared to see that smug look wiped off the supercilious Aelle’s face, and for Ragnar’s sons to get their revenge. (They do, Bjorn performing the Norsemen’s most horrific punishment on the helpless king while Ivar, having crawled through the firelight to stare into his father’s murder’s eyes, is the last face Aelle sees before he expires.) And the buildup to the slaughter is thrilling stuff, with sparse, harsh electric guitars mounting under the gathering screams of the Vikings before they finally charge, the name “Ragnar!” their unified war cry. But here, too, the spectacle comes at the expense of Vikings’ once-reliable sense of ground-level verisimilitude. Aelle’s messenger warned him of the size of the army. The chosen battleground conveniently contains hills of just the right rolling configuration for the punchline to pay off. It’s fun—and skillfully artificial.
- Harald spies the woman whose rejection of his proposal inspired him to try to conquer all of Scandinavia, only to discover she married someone else. As ever, I find Harald’s transparent, inevitable untrustworthiness to be a dull thing, but Peter Franzén does his best work in the scene where confronts the trembling woman, his warring love (so called), heartbreak, and fury making him as pathetically human as we’ve ever seen him. As a portrait of runty male inadequacy, Harald is genuinely frightening here, his halting words and furtive glances at the woman’s body while he holds the ready Halfdan’s knife to her belly deeply disquieting.
- On the other hand, his plotting with Egil about how best to overthrow Kattegat while the army is away is pretty perfunctory stuff.
- On that whole “Viking threesome” front: When Ragnar and Lagertha invited newly-captured monk Athelstan to their bed (he declined), and Floki and Helga did the same with a passing warrior (who happily accepted), the offhand transgressiveness of it was part of why their actions were so fascinating. Here, the episode-long buildup of Hvitserk and Ubbe’s conflict over newly-wed (to Ubbe) Margrethe plays out more like a predictably dull period piece love triangle.
- Speaking of Helga, her glazy obsession with newly adopted (or kidnapped) daughter Tanaruz still makes her a lot less interesting than she has been.
- On the other hand, Floki is still intriguingly processing his experience in the mosque, telling Helga, “I don’t want to be imprecise… It’s a truth. I just don’t know what the truth is.”
- There’s even a damned comet zooming over the sacrifice scene. C’mon.
- Oh, and Lagertha even takes the time after the young sacrifice orgasmically expires to note, along with Helga, that their respective mates are missing.
- Points for Lagertha’s line to the sneaking-in Astrid (“I hope that was enjoyable. Otherwise it was not worth it.”), but I maintain that that whole love triangle plot is not worth it.
- Speaking of love triangles (the episode’s third), Aethelwulf finally has it out with father Ecbert over, among other things, Ecbert sleeping with Judith. Again, why? Although Moe Dunford does make Aethelwulf’s pain in the traditional “Don’t you love me at all, father?” confrontation quite affecting.
- Trust Floki to chill your blood: “I’ve been told your god is a carpenter. And guess what. So am I.”