“We never really change. We just think that we do.”
(Oh, Spoilers ahoy.)
Of the two major deaths in “All At Sea,” only one registers at all. Both of the departed have been what passes for main characters in this final season, and their very different passings should be equivalently momentous. But they’re not, thanks to the fact that one relies on a last-minute complete character switch, and the other belongs to someone whose constancy was never coupled to much more of a characterization than that.
Still, Gunnhild’s self-sacrifice in the harbor of Kattegat is at least a striking end for a woman whose far-sighted loyalty to her husband and her principles never wavered. Emerging belatedly at the end of the dock where the preening Harald and the resolute Ingrid await her part in their joint wedding, Gunnhild is resplendent in a flowing white, robe-like dress, her smile in approach the untroubled countenance of someone whose mind is clear, and resolute. Waving off the ceremonial blood from the face-painted holy men, she speaks clearly and calmly, telling Harald she considers herself still Bjorn’s wife, and that she’s going to see him in Valhalla.
And then she disrobes and dives into the sea. It’s lovely, really, the shieldmaiden’s strong strokes powering her with impressive but unhurried speed away from where the poleaxed Harald and the deeply conflicted Ingrid only watch. (Erik is there, too, held back by Harald, but who cares, honestly?) After she’s swum far enough away from Kattegat, she takes a long few moments to luxuriate her naked body in the pale sunlight, and then sinks out of sight.
There’s a lot to unpack in Gunnhild’s act, how it comments upon the fading legacy of female power in Norse society after Lagertha’s death, and the relative merits of suicide on your own terms rather than life under the world’s restrictive and humiliating ones. But, for Gunnhild (and here’s to Ragga Ragnars), there’s a grace in resignation. Apart from hijacking Harald’s big day, there’s no bitterness or vindictiveness toward the little creep who’s made her life hell for so long. And her talk last episode with the more survival-minded Ingrid will no doubt cause the new Queen of Kattegat a great deal of sadness, and shame. But, for the mighty Gunnhild, Bjorn was the king, and life a step down from the life she shared as his partner is not worth dishonoring. If there’s a bigger compliment I can pay than that this felt like a character beat from the first few seasons, then, well, there isn’t, really. It partakes of the same ambiguity and alienness that leant earlier characters so much weight. We are still clued in more than we should be, dramatically, to Gunnhild’s thoughts. (She pretty much just tells us.) But the sequence plays out in stillness and in something like wonder. It’s lovely.
On the other hand, Oleg’s dead. Danila Kozlovsky’s a fine actor, and his eventual religious breakdown is nicely played, even if it makes no bloody sense. All along, Vikings has presented Oleg as either a Christian zealot or an opportunistic sadist, without ever committing enough to either to make this final fall impactful. (Fall? Impactful? He goes over a balcony, people.) After Dir’s preparation to storm Kiev look to be in trouble (shady mercenaries, foggy marching, a suspiciously abandoned city), a lone solder emerges, holds out his sword, and tells the exiles prince that the city is his and Igor’s, and that everyone’s really happy about it. We don’t see Oleg until, with soldiers and citizens alike quaffing and dancing in the streets outside, we’re treated to a teary-eyed Oleg staring at a picture of the crucifixion, visualizing himself as the crucified Christ, and then emerging onto that balcony to preach about love and forgiveness.
We’re left to imagine how Oleg’s hold on the city fell, which could work, I suppose, if we knew anything about the workings of the Rus. Or, you know, if this entire Rus excursion hadn’t been even less impactful to the main story than first imagined. Does Oleg’s beneficence in defeat signal a genuine religious awakening in the self-styled Prophet? Has he gone mad? Is it a ploy to save his own skin? As Ivar breaks the crowd’s stunned silence by handing a bow to Igor and telling him to strike his uncle down, we simply don’t know. And, much more damagingly to this Rus interlude (which took up fully half the season), we’re not really invested enough to find out. Igor fires (the kid’s racking up an impressive body count of helpless opponents), after Ivar tells his de facto ward, “Don’t be a cripple any more.”” Oleg, pierced by an impressive shot from his young nephew, cried, “No, Igor, not you!” before he plummets to the ground, a single tear dropping to the dust from his still face.
Again, this is the stuff of high drama if we’re conditioned to care about a single thing that’s happening. Instead, Ivar and Hvitserk, wryly restating their prophetic understanding that they must stay together until one kills the other, ride off, Ivar’s smirking head-cock at Hvitserk’s query about destination signaling their return to Scandinavia. Alex Høgh reclaims a little of his old swagger with the gesture, but it’s after an episode of Ivar The Boneless cavorting playfully with the little sad boy he’s bonded with and petulantly reacting to Katia’s patient explanation that she was using his delusions about her being Freydis to topple Oleg, and being a-goggle at the news that she’s carrying his child. Those are Ivar’s words leading off this review, in response to Hvitserk’s claim that Ivar has changed. In a flashback upon Ivar’s departure, we see Igor tackling Ivar and the pair wrestling affectionately, and Ivar telling the boy all the things a loving mentor would. (It’s especially sweet the way Ivar chuckles when referring to the future leader standing on his own two feet.)
But with this entire Rus storyline apparently just a closed-off narrative ecosystem, what are we to make of this Ivar? Going back to Kattegat is at least going to bring all the actual remaining (land-based) vikings back together for the last five episodes, but is the softening of Ivar The Boneless toward a little Rus king a motivating factor enough to see him as anything more than the would-be conqueror who spent his winter vacation among the Rus? What, truly has he learned, or we about him? It’s frustrating, and Alex Høgh’s gifts for steely villainy look a lot more relevant to the show’s ending than any sort of genuine character growth or change.
As for the at-sea of “All At Sea,” Kjetill’s maniacal rebellion didn’t take long, huh? That damned whale sees Kjetill Flatnose and family hurriedly building fences to keep the precious natural bounty to himself, leading to a bloody revolt by his former friends. In the end, Ubbe’s wounded, Othere shows he knows how to fight, Torvi reveals that shieldmaidens can fight while cradling their infants, and Kjetill’s son lies dead, along with a dozen or so Norse. Ubbe, confusingly, calls for a mass retreat to one of the settlers’ two boats (it’s just Kjetill, you guys—there’s, like, 20 of you), while Kjetill, astride his whale, bellows, “Look at me! I am King of Greenland!” Bye, it seems, to Adam Copeland. I thought Copeland did a good enough job, especially when the massive warrior was allowed to seem more conflicted, reformed bruiser than wild-eyed, ranting villain. And what to make of Kjetill’s one-episode-back confession of regret and contrition to his wife? Poor, dumb Kjetill Flatnose, King of Greenland.
On their unprovided ship, Ubbe tends his side-wound while Torvi points out, not unreasonably, that without food, water, or the navigating sunstone, their bedraggled band isn’t going to last long. Ray Stevenson’s Othere, after finally getting to show off some of his usual imposing physicality in the whale-battle, reveals that he’d been a viking bodyguard of the Emperor at Byzantium, and had, as he’d said, taken his name and identity from a dead viking, as he’s really a monk named Athelstan. Again, I could be into this intriguing web of half-truths and mysterious echoes if Othere’s role had been better fleshed out. Here, he quotes some well-known bible verses, a happy storm blows up, and everyone whips out the buckets to catch the rain. Ubbe’s story, too, seemingly destined for the Golden Land after all (I’m betting on North America), although, as for most of this season’s developments, “All At Sea” seems far too apt.
- Now that the poor guy’s dead, Kjetill’s son Frodi reminded me of nobody more than a Norse McLovin.
- As one final farewell to Gunnhild, here’s to Ragga Ragnars incredulous delivery of “What?!” to the dull Erik’s proposal that they start hooking up again after her marriage.
- Oh, Erik was a slaver, as we know. (But the “bad kind,” as Harald keeps reminding the former skogarmmaor, as Harald taunts him.) But now it’s revealed, through a brand on the back of the disgusted Ingrid’s neck, that he once sold the former servant girl as well. This does not make Erik any more interesting.
- Othere tells Ubbe he’s sure Kjetill killed Floki. He didn’t, as we know, and here’s to Othere’s invocation of his name bringing him back before too long.
- Igor continues to get saddled with mouthfuls of howlingly bad therapy-speak. Objecting to Ivar’s suggestion that he kill Oleg, the lad intones, “Perhaps, in his own way, he does love me.”
- The length of Oleg’s funeral rites reveals just how more Vikings thinks we’re invested in the Rus than we actually are.