For all its considerable virtues, Vikings’ main strength has been its ability to convey otherness. Period dramas all aspire to that, but most often the inability to populate their worlds with characters whose sensibilities convincingly appear to spring from a time and place alien to ours means they play out like soaps in fancy dress. At its best, Vikings has succeeded in portraying a world whose ideas and values are coming from a culture both fully realized and uniquely its own. In its best episodes (season one’s “Sacrifice” comes to mind), there’s a mesmeric power in watching these characters make choices whose logic makes complete sense even as they are coming from places which do not.
Conversely, the show has been at its weakest when its characters have been given to explain themselves. Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar Lothbrok has presence in direct proportion to how enigmatic his actions appear, a fact that holds true with the show as a whole. The Vikings of Vikings have a baseline of recognizable human virtues—they love and hate, possess loyalties and jealousies—but they have more integrity as characters the more couched those drives are in less recognizable motives. That’s a difficult balance to maintain, and “Mercenary,” the season three premiere, can’t find it, establishing the new season’s plotlines with a lot of distressingly dull dialogue and overly familiar conflicts.
After defeating the treacherous King Horik in last season’s finale, Ragnar is now king, preparing to sail back to England to take up King Ecbert’s offer of farmland in exchange for the Norsemen not slaughtering his soldiers quite so often. Meanwhile, Lagertha’s reign as Earl Ingstad is strong, as she plans to join the journey to Wessex with Ragnar and confides in new advisor Kalf (Ben Robson), who warns her of a coming insurrection from the kin of her deceased, worthless former husband. Ragnar’s strapping son Bjorn has knocked up his wife, the former slave girl Porunn, but can’t prevent her (now a shieldmaiden) from accompanying him on the voyage to Wessex. Floki and Rollo (and the drunken and fertile Torstein) are itching to go as well, at least partly in order to flee their various woman troubles. Over in Wessex, Linus Roache’s King Ecbert has plans for Ragnar and his people to take up for the deposed Princess Kewnthrith (Amy Bailey) in her quest to regain the throne of neighboring Mercia, while Ecbert’s supercilious son Aethelwulf (Moe Dunford) joins the attack on Mercia. Oh, and Aethelwulf’s wife is drawn to former monk Athelstan, which appears to be setting up a love triangle of some sort.
That’s a lot of plot, which isn’t unnatural for a season premiere, but another Vikings virtue has been a gratifying storytelling briskness, something not in evidence here. The manner in which the show would let its storytelling filter through seemingly isolated episodes without needing to spell out each intervening plot point has been one of its most refreshing devices. As a viewer, the way that Vikings trusts me to catch up is often challenging, and adds to the propulsive drive present in much of the show. Here, all of the elements are introduced in a much more straightforward manner, which might be less of a red flag if the dialogue weren’t so often perfunctory.
Ragnar comes through best, with Fimmel continuing to layer his performance with sly smiles that suggest the unspoken thoughts underneath. (Even as king, Ragnar, in Ecbert’s camp and sailing to battle with Kwenthrith, has the same physicality, slouching watchfully, his pale eyes sparking with knowing mischief.) But, in his conversation with Alyssa Sutherland’s Auslag about their crippled son Ivar, there’s the creep of the prosaic.
“Do you care?”
“Yes I care.”
“Do you love him?”
“Of course I love him.”
“Do you love me?”
[Unreadable stare—cut to commercial]
In the episode “Boneless,” the scene where Ragnar chose not to expose the unfortunate newborn Ivan to the elements said all of that—and said it without saying it so baldly. (Fimmel’s never been better.) Here, it’s like the episode (written by creator Michael Hirst) is looping back to let us catch up with what’s already been internalized.
Lagertha’s story continues on its intriguing parallel path, although the introduction of Kalf’s perfidy (he’s only pretending to be cool with a woman leader) would be more interesting if, well, it were more interesting. (It also doesn’t help that I don’t believe Ben Robson in the role at all. Most of the Vikings cast might be accused of inappropriate attractiveness for the time, but Kalf looks like a lightly-bearded Jason Ritter, and Robson’s performance doesn’t add much weight to the impression.) King Ecbert’s apparent infatuation with Lagertha, as she leads the Viking settlers to their promised farmland, is understandable, with Roache’s attentions—as untrustworthy as Ecbert remains—coming across as genuine admiration. Lagertha could have faded into the background once Ragnar chose Aslaug, but Katheryn Winnick keeps resisting the idea that being uncoupled from Ragnar means she’s less formidable.
The role of women in the Vikings world has been a slippery one, with Lagertha’s all-around awesomeness sometimes, in spite of Winnick’s performance, coming across as overly idealized. At the same time, the show has done some thoughtful examination of how Viking women (and the unfortunate non-Viking women the Viking men encounter) fit into their time and place. Unfortunately, “Mercenary,” while continuing in bringing Lagertha and now Porunn to the fore, sees the main male characters engaging in some particularly lazy sexual stereotyping. Floki’s meltdown at his happy marriage to the game Helga might be chalked up to Floki being Floki (and Gustaf Skarsgård’s performance, as ever, traffics in the sort of Shakespearean wise foolery that makes for riveting viewing). But there’s a theme of him, Rollo, Bjorn, and Torstein basically sitting around and sighing, “Women, am I right?” that’s puzzling—they all can’t wait to go off raiding to get away from their women, a Hagar The Horrible vibe that the show hasn’t indulged in before. That being said, the growing kinship between Floki and Clive Standen’s Rollo is promising, with their alternating recitation of some Viking wisdom chiming together like mournful poetry:
A creaking bow, a burning flame, tide on the ebb, new ice, a coiled snake, sons of a king, a witches flattery, an ailing cough. No man should be such a fool as to trust these things. No man should trust the word of a woman.
(Plus, there’s a lovely little moment where, after Floki says, “The hearts of women were turned on a whirling wheel,” where they both make the same whirling motion with their fingers—their relationship’s come a long way since Rollo essentially crippled Floki for a full year.)
Another Vikings’ strength has been its battle sequences, which have routinely combined clear, brutal action with character-based, on-the-fly storytelling. The climactic battle here, with Ragnar’s people attacking the massed forces of Princess Kwenthrith’s uncle and brother, isn’t up to that standard, sadly. The central conceit of the sequence—that the uncle and brother’s armies have set up on two, unsupportable sides of a bay—robs the scene of its suspense. I suppose two commanders could be that stupid, but here it just diminishes the stakes, and Ragnar’s leadership. The fight scene itself engages in the sort of “Vikings are gonna win because they’re Vikings” perfunctoriness that the show generally avoids—in previous encounters where the outnumbered Viking invaders faced overwhelming odds, their strategy in overcoming them made sense and told a story. Here, the Vikings just wade into the amassed soldiers and scatter them like chickens—as energetic as the filmmaking is at times, it makes the outcome preordained, and robs it of any danger. (Plus, there’s little sense of place—Kwenthrith and her brother keep reacting to events on the battlefield which, from the establishing shots, they couldn’t possibly discern.)
Last season started out on a similarly worrisome note as well, and eventually righted itself for the most part, so there’s, again, the possibility that Vikings is just stumbling out of the gate under the weight of all the pin-setting necessary. Having been with this series from its beginning, I’ve been continually surprised by its ability to overcome dramatic obstacles and low expectations. This series has a lot going for it—it’s all up to Hirst now to find the right balance once again.
- Gustaf Skarsgård’s Floki remains one of the most intriguing and entertaining characters on television, his madness matched only by the intensity with which he sees things clearly. And while his tantrum about Helga being too reasonable, and his marriage too happy plays as too ordinary an outburst for Floki (especially how it fits in with the episode’s lazy misogyny club of him, Rollo, Bjorn, and Torstein), Skarsgård is always magnetic. Case in point, after he kills Kwenthrith’s self-proclaimed king uncle:
- After Ragnar mocks Rollo’s tale of waiting in the reeds for the love of his life (“And what did you get from sitting in the reeds but a wet ass?”), Floki’s response is another example: “I say let no man mock another over what touches many men.”
- Clive Standen’s performance as Rollo continues to find a soulful note, even as his character remains so changeable. Now, he’s the loyal brother (“If my brother goes, then so do I”), and thoughtful friend to Floki (until it’s time for him to kick ass, which he continues to do quite well).
- If that’s the beginning of a love triangle—or any sort of triangle—among Athelstan, Aethelwulf, and the princess, then that’s not promising. Aethelwulf’s bland condemnation of the “pagans” is already growing tiresome.
- Viikings’ position with regards to mysticism remains cagy, with John Kavanagh’s Seer opening the episode by delivering unto Lagertha a prophecy which appears intended to serve as a raw outline for the season: “I see a harvest celebrated in blood, I see a trickster whose weapon cleaves you, I see a city made of marble, and a burning, broiling ocean.” When the Seer continues, “It is the way of prophecy only to be understood when it has happened, and it is too late to change it,” it serves both to excuse his vagueness to the irritated Lagertha, and to worry a reviewer that such a plan for the season will be executed as well as it has in the past.
- Ragnar’s chief nod to his wonted enigmatic motivations comes at the start, telling the eager Bjorn, “Power is always dangerous. It attracts the worst and corrupts the best. I never asked for power. Power is only given to those who are prepared to lower themselves to pick it up.”
- Alexander Ludwig’s Bjorn seems poised on the cusp of a dark side/light side dilemma, if his Annakin Skywalker robe and his wild eyes in the opening scene with his father are any indication.
- And speaking of that opening scene—Vikings has done exceptional work in utilizing its predominately Irish locations to sub in for ancient Scandinavia. The Game Of Thrones-esque CGI sweep at the start of the scene is distracting.
- Welcome back for another season of Vikings, everyone. My name is Dennis, and I’ll be your reviewer. On to the comments—SHIELD WALL!