“I want to be myself. I’m just not sure how to be.”
To be fair to Vikings’ two-part season premiere, it takes fully 20 minutes for someone to bring up Ragnar Lothbrok. The departed king, father, husband, and—most lamented of all—former protagonist of the series is finally called up by Lagertha, which makes sense, as Lagertha is done.
White-maned from age and grief, scarred and limping with wounds that will never truly heal, the former queen, general, and, as son Ubbe claims, legendary shieldmaiden tells her gathered remaining family at an informal family council called by new king Bjorn Ironside, “I have seen enough of war. I have seen enough of death. I have lost so many.” She tells eldest son Bjorn that she supports his new reign, and him, but that she’s out, adding, “I don’t want to be a public person anymore. I don’t want to be responsible.” Instead, the fierce warrior queen intends—as she carries out through both these first episodes—to essentially travel back to her past. Before the fame, and the fortune, and the power—back when she was the wife of a farmer named Ragnar.
Indeed, once Lagertha, Ubbe, and twice-over daughter-in-law Torvi sail upon the quiet riverside plot of land she intends to live out the rest of her days, Ragnar is all that is on her mind. In a device that wouldn’t be nearly as effective without its cuts of Katheryn Winnick’s face as Lagertha remembers, she thinks only of her life before—of long-dead daughter Gyda, and young Bjorn (nice to see you again, Ruby O’Leary and Nathan O’Toole), and of Ragnar Lothbrok. Burying her sword in the earth of her new home, Lagertha the shieldmaiden queen, prays solemnly, “As the sun sets and in the sight of the gods I swear I will fight no more forever.”
But, as we see in the penultimate shot of “The Prophet,” the second episode making up this season-six premiere, the past isn’t so easily dispensed with. (That the show apparently intends to have the face-branded Ivar loyalists exiled by King Bjorn in the opening installment menace the halting and sword-less—not to say helpless—Lagertha is a genuine bummer in the making.) For a period epic like Vikings, blending as it does historical record and interpersonal drama, that’s as it should be. Kattegat would be very different (as would the world) if Ragnar Lothbrok hadn’t taken it over, the effects of his visionary plans and oversized persona still rippling out from Scandinavia all the way, in this sixth season, to Russia and beyond. The problem is, as it’s been since Ragnar’s death, Vikings’ inability to truly move beyond his memory, both in storytelling, and in characterization. Lagertha, when grandson Hali asks if she won’t be lonely in her new, isolated life, smilingly responds that she will be surrounded by “Ragnar, and a lot of other friendly ghosts.” But chasing the ghost of Ragnar—both in-world and on-screen—is an unwise and unprofitable decision, especially should you wish to still have meaning in what you do.
As relentless time and history march past, the heirs to Ragnar’s legacy whittle down. Hvitserk is a pale, tortured shadow, the memory of both his betrayal of his brothers with Ivar and the death of lover Thora at the wrathful Ivar’s hand once he’d repented leaving the youngest son of Ragnar a sulking wreck. At the trial of those Ivar loyalists, Hvitserk’s fury at men who carried out Ivar’s mad wishes to the end rings with guilt, and overcompensation. “He’s a drunk,” summarily dismisses brother Ubbe later, upon hearing Bjorn’s quickly rethought intention to leave Hvitserk in charge of Kattegat’s defenses. Ubbe himself remains the most colorless brother, shruggingly assenting to others’ plans with well-meaning predictability. There’s a plot introduced about him wanting to sail in quest of a long-rumored uninhabited paradise that just comes out of nowhere, and is abandoned immediately upon Bjorn asking him to. Sigurd is long dead, and no one seems to remember him.
That leaves our potential series protagonists as Bjorn and Ivar, especially with the intended withdrawal of Lagertha to a life of farming and sad memories. It’s an interesting idea that the legacy of Ragnar Lothbrok would be splintered among several, necessarily lesser heirs. Yes, Travis Fimmel was that good, but more than that, Vikings began as the tale of a singular man whose foresight placed him at (and as) a civilization’s turning point. Ragnar, the farmer turned adventurer turned king, wrote with his deeds the story of a branch of humanity taking an irreversible leap into its future. Now the future is here, and, like so many eras after the death of a great person, there’s a new story to be written. That it necessarily doesn’t have a lone, charismatic figure at its center is, once more, an intriguing narrative challenge. The problem has been that Vikings’ creator Michael Hirst seems as flummoxed at the task as do his characters.
Bjorn’s conflict (apart from yet another budding love triangle, this time with newest wife and queen Gunnhild and a saucy servant girl named Ingrid) is pared down in this opening pair of episodes to one tough decision and a whole lot of talking. At first, Bjorn’s task is simply stated: Ivar’s reign of xenophobia, paranoia, pretensions to godhood, and iron-fisted authoritarianism are to be replaced by Bjorn’s stated goal to make Kattegat “the most successful trading station in the land.” I like Alexander Ludwig’s towering Bjorn. He’s got his father’s curiosity of spirit and adventure, but not Ragnar’s imagination or charisma. Coupled with the bearlike prowess of possible biological father Rollo, it gives Ludwig a tricky line to walk, as Bjorn’s good intentions constantly war with his lumbering will, all while his father’s shadow forever dims his fame. Here, when a pair of messengers from the imprisoned King Harald attempt to browbeat Bjorn into coming to his sometime ally’s assistance, Ludwig circles them with a glowering, head-cocked menace that wordlessly makes them shift their gaze, and their tactics.
It’s a good moment for Bjorn because it’s a moment when Vikings remembers that its characters are less interesting the more they just explain what’s going on in their heads. Bjorn, especially, is ill-suited to speechifying, his would-be rousing address to his assembled Kattegat subjects clanging with prosaic exposition and too-wordy phrasing. (Also, that Hirst is swinging hard at the Ivar = Trump metaphor begun with Ivar’s last season rise remains obtrusively on-the-nose, right down to, here, Bjorn decrying Ivar’s hatred of “foreigners” extending to having built a big old wall around the kingdom.) Better are those moments when we see him relieved at shucking off the weight of responsibility, as when, visiting his mother’s near-completed farmstead, he strides toward his young children bellowing welcome and being the big, endearing lug he’d be much more comfortable as.
But Bjorn is the king, and Ragnar’s truest son. And there’s a touching sense of just how well he’d do in both roles if the world were meant to be ruled by big lugs with good intentions. His decision to strip the lands and rights from those face-branded Ivar warriors instead of killing them is his attempt to show his people that Ivar’s murderous days are over, but the brutality of turning these able-bodied, resentful men into living “ghosts” without hope of reentering society is doomed to come back and bite him. (Or, as we see, unfortunately, Lagertha.) His desire to turn Kattegat back from fortified, authoritarian torture-kingdom into the lively, open center for trade, commerce, and ideas that it was on the way to becoming is immediately stymied by those messengers, who guilt Bjorn into honoring a debt with the shifty, runty, kidnapping Harald. (Remember Astrid?) Bjorn eventually assents in order, as he tells his mother, to show that he is his own man, and his own leader. Harald’s not worthy of loyalty, but Bjorn gave it when Harald supported him against Ivar at one point, so Bjorn will go to war with his former ally, King Olaf, who’s holding Harald prisoner. His grand plans for restoring Kattegat will have to wait.
Again, I appreciate that Bjorn Ironside is not Ragnar Lothbrok, who invariably had plans within plans, based on a finer understanding of the world than Bjorn will ever possess. And it’s appropriately conflicted in Ludwig’s performance when, to Gunnhild, he proclaims, “I am not his son any longer. I am your husband, a father, and I am a king.” Those facts are all unquestioned, but that doesn’t change the fact that Bjorn is Bjorn, and the world is meant to be met and mastered by Ragnars.
And Ivars, of course, as history—past and definitely present—has taught us that amoral, egomaniacal, damaged sociopaths with power will have their day. There were once hints that Ivar was a more complex animal than he’s become, although that childhood incident with the hatchet winding up in a playmate’s skull suggested that the conception of Ivar the Boneless was always more bad seed than antiheroic character study. And there’s some glimmer of dramatic possibility here as, in the first scenes of this season after his defeat, we see the humbled and bedraggled Ivar wheeling in his tiny cart along the Silk Road. Greeting multicolored spices, and people, with genuine delight in his eyes made it seem as if Ivar’s retreat would be one of at least marginal self-discovery. (Alex Høgh playing in wonder with a friendly parrot? C’mon.)
But Ivar soon finds himself an enabler for his worst impulses once again, this time in the form of Vikings’ new Big Bad, Prince Oleg, a.k.a. The Prophet. Played by Russian actor Danila Kozlovsky (Vampire Academy, anyone?), this prince of the Rus people is at once a doozy of a villain, and a bad sign for anyone assuming that Ivar’s story was going to become something more interesting than mere villainy. There’s a delightfully wicked sensibility at play in Hirst turning this historical conqueror into a frighteningly accurate representation of modern toxic masculine bro culture, as Oleg—taking in the helpless Ivar out of curiosity and immediately recognized kinship of spirit—explains just why thew world owes him everything.
Høgh’s Ivar, too, can be an entertaining, if too-often one-dimensional rotter, but even he’s taken aback by Oleg. Greeted by the sight of Oleg having dispatched a prisoner with an ornate, bloody axe, Ivar is thrust face-down into the gory mess, only to insouciantly toss his useless legs in front of him in the viscera and explain his situation. The intrigued Oleg responds to the rumors of Ivar the Boneless’ exploits, and his guest’s tale of betrayal by those he loves by showing Ivar the crypt of his dead young wife—who, Oleg explains tearfully, he murdered upon discovering her infidelity. Not only that, but Oleg’s self-exonerating narrative of justifiable murderous rage extends to having puppeteers act out his story, as he and the bemused Ivar watch, Oleg’s eyes overflowing with tortured self-pity at what an unfaithful woman made him do. And that’s all before we get to the snow-balloon-sledding.
I don’t know what else to call it, really, except for perhaps 10th century extreme bro-ing out, as Oleg, taunting Ivar over his still-maintained claims of godhood, straps the both of them into harnesses on a sledge and has them launched into the skies by an ahistorical hot-air balloon. One might ask what the hell Vikings is doing here, and I did. But, as Ivar turns the bonding bros soon-perilous airborne adventure into a test of his supposed godly powers, the sight of two simpatico would-be world conquerors giggling in relieved triumph once their improbable contraption finally drops them safely onto the tundra is at least an entertaining method of conveying that this season of Vikings will be less about introspection and more about two hammy loons stirring up shit. Later on, Oleg poisons one brother in order to kidnap the little kid ward (Oran Glynn O’Donovan’s Igor) who’s in line to be king, and kidnaps the new child-bride of another brother in order to secure his free passage on the fratricide charge so that he and Ivar can go and plunder Kattegat. So, the bromance is really on.
The historical Oleg (as much as we can determine) was a real conqueror (he took Constantinople), whose claim to Viking heritage means that he and Ivar can bond in Old Norse as they hype up each others’ simmering resentments. Seeing in Ivar a brother in wounded pride, the pair hatch a plan to “retake” Oleg’s alleged ancestral lands together. In their shared atavistic drives as well as their similarly dodgy claims to supernatural powers (Ivar the god, Oleg the fortune-teller), theirs is a match made in gimlet-eyed, larger-than-life bro-douchebag heaven. Which, again, fun. But for a show struggling to recapture the sense of sweep and character it initially promised, Ivar’s new pal is leading him, and us, down a well-trod path to the same bloodied ground.
- The fourth major character left to Vikings never appears in these two episodes. (Apart from the pre-premiere clip show special “The Saga Of Floki.”) Floki’s uncertain fate after the catastrophic and bitterly ironic end of his quest to reestablish a pure Norse culture is signaled by the arrival in Kattegat of former acolyte Kjetill Flatnose (welcome back, Adam “The Edge” Copeland)—in Floki’s boat. Telling tales of Floki abandoning his colony in disillusionment and seeking settlers for this new place he calls Iceland (apart from the winter, “the weather’s fine,” he tells Ubbe), the formerly loyal Kjetill is roped into joining the skeptical Bjorn’s attack on King Olaf, since nobody is buying his story.
- There’s a lot riding on Floki’s eventual return, frankly. Just as Ragnar’s vision of expanding the world fractured into the internecine squabbles of his heirs, Floki’s backward-looking quest to reclaim what he imagined the Norse had lost sputtered in the dying fires of his doomed encampment. Seeing what the heretofore zealous Floki’s shattered faith will mean for his fanatical dreams of Viking purity promises at least to give Gustaf Skarsgård plenty to work with.
- Along with a small band of mercenaries, Ivar’s only remaining follower (and believer in Ivar’s divinity) finds out just what happens when you get in between two power-mad men—your arms ripped off your tortured body by ropes and pulleys.
- Kozlovsky’s Oleg dances in abandon as his poisoned brother agonizingly spasms to death. You’ve got to have fun with it.
- Dear gods, I thought we were done with John Kavanagh’s Seer once Ivar had him murdered. But “The Prophet” finds an even sillier way to incorporate his simultaneously vague and spot-on oracular predictions by having Bjorn communing with his spirit, Obi-Wan style. “I will say only this: Whatever you decide, do not betray your own gods in the process.” Thanks, Seer. We’ll enjoy watching that play out in lockstep predictability over the rest of the season.
- When Oleg walks Ivar out to see the result of his betrayal of his brother, the bodies of the brother’s dead men in the snow are filmed to look like a flat mosaic of red and white.
- And we’re back for the A.V. Club’s review coverage of Vikings season six. As ever, I’ll be your guide, so, for old time’s sake, SHIELD WALL!