“The Lost Moment” begins right where “A New God” left us, with the self-anointed god Ivar ranting about his divinity and promising his people (and fellow gods) a sacrifice. The tease was that it would be Hvitserk, ever sulking and drunkenly puncturing his younger brother’s pretensions toward godhood (and impossible fatherhood). Ivar gave his brother the scary Ivar smile, and Hvitserk was nowhere to be seen when the hooded figure of Ivar’s intended victim was paraded in chains in front of his terrified people.
It’s not Hvitserk, as it turns out, but a blonde woman who sort of but not really looks like Lagertha that Ivar tries to pass off as “the witch” who killed his mother. Hvitserk is safe to grumble from afar, where he’s comforted by a new love interest to replace the mercifully at-peace Margrethe as he wonders, in post-coital reverie, what the gods have in store for him. As with everything that happens under the rule of an amoral, truth-averse, hair-trigger impulsive leader, the intended majesty of Ivar’s grand gesture is undermined by poor planning and the mistaken belief in his own infallibility. Sure, it’s dark, and there aren’t high-def cameras in the ninth century, but Ivar is left essentially shouting “fake news” when one of Lagertha’s shieldmaidens loudly denounces the sacrifice as a sham while being manhandled out of earshot by Ivar’s men. Later we see how ineffective Ivar’s ruse has been when a trio of rebellious conspirators are brought before him, one of them spitting Ivar’s untrustworthy offer of mercy back in the supposed god’s face. “The Lost Moment,” right until it’s gory final moment, is an effectively frightening portrait of a society in the hands of a madman whose only recourse is to brazen out every half-believed grandiosity emerging from his bottomless well of need and lunacy.
If the rest of “The Lost Moment” can’t match the at-least compelling spectacle of Kattegat’s descent into chaos, the episode does pepper its various, consistently underwhelming storylines with moments recalling what the show has done so well in the past. Floki’s cultural dead-end finally turns a corner by turning perpetually scheming and glowering Eyvind and his deeply uninteresting clan out into the freezing rain. Apart from a welcome good riddance to a miserable malcontent whose petty machinations sapped the “Land of the Gods” storyline from the start, Eyvind’s expulsion (along with what looks like a dozen of the settlement’s meager inhabitants) is accompanied by some of the finest and most compelling Floki moments we’ve had in ages. And all it took was the death of poor, pregnant Thorunn.
Missing at the conclusion of “A New God,” the Juliet of the settlement’s internecine hostility still can’t be found, leading to the understandable, furious suspicions of Eyvind’s son, Helgi. (The wan, excitable Romeo.) With Helgi’s mother hinting that Thorunn had told her about her intention to kill herself and/or the child, Helgi rages in disbelief—while Floki is visited by Thorunn as he sits meditatively by a lonely fire in the pouring rain. Dressed in white and carrying a dismaying looking bundle, Thorunn placidly tells Floki the tale of how she was lured to a waterfall by Helgi’s disapproving brother, murdered with a rock, and buried in a shallow grave. Floki quietly asks her questions along the way, until she turns and we see what Floki has been seeing all the while—the ragged hole where the side of the poor girl’s head has been caved in.
Floki the mystic, the seer of visions, the single-minded conduit to the gods—we’d lost him for a long time. His pilgrimage to what his last great vision assured him was the gods’ commandment to create a pure Norse society in this barren wasteland has seen the character rendered ineffectual and vague as his ill-defined plans crumble around him. But here, Vikings taps back into the queasy glory that is Floki’s fanaticism, as his stillness in the face of what he recognizes as the gods’ message about Thorunn’s murder floods Gustaf Skarsgård’s face with glimmers of old certainty, and horror. The gods have spoken to Floki again, and Vikings is the better for it.
That Floki is right in his surmise about Thorunn’s fate (even the location of her grave) walks the line Vikings has always walked between lending credence to the supernatural and not. The show is weakened when that balance swings unequivocally into the former (as when Ragnar’s dying imprecation is heard, verbatim, across the sea by his sons), but here, I’ll allow it. The settlement is small, the waterfall is a central feature, Eyvind’s family is a bunch of sneering snakes, and Floki has certainly done enough watchful ruminating during his time among his followers that a little exceptional insight remains at least plausible. But it’s in Skarsgård’s reclamation of Floki’s otherworldly glint and glimmer that the episode is most heartening. Facing down the infuriated and cornered Eyvind once the banishment has been pronounced, Floki tells the murderous man, “You can’t kill me, Eyvind, no matter how hard you try.” Eyvind, the blade of his axe at the unreisting Floki’s neck, lowers his weapon, and leads his doomed and bedraggled family away into the wastes.
Back in Wessex, things are rockier. (Metaphorically—Floki-land is all hard, black volcanic stone.) The big storylines there—Harald’s invasion, Aethelred’s plot against his brother the king, Magnus’ need to be accepted as a son of Ragnar, the limp romance of Lagertha and Heahmund—all trudge on without much variation. Harald still has a mad on for Lagertha over the death of Astrid, while he puts the moves on the strapping wife of new ally Jarl Olafsson. Lagertha visits Heahmund in his suitably brooding and shadowy bedchamber, where the sinful Bishop growls to her, “I would go to hell for you, Lagertha.” Alfred asks (under pain of death) for his Norse allies to reaffirm their promise to help him repel their countrymen—and asks newly-Christian Ubbe for some fighting lessons. And Magnus’ single-minded obsessions—to be embraced by his supposed Viking family and to sway them into betraying Alfred—run up against a split-vote from the Lothbrok clan.
I haven’t been shy about expressing that the Wessex intrigues are a major dramatic miscalculation from creator Michael Hirst. None of the new characters there are strong enough to carry their side of the story (even once-interesting Judith has receded into stock manipulator), and, what’s more damaging, the series continues to underestimate how damaging it is to Vikings’ raison d’etre that the show is increasingly being told from an outside point of view. There are a few baby steps forward this week. For one thing, Alfred gets a battle-ready haircut, chopping off his flowing locks in favor of a short cut and mustache-sideburns-soulpatch combo that makes the pale king look like a more engaging cross between a young Jemaine Clement and Oberyn Martell. Plus, his martial lessons from the willing Ubbe consist of him, wide-eyed, dodging axes thrown at his head, which is pretty entertaining.
But the biggest conflicts in Wessex this week both fizzle. It turns out Athered was, indeed, plotting to overthrow Alfred on behalf of a cabal of nobles and clergy, just as Heahmund suspected. But their “lock everyone in a room and stab” plan comes to nothing when, essentially, Aethelred chickens out, one pre-meeting hug and “I love you, brother” from Alfred apparently all it takes to reassert his loyalty. Plus, it must be said that Darren Cahill’s Aethelred isn’t the strongest character or performance, Cahill signaling Aethelred’s tormented conscience through an unending series of facial tics and clenched jaws.
More interesting should be the Lothbrok clan’s warring loyalties with Harald approaching and Alfred’s noncommittal references to the lands they are supposedly due to receive providing ample ammunition for conflict. Throwing the match of Magnus’ overeager provocations doesn’t help, unfortunately, as we are left with Ubbe, Lagertha, and Bjorn squabbling as to whether Magnus is telling the truth about his parentage. To be fair, there’s some question—both Ubbe and Lagertha make mention of the “Kwenthrith peeing on Ragnar’s wounds” tale as the only intimate encounter we ever saw between the two. But that shouldn’t be the crux of the conflict here. As Bjorn chooses to believe Magnus and Ubbe and Lagertha do not (Torvi is left wordlessly unremarked in the background), we’re left wondering at yet another poor dramatic choice that only serves to enervate characters already weakened after Ragnar’s death.
- And that’s a series wrap on John Kavanagh’s Kattegat oracle and storytelling crutch, the Seer. As the dispenser of predictions predictably vague and yet invariably on the nose, the Seer has functioned as Hirst’s foreshadowing machine, an occasional prod to storylines that were better left to develop free from visions that smacked less of godly insight than authorial contrivance. Here—refusing to go along with the “Ivar the god” message in favor of predictions of “filth,” “garbage,” traitorous eyes, and “a snake circled in your skull”—the Seer is dispatched with the gory, gratuitous shock of Ivar’s axe-blow to the face. For a character that served to make mushy a milieu that thrived on specificity, it’s not an exit I’ll weep over, even if his parting visions (including one to Hvitserk about a price he’ll find too great to pay, and flashes of a body on fire) no doubt will continue to inform the story going forward.
- Alexander Ludwig’s Bjorn continues to recall his illustrious dad, at least in flashes. Here, he answers Alfred’s searching glance with an annoyed “What?” worthy of Ragnar.
- Archly villainous Ivar remains the best Ivar, here mocking the doomed conspirators with the mocking singsong, “Hatred must never take the place of love.”
- It’s a constant irritation at how Katheryn Winnick’s Lagertha continues to be sidelined as a passive, Heahmund-humping also-ran in what should, by all rights, be her series at this point. If Lagertha is working a long game, she needs to spring it soon, or the damage to her character may be irrecoverable.
- See you the day after Christmas for “Hell.”