Frankie McCafferty, Clive Standen (History Channel)
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“I win.”

In its three seasons, Vikings has ridden Ragnar Lothbrok’s winning streak through Kattegat, through Wessex and Mercia, and now all the way to Paris, which, after Ragnar’s most elaborate scheme yet, falls to the Norsemen, even as the grievously hurt Ragnar falls into his son’s arms in the dirt. “The Dead” sees Vikings straining for ways to delay Ragnar’s inevitable victory—even to deny it—but its failings are those of the season as a whole. In trying to deepen Ragnar, Vikings has turned him into a plot device.

Having been with the show from the beginning, my admiration for Travis Fimmel’s performance as Ragnar hasn’t lessened—I’ve made the case that Ragnar’s caginess (portrayed most effectively in non-verbal ways by the ever-magnetic Fimmel) is a conscious choice, both by the actor, and show creator Michael Hirst. Ragnar’s thinking is ahead of its time, even as he excels as the quintessential man of his time. More than any other previous Viking leader, King Ragnar knows how precarious his position is because his ambitions run counter to those of his people—even as they produce greater victories than his predecessors ever dreamed of. It makes him a very lonely man, even surrounded as he is by devoted friends. Tonight, after his months-long trap is sprung and he throws open the Paris gates for his people to plunder the city, he is greeted with wordless resentment from Lagertha, Rollo, and Floki as they pass his crumpled form on the road. It’s the episode’s most powerful moment, reaffirming that the cost of Ragnar’s victories is the loss of those closest to him. Ragnar wins, but that only reaffirms how fundamentally different his ideas of winning are than his people’s.

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The power of that moment, however, can’t overcome how contrived Ragnar’s plan is, a narrative fault that repeats the anticlimactic swerve at the end of last season. Just as, then, the entire back half of the season was rendered narratively shaky because we were asked to buy that Floki was prepared to turn on Ragnar (I didn’t), the entire Paris siege storyline here has been built on a similar, elaborately unstable construction. In his monologue addressed to the dead Athelstan two weeks ago, Ragnar revealed that he knew Floki’s plan to breach Paris’ walls would fail, and hinted again that he was the one with the real winning strategy, one that he’s had in his pocket since the day Athelstan died (as signaled by his recurring display of Athelstan’s crucifix). That’s not a problem in itself—Ragnar’s ability to think ten moves ahead of everyone else is one of the reasons why he’s such a compelling figure. The problem is that Ragnar’s prescience, both on a narrative and thematic level, turns the finale (if not the last half of the season) into a gimmick, which—even if it were better executed—costs the story its dramatic integrity. We spend the entire Paris storyline waiting for the reveal we know is coming—and when it comes, it’s a disappointment.

On a simple plot level, Hirst expects us to swallow a lot. Even if we accept that Ragnar took Athelstan at his word that Paris’ walls were impregnable, and that Ragnar conceived of a plan that would cost—at last count—over a thousand of his people in what essentially amounts to nothing but a massive misdirection for his trick tonight, the scope of his plan looks less Machiavellian than supervillain. Especially since, after Floki’s plan fails, Ragnar all but admits that he wanted that plan (and presumably Lagertha’s subsequent plan) to fail, only so he can pull a Norse horse by having his newly-baptized, supposedly dead body brought right into Emperor Charles’ palace, hostage-taking knife in hand. (It also hinges on the Franks being very, very stupid—never a good dramatic choice.) As I said at the time, rewatching his confession to Athelstan didn’t yield any more ambiguity—Ragnar had it all written ahead of time in his head, and everything went according to script. It’s the sort of mastermind game-playing that can be exhilarating fun if plausibly crafted—here, not only is it absurdly arch, it robs every character of their agency.

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Knowing that Ragnar isn’t dead—no matter how hard the episode strains to introduce some doubt—makes the three deathbed scenes tonight far less than what they are intended to be. Lagertha fares best, Katheryn Winnick gently stroking the wood of the elaborate ship-coffin Floki’s made for Ragnar and delivering a goodbye that’s all the more affecting for how it reaffirms the Ragnar/Lagertha love story as if nothing in the interim has mattered:

Who knows, Ragnar, what the gods have in store for us. The best you can ever imagine. If you have gone to heaven then we will never meet again. But I think Odin will ride like the wind to rescue you to take you to Valhalla, where you belong, my sweet Ragnar. There we shall meet again, and fight, and drink, and love one another.

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Rollo and Floki get their chance, too, and while their farewells are too on the nose —Floki, especially, spells out his relationship with Ragnar in facile terms, although, as ever, Gustaf Skarsgård spits his lines with a tortured fierceness—the real problem is the fact that we never for a moment believe that Ragnar’s actually dead in there, so their grief plays into empty air. It not only diminishes their characters, making them seem foolish, it’s a dramatic miscalculation—like much of what happens once the Vikings reach Paris, we’re not invested in what’s happening so much as waiting for Ragnar’s other shoe to drop.

In addition to the contrivance of Ragnar’s Paris plan, the finale fails to close out Ragnar’s lesson to Bjorn satisfactorily. In the first scene of the season, Ragnar spoke to his son about what true leadership was. Being Ragnar, it was more than a bit enigmatic, but the gist was that those who seek power for its own sake are unworthy to lead. But while the promise that the season would address that relationship between father and son returned intermittently, like too many plotlines in season three, it wasn’t adequately developed. Tonight, Ragnar entrusts only Bjorn (and, presumably, those pallbearers) with his secret, telling his son, “when your time comes you must lead with your head, not with your heart,” a message in the lonely pragmatism underlying Ragnar’s long con against the Franks, but an incomplete summation of what promised to be a major theme of the season.

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There’s so much to enjoy in Vikings. Fimmel is riveting every moment he’s onscreen, and the performances of Winnick, Skarsgård, and Clive Standen continue to reveal depths like little, subtle gifts. The scene where Bjorn tells them of Ragnar’s death—like the shock of stumbling upon Ragnar’s baptism last week and their realization that he’s alive here—sees the three of them bringing out so much complex emotion from so little seeming effort that it’s a thrill. The look of the show remains uniquely authentic and lived-in, an often overlooked virtue in the world of meticulously hollow GGI. (See: Hobbit, Theentire trilogy.) And while the diluting of the Vikings’ world by increasingly dull and under-imagined subplots is a growing problem, the show still convincingly imbues its Norse characters with an intriguing—often unnerving—otherness, also an underrated accomplishment when most period pieces play like modern melodrama in fancy dress. Vikings’ action scenes are frequently the best on television, combining storytelling and character amongst the brutally effective mayhem in often startling immediacy.

But this season, more than ever, shows that Vikings’ has reached its ceiling. There’s a carelessness in construction that truly great dramas don’t allow, and, as the show marches on, the weaknesses in the writing stretch the show thinner. (The recurrence of the Seer’s prophecies—locking into place via voice-over tonight—is another example of a dull idea, indifferently applied.) When Ragnar, curled in pain as the ships sail back to Kattegat, summons Floki and tells him, “You killed Athelstan,” it’s emblematic of how Hirst can’t leave a good thing alone. The unspoken suspicion, guilt, and tension between Ragnar and Floki since Athelstan’s death told us all that, and told us much more compellingly. As the last line of the season, Ragnar’s accusation is intended as a big cliffhanger, but we’ve already internalized the conflict and anticipated its resurgence in Ragnar and Floki’s relationship next season. Vikings will be back for a fourth season, and so will I—but with more realistic expectations.

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Stray observations:

  • A word about European vs. Viking depravity: Tonight, in scene as gratuitous as it is pointless to the story, Count Odo, propositioned by a lovely, willing French woman (The Fall’s Karen Hassan), invites her into his Christian Grey sex dungeon for some torchlit Marquis de Sade whip play. Apart from the fact that this season of Vikings has been appallingly bad at integrating Ragnar’s antagonists into the flow of the narrative (the season ends without another visit to Wessex, thankfully), Hirst continues to contrast the signature Viking depredations (especially against conquered women) with the sexual violence of the various “civilized” courts. While Viking rape has stayed mostly offscreen this season, the show has gone to great lengths to portray both the English and French courts as home to perversion and cruelty, whether it be Ecbert’s effete, flowery sexual blackmail of daughter-in-law Judith, Aethelwulf’s flagellating, brutal denial of his sexual urges, Kwenthrith enduring a lifetime of abuse from her male relatives, or, tonight, Odo‘s whip-laden sex parlor. It’s there, too, tonight in Gisla’s fiery denunciation of her intended groom Rollo, her spitting fury at being matched to “this piece of warm meat” being met with indulgent smiles from both her father and Rollo, painting the heretofore strong-willed princess as yet another example of stereotypical, tightly-wound highborn womanhood, whose assumed virtue merely covers up her repressed desires for a “real man.” Meanwhile, the Vikings “just” rape, because that’s what they do. It’s a conscious choice on Hirst’s part, one that, troublingly, equates the “civilized” world of dark, twisted repressed sexuality with the purer, no-nonsense, “natural” sexuality of the Vikings.
  • Lothaire Bluteau is a fine actor, but his Charles continues to embody Hirst’s most pathetically damning portrait yet of the aristocratic, non-Viking nobility. Whether swooning at Ragnar’s incursion into his throne room, or whimpering again about being sleepy (before donning yet another ornamental mask as a security blanky), or saying perhaps the most stereotypically French line in recent memory (“These snails are so plump”), Charles remains, in all ways, the anti-Ragnar.
  • One worrisome plotline for season four is set in motion already tonight, as Rollo—volunteering to stay behind to prepare for further raids against Paris—is lured into the court with promises of a dukedom, land, and the very unwilling Gisla for a wife. If he betrays Ragnar, that is. One of Clive Standen’s chief achievements as Rollo is to find a soul inside the big lug, especially as his character careens in whatever contradictory direction Hirst has in mind for him, sometimes weekly. By my count, Rollo’s turned on Ragnar, what, four times over the course of the series? It’s not even that this newest temptation of Rollo doesn’t make sense—Rollo’s envy of his brother is well established—it’s that Standen has managed to make something interesting of Rollo’s resignation to his fate this season. If season four takes him back to where he started, it will be disappointing.
  • Especially considering Rollo’s speech to his thought-dead brother, which rings all the more moving for its simplicity: “I’ve always resented you, its true. I won’t deny it. I’m sorry you’re dead, but it happens to all of us sooner or later. It’s just strange the gods took you first. I always thought the gods favored you. So did you. I guess we were both mistaken.”
  • Plus, Rollo’s sheepish little smile as he tries out his memorized greeting to Gisla is adorable.
  • Alexander Ludwig has come along as Bjorn, his commanding actions tonight wearing on him better than ever. I especially admired the way he signals the Vikings to take Paris, simply raising his arms to begin the raid.
  • Well, that’s season three of Vikings, gang. Thanks, as ever, for reading, and I’ll see you all here next season. Oh, and, as ever—SHIELD WALL!
  • Episode and season grade: B-

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