Clive Standen, Travis Fimmel (History Channel)

Ragnar has vision, but that means trouble from those who don’t share it. For a man like Ragnar Lothbrok, his plans for the Norsemen might be ahead of their time, but that only means everyone will be angry, confused, and suspicious, especially since Ragnar is not prone to share his ideas with his countrymen, or even his friends or family. Nothing more clearly illustrates the unrest Ragnar’s rule has caused than the Vikings’ return to Kattegat which opens “The Usurper.”

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We’ve seen the traditional Viking homecoming in the past—ships laden with treasure, joyous reunions, and, even to those on shore whose men have been lost, a sense of triumph. Before Ragnar’s rule, returning ships were greeted as conquerors, as heroes—death a means to life, and a glorious afterlife with the gods. Tonight, Vikings deliberately frames the Norsemen’s return from Wessex in more somber, unsettled terms. The weather is dour, the men on the ships grumble, and, when the Vikings disembark, the emphasis is on how many of the warriors have been wounded, with the weakened Norsemen being carried, or tended to on the muddy shore. Torstein’s two pregnant lovers are told by Lagertha that he is in Valhalla, but none of them take comfort in his fate. Porunn is horribly disfigured, and Bjorn—still unable to look at her fully—assures Aslaug she is fine, before helping her limp away. Even Ragnar himself, after delighting in Athelstan’s latest command recitation of the glories of Paris, confides in his friend, “I would not come back here if it were not for my children.”

Alyssa Sutherland, Travis Fimmel (History Channel)

This disillusionment carries over even to the weather, which turns to freezing, pouring rain as Rollo, finding out about the death of Siggy, immediately drinks himself into a self-pitying stupor and then brawls in the tavern—and then the muddy street—with Bjorn. Brought to roaring berserker rage by taunts of men at the tavern questioning why his grief should make him special since they’ve all lost someone “fighting for a Christian king,” Rollo is beaten senseless, at least partly by his own design, screaming “hit me!” to his nephew before Bjorn finally leaves him there, bloody and muddied. Meanwhile, Ragnar remains furious at Aslaug for, to his mind, neglecting his children, and Aslaug, guilty yet resentful, tries and fails to seduce her husband—no doubt suspecting that her dalliance with Harbard has borne fruit, and that the deed needs covering, quickly. What was simple is now complicated by Ragnar’s ambitions for the Vikings, and all is out of balance.

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Alexander Ludwig, Clive Standen (History Channel)

There’s always an element of that confusion in watching Vikings as well, and from a similar cause. Travis Fimmel, as ever, revels in Ragnar’s taciturnity, wringing great returns from his cagey character’s every enigmatic move and utterance. Like his subjects, we’re left guessing at what Ragnar is up to—and the same goes for Michael Hirst as his creator. In Fimmel’s sly smiles and often inexplicable decisions, we’re left to wonder how much of each season’s actions are part of Ragnar’s grand scheme, and how much are unexpected obstacles. It’s frankly a lot of fun to imagine that Ragnar is playing every move according to a game board only he can see—and sometimes that’s been the case. It does, however, risk making Ragnar’s journey too preordained.

Tonight, for example, while it’s clear that Ragnar knows he cannot trust his ally King Ecbert, is he aware of what immediate and horrifying form Ecbert’s inevitable betrayal of their treaty will take, with Aethelwulf’s soldiers (secretly under orders from Ecbert) mercilessly wiping out every Norse settler the Vikings have left behind? It’s not yet clear, nor is it clear how satisfactorily Hirst will spring the reveal when it comes—last year’s season-long feint of Floki’s betrayal actually being part of Ragnar’s plan all along smacked of writerly contrivance, but Ragnar’s character emerged unscathed for all that. I think the secret is that Ragnar, for all his occasionally improbable prescience, knows that his plans will eventually come down to how well he can brazen them out. His claims to be just a farmer aside, Ragnar’s plans always rely on him being the biggest badass in Scandinavia, when things come down to it.

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Look at how he handles Lagertha’s demand that he join forced to roust her usurping former advisor Kalf (Ben Robson) tonight. When he seemingly reneges on his promise to aid his former wife (“What promise?,” he asks Lagertha with feigned innocence), is his choice to instead invite Kalf to join his planned raid on Paris a considered attempt to avoid civil war and unnecessary bloodshed, or is it a longer game to lull Kalf (who has secretly enlisted deceased Ragnar foe Horik’s son to plot against Ragnar) into false security before killing him? And is his apparent willingness to let Lagertha ride off at his betrayal part of one of those plans, or is she playing a part as well? The way Vikings uses its tight-lipped protagonist makes all possible—the dramatic effectiveness won’t be determined until Hirst has Ragnar lay down his cards and rely on his final, bloody play, as usual. Honestly, it’s not a bad way to keep a series energized, especially with Fimmel’s magnetic physicality at the center.

Fimmel’s never more interesting than when he’s letting us know, with every glance and every gesture, his supreme amusement at those around him, and tonight he has a ball. Whether raising eyebrows at Athelstan’s confession of lust for the Parisian girls he once met, or executing a truly impressive eye-then-entire-body roll off a ship’s mast at Floki’s talk of Harbard having actually been Odin, or, especially, interacting with the furious Lagertha throughout, Fimmel’s physical comedy skills have never been more subtly entertaining. Watch the way he reacts to Lagertha’s tirade about Kalf, his creeping smile betraying his enduring admiration, or how he allows her to storm into Kalf’s hall first to make her demand that he step down, before he saunters in behind, an amused, almost apologetic grin showing everyone present his amusement and support, only to take Kalf aside to make his Paris proposal to him in private. When Lagertha, in turn, bursts in to make her demands again, Ragnar’s, “This is between you and my ex-wife—and good luck with that” comes off as both condescending to Lagertha and clearly full of admiration as well. Again, Ragnar’s playing games, and neither those he’s playing with nor we at home know what the rules are. Regardless, in Fimmel’s hands, it’s deeply enjoyable.

Stray observations:

Clive Standen (History Channel)

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  • Clive Standen is outstanding tonight. While his mourning for Siggy happens awfully fast—immediately, drunken stupor!—both his reaction to her death on the dock and his plea to the Seer to explain the constant failures that have marked his life are all the more moving for how straightforwardly Standen delivers them. While the Seer, as usual this season, seems to lay out an inescapable path for him with a prophecy (“the bear will be crowned by a princess,” etc.), Rollo’s summation of his troubled journey is far more affecting and interesting. ”Ragnar was always chosen over me. Why would I not want to betray him? He is everything I cannot do, everything I cannot be. I love him. He is my brother. He has taken me back. Why am I so angry? Nothing good can ever come of my life now.”
  • When Kalf smugly confesses his longtime desire for Lagertha and asks her “What do you want to do about it?,” I was not the only one hoping for her to simply rip his beard right off his face, right?
  • In case we didn’t get that Aethelwulf and his raiders are the bad guys from his “Kill the pagans” battle cry, they end their slaughter with a prayer at the foot of a burning cross.
  • Ragnar’s rousing, walking-on-the-tables pitch to get his people on board to invade Paris goes a long way toward explaining his ability to get people on his side.

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Vikings Halftime Report: After five episodes, here’s what Vikings has done well, and where they need to improve in the second half.

Pros: Ragnar Lothbrok. Vikings’ star player (okay, I’ll cool it with the football motif) continues to be the series’ main asset. Travis Fimmel’s performance, relying as it does on a lot of non-verbal, enigmatic beats, could wear thin, theoretically, but Fimmel remains one of the most magnetic lead characters on television. From the outset, the idea of a Viking protagonist was going to be one of the series’ most difficult balancing acts, as being the most successful Viking leader would appear to necessitate a whole lot of behaviors the modern viewer would find unpalatable, especially since Ragnar is not intended as a Tony Soprano-style antihero, but an actual, admirable hero. While his actions are necessarily—and culture-appropriately—violent, the show has successfully posited a Viking leader whose brutal actions are in service of goals modern viewers can stomach. Ragnar doesn’t want power for its own sake. He doesn’t want conquest for its own sake, either. He’s a formidable, forceful leader whose bloody swath through combatants both foreign and domestic is in pursuit of land to farm, ease for his people’s unimaginably difficult existence, and, yes, peace. What’s been so admirable about how Fimmel and creator Michael Hirst have presented Ragnar so far is that his agenda is rarely articulated, except through action—and Fimmel’s ever-mischievous eyes. In both the common imagination and historical fact, Vikings conquer, and kill, and, yes, rape. While the show allows Ragnar to abstain from the latter in deference to its conception of him as proto-modern hero, no one is more proficient in the other two arenas. The show continues to fascinatingly present Ragnar as a man both of and ahead of his time.

Lagertha (a.k.a. Earl Ingstad): Like Ragnar, Katheryn Winnick’s Lagertha could appear too idealized and modern for the time and place. Strong and willful, unashamedly sexual, and possessed of formidable fighting skills and political savvy, Lagertha could come off as too good to be true, except that Winnick’s performance and Hirst’s conception of the character keeps her inhabited and grounded. No one’s symbol, Lagertha exists, believably, as one who simply has no time for limits—she won’t share Ragnar, but she still relates to him in the equality they shared when they were married. She’ll sleep with King Ecbert for her own enjoyment, but never loses sight of who he is or what’s important. Trusting her earldom to the transparently untrustworthy Kalf seems a misstep, but, also like Ragnar, it’s always foolhardy to bet against Lagertha knowing far more than she’s letting on. We’ll see.

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Floki: Gustaf Skarsgård is Vikings’ secret weapon, just as he’s Ragnar’s, even the character’s unbreakable ties to his culture make him ever the wild card in Ragnar’s ongoing plans to expand the Northmen’s world. While Floki’s long con against Horik last season was unconvincing to viewers who couldn’t believe anything like petty resentment against Ragnar’s success would be enough to make him turn betrayer, this year, his visceral antipathy to Ragnar’s seeming openness to, as he calls it, “the Christ god” makes more sense. His relationship with Helga is as much about their belief in the Viking cosmology as it is their delightfully earthy sex life—tonight, her confession to him about Harbard (who Floki immediately believes to have been Odin in disguise) is all about being two people without doubt as to who they—and their gods—truly are. Floki is a true believer, a zealot, a fundamentalist. For all his fluidity of thought, he is unbendingly rigid in his belief in the Vikings’ gods and culture—which makes his unpredictability as a potential threat this season more believable. And riveting.

Intelligent action, period authenticity, location. At its best, Vikings makes us believe we are watching something truly other. Battles aren’t lockstep, clangingly choreographed swordfights, but the startlingly purposeful actions of groups of people actually trying to make every thrust lethal. At its best, Vikings is unnervingly of another time.

Cons: Mysticism. The gods are as real to the Norsemen as are the people around them. So it makes sense that their lives are suffused with visions, superstitions, and omens. What’s less sensible, dramatically, however, is this season’s warmer embrace of what appears to be inescapable supernatural phenomena. It’s a reductive force on the show, and especially the characters. Aslaug has always been an underdeveloped, inconsistent character (apart from simply being “not Lagertha”), but the way that she (and Helga, and Siggy) have been swept up in the mystical this season is doing her no favors at all. If Vikings wants to be Game Of Thrones, it’s understandable from a commercial standpoint, but not from a dramatic one. The human element of the series—characters making choices rooted in themselves and their historical culture—is what’s most compelling. When Seers and Wanderers make eerily accurate pronouncements about their fates, the characters become less than what they were.

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Lack of worthy adversaries: The jury’s still out on King Ecbert, Linus Roache’s slyly malevolent charm making his inevitable betrayal of his Norse allies more interesting than it might be otherwise. But the entire Kalf storyline this season is even weaker than Gabriel Byrne’s stolid villainy from season one. Ecbert’s soulful chat with Ragnar last episode promised a slower burn to his antagonism, but at least the big reveal that he planned the wholesale slaughter of the Norse settlers tonight gave Linus Roache an opportunity to strut his Shakespearean chops—first some Henry V, then some Richard III.