The supernatural on Vikings has been dealt with in a slippery fashion. In the series very first scene, Ragnar sees spectral figures of the gods on a battlefield. Or he imagines so. The Seer at Kattegat (John Kavanagh) is prone to prophecies as Seers are, but, up until now, they’ve been suitably vague and explicable. (The unfortunate Jarl Borg saw the Seer’s euphemistic talk of the blood eagle come horrifically to pass, but any Seer worth his bones could predict that fate for anyone going up against Ragnar Lothbrok.) Self-proclaimed princess Aslaug was also a self-proclaimed psychic, but her visions weren’t any more substantial than the Seer’s, and Ragnar and seemingly everyone else cast a lot of side-eyes whenever the subject came up. For the Norse, the gods were undeniably real—and resolutely unknowable, regardless of prayer, ritual, or sacrifice. The world of Vikings was hard, and brutal, and—most crucially—human.
As of “The Wanderer,” all that’s changed. In the season premiere, there were certainly hints that change was in the Seer’s incensed air. His prophecy to Lagertha was worryingly specific:
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.
Granted, it was more unsettling because of how much it sounded like creator Michael Hirst was laying out his plan for the season in too-bald detail. (The Seer’s admonition “It is the way of prophecy only to be understood when it has happened, and it is too late to change it” was both too similarly prosaic and too optimistic as to Hirst’s ability to disguise what he’s got in store.) Even the Seer’s addendum tonight is only nebulous in the details, not the thrust. “The marriage of plow and sword will sustain you until you become a virgin once more” sounds over scenes of Lagertha working the new farmland given to the Vikings by Linus Roache’s King Ecbert, whose martial and perhaps marital intentions toward Lagertha become more evident throughout “The Wanderer.” All of this would be just a case of over-writing—if Aslaug, Siggy, and Helga didn’t start having the same prophetic dreams.
While the menfolk (and Porunn’s shieldmaiden) are making short work of Princess Kwenthrith’s male relatives and their troops in Wessex, the significant others of Ragnar, Rollo, and Floki have identical dreams of a mysterious figure approaching Kattegat, burning snow in one hand, hot blood falling, smoking into the snow from the other. It’s a haunting image, but it’s also an undeniable swerve into the supernatural, a development that, while certainly a major (and questionable) change, might be more palatable if the show didn’t rob some interesting characters of their agency in the process.
Sure, Alyssa Sutherland’s Aslaug has never taken off as a character—apart form the inevitably damning comparisons to Katheryn Winnick’s impressive Lagertha, her flat brew of imperiousness and jealousy just isn’t that compelling. Jessalyn Gilsig’s Siggy has suffered from inconsistency—she’s a loyal wife! she’s a duplicitous schemer! she loves Rollo! she betrays Rollo!—but the actress has managed to find something like a character in the midst of all that. A survivor above all else, Siggy’s found solidarity with Lagertha, Aslaug, and the rest of the long-suffering women of Kattegat. And, as assistant, lover, and now wife of the show’s resident madman/boatbuilder/healer Floki, Maude Hirst’s Helga is Floki’s perfect partner, smart, sexy, and able to match his mercurial moods with fulsome Viking heartiness. Except in this construction, all three women are reduced to a monotonous chorus, parroting dreary dream prophecy, their individual characters yoked to the same unpromising spook show. Their dialogue is especially bland, essentially repeating the same lines to each other—less MacBeth’s weird sisters than Vikings’ dull ones.
This season of Vikings also suffers in its relocation to Wessex. While Roache’s Ecbert remains silkily untrustworthy, purring what everyone wants to hear while stroking his immaculate beard, his world is a much less interesting setting for Ragnar and company to operate in (especially with the introduction of Jennie Jacques’ Princess Judith, who continues to get all hot and bothered over former monk Athelstan). Amy Bailey’s Princess Kwenthrith—exchanging last season’s comically hyperbolic wantonness for an equally hyperbolic bloodlust—similarly seems more at home in Hirst’s previous series than here. Yes, the Norsemen have been interacting with this world (violently) on their raids from the beginning, but the creep of court intrigue into Vikings’ brisk, muscular narrative is sapping the show’s identity, and pulling attention from the main characters.
Here, the Norsemen’s main action is reserved for the immediate aftermath of last episode’s battle, with a genuinely harrowing end (at least it looks that way) for one of the party. Not that there’s not some solid stuff here—if the amputation of the wounded Torstein’s arm isn’t as excruciatingly intense as the home dentistry scene on The Americans earlier this year, then it’s a close second. The problem is that, as hard as Hirst has pushed Jefferson Hall’s Torstein to the fore in these first two episodes, he’s never been more than, say, fourth banana in Kattegat, and his final fate, bleeding out after the amputation fails doesn’t have the intended impact. Especially as it’s just part of “The Wanderer”’s final parade of bloody symbolism.
While Torstein dies, his blood pooling from his lost arm, Athelstan, still acting as Lagertha’s right hand/translator, appears to her, the palm wounds he received at the hands of some crucifying English last season pouring stigmatic blood. And, true to the dreams of the women of Kattegat, a mysterious stranger (a suitably spooky-looking Kevin Durand) wanders into the village, his injured hand spilling thick drops of hot blood in the snow. These sequences are strikingly shot but, like the supernatural trappings leading up to them, they take Vikings away from the much more compelling human drama that’s been the heart of the series.
At the center of it all is Ragnar. After two episodes, it’s shocking to realize just how little he’s been given to do. A speech about power to Bjorn. Inscrutably accepting Ecbert’s revised treaty and agreeing to fight for Kwenthrith. Fighting for Kwenthrith (with signature, brutal dispatch). And now helping cut off poor Torstein’s arm, listening to Kwenthrith’s horrifying story of a lifetime of sexual abuse by her relatives (he allows his impassive face one, single twitch in response). Other than that, Ragnar’s been a figure in the background of others’ stories. It’s an interesting idea, and one that carries over from last season’s finale where Ragnar’s final victory over King Horik played out to the sound of his four lines of dialogue by my count. From Ragnar’s first scene this season, the intention has been clear—Ragnar’s role as king is to observe, and wait, once again, to finally make plain what he’s been planning with all his sly smiles and unreadable glances. What’s worrisome this time out is that all the pieces waiting to come together aren’t inherently interesting so far.
- The Bjorn and Porunn show isn’t getting any more interesting, either. This week: Bjorn thinks Porunn takes too many chances in battle. Porunn says Bjorn’s only being so protective because she’s a woman. They decide to get married.
- Ecbert’s sly courtship of Lagertha partakes of Roache’s entertainingly untrustworthy smoothness. In relaying his compliments through Athelstan while making eyes directly at Lagertha, there’s a level of playful condescension to his game. He’s clearly genuine in his admiration for her as she shovels manure to start the Viking settlement in Wessex, but, as revealed in his conversation with Judith at episode’s end, he’s playing her.
- And while Lagertha seems flattered by Ecbert’s attentions, she’s got her own agenda, as intimated by her exchange about the necklace Ecbert gives her (traslated, as ever, by Athelstan):
It is so beautiful, dwarves must have made it.
We don’t have dwarves in England.
Of course you do. You just don’t see them.
- Speaking of Athelstan, George Blagden continues to bring a resigned but curious empathy to the former monk’s ongoing journey of belief. His confession to Princess Judith and Lagertha is touching in its straightforwardness: “I love Odin and I love Jesus Christ. What else can I say?”
- Another A.V. Clubber asked about the willy-nilly subtitling in last week’s episode (it’s more straightforward here with only three people to worry about). I suggested “When it’ll make Athelstan uncomfortable to translate something, they subtitle it,” which seems the rule the show was following.
- Rollo has his first real Rollo moment of the season, brutally executing an English prisoner (while Torstein’s fevered perspective makes the act look even more nightmarish). Asked why, Rollo simply replies, “It was the angle of the leg. I couldn’t help myself.”
- One defining Ragnar moment tonight: unhurriedly sailing into view against Kwenthrith’s brother, a smile on has face and his enemies’ heads mounted on the rigging. (The brother’s forces simply run away.)
- Floki’s signature moments this week: casually chopping off Kwenthrith’s uncle’s head at Ragnar’s request, and his similarly matter-of-fact response to Torstein’s request that Floki cut off his arm. (“I would do it for you.” “I know. That is why I shall do it.”)
- And points go to Torstein’s choice to amputate: “In fact, I’ve always hated this arm.”
- Later, Prince Aethelwulf threatens to torture another prisoner with hot pincers, only relenting when the terrified young man gives up information. Offering to sup with the guy, his barely buried disdain for his allies resurfaces with, “We are not all like the Northmen.”
- Oh, and Kalf (Ben Robson) usurps Lagertha’s Earldom with anticlimactic ease (apparently her people were really not cool with her not having a penis). It’s fittingly limp from Kalf, whose later speech to a co-conspirator is as perfunctory a counterpoint to Ragnar’s warning about the dangers of power as can be:
I want to be famous like Ragnar. I desire fame above all things. I want the poets to sing of my exploits as they sing of Ragnar’s. I want the gods to pay an interest in me. To prepare the bright halls for my coming.