This review contains spoilers.
Vikings largely continues its decline this week, despite finally fielding the army that we’ve all but known the season was building to. Revenge starts out in Kattegat, with the final preparations being made for their mission to England to repay Aelle and Ecbert for Ragnar’s death. A great deal of that time is dedicated to showing how certain alliances are holding up.
The one between Ragnar’s family and Harald and Halfdan has always been tenuous, now crossing over into actual treachery as it appears that the brothers have arranged for their surrogate Egil to attack the trading village in their absence. One has to wonder if they do this merely because the army will be gone or so, if the attempt miscarries, they cannot be held responsible. I’m actually looking forward to watching her fight off Egil more than just about any other conflict in the show. I’m tired of her being queen rather than Lagertha.
This planned treachery on the part of the brothers made the scene between Harald and his Princess Ellisif seem woefully out of place primarily because, until now, he and Halfdan have been fairly two-dimensional baddies. Harald’s confrontation with his muse and his unwillingness to kill her for her betrayal—even after Halfdan literally puts the knife in his hands—is meant to humanise him. Had this come earlier in the series, that kind of fleshing out would have been interesting. Doing it this late in the series makes it seem as though the writer simply forgot to do so and is trying to make up for lost time. In a series that moves as slowly as this one does, there’s been plenty of time to make us feel for Harald. But after so many episodes of a flat, cartoonish character, suddenly making him a man driven by love and capable of mercy—when we’ve seen no real evidence of his capacity for it—just feels hollow.
Similarly empty is the relationship—if you could call it that—between Astrid and Bjorn. Their sudden preoccupation with each other, if that’s how you label two out-of-nowhere sex scenes, just defies any real explanation. Bjorn has never been very profligate in his lovelife, and with good reason: he saw his father cheat on his mother, and knows that his revelation of that fact helped destroy their marriage. In the end, he left his father behind after his parents split up, and while he respected and loved him, there was still some resentment there over how Ragnar acted towards Lagertha.
So why on Earth would he choose to take Lagertha’s own consort as his lover? You have seen what infidelity did to her before and you—her devoted son—are going to risk this again over a woman that you don’t even seem to like? The genuine chemistry we saw between he and Þórunn is entirely absent, nor is there the type of bond we have seen with Torvi. The sex scenes come off as simply violent, not hot, and certainly the decision to splice this week’s shagging with a brutal (but far more beautiful) human sacrifice does nothing to improve that perception.
This makes Lagertha’s comment to Astrid particularly on point: She tells Astrid, “I hope that was enjoyable. Or it wasn’t worth it.” It didn’t look very enjoyable to either of them, and it certainly won’t be worth it.
Even more uncomfortable is the farewell scene with Bjorn and the three women. It’s clear that all three know what’s happening, which turns Torvi’s assurance into something other than a heartfelt express of her faith in Bjorn. She knows that it’s been broken. It will be interesting to see if Torvi’s leavetaking is a promise that he will be returning only to her (because she plans on dealing with Astrid) or simply a reminder that she is the mother of his children and would be dishonoured should he not do so.
An interesting and oddly comforting counter to this is the triangle between Ubbe, Margrethe, and Hvitserk.
Each of the brothers has now been fairly well defined: Bjorn is an attempt at his father’s image as leader in minature. Ivar is cruel, clever, and remorseless. Sigurd is bitter, honest, and frustrated. Hvitserk is full of smiles while wanting something more for himself. All of them reflect pieces of their father. The piece that Ubbe represents seems to be that of his father in his younger days: a good family man with a wisdom and patience absent in many around him.
Last week and this week has been building into a bit of a confrontation between Hvitserk and Ubbe over the former slave-girl. Certainly when we see the younger brother kissing her and Ubbe catching sight of them, we expect Ubbe to remind his brother of who she has promised to marry. That Hvitserk can honestly tell Ubbe that what he witnessed was his giving up of Margrethe says a great deal about both men. In Hvitserk, we see a loyalty to his brother (and probably all his brothers) that is absent in Ivar, Sigurd, and even Bjorn—who all too often comes off more as that much older cousin set the task of keeping an eye on the much younger boys than as a truly engaged brother. But in Ubbe we see even more: a desire for peace among them. This is why he does not push Ivar too hard when he strongly hints that their father made it clear he wanted Ivar to lead. Instead, he takes it to Bjorn and lets him do the level-setting, knowing that their youngest brother has more respect for Bjorn than he does the rest of them. He understands better than the rest that there are rewards for collaboration just as much as for competition, even in the Viking world.
And so, rather than run the risk in setting himself at odds with Hvitserk over Margrethe (or vice versa)—even subconsciously—he invites them to have their relationship out in the open (among the three of them). Of course, the series has set the Vikings up as more accepting of open relationships—or at least extra-marital fun—than our own, but this goes beyond Ragner and Lagertha inviting Aethelstan to share their bed one night. And suggests that Ubbe has an emotional restraint and level-headedness that even his famous father lacked.
Of course, all of this is a lead-in to the big conflict between the brothers and Aelle. And this was the biggest disappointment. While I’ve talked about the battle scenes not being the big draw for this series, it’s a bit unbelievable that, when the two armies actually meet, we get literally nothing of the actual battle. Instead, we get a shoddy repeat of the Blood Eagle torture from early in the series. Yes, according to legend, Aelle did meet his end this way. But we already understand how horrific the practice supposedly was. Watching it carried out again—especially when the previous scene showed it as a heroic ending on some level—felt like gratuitous violence given us in lieu of the fight scene. It felt like a budgetary decision (because battle scenes are notoriously expensive) rather than a narrative one.
In short, it is beginning to feel as though Vikings has lost the plot, quite literally. Instead of the steady build-up over a season, as we have seen in previous years, there is a growing sense that plot devices (deeply emotional scenes out of nowhere, random adultery, characters turn on an inexplicable dime) are simply being thrown at the audience without an overarching plan for how the pieces fit together.
That said, the last two episodes of every season have had a substantial pay-off. Hopefully, the series hasn’t completely lost what drew us in in the first place and we’ll get the same this week and next.
Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, The Great Army, here.