Vikings season 4 episodes 19 & 20 review: On The Eve & The Reckoning

Vikings bows out of an uneven season with some of its biggest battle scenes ever. Here's our spoiler-filled finale review...

This review contains spoilers.

4.19 On The Eve & 4.20 The Reckoning

On The Eve and The Reckoning finish out this rocky season’s primary storylines, and it’s a fair mixture of good and not-so-great. That’s unfortunate because this season gives us a hint of how the show will do without Ragnar in the ascendant… or even on screen. There is more than a little reason to suspect that the move from what was essentially one man’s story to a narrative with no clear protagonist will be a struggle for Hirst to manage for the longer haul.

And this is essentially where most of the weaknesses that we saw in the previous two weeks have come from. For the majority of missteps, it is a matter of the writer trying to tell too many stories in too small a space and thus expecting the audience to accept being told about what is going on with characters rather than being able to see it with our own eyes.

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I talked about the problem with the Harald and Princess Ellisif storyline a couple of weeks ago, and things only got worse in On The Eve. If the point was to humanise Harald and add depth to an otherwise flat character, his sudden murderous attack on Vik deftly undid that work. He’s back to being a one-dimensional Viking warrior with poor impulse control, and based on him not seeing the obvious counter-attack by Ellisif, even worse judgement. As we learned by watching both Ragnar and Lagertha, these are not the qualities that make a Viking king successful, leaving us to wonder if perhaps Halfdan is the brains of the team. He’s certainly now the more interesting to watch.

Floki’s storyline is one that’s been brewing for a lot longer, and the payoff was, literally, non-existent. For almost four years, Floki has been the pattern for the average Viking, often used to represent the players in the background against the more unconventional Ragnar and certainly Rollo. He believes, as his best friend never could, not only in the Norse mythology but the brutal and predatory way of life it reflected/encouraged. This has been his calling, and it is this devotion to those ideals that largely helped carve an even greater brutality into the character of Ivar.

Ever since his visit to the mosque in Spain, though, he has been adrift, partly spiritually and partly in his marriage. But the turn in his character is completely unexplained (despite the little tete-de-tete with Bjorn when he announces that he’s going to wander the land) and essentially wastes what could have been a great piece of storytelling. We know that something in the mosque touched him to the point of a complete reversal of his former self, insisting that the men in prayer be spared, despite us having seen him repeatedly kill monks in prayer and destroy their own houses of worship. But whatever essential ingredient the Muslims had, it goes unexplained. The irony is that normally, Floki—who has an unpredictable streak a mile wide—could have done such a thing based solely on a whim. It could have been portrayed as part of his Loki-like quality. But by following it up with several episodes of him moping about, we are being told that it had some earth-shattering meaning for him without being given any real sense of why. Even the death of his beloved Helga—while it opens him up to act on what has happened to him—does nothing to reveal this inner turmoil. Frankly, had none of this happened save for Helga’s death, his decision to walk the earth like Caine (only without the good deeds, I’m guessing) would have been a better way to end his season. There is little doubt that her death could have such an effect on him considering their very dedicated bond, but we’ve been given no reason why Muslims in prayer might.

And then there is that death. I have to admit that when I learned that creator Michael Hirst was giving his daughters Maude (Helga) and Georgia (Torvi) parts in his newest endeavour, I did not have high hopes. We Americans are living a horror of nepotisim in the White House right now that perfectly displays the pitfalls that come from such placements. But in truth, both actresses have done very well in their roles, and Maude’s Helga has been one of the very best, if not the best, of the secondary characters on the show. There’s no doubt that Floki would be a hard man to be married to, and her depiction of the kind of sympathetic but sensitive counterpoint to that type of personality has been admirable. Her quiet and calm in the face of Floki’s scenery-chewing is not weakness, but a strength that has enabled him to continue his life’s work even in his darkest moments of madness and estrangement. She is the one who keeps the Boatwright on an even keel.

This is why her death seems so meaningless. Floki has never been a good judge of character, nor one for understanding the repercussions of his actions. These have always been Helga’s strengths though. And let’s face it: Tanaruz’s actions, though a surprise at this juncture of the story, aren’t really all that out of left field. I had been wondering why she didn’t strike out at either Harald or Helga much earlier (like back in Kattegat when it became clear that she was not going to be able to escape the Vikings who murdered her mother in front of her and kidnapped her). Instead, Helga is inexplicably blind to Tanaruz’s emotional state while Floki pegs it exactly: “I’m sorry. You hate us. I don’t know what to do.” My only hope is that the last-minute blink in Torvi’s final scene means that she has not been gratuitously killed off as well.

And as to killing, there was a lot of it in these final episodes, as we got the biggest fight scenes ever on the series, but to a great extent, they were wasted by being largely unintelligible and portraying the Saxons as phenomenally stupid. It’s not that Ivar’s plan is not a good one—and it’s our first opportunity to see the kind of strategic mind that no doubt helped him earn a place in Viking/Saxon legend. However, the scene where Aethelwulf faces off against them doesn’t give us any reliable sense of the terrain that Ivar and Bjorn scouted or how exactly the two use that terrain to trap and slaughter their enemy. Instead, the whole sequence comes off as some kind of battleground version of whack-a-mole, with Vikings popping up here, and there, and over there again, somehow moving a fairly large force on foot faster than mounted soldiers, none of whom is ordered to higher ground to try to track the enemy. Director Ben Bolt had a lot of extras and budget to work with, but none of it is really apparent in how he shot the pivotal battle.

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Finally, on the less-than-great side, we have the introduction of Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Viking-fighting Bishop Heahmund. Now, let’s be clear. I love Meyers—enough to have reviewed the entire run of the abysmal Dracula—but his presence on the show was supposed to be a jolt of new energy in a series that needs one after Travis Fimmel’s departure. So to see him playing not just to type in his first two scenes on the show, but depicting behaviour that could have been lifted straight from The Tudors or any Protestant attack on the Catholic Church was seriously disappointing. Substitute King for Bishop, and it’s not difficult to imagine Henry VIII “comforting” a grieving widow with the same dialogue and animalistic sex. To turn the legendary Bishop into the kind of hypocritical figure that Luther’s followers condemned (and opened the way, indirectly, to the dissolution of the monasteries and bishoprics that Henry carried out) is a little too awkwardly meta for me, and does not bode well for his future on the series. Meyers is capable of something more subtle. He should be given the chance.

But, as I said, there was plenty of good to balance out the bad.

Lagertha’s defence of Kattegat, for example, played to the strengths of the series when it comes to battle scenes. It was smaller in scope and used our familiarity with Kattegat to help us make sense of the action. But more importantly, we got a sense of our characters—who was doing what and why—during the fight. Vikings always excels when it puts its characters first, when it understands that we care less who wins the battle than we do about what that battle reveals about those fighting it.

And what we saw was Lagertha underestimated again. The strategy Egil uses is, really, very close to the one Ivar suggested in the larger battle: attack from one direction in order to drive your enemy here while you attack from another angle at their rear. But Lagertha is no fool, quickly realising what is happening, and revealing that she has prepared for just the kind of ruse Egil uses. Her firetrap plays brilliantly though the director pushes too far in having her step out in full view of the attackers and having her command her archers to shower arrows on the already engulfed enemy. But regardless, her woman-led force is more than a match for the raiders, and it’s hard not to see a bit of humour in her choice to use the tools of the kitchen to get the info she needs from Egil. Our Lagertha is back.

And while Ivar may possibly match her in terms of strategy (we’ll need to wait and see since he’s had a single success to her almost unbroken track record), he is no match in temperament. Not that that’s a problem. Quite the opposite. Ivar’s disgust, cunning, self-loathing, and brutality are part of what makes him interesting—especially as a member of a culture which valorises some of those qualities. He takes them to an extreme, but not as a ruse (as his father might have). Ivar’s personality is a testament to the power of social conditioning: he hates himself because of his disability and the way it undercuts his claim to manhood. He externalizes that anger to the point of you feeling it oozing out his very pores. It is what makes him so dangerous.

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But that danger is not limited to his enemies, we find out after the fall of Wessex. His murder of his brother is shocking, but again, it’s not surprising because it’s not out of character. What’s most revealing about the incident is his own reaction: he too is shocked at first, making it clear that he is impulsive and not in control of himself. He could not be further from his father in this way. He may have a strategic mind, but not a political one. He may be able to win lands, but he is not equipped to rule them. This creates an interesting dynamic with his brothers, especially Ubbe who lacks Ivar’s fire in favor of his father’s more measured approach. Sigurd’s murder has set up a conflict between the sons of Ragnar that will likely carry over to season 5; his eventually dismissive response to that murder gives us a good idea how the battlelines will be drawn in that conflict.

On the other side of the Viking/Saxon divide, Aethelwulf is finally coming into his own, no longer the cuckolded buffoon we have seen in the past. Despite losing the essential battle, Moe Dunford gives us, in Aethelwulf, a man who has learned a great deal in the past twenty years, both about leadership and personal relationships. I’ve been thinking a lot about his confrontation with his father a few weeks ago, where he plaintively asks Ecbert whether he loves him. Though we see no answer, I’m tempted to believe that it was affirmative, because Aethelwulf is now acting like a man who understands a real truth about kingship: As king, everyone, even those you care for, are tools to be used when necessary. In the past, we have seen the way that Ecbert has done this, with Judith, with Ragnar, even with Alfred.

Aethelwulf’s new understanding is what allows him to accept his father’s abdication (we’ve never seen any wish in him to displace his father), along with the sure knowledge that he will never again see the man whose approval he has been begging for for most of his life. He gets that personal desire must come second to the good of the state, and it is likely this which also allows him to forgive Ecbert, Judith, and even Alfred the slights he has endured. The show is a bit off on the history when it comes to Aethelwulf (since the Viking raids were at a low point for most of his 19-year rule), but as it is being depicted, England needs a strong leader, and it looks as though Aethelwulf may—finally—be up to the task.

But he has massive shoes to step into—and this applies equally to actor and character. Ecbert has set a high bar but it’s almost impossible to overstate how high a standard Linus Roache has created in his depiction of the king of Wessex. It’s not been an easy role. Ecbert is both enemy and friend in Vikings, on a whole host of levels, perhaps the most fascinating being in relation to the audience. The show is called Vikings, and we are meant to identify with Ragnar, Lagertha, and the rest. But at the same time, most of us watching the show tend to think of ourselves as politically aligned with the English. The split in loyalty between narrative and historical identification sets up a conflict in the viewer, and Roache has bridged it beautifully by creating a character who emanates wisdom, pragmatism, humour, and a deep understanding of how people work–in every look.

I’ve talked a bit about my love of the show Hannibal, and one of the things that made it so pleasurable is that you could not look away. So much of the important content of the show was not in the spoken dialogue but in the text created by the actors with a look, a half-smile, or a gesture. To look away was to lose the thread. The scenes in Vikings around Ecbert are much the same way. Look away, and you miss that what is coming out of the king’s mouth has little relation to what he’s really thinking or planning. There was always more to be gleaned from Roache’s eyes than Ecbert’s words.

And yet, the delivery of the words has never been more important to the character than in this last episode. It has been a long time since any living Viking but Ivar has seen the king, and from their point of view, he is, in his apparent dotage, a disappointing figure when set against their fathers’ and grandfathers’ stories of the man who stopped their advance west in years past. Not only does Ecbert understand this but uses it to the best possible effect, playing up the appearance of him as an abandoned fool, awaiting their approach as though it is anything less than an excruciating death sentence for him. Gone is Ecbert’s commanding tone. Instead, he quietly asks permission, as the sons of Ragnar discuss his and his kingdom’s fates, “I’d like to speak.”

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And what he says has to be sold. After all, he is facing the blood eagle at the hands of Ivar and thousands of Vikings on the heels of his fleeing son and family. He has to talk them into the last thing they want: a semblance of peace. His departing words to his family about the importance of humility are highlighted as he all but prostrates himself at the feet of Bjorn and tries to convince him to accept the land grant that he already gave and violently revoked from Ragnar. He offers to have documents drawn up to cement the grant in writing. What he never reveals is that he is no longer king. He no longer has the authority to grant such lands, so the documents he signs are worthless. Yet in return, he not only escapes the blood eagle but is allowed to choose his own death, and his own hands, away from the cheering and jeering of the Viking mob who came for him.

It’s a masterstroke.

The death scene is, if anything, even better than Ragnar’s simply because it is more personal. He returns to the pool and settles in, apparently alone. But he is not. He is comforted by the voices of friends and lovers as he slips away peacefully, ready to face with equanimity either the void or the afterlife—a question he could never settle to his own satisfaction. It’s a fitting end to a character who, though largely an antagonist, became as compelling as the man who was both his rival and friend. Season 5 will show us an England and series much diminished by his passing.

Whether that season will be successful will largely be measured by how effectively Vikings, and its creator Michael Hirst, can give us characters of this calibre to replace those we have lost. It’s not an easy task, and the last part of this season has definitely called into question the show’s ability to do so. On the other hand, we still have Lagertha, Aethelwulf is shaping up, Ivar will be on a rampage, and perhaps Haehmund will be better than he looks on first glance. The History Channel has not announced a release date yet for next season, but I’ll be there for the next 20 episodes, and hope you’ll come along for the ride.