Vikings season 5 episode 6 review: The Messenger

Is Vikings starting to lose its way, or is this just the lull before the storm? Spoilers ahead in our review of the latest episode...

This review contains spoilers.

5.6 The Messenger

One of the things, good or bad, about Michael Hirst (compared to some writer/showrunners) is that he’s pretty open with his audience. And because of that, we know that Harald and Ivar’s planned attack on Kattegat won’t come until the mid-season break. This is not unusual for the show—building slowly toward an event that we know will happen. One of the delights, in fact, of Vikings has been the fact that it does not rush things.

After all, it is not, as I have pointed out elsewhere, an action-adventure series. It is an ensemble character drama. As a result, fight scenes have tended to be short and familial (and other) dialogues long-because we learn far more about our characters in those quieter scenes than we do when they are swinging an axe at someone. And for that reason the slow burn up to the really pivotal events rarely mattered.

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But what has worked for the first four seasons of Vikings may no longer fly. And last week’s The Message is evidence of the continuing problem.

A lot has been said about what the effects of the death of Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar would be on this season. And certainly, we miss him as a unifying figure. But it was far more than that. What made Ragnar extraordinary as a Viking and as a character was his complexity. At first it seemed that he was merely unpredictable, but as the show wore on, it became clear that there are both method and even a particularly flawed nature to his perceived madness.

But it was not Ragnar alone. Ecbert may have been cut from a different cloth, but his mind was an elaborate a tapestry as that of his Viking counterpart. The way the two of them paralleled and contrasted with each other, whether in their intimate conversations or their epic military strategies, that provided much of the framework of the development of many of the primary characters on the show. Rollo or Lagertha or Ragnar’s sons did not have to be in the room with them or even on the field of battle between Ragnar and Ecbert for their entire world to be upended by how any meeting between the two kings progressed and ended.

Losing not just Ragnar but Ecbert then removed much of the wind from the narrative sails of the show.

And thus, it is hardly surprising that it feels as though the story is a little lost and meandering right now. Despite the fact that Ivar is as bloodthirsty a Viking as one could imagine and more intent on fame than even the most legendary of Norsemen (his father), he is not particularly interesting. Placing him in close proximity to Jonathan Rhys Meyers is probably a mistake, in fact, because it highlights a big part of why he fails to be anything but a brutish fly in the ointment.

In Hirst’s project The Tudors, one of the most wonderful and amazing things is how well Hirst shaped and how well Meyers performed the tragedy of Henry VIII. Here was the jewel of early modern nobility—a prince of such beauty and courtliness that the early reports on him are hardly to be believed. Henry was a skilled athlete, a learned man; he danced, wrote poetry, played music. And he was, for about two decades, a good and wise king. And then he began to change. He put aside a wife whom he had not just respected but actually adored. He became obsessed with his legacy. He struggled with and eventually crushed a church he had championed. He slowly went mad and became the terror of the same Europe he had, years earlier, so charmed.

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But Ivar has remained largely unchanged since we first saw him in his adult form. He has gained a touch more confidence to act on his basic nature, but that nature has not evolved. Sigurd was always living on borrowed time simply because Ivar is-yesterday, today, and tomorrow (apparently)-the cruel and undisciplined child that Aslaug and Floki created him to be.

And mean kids just aren’t interesting. Really, they are just plot devices. Which is too bad. Because I get the sense that Alex Høgh Andersen is capable of doing more. We occasionally get to see Ivar in moments of vulnerability, and Andersen handles these well, but the fact that those moments disappear as soon as they are over and, unlike his father, Ivar seems to learn little in terms of actual life skills from his experiences.

The others don’t do much better.

The fact that Hvitserk has subjugated himself to the will of such a child then undercuts his character, leaving us expecting nothing of interest from his quarter. Harald is still a ridiculous fool for love it would appear even when he has little reason to believe—other than his own desire to be desired—that Astrid feels anything for him. Bjorn and Halfdan’s southern adventure comes to such an abrupt halt that it is jarring and their ability to somehow procure camels, get them through a completely unfamiliar desert, make their way back to Sicily and their ships is completely uncreditable.

And then there’s Lagertha and Floki’s storyline ending in the only way it could, as I said in my last review. We knew them too well to think that he would be able to fool her for an instant, and we know she would not kill her oldest friend. The only question was whether his converts would be allowed to leave with him, and since we don’t know them yet, we really don’t care all that much.

So we have most of the characters either behaving precisely as they always have (giving us nothing of particular interest to watch) or in apparently extraordinary ways which we simply don’t get to see at all.

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Only Bishop Heahmund and Astrid really stand out, and that is primarily because we still don’t know them well and are still learning about them. The risks Astrid is willing to go to and the things she is willing to suffer to warn Lagertha tell us something we did not yet suspect about her: despite her rebellious nature, she is completely dedicated to her lover and queen. And the scenes of Heahmund’s struggle to come to terms with his current state and limited choices definitely benefits from Meyers’s more mature acting skills—he understands that sometimes doing less is more simply because it sets the stage for when your character finally does take action. As Heahmund does. It’s another abrupt episode end, but it works somewhat better than the one at the conclusion of The Prisoner, primarily because we get the sense that something has changed in the Bishop—there’s a promise of more action to come.

There’s a joke that Ed Byrne did on Mock The Week when the panelists were asked to perform “Unlikely Film Trailers”: “Tom Cruise. Explosions. A flash of boob. (shrugs) That’ll do ya.” But the truth is that it won’t. We need more than “Ivar the Boneless. Bjorn escapes. A gang rape.”

We need what we’ve had for four seasons. And it wasn’t Ragnar. Not really. Ragnar was just the frame for what we enjoyed: great characters who tried and failed and loved and learned and got better and worse and lost and found and evolved. That was the reason the show was slow-paced—to allow all that to happen and be seen.

Without that development, the pacing just becomes boring. And that’s something Vikings has never been. Let’s hope this really has been the lull before the storm.

Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, The Prisoner, here.