This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Warning: contains spoilers for Vikings seasons one to five.
When I started reviewing Vikings a few years ago, I did so mostly to share my surprise. I, like others, had stayed away from this History Channel show because, well, being on the same channel as Storage Wars, Ice Truckers, and every Hitler quasi-documentary known to man, I assumed it was going to be a testosterone-fuelled mess. But eventually I tuned in because a friend told me to check it out and, you know, Vikings…
And what I found, to my delight and amazement, was something very different and altogether better than either the marketing or the context had suggested.
And so I spent the next two seasons writing about what the show actually was: a family drama written on an epic scale. Ragnar Lothbrok may be one of the most legendary Viking warriors and leaders to have lived, but in writer/creator Michael Hirst’s Vikings, he is also a complicated man: a farmer, a devoted father and husband, a fighter, and someone with a dream and the ambition to look beyond the way his community has lived for decades, if not centuries. He wrestles both with common frailties and heroic hubris, and the fate of his people often hangs in the balance.
With him—and sometimes against him—in his journey from simple farmer to king of Kattegat, are his shieldmaiden wife Lagertha and his first-born son Bjorn, his brother Rollo, his best friend Floki, and eventually his second wife Aslaug and their sons, Ubbe, Hvitserk, Sigurd, and Ivar. In the end, the entire show will be about how the dynamics of this family play out across most of Scandinavia, England, and Northern France.
And in essence, that’s what made the show work so well for its first four seasons. Yes, shifting alliances within the family, along with the various ambitions of some of its key players, led to key battles both against each other and common enemies (such as King Ecbert of Wessex, King Aelle of Northumbria, and Emperor Charles of France). But much of the compelling content of the series is what happened between those battles in more personal conversations and face-offs. Vikings works not because of its production values on the battlefields (though, in fact, its directors are phenomenally good at doing well with few resources there), but because it gives good actors good writing, and lets them work.
Many of the actors in the key roles were relative unknowns. At the very least, none of them, save Linus Roache, would have been all that recognisable to UK or US audiences. But the work of Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, and Roache in particular, not only elevated their own standings in their field but pulled a series that might have been easily ignored into the realm of cultural phenomenon.
Fimmel’s mercurial Ragnar has been repeatedly credited as the success of the show and yes, he is absolutely excellent in this role. What at first seems like a series of nervous tics and semi-hysterical laughter (shared in broader terms by his friend Floki) turned out to conceal the mind of a keen observer, occasional philosopher, and master strategist. The actor held his own against the more mature and experienced Roache in what has to be one of the most enthralling and insightful frenemy relationships ever on television. And his absence has left a massive hole since Ragnar’s death in season four.
Katheryn Winnick’s Lagertha, the brilliant, embattled, and seemingly indestructible shieldmaiden has proven, despite leaving her husband early in the series, every bit his equal and in some ways his superior (certainly, she is the one character that fans have tracked the most closely). Though initially given less dialogue than she might have been early on, Winnick shone in what went unsaid but still clearly expressed. When Hirst’s dialogue caught up, she became a heroine unlike any we have seen: a woman strong enough to be true to herself first, deeply love a man yet still leave him when betrayed, raise their son to love his father, stand beside both of them when it was right, and regret only that painful decisions were necessary – never that she made them.
Rollo, played by Clive Standen, has always been a more difficult role because his is always the story of what-might-have-been. Never truly the hero, never quite the villain, Ragnar’s brother struggles with living in the shadow of his more famous brother, believing that to be his defining characteristic, when it might be truer to say that his problem is never having tried to define himself for himself. He loves his brother, as much as he envies him, but he cannot commit to either path in his life and thus vacillates between them, not adrift as his (maybe) son Bjorn generally is, but shifting so rapidly between the two extremes that it looks at times like mental instability. Standen’s success, ironically, drew him away from the series, just at a time when his character seemed most poised to become something new and wonderful as the Norman Duke. His recent guest star spot only drove home that lost opportunity.
And so, when we entered season five, on November on 2017, and we had lost two of the three of our main protagonists as well as our primary antagonist, the fanbase held it collective breath: could Vikings survive the death of Ragnar?
The answer depends, really, on what you mean when you ask the question.
The simplest answer is yes. The show was renewed for a sixth and final season, which will begin airing some time later this year. There is also talk of a spin-off in the works by creator Michael Hirst in collaboration with Jeb Stuart, although those talks still appear to be very preliminary.
The more complicated answer is no, but not in the way you’re thinking.
The producers of Vikings chose to promote season five with an image of a battle from above with five discernable faces in the crowd – Bjorn, Lagertha, King Harald, Ivar, and Ubbe – and the caption “Who Will Rise?” The question was obviously a shortened version of, “In the power vacuum left by the death of Ragnar, who will now control the Vikings?”
The question is an obvious one, of course, and considering not only the culture, but the tensions within the family itself (like the fact that Ivar and Ubbe’s mother was killed in cold blood—though not without reason—by Lagertha) and the predation from without (Harald), not one whose answer could be assumed. It was absolutely going to have to be worked out, and it was not going to be pretty.
The problem was that it became both so empty and ugly that it has bordered on unbearable.
The set-up from season four was excellent, in many ways. The last-minute closeness between Ragnar and Ivar and the opportunity to mentor him in the very presence of the Saxon enemy his son would eventually face. Lagertha’s effective tenure as Queen of Kattegat and her extremely successful and brutal defence of it against the forces of King Harald. The revelation of Ivar’s strategic mind in the defeat of the Saxons. And, of course, the tensions between the sons of Ragnar, culminating in the murder of Sigurd by his obviously unhinged brother Ivar. All of this should have served as a good background to ask the question of “Who will rise?” against.
Unfortunately, season five opened by almost immediately defusing any of that tension, sending Harald, Halfdan/Bjorn, and Ivar/Ubbe/Hvitserk all off in different directions. In the first half of season five they eventually do gravitate back toward each other, centring around Kattegat, and the battle lines are drawn: Ivar, Harald, and Hvitserk (sorta) on one side, and Lagertha, Bjorn, Ubbe, and Halfdan on the other—with Heahmund thrown in first on the side of the former and then on the side of the latter for no reason that actually makes sense.
And that becomes one of the two main problems with Vikings in season five: we’re given so little reason for what our characters do, when we are given any explanation at all. In a series that spent its first three or four seasons developing characters that were complex and fascinating, that went out of its way to give three-dimensions to a culture largely depicted in popular culture as having only one, season five felt like a very different show. One that had the same characters, yes. Characters whose backstories and complicated motivations you could still very occasionally get glimpses of or whose behaviors you could tie back to long-past conversations if you were willing to do the work. But who were, in essence, just shadow-puppets of the people you knew before, all rushing through the script of a puppetmaster who seemed to be on a deadline.
But gone are the kinds of intimate and insightful conversations that Ragnar used to share with Ecbert or Aethelstan about faith and doubt or the type of scenes that revealed to us who a character really is, like the scene where the brothers mull over the news that the settlement left in England was almost immediately wiped out, that Ragnar kept that fact from his people, and his reasons for doing so – followed immediately by their confrontation and very different reactions (in some cases) to their newly returned father (I really recommend rewatching these two scenes if you haven’t recently because of how much they reveal about all five brothers). Such scenes are long, yes, and there’s little action in them. But they were far more compelling and interesting than most of the fight scenes in season five. Honestly, the same thing was true of every earlier season of Vikings: the action scenes were never the real draw, and that was fine. Until you get rid of the scenes, as they did in season five, of the scenes that were.
And, of course, when those scenes become disposable, so does the narrative, as well as the characters.
This brings us to the larger issue with season five: the first half answered the question “Who will rise?’ decisively. Ivar takes Kattegat and becomes its king. And this leads to the marketing tagline for the second half of the season: “Descend into Darkness.” And dark it is. But because of the first issue, much of the darkness is either inexplicable or simplistic, and possibilities are missed.
Anyone who has been watching the show would not be surprised that Ivar is a terrible ruler. The fact that he even wishes to rule is fairly surprising, since he must know his skillset lies in other directions. His entire career to date has been one spent on the battlefield, and that is where he has had his only successes. There must be a compelling reason to stay in Kattegat. It’s probably Lagertha. She’s out there, somewhere, with Bjorn and Torvi and Ubbe, but they have no army and no allies, and Ivar seems more driven to find them out of his desire for revenge than out of fear that they will return to take back what he’s stolen. Maybe he stays because he doesn’t trust that Harald won’t simply march in and claim his prize earlier than agreed. We don’t really know because the kind of scene that might lay that out for us is precisely what’s now largely missing from the series.
So we are left to do the work and try to fill in the blanks. But that’s the problem with Ivar: with almost every other primary and even secondary character we’ve seen on Vikings, there’s some real depth and dimension from the past at least to work with. Not so with Ivar. Ivar seems lifted straight out of a Renaissance drama: why are Shakespeare’s bastards bad? Because they are bastards. Full stop. Little more explanation is necessary.
Likewise, Ivar, despite having been the son of a king, doted on by his mother, eventually mentored by both his famous father and Floki (to the exclusion of most of his brothers—who still treat him as an equal in spite of their being skipped over for such favor), is not just a bad ruler, but a destructive and evil one. He’s a despot who cruelly suppresses rebellion and knowingly sacrifices innocents up in the name of self-aggrandizing spectacle. After having praised his father for being a model Viking in that season four scene with his brothers, he both does away with the democratic Viking governance and sets himself up as a Norse god on Earth, claiming the same status for his unborn child (an incredibly unViking-like thing to do since their gods make Greek and Roman ones look like indulgent grandmothers in comparison). And the only real explanation for any of this is because he’s a “cripple” and Lagertha killed his mother. He lives in a culture where such things would be commonplace. It’s no different from the bastard excuse. He’s a terrible king who does literally nothing to inspire loyalty and only keeps control through fear.
Which means that, for the entire second half of season five, we can see the writing on Kattegat’s wall. The only real question becomes, about three episodes in, is Hvitserk ever going to stop Hamlet-ing his way around Kattegat and publicly challenge Ivar? Or will it become necessary for one of the exiled members of the family to stand up in the town square and ask the people of their shared town, “Why are you listening to this madman in the weird makeup?” Everything up to that point in Kattegat just becomes like watching the timer count down on an episode of 24. We know Jack will save the day. Now we’re just stuck waiting.
What makes this so very frustrating is that this connective tissue, these glimpses into our characters and what drives them, isn’t just missing when it comes to Ivar but to all the characters we’ve invested so much in. Since he first appeared as an adult, I’ve pegged Ubbe in my reviews as Ragnar’s natural successor. I’ll admit that the news that Bjorn is likely Rollo’s son was a bit of a surprise, but it made perfect sense in hindsight simply because, much as I like the character, Bjorn’s never really been like the man who raised him (putting aside nature vs. nurture for the moment). He’s never had Ragnar’s vision or sense of purpose or concern for “his people”. Even Ragnar sensed this and warned him about this back in season two. The best thing Bjorn could do at the beginning of season six is hand the Sword of Kings to Ubbe and then stand as his general. They’d both be using their skills to best effect.
But the fact that a great deal of Ubbe’s maturation into the kind of man who could walk into the Danish camp and do what he did – deliver Ragnar and Lagertha’s lifelong dream as well as the safety of the Wessex kingdom with a minimum of bloodshed – has happened during season five means that we’ve haven’t been able to see it actually happen, much as we have the view into the relationship between Ubbe and Torvi, one that looks, from outward appearances (since that’s all we have) to be the successful version of the Ragnar/Lagertha one. Wouldn’t it be nice to know if the son also succeeded where his father did not in that realm of life? Especially considering all that we know Torvi has been through?
There are so many things left unexplained that it just begins to feel careless. Surely there has to be a better reason why Hvitserk left Ubbe for Ivar? Why on Earth would Lagertha lose her mind over the deaths of Astrid and Heahmund when she survived losing Ragnar and two children? Hell, why was she with Heahmund in the first place? Why is Harald so desperate to find love and Bjorn so content without it? None of these are incidental questions. They all drive the plot in important ways. And yet, now, suddenly, after four seasons of drawing fascinating character portraits and showing how those personalities change history, there is a resounding silence. Our actors are still delivering to the best of their abilities – and this is still a strong cast. But there is only so much to be done when you have a storyline stripped of the kind of character development and natural narrative flow that comes from strongly drawn characters, a bad guy who borders on caricature, and an ending that began telegraphing itself seven episodes early this season. And fans have not been happy.
In other words, to fully answer the earlier question, could Vikings survive the death of Ragnar? No, it appears not, because this just isn’t the same show. But that appears to have little to do with Ragnar’s death.
And yet, we hang on.
Why? I think it’s precisely because we have so much invested in these characters. Four seasons of backstory, decent plotting, and good character development is hard to walk away from. Yes, it feels like those characters are no longer operating according to their own internal workings and only to serve a plot that grows thinner episode by episode, but for better or worse, this is still their story, and we want to find out how it ends. So I think most of us will stick around for season six.
But here’s the thing. I, and I’m guessing, most of those who gave Vikings a chance didn’t do it because we saw an article in a media outlet. We didn’t see an ad on TV. We heard about it from a friend. And when we saw it, we told our friends about this amazing show that was so much more than anyone had any right to expect it to be. It was interesting, and beautiful, and rich. It wasn’t like anything we’d really seen short of period stuff on maybe HBO or Showtime, and it gave series even on those channels a run for their money. We shared it with others because something this good had to be seen and because we knew that more eyes on it meant we’d get more of it.
But that was not what we were given this season. And no one is evangelizing about Vikings right now. That’s okay. Even the best shows can have off-seasons. And fans are prepared, I think, to call it that.
But to do that, we need season six to really deliver, and the only way it will for its writer and producers to remember what it was that drew us all in in the first place. Budgets have grown. Bigger names have been drawn in. We’ve been shown more of Vikings‘ world. But that’s not what made people fall in love with this show, and if the ratings are anything to go on, it doesn’t look like it’s what’s going to make season six or a spin-off a success. We’re here because we’re invested in this complicated, messy, dangerous, fascinating family and how their relationships shape the world around them. Give us that – show us who they are and why they do what they do. Let us look behind the curtain and hear the whispered conversations and watch the shared moments. Let us see them live all of their lives, not just the parts that require sword and shield, and in full colour, not just in Ivar-black and Lagertha-white – and we’ll follow these Vikings to the ends of the earth.