Vikings has been at the forefront of gripping, visceral and thoroughly entertaining television since it’s inception in 2013. I was quite late to the party, discovering it on a rather hellacious hangover day with my good friends Ben, Alun, and Callum. After an eventful New Years’ Eve, we decided to watch the first episode in our much-subdued state and by the climax of the pilot, I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to binge my way through the four seasons on offer and I did just that, taking me right up to the present day where I’ve recently finished watching the first half of the brand new season, 5A.
It’s fair to say, that the first three seasons are the best. Four was still great, but there were some eyebrow-raising moments, spawned by curious writing that was bubbling away in the background and what would only manifest itself even more during the course of Season Five. There’s a lot of mixed opinion and ideas about the latest incarnation of Vikings, which concluded over a week ago. During that time, I’ve rewatched moments, dissected scenes and really let my thoughts sink in and come up with an ultimate conclusion; it was good, but not great. It can be surmised by taking the moniker of the famous film; The Good the Bad and the Ugly as it was packed with a plethora of all three adjectives.
Yes, Season 5A is the weakest entry in the Vikings lore. There are several issues that were rife throughout, but I’d like to spend some time on the positives first (there were plenty) so we don’t get too downcast about what we just witnessed.
So to kick things off, we begin with the youngest of Ragnar’s sons (no, not Magnus), Ivar.
Depicted above is one of my favorite scenes in all of the show’s run. Ivar sits in solitude against his overturned chariot and issues guttural war cries to the English warriors, which sounded incredible. From the music to the atmosphere, I thought this was an excellent scene that depicted Ivar’s status amongst his enemies; he is a man to be feared despite his obvious restriction. Ivar has been polarising throughout his character run, however, I have always enjoyed his antics as his behavior borders on the ridiculous (where he shrieks “I’m not arguing” whilst in conversation with his brothers) to evil and without remorse (pouring molten gold into the Priest’s mouth during the siege of York).
Ivar has always needed a foil though, someone who can be his equal in all measures and match his insanity, devotion and battle prowess. Enter Heahmund, the newest addition to the main cast played by the enigmatic Jonathan Rhyss Myers. The warrior bishop made an impact immediately and established himself as a commanding presence on screen. The inevitable clash between him and Ivar was teased during the aforementioned battle of York (below) and I was salivating at the prospect of the two clashing in battle, properly.
As the season progressed, Ivar and Heahmund ended up becoming allied against a common foe and although this didn’t pan out as I’d hoped (oh, we’ll get to that), their interactions were great and reminiscent of Athelstan and Ragnar’s relationship, albeit turned up a few notches.
Sticking with the Christians and we get to the family of King Aethelwulf, which despite involving Judith (awful actress and poorly written character) does include the emergence of a new centerpiece; Alfred. When the season begins, we see the son of Athelstan in a pretty bad way. He’s sick, meek and looks poor in battle. However, as time progresses, he truly begins to come into his own, and this was really brought to life where he visited his deceased father’s former monastery at Lindisfarne.
Here, he has a great moment of self-reflection before he recites the Lord’s prayer and we get a glimpse into his character; whilst he will inherit many of his biological father’s traits, he will also develop similar aspects of his grandfather, King Ecbert which can only be a good thing going forward. He developed from a timid boy to newly anointed King, which itself has an intriguing subplot; his half-brother Aethelred vacated the absent throne in favor of Alfred, yet did not look too pleased about it come the coronation.
Moe Dunford was a shining light this season, his portrayal of King Aethelwulf was far above many of the other actors and it was a truly sad moment when he died. Although, the circumstances of his death are again mired in controversy (stung by a bee instead of the heroic death we all presumed he would get), in actuality being able to die surrounded by his loved ones was a just reward for him and contrasts beautifully with Ecbert’s final moments; who was left to die alone and naked with his wrists slashed. Although on occasion, King Aethelwulf was not depicted in the greatest of lights, such as being outwitted constantly by Ivar and indeed undermined by the more tactically aware Heahmund, in the end, his character was that of a good man trying to do his best to live up to an estranged father’s legacy.
Finally, I really enjoyed the “bromance” that developed between the explorers of the new world, Bjorn, and Halfdan. Their chemistry was good and their interactions became something to look forward to, but once again it was ultimately let down by poor dialogue (“Bjorn saved my life” was all we kept hearing from Halfdan to the point of ridiculousness) and their journey being cut abruptly short so they could be whisked back to Kattegat and partake in the Civil War. Which again, was a bizarre choice. Twice now, we as the viewer have been teased with this grand exploration (Season Four Bjorn took a huge party to raid the Meditteranean) and twice it’s been stopped because of other plot needs.
Alas, I can no longer hold back the tide of irritation, it’s been creeping into my positive remarks and it’s suitable now to transition into what I didn’t like about the season.
Leading on from the previous point regarding Bjorn’s adventures overseas, events, in general, felt rushed to a hasty conclusion. I got the impression Michael Hirst just wanted the various plot tangents he started to be over with as soon as possible so everyone could be back to partake in this trivial Civil War and presumably have an epic showdown (oh, we’ll get to that). Therefore, nonsensical occurrences such as Bjorn and Halfdan being able to seemingly teleport back to Kattegat became commonplace and the writing became lazy to the point of being farcical. For example, when Hvitserk is sent to gather troops from France, Rollo is absent and when questioned about this by his brother Ivar, his response is “he didn’t say [why]”. That was it. No actual explanation, just a throwaway line. Going further back, Halfdan, when quizzed about his unwavering loyalty to Bjorn, his response was simply “he saved my life.” This explanation was used against his own brother, who has fought by his side and also saved his life numerous times, surely there’s more to it than that? (Which of course there is, but it’s never properly stated, you have to assume it.)
As far as brothers go, let’s address the elephant in the room; Hvitserk is just a flat character.
Often forgotten and who can really be surprised at that, he doesn’t do much apart from changing his allegiance with Ubbe to that of Ivar, which sparked the Civil War. Again, there’s no real character arc or development for him, it seems all the attention and focus is on Ivar. It’s fine to have a focal point of the show, but when other characters, brothers no less, get relegated to glorified extras, it’s a problem. With Ragnar we had a clearly defined main character, yet he was supported by the fully fleshed out and developed Rollo, who always (and still does) have his own enterprising and storylines going on. Again, it feels lazy that the attention cannot be shared equally, even Ubbe’s role felt diminished as time went on.
Speaking of lazy; Queen Lagertha. The once proud, powerful and awe-inspiring shield maiden has declined to the point of parody and transformed into a caricature rather than the fearsome warrior Queen she is apparently supposed to be. It may sound petty, but her accent was really grating on me throughout. I can’t quite tell if she’s simply phoning in her performances, being told to have a different accent now she’s Queen, or if it’s that magic word; laziness on the part of Katheryn Winnick and Michael Hirst. The whole “girl power” schtick grew tiresome really quickly as it didn’t feel organic or natural, but rather agenda pushing and box ticking. Strong female lead? Tick. Emasculating men for no real reason? Tick. Seriously, the decision to have Lagertha rape a chained up King Harald was absolutely appalling. Utterly pointless and didn’t serve any plot advancement whatsoever.
Something else which truly irritated me was her playing wing-woman for Bjorn, who flat out said he couldn’t be bothered with his marriage and wanted to sleep with the new girl who waltzed in. Instead of being furious and demanding Bjorn show more respect to Torvi, she smiles and prances over to the King of the Sami people and declares her son wants to sleep with his daughter. This blew my mind. Lagertha had her family and life torn apart because of Ragnar’s unfaithful antics and yet she happily encourages her son to abandon his in favor of the new girl? That did not sit right with me at all and again, felt so lazy.
Speaking of Lagertha, remember earlier when I said “oh, we’ll get there” in regards to the decline of Heahmund’s character? I have two words for you. Love. Interest. It’s truly difficult to articulate how baffling this “romance” was, as is common with this season, it was rushed and painfully written. Heahmund declared he would die for Lagertha within minutes of meeting her, which was just ludicrous. This is a man we’ve been shown to be brave, fierce and placing Christ above all, yet here he is acting like a lovesick teenager. There was no need to have Heahmund captured by Lagertha and cut short the budding friendship and respect between Ivar, it didn’t come to any climatic confrontation between the two, it was simply Heahmund acknowledging his former ally with a curt nod. Perhaps the payoff is in Season 5B, here’s hoping anyway.
Floki’s expedition started off with such promise. He discovered an apparent idyllic landscape that he even believed to be inhabited by the Gods themselves. So naturally, he wished to invite other travelers along to join him. I had no problem with this initially, but as their time together wore on, we were beleaguered with uninteresting characters and not so shocking disgruntlement from the settlers. His island is now inhabited with forgettable and unlikeable extras. Floki then exclaims at the climax of Episode Ten that he will sacrifice himself to the Gods to appease them for all of the trouble he has caused. I have no doubt in my mind that this won’t go ahead, the tension is simply not there and I’m not invested at all in the characters, apart from Kjetil “Flatnose” (but that could be because I’m a fan of Adam Copeland). So with this plotline, it feels like there was promise initially but it ultimately fell flat. I’m just pleased Floki wasn’t whisked back to Kattegat by a murder of crows to somehow resolve everything, so there’s a small consolation there.
Astrid and Harald were not exactly star-crossed lovers, but their coming together was a stroke of brilliance, in my opinion, so credit where it’s due. We had some good laughs initially, with Harald freely accepting his poor luck with women amongst a rowdy hall and we had some good old Viking’s style chuckles at that. As time moved on, there was a real chemistry developing between the two and you could see the dynamic was shifting from a one-way infatuation to a more balanced admiration between the couple. Tragedy struck though and Astrid was cruelly taken advantage of by multiple men. Soon after she was pregnant and poor Harald was over the moon, thinking he was the father. Of course, we as the audience knew this likely wasn’t the case, but Harald continued blissfully unaware and looking forward to the birth of his child. Here’s where I feel robbed. We never got to see the outcome of this, because Astrid was scythed down in Episode Ten by none other than her former lover; Lagertha. I understand that the ramifications for Lagertha killing Astrid brought an instant physical change in her, signaling a possible mental breakdown, but this could have been done later I feel. Again, there’s untapped potential that will never be realised and it wastes one of the few good plot arcs this half-season had going. Harald now is reverted back to being another side character without much intrigue and it’s a real shame.
It’s been touched on, but the final battle did not deliver for me. Constant flashbacks and flash-forwards made it feel disjointed and the plot device was overused to the point of confusion. It felt like something out of a video game, the main characters went uninterrupted during a brutal and hectic battle so they could exchange some poignant lines to one another. The realism exhibited in the first seasons had all but vanished at this point and the fact that this entire half season has been used as build up for this climatic conclusion is what has really left a sour taste in the mouth. Characters were also mercilessly killed off. The aforementioned Astrid, who while not my favorite, was growing on me and had more to offer, was joined by Gothrum (son of Torvi and Jarl Borg) and regrettably, Halfdan on the casualty list.
Visions were the key theme throughout the episode, as we saw Halfdan (above) envisage himself back to where he was happy with Bjorn. (Which, by the way, is the real meaning behind “Bjorn saved my life” – he was given purpose.) But there was, of course, strange moments within this cluster of images, including Ivar imagining everyone, apart from Lagertha as skeletons. Ironically this is perfect imagery for the season on the whole so far; nothing else is important apart from the Ivar vs Lagertha feud, in the eyes of the writer, so that’s what we got. Half finished storylines, weak character development, and poor dialogue.
To conclude then, this half season had poor writing, poor acting and the whole thing felt like a run-up to the civil war which didn’t really entice me. I’d rather have seen everyone stick to their original solo adventures, for example, Ivar conquering England, Bjorn raiding and despoiling in the Mediterranean, Lagertha, and Astrid possibly working together to overthrow Harald in secret, the list is endless with “what-if’s” but the underlying thought is that there was a whole lot of potential that was left unfulfilled. Season 5B has a lot to do now to redeem this first half. Let’s hope there are some big pay-offs and I can gracefully eat humble pie.