Vikings S5E1/2: The Departed
What does a post-Ragnar world look like for Vikings? It’s a question I’ve been asking since his death three-quarters of the way into last season, and one that the show hasn’t really offered a definitive answer to until the double-header that opens it’s latest season.
I mean, really, this is Vikings: The New Class, with Ragnar’s surviving sons stepping up to take centre stage in these two episodes. The show has made a wise choice in shifting the focus from Bjorn to Ubbe, as not only is Jordan Patrick Smith a better actor than Alexander Ludwig, but Bjorn’s inner conflict is somewhat played out (and not least because the show mostly articulated it through Ludwig yelling at bears) while Ubbe’s is only just beginning: as he eases to the forefront of the story, it’s his inner conflict over the violent ravaging of the city of York that lands the two-parter it’s most interesting moment.
Vikings has always been a show that draws real character development from it’s violence, and the capturing of York by the Vikings is one of the best examples of that. Ubbe cradles a dying nun as she begs him to kill her, while Hvitserk (whose name I have grudgingly learned after accepting that he wasn’t going to be killed off last season) delightedly mows through the crowd until he’s literally drenched in blood. And Ivar, well, Ivar is off melting down golden crosses to pour down the throats of Christian priests, but more on that later. The ramsacking of York is a standout scene for this opening two-parter, and a central statement piece for the arcs these characters will be heading down this season.
And while we’re on the subject of Ivar, it’s a decent episode for Alex Hogh’s gurning maniac: last season, I sometimes found that the show leaned too hard into his weirdness and just made him seem flimsy as a result, but this time around they seem to understand that his complete unhinged sadism needs to exist alongside his political and military wiles to present any kind of plausible reason for Hvitserk and Ubbe to keep him around after his violent murder of Sigurd at the end of last season (also, listen to the way he says “army” : “A-yer-mee”. Every time. Sorry I’ve ruined that for you). Hvitserk, on the other hand, still just kind of is, but at least they’re giving him a vague something to play with instead of just sticking him with odd threesome scenes with his big brother. Ugh.
Right, phew, where to start with everything else? Back at the island of Thermyscira/Kattegat, Lagertha is lumbered with the worst plot of the two episodes, as King Harald returns to sort of wank around pretending he doesn’t want to be King of Norway when he really does want to be King of Norway. It’s a plot that makes Lagertha look naïve and dithering, and also includes something that’s uncomfortably close to a rape scene when Lagertha forces herself on the chained-up Harald to his apparent confusion. Just…goddammit, Vikings, you know how to write interesting female characters, so please don’t lumber the better part of them with this intensely uninteresting plot. Harald feels like he’s been kicking around uselessly for about ten seasons, and the show has only just started it’s fifth. He’s a waste of time and I’m already disheartened with seeing Katheryn Winnick get stuck with the deadest end of a plot this season so far.
In better news, Johnathan Rhys Meyers as Bishop Heahmund was substantially better than his introduction in the finale led me to believe. Yes, we still had to suffer through a sexy communion scene and some acting a little more po-faced and pointedly thespian than it necessarily needed to be. But in one brief scene – of an apparently self-flagellating Heahmund tearing his flesh as he runs through a thorn-ridden forest after he presumably gives in to his carnal desires – the show manages to layer him with an instantly-compelling inner conflict, as a man dedicated to his faith and his dick. I’m still not convinced by Meyers as an actor and frankly never will be, but this was a decent start that doesn’t threaten to throw the entire show off-track as I feared it might.
Elsewhere, Floki is building a boat and taking to the high seas in a plot that’s as ridiculously indulgent and as ridiculously Vikings as you can get. Yes, it’s a huge, odd diversion from the main storylines, but indulging Vikings woozier, more mystical side is always best translated through Gustaf Skarsgard’s intense and committed performance as everyone’s favourite shipbuilder – slash – maniac. The show really leans in to it’s outright beautiful locations and direction as he scrambles from his boat on to fresh and as-yet unknown shores, and I’m intrigued to see what they do with this story now that Floki seems so stripped of everything that was once important to him (Ragnar, Helga, his daughter) while clinging on to his strenuous, life-giving faith.
The final section of these crammed-to-the-brim episodes is made up of Aethelwulf and his family on the run after the death of his father. Really, these sections are upheld by the strength of the performances: I’ve only ever had good things to say about Moe Dunford and Jennie Jacques as the couple most in need of counselling on this show (and that’s saying something), but a few great scenes draw out their inherent talent and lend some depth to what could feel like arbitrary check-ns. Aethelwulf calmly reminding Judith that her gravely ill son, Alfred, could be paying for the sins she committed in conceiving him is savagely unsettling, while later, as they present a united front to face the Northmen in York, they make quite the compelling royal couple. Even if Alfred has been inexplicably aged up. I always fucking adored Linus Roach as King Ecbert, but the more action-driven show didn’t miss his thoughtful, verbose presence, at least this week.
So yeah, while there were some problems – problems that threaten to stick around – I would say The Departed two-parter is a strong, convincing start for the fifth season of Vikings. With the sons taking centre stage and Ryhs Meyers stepping up to provide a potentially worthy foe (with as much inner conflict as outer), I, for one, am excited to see where this season goes next.
What about you? Are you looking forward to the rest of this season? And what (or who) are you most excited about following? As ever, hit me up in the comments below, or head over to Twitter to shout at me over there!
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