Vikings Recaps S5E6: The Message

by thethreepennyguignol

After a great episode like last week’s, there’s always going to be a drop-off of sorts. And Vikings couldn’t avoid it, with a patchy, often bizarre episode, that felt as much like a fumble as it did a home run.

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Firstly, let’s clear out of the way the goings-on in England, as brief and brisk as they were this week to make way for what’s going down in Norway: Moe Dunford continues to fall on his arse as he tries to reclaim some semblance of power and security in England, but this is an episode that focuses on the Moe Sonfords: Misc. Redshirt Offspring kicks around proving that he can fight for a bit while Athelwulf nods on approvingly, but it’s really the first episode that puts Alfred, Athelstan’s son with Judith, front and centre: in fact, he even gets one of the two scenes that embody the classic Vikings trope of having major characters exposite their feelings to the dead and/or tenuously existing, as Alfred monologues to Ecbert’s grave (and reveals himself to be as dodgy an actor as I’d always feared, but there’s room for the performance to grow). His later scene with his mother, which sees him state his intentions to learn more about his true father, is better but also seems to kind of undermine the urgency of his desires to restore peace to England, as he just plans on wandering off to Lindisfarne for a bit instead of confronting the serious Viking problem at hand. Yes, it’s supposed to be an appeal to his faith, but the show hasn’t done enough to make this choice obvious for Alfred and as-is just feels like the set up for a spin-off. You can’t fix all your problems – character-wise or plot-driven – with a pilgrimage, and the England story feels a little like it’s treading water now Heahmund and Ivar are elsewhere.

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In the Moe Dunfjord plot, Floki is discovered attempting to smuggle people out of Kattegat against Lagertha’s wishes. She agrees to let him go in a scene that’s kind of odd in the moment but works as part of a thematic mini-arc about the way women handle power versus men. Honestly, this odd little half-plot advancement feels sort of tagged on just so the episode had an excuse to thrust some of Gustaf Skarsgard’s excellent acting at us to distract from the relative banality of this story. I thought it did draw out some generally decent acting from Katheryn Winnick – eternally betrayed and eternally patchy as she is – especially in the later scenes when she confronted the insufferable Margherette after the latter sat around literally bellowing about how shite Lagertha was while she was all of ten feet away. But we’re in stall mode in Kattegat proper as Lagertha prepares for an attack from Harald, and Ubbe remains irritatingly back-seated in the process.

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The meat of this episode lies over in Harald’s kingdom, and there’s a lot of good here, a lot of bad, and a lot of the downright inexplicable – Vikings is a show of many exciting line readings, but Harald’s confident and explosive “That is a fine blade!” when he greets Ivar early in the episode has to be up there with one of the most memorably odd. Ivar rolls into town at the start of the episode with Heahmund by his side, and dominates the lion’s share of The Promise by elevating the frequently dodgy rest of that side of the cast: his scene with Hvitserk, when he attempts to console his brother into believing that Ivar is still just the crippled kid Hvitserk would wheel around Kattegat on a cart, is the highlight for me, with that well-honed sing-song-sinister delivery just the right side of camp for me. Harald is mildly more interesting with Ivar around, a testament to the strength of Alex Hogh’s performance and his ability to raise this funeral dirge of a plot out of the cursory and into the compelling; less Slow Dunford, more Go Dunford.

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Heahmund is also hanging out in this story, with JRM getting the coveted “Monologue to God” sequence: he’s improving, but still delivers every line like Calculon from Futurama so I’m not sure if it’s actually getting better or if I’m just getting used to it. His scenes with Ivar are exquisite, by far the highlight of the episode, as the younger Lothbrok talks him round to fighting for the pagans. His value to the Vikings as a warrior and as a potential convert isn’t lost on Ivar, and seeing the two of them discover the ways in which they attract and repel each other works for me.

This is also an Astrid-heavy plot, and there’s…well, this is where the episode loses me. Astrid decides to get a message to Lagertha and bribes a local fisherman with jewels to deliver it – he agrees, on the basis that she has sex with him. She eventually agrees, but goes through with their encounter with obvious reluctance after asking if he really meant that bit. He then invites in the rest of his crew to rape her too, which they do.  I talked about the rape scene in the first episode of this season, one which the series has completely brushed off to the point where I don’t think Vikings thinks it was actually a rape scene, but one of the reasons that I found this so ugh was because Vikings has been so deft at avoiding using plots that rely heavily of sexual violence, a problem that the rest of TV seems to content to wallow in for the time being. So, when they stuck Astrid with a plot that made little sense and included a graphic on-screen rape and an off-screen gang rape, I just…come on, show, I want better from you. This hasn’t been the best season for Vikings’ women, so sticking one of the only remaining main female cast with a tropey plot like this one really galls.

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Not to mention, the plot just feels contrived to stick the rape on in there. It makes little sense that the fisherman would so willingly betray his King – who has proved bloodthirsty and brutal against those who get under his skin – to rat his entire community out to their enemies. The Vikings have been consistently shown to be a practical people, so it seems odd that the show should contrive this story around “everyone wants to have sex with a queen”, ergo, a large group of men would risk their lives to rape one. Did these kind of assaults happen? Yeah, sure they did. Does that mean the show is obliged to bend over backwards to fit in plots that feature them? Fucking nope. And yet. I am Moe Doneford with this story already, and it’s barely even Moe Begunford.

And that’s us for this – oh, fuck, of course, Bjorn’s plot continues to exist. After last week’s entertaining gap year shenanigans, Vikings resolves a cheap cliffhanger with an equally cheap escape scene, and then sends Bjorn and Halfdan back in the direction of…Kattegat? I guess. The show shaved down this story along with Floki’s so they felt kind of secondary to the outing as a whole, and this disjointed rush to move a collection of arcs on a few cursory steps left The Message feeling flatter than some of it’s finer scenes should have let it.

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