This review contains spoilers.
Vikings doesn’t receive as much love as shows like Game of Thrones or some of the other programmes featuring big beardy men waving their swords about (heh, heh). Rather than a behemoth like HBO, it’s made by the History channel, and it’s written by Michael Hirst, who’s most famous for The Tudors, and its interpretation of Henry VIII that’s a lot less overweight, and a lot more nude. As a result, Vikings has always been a bit more modest. Its smaller budget is probably most obvious when it comes to its big climaxes. This season spent most of its time building up the ‘Great Heathen Army’ of historical fame, which got me anticipating, foolishly, something perhaps of the scale of Battle of the Bastards, and instead got… well not that. As with The Tudors, the writing on Vikings can sometimes be a little clumsy and prone to cliché, with characters often coming across as one note (smile Björn, please, glowering doesn’t equal interesting), or committing actions that seem completely out of the blue. In Crossings for example, we have Floki, who has been defined largely by his zealous faith in Odin et al, spending half the episode in awe of a Mosque, and seemingly displaying an earnest attraction to this new religion; despite no real set up, nor anything ever actually coming of it. Despite it being made by the History Channel, Vikings also plays very fast and loose with the actual history and, for all the criticism Thrones receives over its scenes depicting rape, at least it never glosses over it as one scene in Crossings does.
An extra flaw with this season half has been, after the death of Ragnar Lothbrok halfway through, the lack of any truly engrossing lead character. The show instead flits between the different members of Ragnar’s family, who, aside from Ivar the Boneless, are not nearly as interesting or as watchable. Ragnar was always the most charismatic and likeable of all the characters on this show, being portrayed as an enigmatic genius in realpolitik, who seemed much further ahead in his thinking than anyone else around him. And it is a mystery why actor Travis Fimmel isn’t in much more stuff, he being able to say so much with just a look or a glance. This season half, where Ragnar is killed, and then avenged by his sons, very much demonstrates the respective strengths and weaknesses of the show as a whole. In the five episodes following his death, his loss is keenly felt; none of the other characters proving quite as compelling. However, Fimmel’s last few episodes are perhaps the best this show has been, and does perhaps rival other television greats. One of the best things about Game of Thrones is how successfully it overturns and subverts much of the tropes often found in anything involving swords. This was especially true in earlier seasons, where main characters would be killed on a whim, and, instead of any Tolkeinesque escapism, we were introduced to a harsh, chaotic world, with a focus on realism and political intrigue. Similarly, the last two episodes featuring Ragnar were about as deep and insightful as this show has ever been. Vikings has always been quite special, with its incredibly authentic recreations of the period in which it’s set, but these two episodes go above and beyond the norms of the show, as we follow Ragnar contemplating life and death, and making ruminating about each. Most of the episode In the Uncertain Hour Before the Morning consisted simply of two characters sat in a room drinking and chatting. They were however, the two most interesting characters in the show, and, displaying both pathos and humour, their dialogue tackles a range of topics from politics, to religion, to sex, to friendship. It was simple, it was clever, and it was more powerful than any action scene the show has ever done.
Vikings succeeds when it focuses on the most dynamic of its characters, on how they work, and their interactions together. Often Vikings can be clichéd, or even laughable (as with the introduction of Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s character at the end of the finale), yet In the Uncertain Hour Before the Morning and All his Angels were up there with some of the best television there’s been over the past year. The challenge now, if the show is to maintain it’s consistent watchability, will be to retain, with those characters left to us, the same level of depth and characterisation we had with the likes of Ragnar or Ecbert. Ivar, it seems, is being set up as a potential new lead, and this does seem the most sensible direction for the show to now go in. The writing for his character has not been nearly as one note as with others, and actor Alex Høgh Andersen effectively strikes a balance between being both terrifyingly psychotic, and a surprisingly sympathetic underdog.