Welp, time to sit down for another set of rousing adventures on the ‘Floki and Lagertha Show.’ Wait- sorry, I forgot. There are also other characters in the program and it’s actually called ‘Vikings.’ And not a moment too soon, because I was starting to wonder what value History had left to offer the world. I’m hesitant to admit it, but with ‘Vikings,’ History (the patron channel of Nazi fixations, conspiracy theories, and redneck vocations) has for once put its creative license with the past to good use.
From Rough Waters to Raging(ly Awesome) Seas
As excited as I was for the series premier in 2013, Season 1’s slow pace quickly began to wear on my ability to stay invested. After the death of Gabriel Byrne’s Earl Haraldson only two-thirds of the way into the season, the story lacked a compelling struggle for Ragnar Lothbrok. His subsequent exploits lacked any formidable antagonists. The season finale was an upsetting anticlimax, leaving us with neither resolution nor cliffhanger, as we waited for the plainly-announced battle against Jarl Borg to begin.
However, the first season’s lackluster sendoff allowed for the second to immediately establish itself as a far more dire story. The evolving political alliances raised the stakes of every battle and betrayal. The tumultuous alliance between Ragnar and King Horik (Donal Logue) spanned the entire season and provided a stable foundation for the plot. While the finale could be considered fan service, with all of Ragnar’s friends remaining alive and loyal, it still felt like an appropriate conclusion to the relationship between the two ambitious Norsemen.
The second season also delivered many stronger performances, especially in the case of Linus Roache’s King Ecbert. A shrewd and reasonable Saxon character gave the story a much-needed degree of depth and complexity. Above all else, having a window into the the English kingdoms allowed for a fantastic juxtaposition of the customs and religions of the two societies.
Having seen the bar raised for Season 2, I was excited for ‘Vikings’ to resume last night but nervous that it might fall into another aimless rut.
Love in the Time of Kattegat
Unfortunately, romantic troubles and teasers dominated the season premier, overshadowing the far more significant developments of last season’s finale. The exploration of the dynamic between the sexes has often worked to the show’s advantage, largely thanks to fierce and driven female characters such as Lagertha and Siggy.
Last night’s episode ‘Mercenary,’ however, was weighed down by a near constant focus on lovers’ quarrels in the first act. Ragnar won’t tell Aslaug he loves her, Floki is restless in his happy life with Helga, Rollo and Siggy have become distant, Bjorn is too protective of Thorunn, and even Torsten is contending with two feuding women who each claim to be carrying his child. Only Lagertha’s discussion of her marriage prospects showed the political savvy that has helped ‘Vikings’ buck the stereotype of Norsemen solely as brutish raiders.
The episode’s second half, set in England, spent most of its time hinting at new romantic tensions. The normally brash Princess Kwenthrith showed a timid fascination and infatuation with Ragnar as they traveled to take control of a kingdom from her uncle. Meanwhile, King Ecbert made no attempt to hide his attraction to Lagertha as they journeyed to the Wessex farming settlement gifted to the Scandinavian raiders. The former monk Athelstan, whose struggle with cultural identity personalized Season 2 so successfully, was reduced to a translator and third wheel during this trek.
Athelstan was not the only one acting decidedly out-of-character. Most notably, and most tragically, Floki showed not one ounce of his borderline-psychotic whimsy. His trademark giggle and fidgeting are one of the show’s most-beloved quirks, but he spent the entire premier in a near constant state of sulk. I understand the eccentric shipwright is having trouble adapting to life as a husband and father, but that doesn’t necessitate dulling his character beyond recognition.
Thank Odin that Linus Roache hams it up enough to keep parts of the episode legitimately entertaining. Spending most of his on-screen time seated and/or reclining, he uses that posture as an opportunity to emphasize King Ecbert’s unorthodox behavior for a monarch. In Roache’s casual swagger and lack of pretentiousness, we truly see what Athelstan suggested early on in Season 2: an English counterpart to Ragnar Lothbrok. If the creators are wise, this season will feature many opportunities to further explore Ragnar and Lagertha’s characters through their interactions with the kindred spirit they find in Ecbert.
With the saturation of couples’ quarrels, the Season 3 premier ultimately falls short of establishing a primary struggle for the narrative. We know for certain through teasers that the vikings will be raiding Paris, but that is of little concern with the current campaign to win the throne of Mercia and a developing coup in Lagertha’s territory. Recalling the wayward final three episodes of Season 1, we are also without any compelling enemies for the united Saxon and Norse leaders, having to settle for Kwenthrith’s obviously incompetent younger brother, and Lagertha’s cowardly, scheming subjects.
‘Mercenary’ felt like the third episode in a season where all of the major developments had already been revealed. The thing is, being the season’s first episode, we had no new direction to feel invested in. This unfocused premier presents an equal possibility to tighten the narrative or allow the show to fall apart in the coming weeks. To avoid such a backslide, Season 3 needs to restore presence to its characters and resume the artful storytelling that enhanced Season 2. After all, shouldn’t the series evokes the spirit of the epic sagas that inspired it? If, on the other hand, the story degenerates into an angsty pageant of breakups, hookups, and love triangles, I will soon be praying to the gods for a swift end to the televised tale of Ragnar Lothbrok.