The ground is covered in snow. The wind is battering the trees. A man strides against the natural elements, clutching his fur coat to his tired body. No, this is not The Revenant: this is Vikings Season 4. Just how easily the two could be (briefly) confused is testament to the show’s budget, spectacle and scale this season – but after an impressive, confident opening episode, bigger isn’t always better.
Vikings’ secret to success has been its balancing of the large and the tiny, the personal and the political: on the one hand, the Vikings are fighting to expand across the globe; on the other hand, brothers Rollo and Ragnar can’t stop bickering. Episode 2 attempts to reinforce each of its strands ready for the new run, but often only comes across as fragmented.
Bjorn’s DiCaprio-like trek is part of his own attempt to prove he’s a man – and Alexander Ludwig, to his credit, pulls off the arduous task of survival with gritted aplomb. Equally unhappy is Rollo in Paris, who finds himself increasingly isolated at the French court. Unable to speak the language, unable to keep his loyal helpers, he’s got no way of communicating with anyone, least of all Princess Gisla, who continues to laugh openly at her partner. Clive Standen is marvellous in these moments, doing comedy as well as he does brutality – one moment where we see him getting a haircut is both laugh-out-loud funny and endearingly pathetic. (Give him some people to kill and Rollo won’t bat an eyelid. Give him a tunic and a shampoo and he’s as quiet as a mouse.)
But even Rollo’s strand of the narrative soon finds itself starting to sink under the weight of so many things going on: we’re soon reintroduced to Therese and her 50 Shades of Count Odo subplot, which is one of the weakest of the programme so far (although the discovery that she’s been playing him all along at least means her actions make a bit more sense than they once did). Meanwhile, we get back up to speed with the latest events in Wessex, as King Ecbert continues his quest to be as slimy and loathsome as ever. Top of his to-do list? Rescuing good old Princess Kwenthrith, everyone’s favourite off-her-rocker ruler. But even that doesn’t really grab out attention – Amy Bailey’s princess has always been better when allowed to be wild and (violently) unpredictable, rather than stuck in a damsel-in-distress straightjacket.
All that and Floki escaping, then getting captured again anyway? It just adds to a sense of disparate chunks plot being thrown together without really connecting. No wonder Ragnar seems unbothered by Floki’s freedom.
Episode 3 of Season 4, though, is a welcome reminder that the show does know what it’s doing, at least for the most part. Mercy gives us some welcome tying up of Episode 2’s loose ends, while also filling in some previously gaping logic holes.
Why didn’t Rollo get his friend to teach him French? It doesn’t matter now, because he’s trying to learn it anyway (giving Standen another chance to look amusingly confused). Why do the French court want him around? Because he’s crucial to defending the city. Why did Kalf kill all of his men wanting to overthrow Lagertha? Because he loves her – or so he says.
Things start to be explained just a little more, as Vikings nurtures the seeds sown for each plot strand. And what we’re left with is mighty intriguing stuff, from Ecbert and Judith’s bizarre bond over their joint love of the dearly departed Athelstan (her desire to learn to draw may not be gripping to witness, but it certainly adds substance to their weird relationship) to Kwenthrith’s increasingly important role in Wessex’s court – her son, who is supposedly descended from Ragnar, will become hugely relevant in the future, we suspect, while the present offers the enjoyably sickening knowledge that both Ecbert and Aethelwulf have now shared the same women. Will anything come of that? Goodness knows, but it reminds us just how much we don’t like any of them.
Bjorn, meanwhile, gets some quality Revenant-style bear time in Episode 3. Impressive effects (and landscapes) aside, the script also does a neat job of tying that conflict into Lagertha’s situation, as we see two men hire a berserker to bump Bjorn off in the wilderness. Even Floki’s endless subplot of will-he-won’t-he-be-punished finds some emotional pay-off, as Helga struggles to tend to her husband and deal with the loss of their daughter.
And what of Ragnar? His own link to Athelstan is also explored in Mercy, but it’s telling that we’re spending less and less time with him as Season 4 unfolds – and just as telling that one of things we do see is his hitting of Aslaug in Episode 2. There’s an underlying sense that we’re being nudged away from Travis Fimmel’s charismatic leader, as the show opens up its horizons more and more. Between the bears, the betrayals and the semi-incestuous bed-hopping, this is without a doubt the biggest Vikings has ever been and, while that doesn’t always mean the show is at its best, it does highlight just how many people could step into the lead role in a post-Ragnar world. After all, our hero can’t stay the star of the show forever. And for the first time, that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.
Vikings: Season 4 is available to watch online in the UK on Amazon Prime Instant Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive every Friday, within 24 hours of their US broadcast. Seasons 1 to 3 are also available.