Vikings found itself up the proverbial river last week, as it tried to introduce Paris and all its political tensions to us, while still dragging us back to England to follow the blood-thirsty Brits. The resulting mesh of villains we were meant to be intrigued by and alliances we were meant to be sympathise with was not only messy; it was dull.
With only three episodes to go, the show comes up with the perfect answer to any ennui: 45 minutes of barnstorming action. From almost the opening second, we’re right in the middle of the Vikings’ raid upon the French capital, sailing up the Seine and attempting to breach the city. It’s the biggest (and best) battle of the series to date – if the ambition impresses, the ability to pull it off is jaw-dropping.
The plan is familiar to anyone who’s seen The Lord of the Rings: Lagertha and Kalf lead an assault on the gate, while Floki crafts a string of ladders to scale the walls. It’s complex, it’s massive, and it’s full of bangs, clashes and blood. It’s to Michael Hirst’s credit that despite the scale of the conflict, the skirmish tells a story: he knows how to write action and, equally importantly, Kelly Makin sure as hell knows how to direct it.
The cast throw themselves into it with gusto, with Clive Standen’s Rollo really coming into his element for the first time this season. Alexander Ludwig’s Bjorn, too, feels more relevant now than he ever has. But for all their braun and bold butchery, the battle turns when Princess Gisla hits upon the idea of blessing the city banner and using it to inspire the defending troops. Suddenly, they spring to life with the kind of fervour usually reserved for the manic Floki.
Gustaf Skarsgård has become a disappointingly shallow villain in recent episodes, with his hatred of Christianity and Athelstan removing any nuance from his wise joker. But here, that over-the-top fanaticism is complemented by Morgan Polanski’s princess. What begins as an exercise in sheer brutality becomes a clash of beliefs; a contest to see whose faith can carry the bigger clout. It’s exciting, then, to see the Vikings fail to easily overrun their opponent for perhaps the first time; Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar stands back and watches, cross in hand, as Floki’s ladders begin to catch fire.
Diversions into Lagertha and Kalf’s unconvincing relationship and some deliberately deceitful editing to make it look like certain characters die take the edge of the assault, but To The Gates! (note the exclamation mark) is a thrilling piece of television that does enough to distract us from the wayward direction of Season 3. Where Vikings goes from here is another matter entirely. But as Game of Thrones makes it return this week, Episode 8 is an exhilarating reminder that it’s not just Westeros that knows how to swing a sword. Regardless of what happens either side of the battle, this is one of the best on-screen sieges since The Two Towers.
Vikings is available to stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or, if you would also like unlimited UK delivery and 350,000 eBooks available to borrow, as part of a £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.