Amazon Prime Video UK TV review: Vikings Season 4, Episode 1 (A Good Treason)
James R | On 18, Feb 2016
As Vikings returns this Friday for a fourth season, it joins Fast & Furious as one of the most unlikely things to become a successful franchise. But three years after its debut, the History channel’s excursion into scripted television shows no sign of stopping. Its fourth run is its largest yet, with 20 episodes split into two halves.
The show picks up directly after the events of Season 3, which, if you recall, saw our marauders lay siege to Paris. It was an epic climax – so epic that they did it twice – with creator Michael Hirst sending boat after boat over the water into the bloody carnage. But what gave the huge confrontation its weight was the intimate trouble within our Vikings gang: Floki (spoiler alert) had already killed friendly neighbourhood monk Athelstan, while things between head Viking Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and his brother, Rollo (Clive Standen), were as hairy as ever.
Now, after the battle has died down, Ragnar remains in ill health, knocking – literally, in one sequence – on Valhalla’s door. That absence leaves something of a power vacuum in the Viking ranks. And if there’s one thing that Vikings love, it’s a power vacuum.
Hirst’s show, not unlike Black Sails, has amassed a deceptively complex web of group politics and personal betrayals – and, much like Black Sails, a lot of its drama revolves around the question of what separates a leader from the rest of the pack.
Ragnar has always been preoccupied not with riches, but with the idea of wealth contributed to the history books; legacy is more important than looting. That ambition not only led to the birth of his son, Bjorn, with Lagertha, but also led to him leaving her for Princess Aslaug so he could have more children – and to him becoming friends with Athelstan, and forging an uneasy truce with England’s King Ecbert. He’s cool, single-minded and unafraid to go behind others’ backs to do what he thinks is the right thing.
It’s fitting that in a community held together by loyalty, betrayal is the powerful act that separates the chiefs from the subjects – something that has been proven time and time again by Rollo’s rivalry with Ragnar. With his dad out of action, Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) struggles to fill those shoes with his own brand of solidarity. Ludwig is better than ever here, managing to be awkward enough to be visibly uncomfortable, but just charismatic enough to rouse the troops to remain faithful in Ragnar’s leadership. (Compare that to Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland), who seems to have her own ideas about betrayal in order to get the crown for herself.)
As an opening episode, there are vague implications of the direction the season might go in – the oracle makes yet another creepy appearance – but it’s telling just how many people there are in our tight-knit group with the potential to go off on their own, unexpected path. (The episode’s title, don’t forget, is A Good Treason.) After last season’s surprising events, it’s only a matter of time before Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) gets his comeuppance, but would dishing up punishment to the token clown be justice for his actions or a betrayal of Ragnar’s own wishes? And what of Rollo, who has chosen to shrug off his duties to stay in Paris and enjoy the spoils of victory?
The cast are all reliably brilliant, from Ludwig’s earnest heir to Sutherland, increasingly channeling Lady Macbeth. Clive Standen as Rollo, meanwhile, revels in the chance to showcase more sides to his bullish older sibling: he’s always had an intimidating presence, but away from his fur-covered brethren, his hulking physique sticks out like a sore thumb, turning him from a figure of fear into a tragic laughing stock. As he finds himself increasingly unable to understand the Parisians, he scowls more and more, but as much as we want to sympathise, there’s a lingering knowledge that his brutish violence is liable to wipe the giggles off our faces at any moment.
Equally intriguing is Ben Robson’s Kalf, who, after an underwhelming third season, finally gets a chance to display his ambiguous nature, as he appears to welcome Lagertha back to his (and her) village on equal footing. Who will betray whom? And just how much screen-time will Katheryn Winnick – who remains the best thing in the series – get this time around?
The ultimate double-cross of all, though, is by the gods, who effectively refuse Ragnar immortality, as he gets kicked back down to earth. It’s no surprise that he should recover (Fimmel is Vikings’ flagship star), but it is a shellshock to the king – and witnessing Fimmel’s usual enigmatic smirk turn to confused frown makes for gripping viewing. It sets in motion an identity crisis that promises to ripple throughout the waters of the coming 19 episodes, as Ragnar attempts to deduce his purpose among mortal men. Everyone around him, though, is also seizing the chance to work out their own position in the chain of command – and across the Channel, Rollo seems quicker to do so than most. Hirst balances out the brewing brotherly threat with impressively bloody action, a reassuring sign that the show has lost none of its agile pacing. Family issues, flying arrows and political feuds? Welcome back, Vikings. Season 4’s canvas may be bigger, but the show has lost none of its epic attention to small details.
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 4 are also available.