UK TV review: Vikings Season 4, Episode 6 and 7
Ivan Radford | On 11, Apr 2016
Warning: This contains spoilers.
How far Vikings has come since those opening episodes! Michael Hirst’s historical drama has gone all the way from exploration of The Other to political drama to action thriller – and, in Episodes 6 and 7 of Season 4, to tragedy.
This double-bill sees the show at its very best, mixing in elements of all the things that has kept fans coming back for four seasons. Episode 6 sees Ragnar do the inevitable and announce another raid on Paris – a decision that puts him on a collision course with his brother, Rollo. But there are enough potential betrayals to deal with before we get that far, from Lagertha inviting Elendur on the raid (with him still plotting to get revenge for the death of Kalf) to Floki buddying up with Harald and Halfdan, neither of whom seem very nice at all.
Lagertha, as always, is perfectly pitched: a warrior of few words and much resolve. When confronted by Elendur about Earl Kalf’s death, she explains it simply: “I promised I’d kill him for taking my Jarldom.” Her actions give away the complexity of her morals, as she appears to perform a ritual over her dead husband’s body, but again, there’s no doubt or hesitation in her actions. Compare to the snivelling Elendur, who doesn’t have the balls to be open about his plans, instead resorting to threatening to kill Torvi’s child, if she doesn’t bump off Bjorn. The lesson is easy: She’s noble. He’s a dick.
Back on dry land, the seeds are sown for equally duplicitous tomfoolery, as King Ecbert sends young Alfred to Rome with Prudentius – and Aethelwulf as their companion and protector. It’s a move that surprises everyone, including us, and it’s hard to read his reasons why. Is he moving Alfred out of the way for safety? Is he moving him out of the way because he knows he’s destined for greatness and doesn’t want it to interfere with his plans? Or is he just shoving Aethelwulf out of the picture, so he can shack up with his wife properly – and break up Aethelwulf’s potential union with Kwenthrith, which might threaten his claim to ruling, well, everywhere?
Over in Kattegat, meanwhile, everyone’s favourite mystical being turns up: Hardbard. He talks of wanting to “heal” people, which mostly seems to involve kissing them and having lots of sex. What’s the deal with that?
Again, it’s a revealing contrast to the more heroic Vikings we like to root for. After all, even Rollo and Gisla – our favourite French power couple – are transparent about their back-stabbing behaviour. It’s no coincidence that the best bit of the episode arrives when Alexander Ludwig’s Bjorn (who couldn’t be two-faced if his life depended on it) is simply yelling “Uncle!” from the water, as Rollo sits on horseback and watches them sail closer.
The slow, simmering tensions set the stage brilliantly for what follows: an all-out, 60-minute battle sequence that, frankly, is the greatest action scene Vikings has ever produced. It’s riveting, gritty, and gloriously violent.
The camerawork is superb, gliding down the waterway alongside the vessels, allowing us to get close to the waves and oars. But, of course, we know that it’s doomed to failure – we’ve seen Rollo’s plans already. When that chain comes up, it’s not the surprise that startles you, but just how vivid its impact is. Boats capsize, people get hit with arrows and things burn, all with the immediacy of handheld recordings. Lagertha’s troops, meanwhile, are seen from the static calm of Rollo’s defensive outpost, as they attempt to sneak around on land, while he’s distracted by the river. Again, we know it won’t work.
With hardly any time in Episode 7 for anything else, Hirst’s writing is a textbook demonstration of how to convey character through action. By giving us more information than the Vikings, the show subtly puts us on Rollo’s side of the fence – the opposite to where we normally sit. Before now, Ragnar’s whipped up clever tricks to outsmart everyone. Here, there’s nothing doing. Instead, he’s left to shout at Rollo, complaining that he saved him, only to be repaid by his brother with betrayal.
If that stripped-down emotional reaction is the heart of the episode, though, Ragnar’s behaviour moments later is just as troubling, as we see him rescue Floki from the fiery water. Unlike Lagertha, who is as straight as an arrow even in retreat, it becomes increasingly unclear what Ragnar wants to achieve here.
Just look at Travis Fimmel’s appearance compared to that of Rollo. Where once Clive Standen’s brother was the drunken outsider, now Ragnar’s the one off his face on medicine and ranting like a fool. Rollo is wearing regal French cloth and has long, flowing hair. Ragnar is bald and increasingly wide-eyed. Hell, a few minutes before battle, he couldn’t even tell if Rollo was a hallucination or not. Rollo may hesitate towards the end of the carnage, but he’s a picture of confidence and mental composure compared to Ragnar’s flailing loser – his burning down of the Viking camp only reinforces his upper hand. After the conflict has died down, Gisla asks Rollo about his family – and, while her excitement is endearingly naive, it’s no coincidence that she’s more hopeful about one day meeting Lagertha rather than Ragnar.
Hirst manages to squeeze one other subplot into the episode, which is the ongoing mystery of Harbard: Sex God. His fornicating becomes even thornier when he gets off with Aslaug once again – only for Floki to wander away from the Viking survivors and hallucinate that he’s the one doing the naughty with Ragnar’s wife. Is this some bizarre power of Harbard’s? Is he really a God at all, or just a con man bed-hopping his way around Scandinavia? What seems most likely is that Floki is the one having the vision – and that he is slowly morphing into the new seer of the Viking tribe, a role that would suit his demeanour and religious fanaticism (while also ensuring that a fan favourite can remain in the show).
That bizarre interlude, though, doesn’t distract from the daze of seeing the once-great Ragnar Lothbrok taken down so many pegs from the heights of Season 2 and 3. With Ecbert becoming king of Wessex and Mercia come the close of Episode 7, and Vikings Season 4 already having invested the time in developing the supporting characters around the tribe’s leader, it becomes clearer than ever that Ragnar’s star is on the way down. He’s gone from Other to leader to action hero and now, to figure of tragedy. The age of Rollo and Bjorn, we realise, is beginning. And with only three episodes left until the end of Season 4’s first half, we no longer wonder whether Ragnar will still be in power by the mid-season break. The question is whether he’ll even be alive to make it that far.
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.