The third season of the History Channel’s Norse series is still fun, as long as there are actual Vikings on screen.
Power is always dangerous. It attracts the worst and corrupts the best. I never asked for power. Power is only given to those who are prepared to lower themselves to pick it up.
At the end of Season 2, Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) had defeated another enemy and risen again in stature, now becoming King of the Vikings. The beginning of Season 3 finds him overlooking his domain from the edge of a cliff, and in conversation with his son, Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig). The quote above is meant to both illustrate Ragnar’s perspective on leadership and lay pipe for the season to come, but it only really achieves the first.
As I wrote last year, Vikings is an entertaining, handsome series, with exceptional character work and the best action sequences on basic cable. That all remains true in Season 3: Fimmel’s Ragnar is as wily and enigmatic as ever, and the supporting cast — from Clive Standen’s melancholy Rollo, to Gustaf Skarsgard’s mercurial Floki, to Kathryn Winnick’s indomitable Lagertha (one of TV’s best female characters, full stop) — have set a high bar for cast chemistry and tonal consistency. And this season expanded the Vikings’ world even further, as they successfully invaded not just Wessex, but France. The plotting and gamesmanship was no longer at the local level (Ragnar’s home of Kattegat), but continental. And while that frequently made for great visuals, it’s the incorporation of these foreign courts that led to the show’s biggest stumbles.
Nevertheless, what Vikings did well, it really did well — and that included more than just battle scenes. For two and a half seasons, our entry point into this strange world was the kidnapped monk, Athelstan (George Blagden). Saved from death not once but three times, we saw him wrestle with his demons and his doubts, some days fully embracing the paganism of his captors-turned-comrades, others not so sure. He became adviser and friend to two kings — Ragnar, and Ecbert of Wessex (Linus Roache) — but it was his relationship with the former that was the most fascinating element of the show. Ragnar was intrigued not just by Athelstan as a person, but by his Christian faith, and this season saw the Viking King explore this “new god” further — to the outrage of hard-line fundamentalist Floki. Ultimately in “Born Again,” when Athelstan receives a long-awaited sign from God and casts aside the Norse religion for good, it becomes too much for Floki to bear, and the newly-at-peace monk is not surprised when Floki shows up in his tent and strikes him down. (Skarsgard is fantastic and idiosyncratic, but that’s two seasons now the writing has reduced his character to one single-minded idea.)
As much as I’ll miss Athelstan, and Blagdan’s soulful portrayal, this led to the best scene of the season — all the more powerful for only involving Ragnar, climbing a hill to bury his friend “as close to your god as I can get you.” For several minutes, Ragnar speaks to the air, a moving monologue about regret and spiritual curiosity: “We had so much more to talk about…I never knew what a martyr was. I still don’t.” No, Ragnar won’t become a Christian — though he certainly gives everyone a fake-out before the end of the season — but his horizons have expanded, so to speak, and wants to find room for himself and his Christian buddy to find peace — together — in the afterlife. “There is nothing that can console me now,” he says after the burial. “I am changed, and so are you.” And for five more episodes, all we as viewers could do was wonder what Ragnar had up his sleeve, because he had no one left to confide in.
Vikings has always looked for ways to incorporate the more mystical elements of Norse culture, and Athelstan’s road-to-Damascus moment doesn’t come at the expense of it. Kevin Durand popped in for a few episodes as a mysterious wanderer, who took away the pain of Ragnar’s infant son Ivar (The Boneless), led Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig) to her death, seduced Ragnar’s wife, and then disappeared into the fog. Floki, of course, believes this man was one of the gods coming down to visit the mortals, but we never return to this idea — by the end of the season, all we’ve gotten from this detour is more heartache for Rollo. Even more heavy-handed was increased reliance on prophecy, which sapped characters of their agency and tension from the story. When Paris is sacked in “The Dead” and the Seer’s whispers are re-played, it’s an obvious and unnecessary addition.
Even Ragnar’s ultimate surprise victory — tricking everyone, including his brother and ex-wife (and us), into believing he was dead, providing unguarded entrance to the city for his fake Christian funeral — is a case of diminishing returns. Not because we’re tired of seeing Ragnar winning, but because once again his plan has been executed to perfection. Thanks to the Seer, and some inspiration from Athelstan, this was how Ragnar planned to take Paris all along. He let Floki lead an attack by sea, though he knew it would fail and cost thousands of lives (including nearly his son’s and brother’s.) The defeat was not just temporary, but part of the plan. Ragnar’s good, but is he that good?
Furthermore, with Ragnar in truly terrible shape, I was prepared for him to die. Not that the loss of the character (and of Fimmel) wouldn’t have hurt the show — it would have, a lot — but that Vikings needs to see a future beyond him. Bjorn Ironside must eventually become a warrior and leader as famous as his father (and Ivar, too!) but that can only happen after Ragnar is gone. We’re far past the point of nitpicking history when it comes to this show, but it absolutely would have made sense. Now, Ragnar seems to have cheated death (and the French), and I’m deeply concerned there’s nowhere else for the show to go with him. Yeah, the son of last season’s nemesis Jarl Borg is gunning for him, but is that really the best we can do? And now Lagertha’s got another reason to hate him, and Floki knows that Ragnar knows that he killed Athelstan, but as cliffhangers go, those are more of a gentle slope.
And speaking of the French — yikes. Creator and showrunner Michael Hirst (The Tudors), perhaps most comfortable in “court intrigue” mode, gave in this season to his worst impulses on both the Paris and Wessex side, spending interminable lengths of time with thinly-sketched, one-note characters we simply don’t care about. Roache as Ecbert is still terrific, but there was no need for the show to return to him once his Machiavellian scheming kicked the Vikings out of England, and yet it did…for a soapy triangle involving his son and daughter-in-law. Even worse was a digression with Paris’s Count Odo — who likes whipping women with chains for some reason — and his courtship of the weakling King Charles III’s daughter. It went nowhere and added nothing (except that old chestnut about the more “sophisticated” cultures being secretly more depraved than the uncouth Norsemen), and it’s not a place I want to spend more time in next season. Alas, Rollo is there, and is being tempted to betray his brother…again. Sigh.
Lest I get more negative with this review, let me close with this: I am unquestionably in for Season 4. Vikings may be Diet Game of Thrones, but it is rarely boring and never less than gorgeously filmed. The big action setpiece of the season, the initial attack on Paris, was a thrilling, complex piece of choreography — the biggest the show has ever done. And if you can look past the paper side characters and creaky plotting, the authenticity of the world and strong central performances are the kind of renewable resource that can keep a show going for a while. But three years in, the flaws aren’t going away, either — Vikings has already hit its ceiling, and bounced off it.
Season Grade: B