Previous seasons had had nine or ten episodes but Season Four had twenty episodes. Twenty mind-numbing, soul-destroying episodes bursting with so much pure unadulterated stupidity that it is honestly difficult to know where to start. But I will, because the sooner I finish this review, the sooner I can crack open the rum and deaden the pain of the knowledge that Vikings was renewed for a fifth season of…twenty episodes. Michael Hirst is doing this to break me, I know it.
Again with the betrayals.
Sooo, Rollo (Clive Standen) betrays Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) again, only this time to become a duke, because he has fallen for an uptown girl, Princess Gisla (Morgane Polanski). When his followers wonder if he is becoming too close to the Franks, he arranges for them to be slaughtered. The storyline is based on an actual Viking named Rollo who did receive land in Normandy and a dukedom in exchange for defending the Frankish coast against Vikings, but it happened several generations later. Not a big deal, time is relative, or something like that, I barely passed physics in high school. But the point is that the real Rollo’s followers were the key part of the deal, not Rollo alone. So, if the screen version has them all massacred, not just the troublemakers, but ALL of them, then what is his value? The suggestion that the Franks build forts on either side of the river with a chain to block Viking raiders? Wow, that’s really original. Realizing that the Vikings used the rivers to launch rapid raids and leave before an army could be raised, Charlemagne, the emperor’s grandfather, had fortified many rivers.
The only part of the plotline that is interesting is when Gisla sees Rollo dressed in his fancy clothes and cracks up. To be honest, he did look ridiculous. Speaking of Gisla, man, she is harsh. Rollo had to kill all of his men, learn Frankish and throw away his Viking bracelet to warm up Gisla’s cold heart. The things you do for love.
Someone’s been watching Game of Thrones.
Count Odo’s (Owen Roe) right-hand man Roland (Huw Parmenter) is secretly having sexual relations with his sister Therese (Karen Hassan), Odo’s mistress, as they plot to replace the count, who…, wait for it, is plotting to replace Emperor Charles (Lothaire Bluteau). To be fair, the emperor is a liability. Poor Odo, he thinks he has finally found a woman who can give it as well as take it but she betrays him. And he was so good to her. By the way, I know that we left reality town a long time ago but the real Odo was crowned king after defeating the Vikings during the siege of Paris. When the betrayers of Odo start to plot against Rollo, the emperor has them killed at dinner, after first having sex with each of them. It’s good to be the emperor.
Showrunner Michael Hirst is working hard to make us sympathize with Ragnar and his not-so-merry band of predators. The consequences of the Viking raids do not matter because no one cares about the incestuous plotters in Paris. I have to admit the show is gradually starting to make me angry.
Meanwhile in Wessex…
Princess Judith (Jennie Jacques) agrees to become King Ecbert’s (Linus Roache) mistress after he arranges for her to learn how to illustrate holy books and promises to respect her. This may not appear to be a fair exchange but I actually get it. There was no Netflix, no Playstation, no smartphones, she must have been willing to do anything to cope with the boredom.
Ecbert had been sheltering Princess Kwentrith (Amy Bailey) to use her as a puppet to rule Mercia, but a rival claimant agrees to ally with Ecbert to seize control of Mercia, and then renounces the throne in favor of Ecbert because he lost his entire family in the endless civil war and believes that everyone else is either too weak or simply mad like Kwentrith, while Ecbert is strong enough to defend both nations against the northmen. Honestly, it makes sense, and it even has some basis in reality. The historical Ecbert took advantage of the confusion caused by fighting among Coenwulf’s heirs, including his daughter Kwentrith, for control of Mercia to force the smaller kingdoms of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex to submit to Wessex. Eventually, political instability in the other kingdoms enabled Ecbert to conquer Mercia and even force Northumbria to pay tribute, thus making Ecbert the Bretwalda, overall king, of England.
I liked Kalf.
To keep his alliance with Erlendur (Edvin Endre), Kalf (Ben Robson) arranges for the assassination of Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig), who nearly does an own-goal by getting drunk and falling asleep outside before killing a bear with a knife. By the way, if you want to arrange an assassination, perhaps don’t give the assassin a ring that could be easily identified. To be honest, I always felt that the actor playing Erlendur mistakenly thought that he was on one of the Twilight films, and just gamely played along.
While I could never take the sulky Erlendur seriously, I liked Kalf. Too bad Lagertha killed him as soon as he put a baby inside her. Admittedly, she had told him that she would kill him one day but that is still pretty harsh.
Alfred, the Chosen One. Before he became Great.
Alfred, the love child of Judith and Athelstan (George Blagden), travels with Prince Aethelwulf (Moe Dunford), his official father, to Rome to see Pope Leo IV (John Kavanagh), who immediately recognizes that Alfred is destined for great things, which kind of reminds me of Annakin Skywalker in the Phantom Menace.
Admittedly, the real Alfred did travel with his father to Rome, but little was expected of Alfred since he was the youngest of five sons. The genuine Aethelwulf remained in Rome for a year because there was a dispute between two claimants to the papal throne, and he wanted to see who won, which sounds far more interesting than the chosen one subplot.
Hirst seems determined to make sure the audience realizes that Alfred will become great. Ecbert spends much of his later reign tutoring Alfred in the art of ruling, even though Alfred’s older brother would be expected to receive the throne. There is even a scene later in the season where an adolescent Alfred beats Ivar the Boneless (Alex Hogh) at chess, foreshadowing his eventual victory over the Vikings.
Ragnar’s Mid-life Crisis
While everyone is busy planning the next raid on Paris, Ragnar is going through a mid-life crisis, abandoning his official duties to get high with Yidu (Diane Doan), his Chinese mistress, who used to be his wife’s slave until he freed her. Who turns out to be the daughter of the Chinese emperor.
Although the mid-life crisis is a little hard to take seriously, it does produce several good scenes, including Ragnar’s desperate attempts to keep his twitching under control as he goes through withdrawal. In particular, there was a nice moment before the raid on Paris, where Ragnar and Bjorn talk about their failures as fathers and husbands, and Ragnar comments that it is not easy to be a father, and even harder to be a husband, admitting that he has definitely failed at being a husband. To be fair, Bjorn should not really judge Ragnar since he does not seem too bothered that his daughter died while he was in Paris. Those brief intervals of coherent storytelling made me wonder if Hirst simply let Fimmel write his own dialogue.
Spartacus this is not.
By the way, the third slave who is actually given a name on the show is freed and treated well. Then, a fourth slave, Margrethe (Ida Marie Nielsen) is introduced, and promptly freed, and then married to Ragnar’s son Ubbe (Jordan Smith). Soooooo, four slaves have been named and all four were freed. To recap, Athelstan was enslaved by Ragnar to learn more about England, but soon became part of the family, and eventually became the closest friend of the two most powerful men in Denmark and England. As well as had an affair with the charming Princess Judith. Porun (Gaia Weiss) was freed because Bjorn fancied her and wanted her to genuinely care for him. Well, Yidu was kind of freed, but was then killed by Ragnar in the worst stage of his addiction. However, Margrethe spends her marriage night with Ubbe and his brother Hsitverk. Basically, life is not bad for the slaves. They will be freed, possibly married, and have a fifty percent chance of a threesome (a very, very, very stupid Athelstan refused an offer of a night of feral lovemaking with Ragnar and Lagaertha). If all of the slaves are treated this well, people would be lining up to be enslaved, especially given the economy.
Rollo, defender of civilization.
As promised, Rollo’s forts and chain prove impenetrable. So Ragnar and his happy band of rapists and looters manage the impressive engineering feat of portaging their ships around the forts only to find out that Rollo is waiting for them with a huge fleet. Maybe if they had just struck immediately towards Paris, it might have worked but they delayed to build those fighting platforms, which gave Rollo time to gather an army. Despite my restrained and much deserved criticism of the many idiocies in the plot, I have to say that the battle scenes on Vikings are awesome. Along with Travis Fimmel’s portrayal of Ragnar, they make the show worth watching.
After a lengthy battle where Rollo gets to make an inspirational speech, the Vikings retreat. Score one for civilization, thanks to a reformed Viking. However, the Franks only won because they were led by a Viking, kind of like only a Klingon can handle other Klingons. Honestly, I don’t buy Rollo as a great leader. He always seemed to be little more than a skilled warrior with anger and substance abuse issues, but suddenly he becomes a great strategist.
Recognizing that they will not sack Paris this time, the Vikings limp home. A humiliated Ragnar disappears and no one dares take the throne, so his wife Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) gets to rule in his absence for twelve years. Twelve years. Bwah, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.
Oh, dear. It is true the Scandinavian kingdoms were becoming more centralized, as the petty little kingdoms were being united, forcibly no doubt, but the idea that Aslaug could rule for so long without a rival taking the throne is laughable. Especially since the show introduced Harold Finehair (Peter Franzen) and his brother Halfdan the Black (Jasper Pakkonnen), who conquered several small kingdoms while Ragnar was on sabbatical.
Speaking of Harald, the extra-long season should have provided enough time to first introduce other jarls and kings, who would be slowly conquered by Harald. Instead, his string of conquests is told in roughly ten seconds. I understand since it was a shorter season… no, wait it was TWICE AS LONG.
Bjorn wants to explore. And conquer. Basically, conquer new places, not the same old places.
Ragnar raided England and Frankia, so Bjorn wants to step out of his dad’s shadow and raid somewhere new. Totally makes sense. But the idea that he would have to negotiate with Rollo to get safe passage to the Mediterranean is laughable. Rollo controlled Normandy, not Gibraltar. As long as the Vikings did not try to land in Normandy, why would he risk his men in a pointless fight? To everyone’s surprise, Rollo, Defender of Civilization, wants to go raiding with the people he has betrayed. Twice. While his decision may seem strange, it is implied that Rollo wants to get some man-time away from the wife, the children, the paperwork. Vikings never had paperwork, but the Franks…the paperwork never ends. Rollo just wants a break, kind of like an extreme version of Daddy Drinking Days.
Clearly Rollo chose the right expedition, since Bjorn and the other Vikings have entered the happy hunting ground where they are able to dock their ships and stroll through the open gates of a walled town in Moorish Spain to kill and enslave. Apparently, nobody noticed a huge fleet of strangers sailing in the area. Floki finds a mosque full of men praying, and something inside of him is stirred, so he refuses to let his fellow raiders kill anyone, as the men continue to pray. Bjorn and Rollo find a harem, and do not kill anyone inside, for different reasons.
While Bjorn goes exploring, Ragnar assembles a raiding party of D List members, and sails to England. Although he clearly expects to never return, he needs to make it look like a genuine raid, not a suicide attempt, to rouse up his sons to avenge him. As the star of the series, Ragnar’s goodbyes take several episodes and his performance elevates Hirst’s writing. At least in Denmark, then everything gets weird in Wessex, where Ragnar surrenders to Ecbert. There is a good moment when the two men get drunk and ridicule each other’s version of the afterlife, which actually sounds like real people talking. Bizarrely, Ecbert agonizes endlessly over the decision to kill Ragnar, whom he considers a friend, even though Ecbert betrayed him by slaughtering everyone in the Danish colony. Ragnar convinces Ecbert to hand him over to King Aella of Northumbria, promising that his sons’ vengeance will be directed against Aella, but secretly tells Ivar that Ecbert is truly responsible. Hirst seems to be trying to show that Ivar is Ragnar’s true heir, since he is ruthless and thinks outside the box.
So, Ragnar lets himself be killed in order to motivate his slacker sons to raise an army and invade England. Because he is Ragnar Lothbrok, Odin personally visits all of his sons to tell them that their father has died. Honestly, this is only fair since his ravens had chewed through the rope when Ragnar had tried to hang himself. Why does Ragnar want to die? Presumably be became tired of being Ragnar Lothbrok, the greatest Viking, but honestly, I suspect that Hirst ran out of ways for people to betray Ragnar, so he wrote out the character.
Realizing that Ragnar will never return, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) retakes Kattegat and kills Aslaug, which I genuinely enjoyed watching, although I have to admit that Auslagg scored points by reminding Lagaertha that she gave Ragnar many sons. Hoping to have peace with Aslaug’s sons, Lagaertha gives Aslaug a rich funeral. Instead, she earns the undying enmity of Ivar the Boneless.
Although Bjorn’s intervention prevents a battle between Lagertha and his step-brothers, Kattegat’s wealth as a thriving trading center attracts the attention of an envious Harald Finehair. Hoping to avoid conflict with Bjorn Ironsides, Finehair has an ally attack Kattegat, but Laegartha outsmarts him, and easily crushes his army, discovering that Finehair is now her enemy.
The Great Heathen Army
Learning of Ragnar’s death, Bjorn, and Ragnar’s four sons with Aslaug, Ubbe, Hsivterk, Ivar and Sigurd, raise the largest Viking army ever seen. Soooo, the Great Heathen Army lands in Northumbria, destroys Aella’s army, and then the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok blood eagle Aella. After a quick celebratory drink, the Vikings sail down to Mercia to face the combined Mercian/Wessex army. Ivar shows that he is a smartie-pants by concocting a plan where the Vikings divide into two armies and run around, exhausting the Saxons as they try to figure out which army to fight, finally luring them into an ambush. It seems unlikely that thousands of men in armor would do that or that Aethelwulf would be such a fool as to not use scouts but honestly, at this point, it is not the weirdest part of the show, just mildly annoying. By the way, the Danish conquest of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia took years, not weeks.
After defeating the combined Mercian/Wessex force, the Vikings run across Mercia to the capital of Wessex, which had been abandoned by Aethelwolf. I am from Canada, so I think that a nation with only one time zone is small but even I acknowledge that it would take a bit more time.
Even though it is a great victory, no one really seems that excited. When Ivar questions why his brothers would even want to stay in England, they can only mutter that it is what their father wanted. Someone interested in historical accuracy might have mentioned that Frankia had been raided out, and Denmark was getting crowded, leaving restless young men in search of social mobility few options, but historical accuracy and the show are like two ships passing in the night, destined to always remain apart.
Is Hirst channelling Monty Python?
Realizing that the Danish invaders can not be defeated in battle, Ecbert conceives of a cunning plan to use the legal system against them. Abdicating the throne to his son, Ecbert tells everyone to flee while he remains. Captured by the Vikings, he explains that they have conquered the kingdom, but need legal rights to land in order to stay. Basically, they need to show the authorities the proper paperwork to make their conquest nice and legal. For reasons that remain unexplained, the Lothbrok boys fear that they will eventually be driven out of England by the Saxons, so they accept Ecbert’s offer of legal rights. Taking this plotline seriously for a moment, I have to ask: how would they be driven out? They had just defeated the armies of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex. Ecbert offers Bjorn legal claim to the kingdom of East Anglia, which he had absorbed into his kingdom sometime in the past few years, although Hirst did not think it was important enough to show. Unknown to Bjorn, since Ecbert is no longer king, he has no legal right to hand over East Anglia, thus fooling those naive young Danes, who will have a worthless piece of parchment when they find themselves facing the authorities. Whoever they are.
I have to admit that Hirst has worked hard to recreate the Viking world, or more accurately bring to life his vision of the Viking world. The ceremonies where the ruler offers sacrifices to the gods are stunning, and the song sung by Viking raiders whenever they leave a place loaded down with loot is entertaining.
After suffering through this season, I take back my, admittedly mild, criticism of The Last Kingdom. Holy crap, this is crap. Still, Ragnar is always fascinating, and he is believable as a middle-aged man, especially his talks with his son Bjorn.
I used to enjoy Vikings and looked forward to new episodes. Now, it’s something I watch while doing my ironing.