“Ragnar Lothbrok didn’t succeed.” That line is spoken well into the season 4 midseason premiere of History’s Vikings, setting the stage for a new storyline about Ragnar’s journey back to Wessex to right the wrong of the farming settlement he left behind and concealed the destruction of from his people. It further answers the question of what happened after the significant time jump the series took in the midseason finale, and more specifically it answers the question Ragnar posed in that episode’s final moments. As it turns out, no one – not even his sons – is eager to replace the king, despite the king’s failures.
As the second half of a super-sized, 20-episode season kicks-off it pulls Hvitserk, Sigurd, Ubbe, and Ivar (or Ivar the Boneless) – the four sons Ragnar had with Aslaug – into the main storyline. The time jump at the end of the first half of the season came on the heels of Ragnar’s defeat in Paris, a defeat orchestrated by his brother Rollo, who found more than just a place for himself outside the long shadow cast by his brother. But it also allowed for the show to introduce new characters without actually introducing any new characters. It’s a trick the series has implemented before, first in season 2 when Bjorn went from a blond-headed tyke to the towering Alexander Ludwig. The device has its challenges. It asks a lot of the viewer to see the children age so dramatically while the adult characters remain largely unchanged. But the potential narrative payoff is such that setting aside one’s disbelief to afford the show its forward momentum makes sense. Besides, the alternative is much worse; nobody wants a Mandy Moore in old person makeup situation like This is Us has on its hands.
Vikings is also clever enough in its storytelling to aid the viewer in moving past such an obstacle. ‘Outsider’ spends its time shifting between establishing Ragnar as an outcast and underlining the ways in which that makes it possible for him to connect with Ivar. There’s a great deal of build-up to the fulfilling father-son scene that brings the hour to a close, which never quite lets the audience get a firm grasp on just how they should feel about Ivar. Alex Høgh Andersen brings a cold intensity to the role that at first seems too obvious but later gives him more room to work with in his effort to make the character sympathetic – or at least someone worth sharing his father’s story. Andersen’s screen presence is similar to Dane DeHaan‘s, and not only because they share a slight resemblance; there’s a hint of treachery simmering just beneath the surface that serves the character well throughout his introduction as a young man. He’s admittedly helped by what the audience knows of Ivar’s past – that he was an annoying moppet who killed another child from the village while playing a game – so every time he picks up a hatchet or nocks an arrow it seems there’s a chance he might kill one of his brothers.
As much as ‘Outsider’ relies on Ivar’s past to help sketch him as a young man, it puts in plenty of time making the character more than one defined by either his disability or penchant for bloodshed. Once the act of Ivar watching his sibling with the house servant Margrethe becomes repetitious, the almost too coincidental nature of his voyeurism helps establish a larger truth about the character. It is one that, in his failing to carry out the physical act of sex, opens the door for Margrethe to then open Ivar’s conception of what it means to be a man. It’s not exactly revolutionary stuff that the young woman imparts, but it is enough that seeing Ivar listen and refrain from indulging his baser instincts the character better earns – though not completely – his part in the high note on which the episode ends, as well as the story that’s about to begin.
Where ‘Outsider’ really succeeds, though is in presenting Ragnar in a new light. This time his story is more about his shame. Shame that he didn’t better protect the settlers in Wessex, and that he didn’t tell their families about what happened there. It’s also about Ragnar’s self-absorption, which is spelled out plainly in his short meetings with both Floki and Lagertha. In the former, he says those three little words that the ship-builder wanted to hear, and in the latter, he explains his desertion of the throne as something he no longer wanted to do. But Lagertha smartly reframes the conversation by telling her ex-husband being king wasn’t just for him. And so his attempted suicide is left to become either another failure he has to endure or a sign from the gods that it’s not his time to die. All of this helps reframes Ragnar’s upcoming trip back to England as a necessary part of his redemption, rather than a righteous quest or journey of self-discovery.
For the series to reexamine its protagonist’s place amongst so much change makes for an exciting start to the second half of the season. Given the time jump from the midseason finale to now, it’s still a little curious why this is season 4B and not the premiere of season 5 (though it likely has more to do with cast contracts than storytelling necessity), but like the variable aging of the characters that might be a question that doesn’t necessarily need an answer other than “It just is.” Besides, ‘Outsider’ lends the show enough of an engagingly altered perspective that Michael Hirst and History could get away with calling the season anything they want, so long as it continues down the path started here.
Vikings continues next Wednesday with ‘The Vision’ @10pm on History.
Photos: Bernard Walsh and Jonathan Hession/History