History’s Vikings has undergone tremendous changes during its nearly five-season run. And as the second half of season 5 gets underway, it’s clear just how much the series has changed, and how much things continue to stay the same. In other words, there’s a distinct formula for Michale Hirst’s historical drama, one that explains the show’s enduring popularity and its quality. After all, it’s not every show that can lose its main character - Travis Fimmel’s laconic, ambitious Ragnar Lothbrok - and still be as compelling as ever by shifting its focus to his sons, in particular the murderous and possibly insane Ivar the Boneless, who is played with great intensity by Alex Høgh Andersen.
The result is a series that can withstand the changes must necessarily come its way, in part due to the manner in which it bends (or doesn’t) and reshapes itself in order to continue pressing forward with its tale of the Northmen and their ongoing quests to explore and conquer. But in the second half of season 5 that quest revels itself to be altered slightly, shifting from a need for its characters to push outward to a more inward-looking story, brought about primarily by the bitter civil war that seemingly came to an end when Ivar successfully battled for Kattegat and declared himself king.
Bitter familial relations has always been Vikings’ bag, but in ‘The Revelation,’ the show takes them to new heights. Part of that is the war between Ivar and his family, and especially his desire to seek revenge on Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) for killing his mother, that is as key a part of the series’ current storyline as anything else. But as season 5 picks back up, Hirst manages to rekindle similar sentiments of familial — or more the point, brotherly — animosity by bringing Rollo (Clive Standen) back to the north. Hirst aims to make Rollo’s return feel significant for a variety of reasons. Not only do Rollo’s past transgressions toward his brother Ragnar feel particularly resonant when viewed against the backdrop of Ivar’s recent actions, but his dealings with both the new king of Kattegat, as well as with Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) and Lagertha, seem determined to situate Ragnar’s brother as a spoiler for everyone involved.
In particular, Rollo’s claim that Bjorn is his son and not his nephew casts an unpleasant shadow on the tricky familial goings-on between Lagertha her late former husband and the brother who plotted to kill him more than once. It’s difficult at first to tell whether Hirst’s aim is to distance Bjorn from his half-siblings, or if it’s merely to reinforce the soapier instincts of the show. Lagertha’s lack of response to Rollo’s claim adds intrigue to the proceedings, though whatever interest may have been sown is seemingly quashed by Bjorn himself, who not only reasserts his physical resemblance to his father but points to the quality of his character as well. This seeming refutation appears to be enough for the time being, but it doesn’t necessarily preclude Hirst from returning to this line of thinking as the season (and series) moves forward.
As it’s a midseason premiere, there is a sense of ‘The Revelation’ being almost overly methodical in its approach to setting up the key storylines to the remainder of the season. In that regard, the hour moves quickly between characters and their various environs, working partly as a recap and partly as table setting for the episodes to come. It’s understandable given how fragmented the various stories have become, especially with the necessary distance between Ivar and his embattled siblings. But the segmentation goes several steps further as Bishop Heahmund (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) convinces Lagertha and the others to return with him to England, where he’ll presumably be able to secure them some safety in exchange for their loyalty to (the late) King Aethelwulf. Heahmund continues to be a fascinating character, even if Hirst writes him a little long-winded at times. Nevertheless, his various contradictions, especially those regarding his dalliances with the opposite sex, despite having taken a vow of celibacy, make the character more than a simple foil for Ivar or tool for the vikings to use with regard to their ongoing relations with Wessex.
To its credit, Vikings makes short work of two seemingly disparate plot points by working quickly to see them combined by episode’s end. Bringing the displaced (and recently dethroned) northerners to meet with King Alfred Ferdia Walsh-Peelo helps (or hopefully will help) tighten the plotting, while also giving Alfred — who already looks to be an intriguing ruler, what with his pending opposition with the church — more time in the spotlight. Given Alfred’s nascency on the throne, and his mother’s insistence he fortify his reign as soon as possible by producing an heir, his proximity to Heahmund, Bjorn, and Lagertha may help ingratiate him with viewers. After all, like his father, Alfred is following a tough act in Linus Roache’s scenery-chewing King Ecbert, and he can use all the help he can get.
The same can’t be said of Floki's (Gustaf Skarsgård) storyline on Iceland. Distanced from Kattegat and its civil war, Floki and his followers feel a bit like the odd men and women out, with the plot line itself beginning to feel somewhat ponderous, despite the somewhat ironic Christlike symbolism in Floki’s determination to sacrifice himself for his flock. While the depiction of dissent and dissatisfaction tearing this group of northerners apart feels in keeping with the rest of the series, there’s so little remaining connective tissue between Floki and the primary cast that this plot has begun to feel like its own show.
In all, ‘The Revelation’ does what it needs to in terms of setting up the second half of Vikings season 5, but the overly methodical approach to its various storylines robs the series of some of its emotional urgency.
Vikings season 5 continues next Wednesday with ‘Murder Most Foul’ @10pm on History.