“I could wish that you were more subtle.”
“All Change” resurrects the title of Vikings’ long-ago, Season 1 finale. If you cast your mind back, that was when Ragnar Lothbrok first met, bedded, and impregnated Aslaug with Ubbe, thus cheating on Lagertha and dismaying essentially everyone, onscreen and off. Out of the four characters mentioned there, three are dead and Ubbe is the oldest remaining son of Ragnar after last episode’s death of his half-brother, Bjorn Ironside. Ubbe’s in Iceland, refusing to take up his illustrious father’s legacy as ruler of Kattegat, while still planning to follow Ragnar’s footsteps in discovering a fabled Golden Land to the west. Of the other sons of Ragnar, Hvitserk and Ivar continue to serve the would-be Rus conqueror Oleg, while Kattegat, reveling in the vikings’ underdog victory over the Rus, contemplates a new ruler.
And that’s “All Change,” an episode so devoid of narrative thrust, energy, or, indeed, change, that it really shows how the swift pace of those early Vikings seasons was a virtue. The expansion of Vikings’ season episode count over the years has only exposed how at sea the series is without its original central figures, and how creator Michael Hirst has been unable to people the show’s world with new ones worthy of our attention. Vikings’ early strengths, sustained impressively enough past the loss of Ragnar/Travis Fimmel as long as Katheryn Winnick’s Lagertha and Gustaf Skarsgård’s Floki were there to hoist the standard, were in speed and ambiguity. The world Hirst initially built dropped us into a period milieu whose characters and rules were admirably alien enough for us to fill in the narrative with our own wonder. (Fimmel, Winnick, Skarsgård, and Clive Standen’s Rollo all aiding immeasurably.)
But as the show’s world has broadened with the Norse’s expansion, Hirst has fallen back on period tropes we’ve seen far too often—usually in shows he also had a hand in. Court intrigues. A showy new seasonal antagonist to be fought, variously bedded, and dispatched. And while there’s nothing so dull this sixth and final season as the machinations in the courts of Paris or Wessex at their dreariest, Prince Oleg’s leering villainy among the Rus is proving even more effortful. Vikings—as stolidly impressive as its ninth-century digs remain—has become what no viking story should ever be. It’s predictable. It’s dull. And it’s increasingly colorless as its cast winnows down to the watery dregs of the Lothbrok dynasty.
The moments in “All Change” that stand out are singular. In that there’s one. Ubbe, receiving news of Bjorn’s death, raises a drink to his brother’s life in a eulogy infectiously assured in its love and its certainty that Bjorn and Ragnar are doing the same at that moment in Valhalla. Jordan Patrick Smith’s Ubbe has finally found a place in the show’s world. As husband to Torvi, father to baby Ragnar, and, as he regales those gathered to hear his plans to venture westward like his father, inheritor of Ragnar and Bjorn’s restless thirst for discovery, Ubbe’s cloudless benediction rings with a generosity of spirit. “I loved him. We all loved him. He was our hero,” proclaims Ubbe, toasting the sky, “He was my brother, and he was your brother.” Confronted afterward with the shifty Kjetill’s hints about returning to Kattegat to take up the throne, Ubbe taunts the hulking, self-crowned King of Iceland with his father’s words, most memorably delivered to Bjorn a long time ago.
I will never be king. Of anywhere. I am a lot like my father. He never wanted to be king of Kattegat. He hated the burden of kingship. And he despised those who would be anything, who would betray any principle or person just to seize the crown. I hope you’re not like that, Kjetill.
That the whole Iceland drama, like literally every competing storyline this episode, is a clumsy slog of on-the-nose exposition, arbitrary character turns, and blockheaded editing (Ubbe is seen pitting potential shipmates Kjetill and Othere against each other in groaningly clever intercutting) can’t take this away from Smith. Ubbe, in this moment, at last, is at least a bit like his father.
Other than that, though.
Kattegat has had power vacuums, but it faces its first ever interest vacuum, as Gunnhild and Ingrid—both bonding in a genuinely touching scene last episode—fall quickly to power plays and cheap shots. Gunnhild, who, if you’ll recall, reached out to her younger rival after a shattered Ingrid revealed she’s been raped by Harald, even throws that assault back in Ingrid’s face the moment it becomes clear that the pregnant Ingrid intends to toss her name into the coming, leader-choosing Thing. This after Gunnhild has spent the episode moping over Bjorn’s things, bedding the scheming Erik, and making noncommittal noises about her desire to be ruler at all. Ingrid, seen divining bird guts, tells Erik that she’d like to be queen, her rekindled former moony dedication to continuing the Lothbrok lineage provided as motivation. Ragga Ragnars (still a gloriously improbable name) and Lucy Martin make of Gunnhild and Ingrid’s coming conflict what they can, but they’re at the mercy of some inept game strategy, their characters’ fates not so much preordained by the gods as by the dictates of rote period intrigue.
And Erik, last seen being berated by Bjorn (with his literal dying, bloody breaths) to stop being such a baby, remains a nonentity. (His hinted destiny notwithstanding.) His declaration of desire to Gunnhild barely distracts her, which makes her decision to take him into her bed later on feel, at best, like a clue that Gunnhild has more up her sleeve that it appears. Is Erik playing both women off of each other? Is he setting Ingrid up to fail so he can rule alongside Gunnhild? We have been given precious little reason to care, either way.
The Rus have retreated all the way back to Novgorod, seemingly, after their embarrassing defeat by the united Norse and the specter of Bjorn Ironside. There, we are subjected to the sort of distractingly lurid backstabbing that’s drawn Vikings astray since Ragnar first met the royals at Wessex, Hirst continuing to assume that unless we see non-vikings humping each other and jockeying for power, we’ll go away unsatisfied. Oleg sends his men to chop down the creepy child-king Igor’s bedchamber nest and trash his stuff, telling the simpering boy, “I have destroyed your innocence.” He doubles down on his avuncular tough love by making the trembling Igor, for the second episode in a row, execute a supposed enemy, this time one of the Rus commanders that Oleg blames for turning tail and running from Bjorn’s apparent resurrection. (Oleg has his men dig their own graves, just for extra bad guy points.)
Igor takes his final okay to kill the pleading middle-aged man in front of him from Ivar and not Oleg, reminding us that Ivar’s influence over the young man continues to simmer behind the scenes. In that Oleg’s brother Dir sneaks back into the city disguised as a beggar, essentially gets their attention by whispering, “Psst, buddy,” and lays out his entire plan to betray Oleg, whisk Igor to safety, and plunk the lad on the throne. Meanwhile, Oleg makes a play for Hvitserk’s loyalty by re-introducing the unstable Hvitserk to substances, this time in the form of some Rus-imported opium. Ivar finds his big brother nodding out, shakes his head, and walks right into the clutches of Katia, Oleg’s wife and the woman who keeps taunting Ivar with the idea that she’s actually Ivar’s dead wife Freydis, somehow.
A table-setting episode can be riveting TV, if we care about the game, and if we are intrigued by the pieces. In these Rus interludes (which have come to take up more of less half the sixth season), we care about precisely none of that. The show is Vikings. We were drawn into that world, and the people in it, and how those pieces reacted when they ventured off the board to encounter rules and opponents they’d never imagined. Culture clash was inevitable, and, as in the Norse incursions into England and France, often uniquely thrilling. Now we are presented with almost identical rote court dramas on two fronts, presenting not so much a culture clash as a dun-colored, graceless duel of too-familiar types. “Be careful my brother, the Rus are not like us,” warns Ivar to Hvitserk upon hearing of Oleg’s invitation. If only.
Where are we on the remixed theme song? Watered down, sludgy, and forgettable? I’m sensing a theme.
The Kattegat messenger, relating the tale of Bjorn’s demise, describes his condition after the initial battle as, “badly almost mortally wounded.” Which is about as wishy-washy a way to describe it as Vikings was in depicting it.
As tickled as I still am that former wrestler turned actor Adam Copeland is hulking around on Vikings, Kjetill has suffered perhaps worst of all when it comes to the series stripping away all complexity of character motivation. I thought the former The Edge was quite affecting as Floki’s most steadfast disciple, before a Romeo And Juliet-inspired heel turn turned Kjetill Flatnose into a bug-eyed murder-monster. Now, Copeland’s left huffing and shifty-eyed as he ineptly attempts to make himself Iceland’s ruler.
That Kjetill gets to spill his motivations in joining Ubbe’s expedition to his wife does the actor no favors, either. Cloddish over-explaining has killed more characters than arrows on this show.
The Seer dies harder than Bjorn Ironside, here popping up as a vision (or was it??) to tell the wavering Gunnhild, “There are too many voices. Don’t listen!”
Oh, Oleg wants to shift his invader energy to Constantinople. So watch out for that.
Harald: Still on the loose.
Kattegonians, I know you’re happy about your narrow escape, but making out on the throne?
Hirst has Ubbe anticipating The Great Gatsby (“We are borne ceaselessly into the future”), for reasons I’m sure made sense at the time. When Ray Stevenson’s Othere responds, “Some on a ship of fools,” I was relatively certain I was being pranked.
And then there’s the departing Erik’s explanation of why he’s leaving Gunnhild’s bed before anyone else gets up, “It would be bad if the voters saw us together.” Which thunked to the floorboards so awkwardly, I imagine it woke the whole of Kattegat.