The ending of the first half of Vikings’ fourth season strongly hinted that the story was about to focus on Ivar the Boneless, one of the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok. Sure enough, Ivar is the dominant figure across these ten episodes, and the show suffers for it. That Ragnar had five sons should have meant there was lots of potential for different storylines showing them working together and competing for power and prestige. But this opportunity is wasted as most of the sons just serve as tools to put over Ivar in one of the most egregious cases of character shilling I’ve seen.
Ivar’s ingenuity and ruthlessness are constantly referred to by characters throughout the season, but his genius is largely an informed attribute. One of the golden rules of storytelling is show, don’t tell; but Viking’s writers apparently aren’t capable of showing us Ivar’s brilliance, and instead make people say it over and over in the hope that we’ll come to believe it. His ruthlessness is manifest only in temper tantrums and the kind of reckless violence that befits a pampered mummy’s boy, which is what he is. The idea that someone could get away with the kind of nonsense Ivar does in this season stretches credulity. As one of Ragnar’s sons, clearly Ivar would get a pass up to a point, but it’s tiresome to see him get away with murder (literally and figuratively) time and again simply because of his disability, when people would have queued up to kill an able-bodied person behaving the same way. The character is badly written, but it doesn’t help that the actor who portrays Ivar is dreadfully limited, capable only of a wretched smirk to communicate sneering sarcasm, or a sulky teenager’s teeth-grinding pout to show rage. Ivar is an awful character and his presence was enough to ruin my enjoyment of this season.
That said, the character of Ivar is really just symptomatic of a general decline in the quality of Viking’s script. This is an ambitious show but the writing hasn’t been able to keep pace with the broader horizons brought about by the viking expansion. These ten episodes take in Britain, France, and Spain as well as Scandinavia, and they cover some momentous events. The scale and sweep of the story makes up somewhat for the unsatisfying character drama, and the set pieces and battles are very impressive. But season four cashes out some pretty big characters to maintain your attention, in a way that is not sustainable, particularly considering how unappealing most of the new cast are.
Thankfully, Lagertha figures quite prominently in the series, which is a positive, although the writers have decided to make her bisexual in a charmless effort to sex things up. Her new lover, Astrid, endears herself to us by hitting on both Lagertha’s son Bjorn and her ex-husband Ragnar, and serves no discernible purpose beyond titillation. Other than Bjorn and Ivar, the sons of Ragnar are very generic, and the writers can’t think of anything for them to do other than all bonking the same slave-girl in between talking about how much they fear their youngest brother, Ivar. If they’re so scared of him why don’t they just kill him? He’s only a threat because they allow him to be. Meanwhile, Harald Finehair and his staring brother continue to loom large, devoid of any charisma or personality, plotting to become kings of Norway in a plot nobody cares about.
A particular low point for me across these episodes saw Helga “adopt” a teenaged Muslim girl following a Viking raid on Spain. It’s always irritating when writers turn a previously sensible character into a deluded idiot overnight. Helga’s absurd plan to raise the girl as her daughter fails to come across as the tragedy the writers probably intended, and instead just felt like a transparent and tasteless attempt at emotional manipulation.
I’m sorry to see Vikings reduced to this state, as the first few seasons were really good. But seeing the way things are poised at the end of season four, I have no interest in following the story any further,