If you’re going to call your episode of television The Joke, you have to make sure that there is nothing that can set up easy comedic fodder for hack TV writers like myself. And so, the joke isn’t on Vikings, bet you thought that was what I was going to say, the joke is on us, the viewers. In The Joke, all of the potential that season five started with has been wasted over the last three episodes. Last week I asked how long before it’s appropriate to label a show in decline, it’s now. Vikings just gave us an hour of absolutely nothing. The huge battle between the Lothbrok brothers is a complete dud so far, and that dullness is spreading. Before we get to the disappointment of said battle, let’s briefly analyse all of the other aspects that had absolutely no place in this episode.
This was it, the battle for Kattegat (again), so why, by Odin’s beard, did we have to spend time in Wessex, and the Land of the Gods? With the season’s main storyline threatening to explode into something of epic proportions you don’t keep cutting away to characters that don’t matter. With the prospect of brother versus brother, Ivar vs Lagertha, do you really care about what Alfred is up to? What’s worse is that the Wessex scenes are just repeated story beats from the last two episodes. Alfred gives Judith a progress report of his Athelstan fact-finding mission, and just tells her information that we have already seen. During this Aethelwulf and the other son (he’s so dead so I’m not remembering his name until he inevitably pulls a Hvitserk and makes me look like a fool) are doing another spot of combat training, just so Alfred can sneer to his mother about how behind the times everyone is. I know Alfred is important, I know he will probably rule Wessex, and maybe the whole of England one day, but he has no place in this episode. Michael Hirst should not be pulling focus from the main confrontation.
There’s more: Floki is also having the same troubles with his band of settlers. This plot has become so dumb that one of the characters asked why they were fighting amongst themselves. Uh, maybe it’s because the two factions that have formed have done so because they have opposing views about Floki’s promised land. It’s just a guess. At least Edge is Floki’s corner, that guy was King of the Ring. Floki’s latest suggestion is that they all build a temple to worship the gods, even before they have built homes for themselves. Like Many characters in this fifth season, Floki isn’t playing things very smart, but he’s nuts so he has an excuse. One aspect of the episode that I cannot argue with is how cool Gustav Skarsgard looks with a big raven perched on his shoulder. That’s primo Vikings right there.
Each of these sub-plots boil down the main weakness of The Joke: repeated story beats with little consequence, the battle is full of this. Except it’s at least half the episode before anyone gets their sword bloody. Here’s the problem: I know there’s going to be a fight, you know there’s going to be a fight, and the Vikings know there’s going to be a fight, but they try to explore the alternatives anyway. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea, Lagertha does point out that they are all Vikings and that any bloodshed affects all of the win or lose. They have the chance to give up their vendetta’s and form alliances once again. This was never going to happen, leading to a bizarre sequence in which Ivar pretends to give up his need for vengeance.
This is the joke of the episodes title, Ivar fucking with everyone just because. It invalidates all that the characters were trying to accomplish up to this point, which is its function, but from a viewer’s perspective all this does is prolong the inevitable and shine a light on Michael Hirst’s lame attempt to pad the episode’s runtime. This silly, silly scene undermines the entire sequence, which doesn’t make for good drama. What might be worse than this, though not by much, is that the script is filled with each character venting their grievances and reasons for battle, which everyone, including us, already knows. This does nothing but waste time. Ivar wants to kill Lagertha because of Aslaug. We know, everyone knows. Harald wants Kattegat to be king of Norway. We know, everyone knows. Can you see the pattern?
The battle itself is no better. As recent as York, Vikings used action scenes primarily as a method of character development. All we need to know about someone like Heahmund, for instance, we have learned from watching him fight. That’s completely missing here. While each actor looks so natural cutting down enemies with sword and axe, there is no sense of where they are in the battle, or how their actions effect it. Despite the fact that Harald and Ivar have suffered a defeat, neither they, or Hvitserk seemed like they were in any kind of danger. Even more annoying was the fact that the battle of the brothers never came to fruition. Ivar and Hivtserk were away from the main action, and Harald and Halfdan never came close to each other. It’s a cheat further sullied by Ivar’s random strategic confusion. All season long Ivar has been built up as this genius and rational thinking deserts him at the most baffling moment. At least Lagertha won.
5/10 – The Joke felt like a flailing show that is pulling its punches. Full of stories that are going nowhere interesting, it’s enough to make you pray for the impossible return of Ragnar. Or maybe Rollo.