When a television show stumbles in the middle of its journey, recovery is rare. Typically, a show either coasts along smoothly until retirement or you hear sentiments like, “It’s great until its third season! Then it veers off the rails.” Until recently, Vikings seemed poised to join the latter ranks.
Ever since the writers killed Athelstan (George Blagden) in Season 3, the narrative has felt less steady on its feet. Vikings is at its strongest when its focus is on Ragnar, Floki, and the titular Vikings, when it successfully hooks us into sympathizing with people and customs who seem alien to our reality. It’s at its weakest in its side trips into medieval politics, like the tediously BDSM-loving Count Odo.
Aside from the marvelous Paris siege, the show’s weak aspects prevailed in Season 3 and the first half of Season 4. But when the second half — which History is calling “Season 4B” — premieres on November 30, it will bring a surprise. Vikings has managed to recover from its mid-show fatigue and climb to new heights. It’s a lesson that other shows in a slump should take note of.
The secret? A healthy infusion of new blood. Recall that in its mid-season finale of Season 4, Vikings leapt forward in time, aging Ragnar’s sons up from children to young men. Now, if this wasn’t done carefully, it might feel like a cheap trick. Anyone who has seen the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer knows that throwing a bunch of underdeveloped new characters onscreen does not make for a compelling story. But through a combination of acting and storytelling, the teenage versions of the Lothbrok boys are instantly arresting.
Within the first few minutes of Season 4B, each son feels as important and three-dimensional as Lagertha or Floki. Their brotherly conflicts give the narrative a sense of character-driven urgency it’s lacked ever since Rollo went to Paris and Floki fell from grace, diminishing each man’s screen time with Ragnar. Stranded in their own plotlines, all three characters have suffered.
Of all Ragnar’s sons, Ivar the Boneless (Alex Hogh Anderson) emerges as the show’s dark horse. His crazy eyes and magnetic screen presence recall the Ragnar of Seasons 1 and 2 when Vikings still retained a sense of playfulness. And yet, his crippled state is explored with a sense of gravity and depth. Previously, the show has explored Viking masculinity through subplots like Bjorn’s bear adventure, but the sexual prowess of a cripple gives Vikings its most fascinating and successful avenue into Viking masculinity yet.
The show stumbled in Seasons 3 and 4 because Athelstan’s death left a hole the writers seemed unable to fill. It dissolved relationships and isolated characters without a clear sense of purpose. Ragnar spent the first half of Season 4 moping aimlessly, Floki’s manic mutterings began feeling indulgent, Lagertha got far too little screen time, and there was far too much time devoted to characters nobody gives a shit about — like Athelwolf and Count Odo.
But Season 4B corrects course in a monumental way. Characters who matter take the forefront, the dialogue has a new spring in its step, and as a result, every scene feels more urgent. Even Rollo — who doesn’t appear until the third episode — gets better hair this time and Aslaug gets a genuinely sympathetic emotional moment. If you’ve been disillusioned with the direction the story has taken lately, don’t ready your pyres for a Viking funeral yet. This show is set for a new life.
Vikings Season 4B premieres on History November 30.