Vikings Season 3 and The Perfect Protagonist Problem in Paris

This post will detail the final bits of Vikings season 3. Spoiler-averse ye be warned. 

Vikings is one of those shows I’m ready to go to the mat for. Though it has its downsides, the show has proved itself time and time again to be built on a strong understanding of perspective, both historically and narratively. But by the end of season three, it became clear to me that Vikings has a perfect protagonist problem.

I’ve written in the past about how much of Vikings, to me, hinges on Travis Fimmel’s performance as Ragnar Lothbrok—which luckily he regularly wields with enigmatic precision. The problem is, within the show his character is situated in a bit of a house of cards. His whole identity has been as a fantastic warrior and tactician, even if he strives for something different (or at least claims to). For that to work in the story, he must frequently be at least one step ahead of those around him. And Vikings does give us a lot of evidence that this is believable for him: Unlike leaders on Game of Thrones, Ragnar is not prone to long-winded speeches of intimidation, preferring to hang back and watch others interact and offering his opinion (only) when needed. He’s a good study of character, combat, and condition, so it makes sense that he can throw all that weight behind planning a battle. We’ve seen him pull off impressive coups against leaders who have (perhaps wrongfully) feared his lust for power and prowess, and they have all hinged on his understanding of himself and those around him both as players and pawns.

It also explains how he would know his previous right-hand-man Floki had murdered his closest friend Athlestan. And why he wouldn’t confront Floki immediately; he has tactical use, and Ragnar is eager to broach the walls of Paris. What it doesn’t explain is why we’re expected to believe such a hootenanny plan which was apparently Ragnar’s: Allow Floki to lead the first charge, which would probably fail, wound himself to the point of near death, and ask the Parisian christians to baptize him. episode-10-season-3-of-history-channels-vikings-ragar-takes-paris.jpgOnce dead, he would demand a proper funeral in their church, from where he would burst out of the coffin and let in his fellow vikings to ransack the city.

Oddly, the part I have fewer and fewer bones to pick is with the historical accuracy of this plan. Christians were reportedly very particular about their funeral rites, particularly that of reformed pagans. That Athlestan’s death would be the catalyst for Ragnar’s idea (which, historically, is often credited to Bjørn Ironside’s exploits in Italy) is not so far fetched to me. I’ll even throw my hat in for those who believe that Ragnar may believe or at least question whether both faiths are real.

What is far-fetched is that Ragnar would lose 1000 men to what is, essentially, a big game of misdirection. To be fair, during these episodes the show did legitimately manage to toy with my emotions; the thrilling initial siege on Paris was hitting all the right notes for a vikings victory until it wasn’t (much like recent events), and it did seem like for however wooden the French court scenes were the battle sequences showed some innovation the vikings weren’t prepared for. Understanding that Ragnar had to make the war look convincing, it’s fair that he would spend months and months waiting them out. He is a patient man.

But the Parisian siege felt like it had turned their golden goose into a gimmick. Fimmel’s Ragnar is a protagonist who works best when he doesn’t have to explain himself, which can leave the reality of his character tied up in the reveal. Towards the end of season three, Ragnar was monologuing (ostensibly talking to his friend in Christian heaven) about his grand plans, and for that grand plan to ultimately be so far fetched it called into question much of the character—which is saying something considering season 2’s coup-de-grace. That this winding and counterintuitive plan would go off without a hitch doesn’t necessarily speak to Ragnar’s prowess as a tactician, but as a character too tied up in contrivances.

And at the end of all of that, it’s still not even entirely clear what lesson he was trying to teach Floki, let alone what his patient revenge was. The season ended almost too quietly when Ragnar finally let Floki know that his murderous deeds were known. The show had already asked its characters to externalize a lot of their conflicts, such as Ragnar’s demise and issues with Floki, and then pulled a massive bait-and-switch that didn’t feel truly earned. Then as it offers us these true “big” moments as season enders, we’re not surprised by most of them because they already felt so improbable and we as the audience had already internalized a lot of the issues at play.

Though the show’s laissez fare attitude towards pacing can be oddly thrilling (not to clear all issues off the table before allowing its time period to move forward) it makes me nervous to think of launching into season 4 come mid-February, and swiftly moving away from the events around Paris. Vikings season 3 struggled a bit under the weight of a few too many storylines (Bjørn’s love life is just yawn, but the English courts also needed some better tie-in by the end), and I’d hate to see these central vikings get squeezed out in a time-jump. So far I’m still willing to see how high they’ll stack up these issues before the shark jumps over, but I’d be disappointed if it means diminishing returns on all the balls in the air. As the theme song goes, “more, give me more, give me more.”


Winner of Medieval Enigma: Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar Lothbrok

Vikings is pretty damn great. And its lead Travis Fimmel plays a big part in that.

Ragnar, the enigmatic protagonist of the History Channel show, has to bridge two worlds: The established viking society on the show, circa 13th century (ish), and the 21st century audience watching it. The role of Ragnar has always had to thematically be a man of his time and a man ahead of his time, because he needs to lead his people appeal to an audience who wouldn’t be so on board with the vikings tendency to plunder.

tumblr_nk288lJoPV1u7q9l2o3_250It’s not an easy idea to broach, but thanks to Fimmel’s acting it’s never been too much of a problem. Fimmel plays Ragnar with a sort of bemused caginess; watchful, playful, and always-dreaming, but never fully betraying his intentions.

What seems clear is that he’s the sort of man who doesn’t want for a lot but doesn’t want to have any roadblocks in his way. And while many leaders have viewed Ragnar’s ambitions as a lust for power (and felt challenged by it) it’s always seemed to be that he only lusts for freedom—and those who impede on it should beware.

But even that is a bit of a leap: What drives Ragnar Lothbrok can really only be answered by Ragnar Lothbrok. While he has made it clear what matters to him—exploration, family, honor—what ultimately drives him is just out of reach.

Vikings‘ Ragnar is largely non-verbal, observing those around him, often smirking in response, but ultimately playing a game we don’t know the answers to. It can make for a thrilling (if a bit of deus ex machina) arc to see a character who is either so blindly confident or that many moves ahead to take the board, such as in season two when King Horik makes moves against him. But the show manages to sell a sense of inside his head without ever fully explaining it, and from there it can take those thoughts and twist them around. With that kind of strategy it’s no wonder Ragnar is such an effective warrior and character to watch.