Vikings: Final Season Review

Contains spoilers – although everyone dies in historical fiction at some point, right?

“Perhaps the golden age of the Vikings is gone”

Those words uttered by Gunnhild prove to be prophetic in more ways than one as Vikings takes a bow after seven glorious seasons.

It is a testament that eight years after Ragnar Lothbrok entered our lives, the show was still alive and kicking. The magisterial Ragnar (played by Travis Fimmel) died after four seasons. It is uncommonfor a show to survive that kind of loss – could you imagine The Last Kingdom without Uhtred? Yet the show overcame this mortal wound through the brilliance of its other main characters. However, by the end of the first part of Season Six, Lagertha (played by Kathryn Winnick) breathed her last and Björn Ironside (played by Alexander Ludwig) looked all but dead, save for a tantalising trailer by Amazon Prime that hinted otherwise.

Vikings has thrived on the brilliance of its subtleties, from Björn’s Ragnar-like mannerisms to the nods to Norse rituals. It also glories in its breathtakingly epic moments. Last season brought us two: the funeral of Lagertha and the monumental battle between the kings of Norway and the Kievan Rus, accompanied by Hvitserk and Ivar.

The show overcame the death of Ragnar Lothbrok, said to have died in a pit of vipers at the hands of King Ælla of Northumbria.

This season treats us to one in the first episode. For a fleeting moment it appears that Björn has survived the fatal wound handed to him by his brother Ivar on the battlefield. Yet, when it appears he has indeed passed over to Valhalla, the Rus take their chance to complete their conquest of Kattegat. Yet, Björn strides out onto the battlefield on horseback, leading the men and women of Norway. It is unclear whether this is his ghost, or whether he clung on to life to be able to inspire his men to victory whilst striking fear into the hearts of the incredulous Rus. This is one of those moments where the zeitgeist of the Icelandic sagas, where myth, legend and history all role into one, is so perfectly captured by Vikings.

However, it’s the myth-making that eventually catches up with Vikings this season. Or perhaps I’ve caught up with it. I only stumbled upon Vikings two years ago, ignorant of Norse history. In the seasons that followed, I voraciously gobbled it up, supplementing what was on screen for Wikipedia-research of my own. It also inspired me to watch The Last Kingdom, which gives a distinctly Anglo-Saxon take on this same time period. Vikings helped me fall in love with this time period and inspired me to research, but it’s this same research that led me to grow frustrated with the historical anachronisms and the artistic license the writers took with this season.

Firstly, the season’s timeframe is out of joint. It perhaps always has been and only now has it concerned me. A large part of this season centres around Ubba’s search for the golden land. He eventually finds it in North America. Yet, with this season rooted in the 880s, the first recorded discovery of North America by Leif Erikson doesn’t happen for almost another 200 years. Secondly, there are almost unnecessary changes to the historical record. At first, I thought the Erik in this season of Vikings was Erik the Red, but it looks more likely that it’s in fact Erik Bloodaxe. In history he was a King of Norway (and Northumbria) and was married to Gunnhild), who was given the epithet “Mother of Kings.” In the show, this romance seems to be on the cards after Gunnhild (played by former Icelandic Olympian Ragga Ragnars) is made a widow after Björn’s death. Yet the show chooses to ditch this, instead having Gunnhild refuse to marry Harald Fairhair and instead swim off to Valhalla. There are of course problems with any storyline the show’s producers could have forged, seeing as the historical Erik was the son of Harald. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t have been difficult to have had Gunnhild marry Erik and become co-rulers of Kattegat, being more faithful to the historical record.

The barrow of Björn Ironside in Sweden.

Instead, Harald marries Björn’s second wife Ingrid. The season finishes with Harald dead at Edington (unhistorical), with Ivar also killed in the same battle and Hvitserk morphing into the historical Guthrum and being captured and converted to Christianity by Alfred the Great of Wessex. Back across the North Sea, Ingrid organises the death of Erik in Harald’s absence which leaves her, and perhaps another female slave, as Queen of Kattegat.

Alas, is the show trying to finish on a feminist note of girl-power? I don’t believe it, only because the shield-maiden Gunnhild would have been a far better suitor to that storyline being a warrior Queen, clothed with strength and dignity in the mould of Lagertha. Ingrid, for all her cunning and guile, is just not as strong a character.

So, why end the season like this? I choose instead to believe that this turn of events by the show’s producers is used to echo Gunnhild’s lamentation that the sun was setting on the golden age of the Vikings. Ingrid warns of the threat posed to the old ways of the Vikings with news of a Danish king who had converted to Christianity (perhaps the historical Harald Klak or Harald Bluetooth). Across the Atlantic, Ubba deliberates whether to eschew the old Norse ways in the new world of North America. And when Ubba finds the show’s most zealous Thor-loving Christ-hater, Floki, we are reunited with a man who seems to have utterly lost faith in the old ways. With Ragnar’s warrior sons lost to Valhalla or stranded elsewhere, perhaps the underwhelming accession of Ingrid to the throne is the show’s subtle way of closing the curtain on the age of the Vikings, heralding the first kernels of a Christian Scandinavia.

Of course, this isn’t the end of the historical Viking age or of Vikings itself. The kings of the Nordic lands arguably became more sophisticated and mounted more credible claims to European thrones, like King Cnut the Great in the early 11th century and of course, that descendant of the Northmen, William the Conqueror. This may all be covered in Vikings’ spin-off show, Vikings: Valhalla, which explores the rest of the Viking age and will land on Netflix.

I mournfully see this season off with a 6/10. Though it stretches the limits of historical license too far for me, the season still thrives off the back of the performance of Alex Høgh Andersen as Ivar the Boneless. Additionally the season, perhaps owing to its looseness for historical truth, is unpredictable. It’s this unpredictability which has always been the source of the show’s greatness, bucking the Anglo-American TV trend of always having neat endings to storylines, and ultimately, it’s this greatness that will be sorely missed as the show sails off to Valhalla.

As I am not an expert in this time period, please leave a comment if I have misquoted any aspects of Norse history.

By Steven Bishop

By Steven Bishop

Steven is researching the recent protests against statues of controversial historical figures across the world, focusing on the complex relationship between history and memory. His other historical interests include the history of the United States of America, especially the period from colonisation to the Civil War. He also have a burgeoning interest in local history and write about Colchester’s many heritage sites in Colchester United’s matchday programme.