Catching Up With ‘Vikings’: Season 2 Recap & Reaction

Vikings is one of those rare shows that actually gets better in its sophomore season. The characters feel more alive, the dialogue is snappier, and the fight sequences… well, they’re awesome. In the first season, we experienced Ragnar’s meteoric rise to fame because of his exploits in the English countryside and his ascension to his current position as Earl of Kattegat. In Vikings Season 2, we have the opportunity to watch him tackle the challenges of ruling an Aett (or clan). Season 2 deals with matters of faith, family, and international relations in an unforgiving era. Grab your sword and shield, and wade in to the fray.

– A NEW WORLD AWAITS: SPOILERS AHEAD –

Dramatis Personae

vikings season 2 promo pic

Ragnar Lothbrok

The hero of the saga. Now Earl of Kattegat after slaying his predecessor Earl Haraldson in single combat. He has a clever mind and a lust for knowledge. He desires to travel to the West and create a colony in England where his people can farm.

Lagertha

A shield-maiden and Ragnar’s wife. She is a cunning warrior and an equal match for Ragnar’s wit. While Ragnar is away on Raids or on errands for King Horik, she rules Kattegat in his stead. As season 2 opens, she is reeling from the loss of her daughter, Gyda, to a terrible plague.

Athelstan

A former monk who became a slave in Ragnar’s household. He is well-traveled and infinitely curious about Viking society, though he often finds aspects of it hard to stomach. He is one of Ragnar’s trusted advisers. Athelstan is caught between his old faith and his desire to become a part of Viking society.

Björn

Ragnar and Lagertha’s son. He is training to become a warrior like his father and is anxious to be fully grown. He has a difficult choice to make early in the season and he proves himself to be decisive and valorous like his father.

Aslaug

A princess of Gotaland who claims she is the daughter of the famous shield-maiden Brynhildr and the hero Sigurd. She is expecting a child after she and Ragnar made the horn-with-two-helmets last season.

Rollo

Ragnar’s brother. Brutish and gruff, he cares about fighting, women, and glory but in many ways he is aimless. He is constantly at odds with his more famous brother and resents living in his shadow. At the end of last season, he made a pact with Jarl Borg to betray Ragnar.

Floki

A wild, impish shipwright. Floki is deeply devout when it comes to matters of the gods. His mischievous nature proves he has more in common with Loki than the last four letters of his name.

Siggy

A servant in Ragnar’s household and the widow of Earl Haraldson. She lost her daughter, Thyri, to the illness that swept through Kattegat. She is deeply devoted to Rollo, and she will do what it takes to give herself and her new husband the upper hand.

King Horik

The King of Denmark. Ragnar swore an oath of loyalty to King Horik, and Horik in turn swore to lend his ships and men to the cause of raiding and exploring England. First, he and Ragnar must deal with a domestic threat posed by the covetous Jarl Borg.

Jarl Borg

A Swedish Jarl who has been in a long-standing land dispute with King Horik. As season 2 begins, he is planning to kill Horik and Ragnar and claim the lands by force. He is manipulative and sly, and prone to fits of vengeful rage.

King Aelle

The king of Northumbria. He is furious with the Vikings for their incursion into his lands. He killed a guy by throwing him into a pit of snakes in the first season. We will learn he has powerful allies in other English kingdoms.

The Seer

A wizened, blind, and disfigured Viking in Kattegat who claims to speak for the gods. He prophesied Earl Haraldson’s death and offers ominous insights into the fates of characters.

Arne

A warrior called “One-Eye” for his distinctive patch. Like Odin, he is hungry for knowledge. Though a relatively minor character from the last season, he will have a much larger role to play in the second season.

‘Vikings’ Season 2 Recap & Reactions

Episode 1: “Brother’s War”

Vikings Season 2 Aslaug

Just kidding about Arne: Arne’s dead, and Rollo killed him. The “war” in the title is a bit misleading; it’s more of a skirmish, but it’s beautifully choreographed as Rollo, Ragnar and their allies clash. Rollo’s arc for the remainder of the season, as redeemed man and lieutenant to Ragnar, begins at this battle. Travis Fimmel really conveys Ragnar’s vision of exploration in the meeting after the battle, and it’s convincing enough that Jarl Borg is the one who’s assimilated. He agrees to raid England with Ragnar and Horik.

Bjorn is on marriage patrol back at Kattegat. Lagertha is none too pleased about Ragnar’s dalliance with Aslaug, and it’s painful to watch Bjorn try so hard to keep things together. Aslaug’s arrival in Kattegat only makes things worse. Her appearance is stunning, occurring as Ragnar mourns Gyda’s death beautifully. It says something for the writing of the show that Lagertha chooses to leave Ragnar instead of suffering his suggestion that she share in a marriage with Aslaug. It was a bold move and sets her up to be an incredible figure of respect through the remainder of the season. It’s also heartbreaking to behold the splitting up of Ragnar Bjorn, and Lagertha.

In other news, Ragnar bribes a neutral party to declare that Rollo is forgiven for his treachery. Rollo can hardly believe his luck, and his depressive funk is the catalyst for his later growth.

What I Learned

I’m definitely #TeamLagertha. No question.

Episode 2: “Invasion”

Vikings invasion

Michael Hirst and the other show runners made a bold choice skipping ahead 4 years in time for the second episode of the season. The effect would be jarring if they didn’t so adroitly establish the new norm. In that time, Aslaug has borne Ragnar two sons, with a third on the way, and Floki has built many ships for the raiders to ride to England. This episode introduces a recurring motif of faith and prophecy. Aslaug prophesies to Ragnar that their unborn son will have a “snake in his eye” which sounds spectacularly ominous. Troubled, Ragnar seeks the advice of the Seer about his sons, and he speaks of a vaunted future for Bjorn.

Betrayal is another big theme this season. King Horik’s insistence that they leave Jarl Borg out of the raiding party not only strains relationships with Borg, it ensures that there will be lasting enmity between Ragnar and his liege lord for the remainder of the season. With the heavy emphasis on divine will this season, it’s hard not to picture the storm that drives the ships off course as a poetic device to illustrate the gods’ displeasure with King Horik’s breach of trust.

We also meet a new monarch, King Ecbert of Wessex. His forces are ready for the Vikings, and they strike with a guerrilla ferocity that leaves the Vikings bloodied but alive. Horik’s son Ari meets his end, and his death fuels Horik’s hate for the Saxon king for the remainder of the season. King Aelle is depicted as the stereotypically rotund, apoplectic, black-beared monarch from so many fairy stories. Ecbert is, by contrast, methodical, diplomatic and handsome. He holds court in a giant hot spring bathtub, for crying out loud. He is, put simply, suave AF.

What I Learned

When you’re caught in an ambush at camp, a lot really can happen in 6 seconds. I have a much greater appreciation for surprise rounds after the battle in this episode.

Episode 3: “Treachery”

Vikings Bjorn
Bjorn Ragnarsson, all grown up.

Lagertha has remarried. Additionally, Bjorn has transformed from Hitler-youth-esque Batman-Begins-era Jack Gleeson to a burly Viking version of Peeta Mellark. He clearly hates his stepdad, and to be fair, Lagertha doesn’t seem too fond of punch-happy Sigvard either.

Newly christened (Thor-ined? Odin-ed?) as a Viking freeman, Athelstan is a valuable asset when the raiding party descends on Winchester. This story is Athelstan’s story, as he is torn between his new sense of belonging in Viking society and memories of his old life. The most striking scene of the episode is in the scriptorium where he examines the writing lovingly and a monk jumps out to stop him from ruining the text. Acting on reflex, Athelstan strikes the monk one blow in the chest and the monk dies clutching an illuminated gospel. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking parallel to when Ragnar discovered Athelstan cowering with a gospel in his hand.

Meanwhile, in Kattegat, Jarl Borg descends like a vulture and Rollo is forced to defend the town. He fights and then flees with Siggy, Aslaug and her newborn, snake-in-the-eyed son to the hills. The whole affair seems a stupid waste as it happened all because of Horik’s pride.

What I Learned

Minster, as in “Westminster” is a word in its own right meaning “church.”

Episode 4: “Eye for an Eye”

When Athelstan finds himself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to him.

Aslaug is not thrilled to be slumming it in a farmer’s hovel. Jarl Borg is enjoying the comforts of Ragnar’s hall, while Ragnar enjoys the comforts of King Ecbert’s. Horik is like a partied-out frat boy who never grew up. He’s obsessed with cliquish politics and violence in a way that clashes jarringly with Ragnar’s desire to learn, explore, and settle peacefully.

King Ecbert is sincere in his desire to hire the Vikings to fight in a war of conquest (which we’ll learn more about later), and Ragnar sincerely wants land and peace. It’s hard not to blame Horik for what happens next; had he not insisted Borg stay behind, Borg would not have attacked Ragnar’s lands and Ragnar would have stayed to negotiate a truce much sooner.

Athelstan continues to experience divine visions or hallucinations, seeing the bible Floki gave him as a mock gift bleed from the stigmata on an illustration of Jesus. The showrunners take the Biblical parallels from the first season to their fullest realization and the Saxons crucify Athelstan as an apostate. King Ecbert saves him by intervening and ordering the executioners to cut him down.

Lagertha’s return is suitably heroic as it demonstrates she will not be controlled by anyone. She is a capable leader and it is her qualities of skill and insight that will grant her much greater power later. Rollo, for his turn, continues to be intriguing by showing that he is way more in touch with his feelings than you would expect a Viking to be. The Seer tells Jarl Borg that he sees an eagle hovering over him, and that he is the eagle. This sounds pretty awesome, but I can assure you that it’s actually horrifying and may give you nightmares.

What I Learned

Gustaf Skarsgård (Floki) is Stellan Skarsgård’s son. Sounds like tussling with Norse legends is a family affair.

Episode 5: “Answers in Blood”

Against the combined might of Lagertha, Ragnar, Rollo, and their supporters, Borg doesn’t stand a chance. Ragnar shows he is thinking on a level beyond his peers by setting a clever ambush and using the season against his opponent. Back in the company of his ex-wife, whom he clearly still loves, Ragnar seeks the advice of the Seer on how he can keep both Aslaug and Lagertha as his wives. The Seer’s reply, that Ragnar is a fool for thinking it is his choice and not the Lagertha and Aslaug’s, continues the trend of uplifting the agency of the show’s female characters.

Lagertha, in the end, chooses to return to her husband, and she and Aslaug part on terms of mutual respect. Bjorn stays behind, having the opportunity to have gone with his mother and to return with his father. Ragnar, delighted to have his son back, interrupts Rollo as he is about to perform a sacrifice and gives the axe to Bjorn. His obsession with his lineage and his children will cause him to alienate others around him. Siggy is willing to sell out Ragnar to Horik for Rollo’s sake after seeing this poor treatment.

Athelstan is destined to always be an advisor. His ability to see parallels between Viking and Christian society in unlikely places and his natural curiosity make him invaluable to King Ecbert in the same way he was an asset to Ragnar.  The god(s) do indeed have great plans for him.

What I Learned

Alexander Ludwig, who plays the adult Bjorn, really did audition for the role of Peeta Mellark. He wound up playing Cato instead in the first Hunger Games film.

Episode 6: “Unforgiven”

Vikings Jarl Borg, Torvi, Rollo

Frat-boy Horik is already thinking about the next big  game raid. His insistence on bringing Jarl Borg back into the fold is a double insult to Ragnar. Ragnar never wanted to cut him out of the initial raid, and Borg assaulted Ragnar’s lands, not Horik’s. Rollo sets off as an envoy to Borg just the same, and naturally, it’s all a trap that ends with his men dead and Borg in chains awaiting execution. Through it all, Bjorn single-mindedly (and clumsily) tries to woo a pretty servant called Porunn (pronounced sort of like “phThor-unn”) and is oblivious to the battle plans. Ah, youth.

Lagertha is maneuvering herself to greatness as well. She slays her drunkard husband after suffering a cruel beating at the hands of his goons. Her capable leadership during the Battle for Kattegat obviously earned her the respect and loyalty of Earl Sigvard’s men.

Starting in this episode we are starting to see Ragnar as more of a legend. Our experience of Ragnar is shaped by others’ perceptions of him and he looks like a giant through their eyes.

What I Learned

The treasures, art, and structures the Romans left behind were a relative mystery to the English layperson. And Floki cannot keep a secret.

Episode 7:  “Blood Eagle”

Vikings Blood Eagle Ragnar
Ragnar prepares for the execution.

Alliances are popping up on both sides of the North Sea. Horik Kegstanddir insists that Ragnar stay Borg’s execution until they have found a suitable ally to replace him. Aelle arrives at Ecbert’s kingdom where they discuss plans to defend against Viking raids and to conquer their neighbor, Mercia. The two kings come to mutually agreeable terms that see the wedding of Ecbert’s son Aethelwulff to Aelle’s daughter Judith. The parallel sequences of a royal Anglo-Saxon wedding and the Viking wedding of Floki and Helga are marvelous to behold and beautifully edited. It is a fresh reminder that this is a historical drama that occasionally seeks to educate as well as entertain.

The editing in this episode also shines during the sequence around the fireplace. Ragnar watches his guest from behind a trellis and the camera jumps from conversation to conversation as the music builds to a frenzy. You’re left wondering, does Ragnar have a hand in all these pies, or is he losing his grip on his domain once again?

Poor Borg. He languishes awaiting a horrific execution, is offered hope of escape, and has those hopes dashed when Lagertha (now Earl Ingstad) shows up to fill the void left by his men’s untimely deaths. Instead, he meets a gruesome end at Ragnar’s vengeful, methodical hands. Since I started watching Vikings, a colleague has ominously referred to “blood eagle” on several occasions, and after witnessing it, I kind of wish that I was still in the dark. So, I’m sure, do the denizens of Kattegat.

What I Learned

Blood Eagle is not some honorific or the name of a thrash metal band. It’s much more horrifying than that. And King Aelle is way taller than I thought.

Episode 8: “Boneless”

vikings Floki Helga
Floki and Helga share an intimate moment… and look a little like vampires.

Aslaug gives birth to a child, Ivar, from whom this episode gets this name. The child appears to have no bones in his legs, and Ragnar feels it is their duty to let him die. Aslaug’s devotion to her children wins out and she and Ragnar share several touching moments that show there is real love in their marriage. Director Kari Skogland repeats the technique of showing vignettes of various conversations to speed up the narrative, and it works beautifully as the Vikings prepare to sail for Wessex.

We meet another character of note in England this episode – Princess Kwenthrith of Mercia. She has a distinctly different sense of propriety than the others of her station and has the ambition to become queen of her fractured kingdom, with Aelle and Ecbert’s help. Ecbert encourages her to seek the help of the Northmen and hire some as mercenaries.

Horik Pops-His-Collar tries desperately to win Floki to his side by appealing to Floki’s devotion to the gods. Floki wrestles with many demons and there is a real threat that he will betray Ragnar. The Viking King disdain’s Ragnar’s commitment to peace and sets an ambush for Ecbert’s men as they depart. He tries, and fails, to assert his dominance over Ragnar, and his blind lust for power, treasure, and revenge will be his undoing.

What I Learned

Wessex, Sussex, and Essex (or West Seax, South Seax, and East Seax) were familiar to me, as was Northumbria, but I’d never known there was a kingdom called Mercia. Now I’ll just assume any instance of ‘Merica is a typo by English history enthusiasts.

Episode 9: “The Choice”

Ecbert shows real delight as he and Athelstan study the Roman scrolls. He is even more satisfied when the strategy he devises based on the scrolls leads to a victory over the Vikings. Ragnar is annoyed and disheartened by the whole affair, but is content to keep his men safe and let Horik lead his forces in a foolish charge. He is impressed by his son Bjorn’s prowess and grants him the name Bjorn Ironsides.

At battle’s end, Athelstan and Aelle both recognize the fallen form of Rollo among the dead. He becomes the bargaining chip that finally gets the Vikings to the negotiating table. Kwenthrith gets her mercenaries, Ragnar gets his land, and Ecbert continues to spin the web. Athelstan decides to return to Kattegat with Ragnar, and it’s likely he has sacrificed his new home in Wessex for a chance to return to the Viking lands.

The battles have grown immensely in scale this scene and they continue to be a highlight. Each fight is like an epic episode of Decisive Battles with great writing and compelling performances.

What I Learned

Michael Hirst is credited as the sole writer for all of the episodes in season 1 and season 2. I had assumed there were more minds at the writing table, but it impressed me to see such a forward shift in the quality of the writing this season.

Episode 10: “The Lord’s Prayer”

Vikings Athelstan Ragnar
Athelstan teaches Ragnar how to pray.

Horik Couch-Surfer decides to bring his whole family to visit Kattegat. For a king, he doesn’t seem to spend very much time in his own kingdom. His intentions become clear enough right away that he means to depose Ragnar and install someone else as Earl of Kattegat. He tries to use Floki to that end, even going so far as to put him through a hazing ritual of, you know, murdering someone before he trusts him with his plan. Thankfully, Floki devises a clever ruse with Torstein involving some mushrooms that probably taste horrible but aren’t fatal.

The pacing is brilliant. Events slowly build to a boil through the episode. Horik starts by amassing allies for his revolution, trying hard to win Siggy and Floki both as true allies. Gustaf Skarsgård does excellently making Floki feel like a wildcard, and it’s not until he saves Bjorn from Horik’s assailants that you realize he and Siggy have both been playing Horik for a fool. Horik was petty, small-minded, and jealous, and it is what led to the end of his reign and the end of his life.

Elsewhere in the battle, Gunnhild fights with Lagertha in a bid to answer the question “who is the better warrior?” The answer is Lagertha. The answer is always Lagertha.

Ragnar relishes his victory, and in the end, he brutally kills Horik with disturbing abandon. The jealousy of other men has made Ragnar harder and more vicious. Now that he wields the sword and wears the mantle of a king, what terrible fury will he visit on the world? Or is it possible that his interest in the Christian faith and Athelstan’s influence will lead him closer to a policy of forgiveness and social change? In either case, I am excited for season 3.

Vikings Ragnar
King Ragnar surveys his kingdom.

What I Learned

You can do nothing in this world without allies. Having swords, shields, and a bit of faith helps, too.

Previously

Catching Up With ‘Vikings’: Season 1 Recap and Reaction

 


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