Cell phones, airplanes, and other advances have essentially rendered long distances meaningless. People, goods, and ideas flow near instantaneously across borders. By contrast, Ragnar and his allies’ treks through their region into England and France are feats of incredible human ingenuity. Vikings season three explores the tensions that arise when cultures collide, faith is called into question, and a people are forced to reevaluate their priorities.
~SHIELD WALL: Spoilers Incoming~
This season added many new characters, especially in England and Frankia. Read about the characters old and new if you need a refresher.
Episode 1: “Mercenary”
Let’s take a minute to talk about John Kavanagh. He has really inhabited the role of the Seer in the past three seasons. The heavy makeup makes it almost like mask work, taking on the eerie etherealness of Greek tragedy or the yuugen of Nō theater. At the start of season three, he shares some sobering (if vague) insights about Lagertha’s future and tells her that “the nature of prophecy” is that it won’t be understood until it’s already happened.
Here’s a subplot round-up for the first episode. Ragnar and company sail back to Wessex. Lagertha is trying to consolidate power in Hedeby by finding a suitable mate. Kalf and Einar conspire against her to make Kalf the Earl. Björn still awkwardly tries to win Porunn’s affection, and Floki is having a crisis about parenting. King Ecbert convinces many of the Vikings to fight for Kwenthrith in her war to gain the crown of Mercia. He accompanies Lagertha and the other Viking settlers to their new farm, and he is clearly infatuated with the shield-maiden-farmer-turned-Earl.
The crux of the episode is the Vikings’ first encounter with the Mercian forces. King Brihtwulf (Ian Beattie) and his nephew Burgred have set an ambush at a narrow crossing on the river. Ragnar displays his keen tactical mind and focuses his attack on King Brihtwulf’s army. Despite the tensions between the Saxons and the Vikings, the allied forces win handily. The moment where Rollo and Aethelwulf collide in the middle of battle, each mistaking the other for a foe, is a perfect microcosm of the uneasy alliance between the Norsemen and the Saxons.
Kwenthrith celebrates the death of her uncle with ragged, ecstatic breaths. Her face is smeared with naked ambition and each gasp seems to proclaim, “I am queen!” It’s a haunting way to end the episode.
What I Learned
Ian Beattie is unfortunately typecast as a child abuser. Poor sod.
Episode 2: “The Wanderer”
Torstein’s injury will spell death for him. Stuck by an arrow during the landing on the beach, his wound is beginning to fester. Start saying prayers for yet another supporting character.
The usual debauchery follows the Viking victory over the Mercians. Rollo and Torstein indulge in hallucinogenic mushrooms, and in a truly disturbing act of violence Rollo hacks off the leg of a sleeping captive Englishman.
Dreams are at the center of this episode. Siggy, Helga, and Aslaug dream of a wanderer with a bleeding hand and a flaming snowball. None are sure who he is, but they are certain he is a person of significance. Over in Wessex, Judith dreams of having a wild romp with Athelstan, and then confesses it to him. The astute Ecbert notices their mutual attraction.
There must be something in the water in Wessex as King Ecbert arduously pursues Lagertha. He is a very convincing wooer. Lagertha is obviously interested in him as well, and she relishes the affections of a king. She likely has figured that “Queen Lagertha” has a nice ring to it, or at the very least he will make a powerful ally.
It’s not all roses for the new allies, however. Aethelwulf openly scorns the Vikings when speaking to a captured Mercian soldier, and tensions are strained after Rollo’s act of random violence. Aethelwulf’s mistrust of the Vikings will win out in the end, as he cannot accept these strangers on his ancestral land.
Helga encounters the Wanderer on the edge of town, who appears exactly as all three women envisioned him (sans flaming snowball).
What I Learned
Vikings on mushrooms are scary.
Episode 3: “Warrior’s Fate”
Harbard, the wanderer, introduces himself as a storyteller. Aslaug and Helga dig him, but Siggy is not impressed. He can calm squalling Ivar with ease. History has shown that people will grant immeasurable influence to those who can care for their children.
Torstein’s departure from the show is the first time a recurring supporting character gets the ending he deserves (despite Floki’s disapproval). The music of the battle sequence is glorious. It’s anxiety-inducing with the short, shallow breaths forming a battle chant.
Porunn takes a horrific cut to the face during the fight, and this injury sets the course of her story for the remainder of the season. While Ragnar dismisses his son and essentially tells him to “man up,” Uncle Rollo comes to the rescue, comforting Björn as he frets over Porunn.
At the settlement, King Ecbert makes a groan-inducingly obvious sex joke about “plowing” and “sowing seed” as Lagertha prepares for a sacrifice to Freyr to increase the harvest. The king and his men stay to watch the sacrifice, over the protests of his nobles, and by the end of the bloody affair, even Ecbert seems shocked by the proceedings. I think this is the moment where he calculates that he cannot actually allow the Vikings to settle in Wessex, and that is truly unfortunate.
Judith and Athelstan, meanwhile, engage in some secret rituals of their own. Or rather, they “plow” and “sow seeds”.
When Siggy seeks the advice of the Seer concerning Harbard, he responds with perhaps his creepiest revelation yet: “No one can help you.”
What I Learned
The Romans built Paris. I honestly had no idea.
Episode 4: “Scarred”
Harbard continues to play “baby whisperer” and ingratiates himself to Aslaug. His references to Russia really play out the Rasputin parallels. It’s likely a clever nod to those events; this is, after all, the History Channel.
Siggy is the only one to see sense with regards to Harbard. When Aslaug sneaks off, she sits on the throne once again in the Queen’s absence. It’s a sad realization of her dream to return to power.
There are peak levels of infidelity in this episode. Harbard and Aslaug, Ragnar and Kwenthrith, and Judith and Athelstan all have trysts of one form or another (though it’s unclear if Kwenthrith does more than just “play doctor” with Ragnar). The love scenes are tastefully shot, with well-placed candlesticks and elbows disguising exposed body parts. It’s almost a lost art in this era of full-frontal nudity on cable TV.
Rollo has become significantly wiser as he sees the need for cooperation with the Saxons. One of the great pleasures of the series has been watching his development from layabout and oaf to statesman and warrior. His destiny, as the Seer suggests, is something greater than you expect.
Siggy’s death is just so sad. She is loyal, sensible, intelligent, and she’s been through so much. You really root for her and Rollo by the end of their arc. As she slowly succumbs to the cold, she sees Thyri in Harbard’s place. It’s a magical, sad moment that makes you ponder, especially after the death of two other boys in a similar fashion, whether Harbard does have some life-for-a-life kind of power.
Back in Wessex, the Vikings and Saxons celebrate. This is the first time that Ragnar and Lagertha seem more like old friends than erstwhile lovers.
After a heartfelt speech, Kwenthrith kills her brother, becoming sole ruler of Mercia. I’d like to think the assembly are pouring out their drinks to honor Siggy’s memory, not because they’re probably poisoned. Here’s to you, Jessalyn Gilsig! Well played these past three seasons.
What I Learned
Harbard means “gray beard” and is a nickname for Odin. You’re right to think that Floki will freak out about this fact.
Episode 5: “The Usurper”
The Vikings’ homecoming is nothing short of disastrous. On the boat home, Ragnar states his open resentment for Aslaug. Torstein’s two mistresses are deflated to hear of his death. Rollo is consumed by grief for Siggy and tries desperately to translate that emotional pain into physical pain. It’s a sad step backward for someone who’s shown such growth.
This episode is called “The Usurper,” and there’s a lot of usurping going on: Athelstan usurps Floki’s place as Ragnar’s spiritual compass and trusted adviser, and Kalf is still being a little butt by stealing Lagertha’s rightful spot as Earl.
Porunn, meanwhile, is not pleased with her wound. You can imagine the pain she’s in. Does she resent it just because it’s a scar, or does she see it as a lasting mark of what she feels is her inadequacy in battle? Either way, neither Aslaug nor Björn can console her.
Helga tells Floki the story of Harbard, including his seduction of Aslaug. Floki’s faith lets him believe without hesitation that Harbard is a god, likely Odin.
Ragnar has become aloof, foolish, and casually cruel. I miss the old Ragnar with a vision for a different world. Thankfully we get a glimpse of that Ragnar when he invites Kalf to come with them to Frankia instead of pursuing a course of vengeance.
Ecbert, with the Vikings not long gone, is a sly bastard. When the nobles and Aethelwulf slay all the Viking settlers, he uses the pretext to dispose of his enemies and increase his hold on his son. The mad gleam in his eye as he discusses his plans to become King of England give you a strong idea of where things are headed.
What I Learned
King Egbert, the historical analog for Ecbert, really did become King of England. It will be fascinating to see how that happens on the show.
Episode 6: “Born Again”
Porunn gives birth to a girl, and Lagertha and Ragnar become grandparents. What a wild notion. She and Björn name her Siggy in honor of the recently departed.
When Ragnar hears of the destroyed settlement, he receives it with empathy and anger in equal measure. Events take a dark turn as he strangles the messenger who brings the news (survivor’s guilt is not permission for straight-up murder, Ragnar).
Judith is seized to be maimed for adultery on what looks like the same platform from the Blood Eagle scene. She is fierce, defiant, and terrified all at once. It’s a gripping performance in stark contrast to the stoicism with which the Vikings face death and dismemberment. When she cries out, “Our Lord Jesus never advocated for such barbarism,” you almost feel compelled to shout in response, “Amen, sister Judith!”
Simultaneously, there’s some serious Christ imagery involving Athelstan, as he is blown backward by an unseen force and splayed out gasping like a man on the cross. He has a short period of blindness, after which follows an epiphany and reconciliation, on a personal level, with God. It is increasingly hard to tell what is real and what is a dream in this season, and it only gets wilder from here.
Athelstan’s crisis of faith has peaked. Throwing away his arm ring is a crossing of the Rubicon for this monk-turned-Viking-turned-Roman-scholar-turned-father, and so much worse for him that Floki witnessed it. When Athelstan shares how he regained his faith with Ragnar, the king’s reaction to the notion of being “born again” is pretty hilarious. Ragnar’s declaration that he loves Athelstan deeply and will do anything to defend him is a redemptive moment.
Ragnar continues his trend of pursuing progress over vengeance by welcoming Erlendur and Earl Siegfried into the fold. We also meet Sinric, the wanderer who told Ragnar of England and France and gave him the tools to get there. There’s a part of me that felt he, too, would turn out to be a godlike character. Instead, he’s a Frankish-speaking, cosmopolitan medieval vagabond. It’s exciting to know that men like that once existed.
Meanwhile, Floki is totally losing it. As an enchanting rendition of “Völuspa” echoes in the background, he makes a sacrifice pleasing to the gods by killing Athelstan. The holy man welcomes his fate when he sees what Floki has come to do, and in many ways, it feels like one last attempt to bridge the gap that has widened between them.
For a king, Ragnar sure goes many places alone. He sets out to bury Athelstan. His body bag prop is a testament to how remarkable it is that police don’t arrest more film crews on their way to set. Regardless, ain’t no eulogy like a Ragnar eulogy.
What I Learned
The Medieval punishment for adultery really sucked.
Episode 7: “Paris”
Medieval Paris is cool. It seems like it would be an incredible place to visit even in this horrific time period.
The quiet introduction of the new Frankish characters as they watch the oncoming Viking armada is the best introduction of new characters yet. We quickly get a sense of who they are and their relationship dynamics. Emperor Charles is caught in a trap of vainglorious pride for not appealing to his brothers for aid. Instead, he puts the burden of success on Count Odo, who is capable but knows that victory will come at a high cost. We also meet the power and soul behind the throne, Charles’ daughter Princess Gisla. She clearly wields the most influence over her petulant father because she knows all of the right buttons to push.
Floki leads the raiding meeting, and it’s the highlight of the episode. It would be especially charming if he hadn’t just murdered Athelstan. Ragnar is certainly setting the impish shipwright up to fail. Ragnar seems so isolated that it’s dangerous. He clearly doesn’t know whom to trust anymore, and frankly, he seems bored of being king.
Porunn has serious self-confidence issues, and she insists that Björn should find someone else to love. Unable to cope, she abandons her child to Aslaug’s care and heads into the wilderness.
Ecbert sends Aethelwulf to deal with the newly anointed Queen Kwenthrith. Aethelwulf watches the wine closely and quickly ascertains that Kwenthrith doesn’t want to share power with anyone. Kwenthrith claims to have a child by Ragnar, hoping to threaten Wessex with the promise of aid from the Viking settlement. Aethelwulf quickly disarms that claim, and he convinces her not to kill him. Perhaps the young scion of Wessex is finally coming into his own.
What I Learned
Fancy masks aren’t just for Orlesian nobles. I have done my best Google sleuthing, but I can’t find a reason as to why the monarch and his issue wear masks to mass.
Episode 8: “To the Gates!”
The battles on this show are at their best when they are small. This fight feels like a knockoff Helm’s Deep, down to the scaling of the walls. That said, it’s so hectic and realistic that it’s truly spectacular to behold. There’s a heartwrenching give-and-take as you’ve grown to care for the Parisiens and don’t want them to die at the hands of the merciless Vikings, but you don’t want the heroes of our saga to fail.
In the heat of battle, Princess Gisla brings the banner of Saint Denis to the ramparts. She has proven herself to be assertive, bellicose, and much more inspiring than her father. While she is on the battlements, she and Rollo exchange a very lengthy glance. She appears to be at once disgusted and impressed by his strength, and Rollo seems surprised to see a woman in a gown standing next to all of the soldiers.
Ragnar exercises his kingly discretion and holds off joining the fray until his son jumps right into the thick of it. He fights as ferociously as ever, but the beauty of Paris, his objective for so long, is too much for him. His wild scream before throwing himself off of the edge was as much in defiance of death as it was to scare his assailants.
There is some excellent, intimate camera work in this episode. The close-ups on the faces of the wounded during the aftermath is stunning.
I also love the soliloquies. Floki’s rant in the burning tower betrays his expectation that killing Athelstan granted him irrevocable favor with the gods. Ragnar reveals how deeply the “priest’s” loss wounded him. Ragnar is the master of the long game. He knows Floki killed Athelstan, and knows his one-time friend well enough to understand that a defeat will really make him question his faith. It’s a calculated maneuver that’s right at home in this tale of medieval strife.
What I Learned
Episode 9: “Breaking Point”
Ragnar is peeing blood after his long fall from the ramparts. His foolhardiness has left him at serious risk of dying.
The return to the gate and the drawbridge, the scene of such carnage in the previous battle, was a wonderful way to showcase the grotesque ingenuity of the Franks. It also establishes that gate as the major vein into the heart of Paris.
The Franks have some pretty horrific death traps. The tailor-made spear-launcher and the spiked wheel sized just so that it pulls a man underneath it, really shows how sadistic warfare is.
Emperor Charles is an example of the cycles of greatness that roll through dynasties. He clearly lacks the aptitude for governance. Instead of relying on others, he is prone to throwing fits and acting rashly. When he does listen, it’s because he’s being bullied, like when he chooses to execute Siegfried at Gisla’s behest. Siegfried, however, does get one heck of a last laugh.
Ragnar’s illness is like the purgation of his ambitions to conquer Paris, and now he is caught between following Odin and his ravens, Huginn and Muninn, and turning to embrace the Christ-like Athelstan.
In Kattegat, a Christian missionary has been denouncing the Norse gods. Aslaug challenges him to test his faith. In the best bait-and-switch so far, he carries a hot iron unscathed. The shot immediately rewinds and shows him horrifically burned. Coupled with Ragnar’s visions of Odin and the bizarre feats of Harbard, it seems plausible in the context of the show.
Once the Franks arrive to negotiate, Björn easily assumes an air of command and manages the discussion. As the Vikings mull the offer over, Ragnar speaks honestly about his intentions. He insists, quite rightly, that he never sought to be an Earl or King. All he’s ever wanted, from episode one of the series, is knowledge.
Now that desire extends to a longing for knowledge of Christianity. Ragnar announces to the Franks that want to be baptized so he can be reunited with Athelstan in heaven. With his three closest allies watching, Ragnar dips into the water and effectively turns his back on his culture.
What I Learned
Count Odo is really impressed by Rollo. Maybe it’s because their names rhyme.
Episode 10: “The Dead”
Floki is single-minded in his obsession with Athelstan, even after the priest’s death. His preoccupation is so severe that Helga is terrified of him. She never wanted to share in Floki’s murderous secret, and now she has difficulty seeing her husband as anything but a madman. Floki’s actions have not only cost him Ragnar’s friendship, they’re going to ruin his relationship with his wife.
This episode is named after the Seer’s prophecy that “the dead” will conquer Paris. Ragnar has a cunning ploy that makes that prophecy into truth.
The conversation between Lagertha and Rollo about baptism is important. They discuss that it is a symbol and nothing more unless it means something to the person being baptized. It’s a great way to highlight another difference between Rollo and Ragnar.
The parade of people speaking to Ragnar is touching and enlightening. We see the rage and grief play out in each of his mourners. Ragnar was beloved even though he was a bit mad.
The funeral march and the exchange of the coffin is a perfect picture of the clashing cultures. The raucous dancing of the Vikings is a stark contrast to the somber procession and the mournful chants of the Christian Franks.
In the span of two episodes, Ragnar has betrayed his closest friends twice by keeping them out of his counsel. The cold looks Rollo, Lagertha, and Floki level at him, even as they rush into the gates, are enough to speak volumes.
Two of the Seer’s prophecies are addressed in this episode. Rollo stays to start a settlement in Frankia because of the Seer’s prophecy of a great future. Those plans apparently involve marrying Gisla. The princess is hella tough. She and Lagertha are cut from the same cloth, equal parts leather and silk.
During the crossing back to Kattegat, Ragnar reveals to Floki that he knows Floki killed Athelstan. While Ragnar does not take to vengeance lightly, we know he is merciless when he feels he has been wronged. King Ecbert will also likely feel his wrath in the season to come.
What I Learned
Stay on Ragnar’s good side. It’s for the best.