Ragnar’s kingdom is like a giant cell dividing. He spurred his followers on with the seed of an idea, the conquest of England and Paris, and now the passion and ambition he inspired is metastasizing and becoming cancerous. Vikings season 4 explores the challenges of leadership and the toll that running a kingdom can take on an individual who has lost faith in himself.
~TO THE GATES! Spoilers below~
Need a refresher on the key characters? Check out Wikia’s character guide.
Episode 1: “A Good Treason”
Prophecies and visions dominate the opening of the episode. As Aslaug hears another prophecy from the Seer, Ragnar wanders in a fever dream brought on by his illness. He sees Odin’s Valhalla before him, but as he approaches, the gates slam shut in his face and the massive golden doors disappear into thin air. It’s symbolic of the contempt with which many of his loyal allies, including Aslaug, now view him.
Björn, in his father’s absence, arrests Floki for treason and has him pilloried. This strains the relationship between Ragnar and his eldest son. The tension inspires Björn to retreat into the wilderness to prove his manhood to his father.
Ragnar and Aslaug’s marriage may be damaged beyond repair; he trusts in her visions, but that’s about it now. Their exchange over Björn’s departure for a winter of solitude is heartbreaking.
Kalf continues to be unpredictable. When faced with an opportunity to consolidate power, he instead extends joint rulership of Hedeby to Lagertha and then kills Einar and her opponents. As Einar slowly bleeds to death, Lagertha performs the most gruesome act seen on screen since the maiming of Judith in season 3.
Rollo’s marriage is off to a rocky start, but he now finds himself wed to a Frankish princess who despises him. Sinric abandons Rollo after his wanderlust becomes too much to bear. The departure of the flamboyant vagabond is the highlight of the episode. Faced with a choice between building a new life for himself or holding for his brother’s return, Rollo chooses the defense of Paris as his new purpose.
What I Learned
Crossbows are really scary weapons.
Episode 2: “Kill the Queen”
Winter is coming, and Floki escapes. Even though he knows she’s responsible for his escape, Ragnar cares for Helga by giving her food for the winter. It’s a gesture of wonderful kindness that humanizes the increasingly aloof and isolated king.
In Wessex, Ecbert and his allies prepare for a military campaign to retake Mercia and save the captive Queen Kwenthrith. The sequence of the soldiers training is like a scene from a Dynasty Warriors video game. The arms and armor (and the number of extras) are a sign of the show’s increased budget.
Ubbe leads the search party for Floki, and they capture the fugitive boat builder while he hides in a river. Ragnar’s younger sons have grown enough that they’re not simply set pieces anymore.
Even though he’s betrayed his Viking brethren, I find myself strangely rooting for Rollo. He’s oddly become an ambassador of a kind by showing to the Franks that not all Northmen are the “savages” the French think they are. His wordless exchange with Odo and Roland as he helps them plan the defense of Paris is wonderful comedy. His transformation from grizzled raider to Frankish noble has a Beauty and the Beast vibe. Gisla laughs at Rollo’s change of costume, and it may be the first evidence of the seeds of affection for her Viking husband. She might as well have started singing.
Ecbert arranges for Judith to learn the art of illumination and he keeps his promise to allow her some degree of autonomy. He’s still creepily trying to woo her into his bed, though, so I take the gesture with a shaker full of salt. In an example of brilliant editing, Judith breathlessly exclaims “free!” just before a cut to a shot of Floki, bound and being led to stand trial.
Ragnar is furious that his old friend was captured. He doesn’t want to punish Floki, and it’s obvious the burden of being king is completely distasteful to him. Ragnar striking Aslaug in his anger is a bridge too far. Power has really corrupted him.
Aethelwulf and his men rescue Queen Kwenthrith, but at great cost of lives. The fight between the prince and the Mercian guard with the key to the tower may be the most brutal, tense fight I’ve seen in a long time. It’s got a Jackie Chan film feel to it; their struggle for the key while armed female guards try to kill Kwenthrith is classic get-the-object-fu. You can’t help but like action hero Aethelwulf a little bit after his daring rescue attempt.
Meanwhile, in Kattegat, Floki has been imprisoned just like Loki, bound in a cave, with torturous liquid slowly dripping onto his face. While he languishes, Ragnar checks in on Helga to learn that her daughter, Angrboda, died. Sad.
What I Learned
Locking women in towers really was all the rage in Medieval Europe.
Episode 3: “Mercy”
Rollo desperately wants to learn Frankish. Gisla successfully, and loudly, embarrasses him at the feast of St. Eulalia, and the incident pushes Rollo to the limits of his frustration.
During their fancy Bible art lessons, Prudentius shares news of the siege of Paris which imbues Judith with a false hope that Athelstan is alive. She and Ecbert share an admiration for Ragnar, but their pseudo-religious obsession with Athelstan is getting a little weird. This devotion, perhaps, is how saints (like Eulalia) are made.
Björn’s time in the wilderness has become an intense test of his sanity and his skill. His traps have turned up empty, and he has a terrifying face-to-face encounter with a bear, which turns and leaves him alone for the time being. He sees the bear for the second time after he downs a giant jug-o-booze under the Aurora Borealis. He is lucky that the creature didn’t maul him in his stuporous sleep. He resolves to fight and kill the bear, and he succeeds (poor bear).
Later in the episode, there is a parallel vision sequence with Ecbert and Ragnar wandering their torchlit halls at night. The two kings have a vision of Athelstan, appearing before them as if alive. They each take a different lesson from their encounters; Ecbert learns the truth of Athelstan’s fate, and Ragnar learns mercy. In the morning, Ragnar charges into the cave where Floki is captive and cuts his bonds with an ax. He has, at last, extended some measure of forgiveness.
What I Learned
Ice fishing hasn’t changed too much in the past 1,100 years. Except for the huts. And fishing rods. And cold, canned beer. And glove warmers. But it’s pretty much the same.
Episode 4: “Yol”
Ragnar finally takes the time to ask Yidu’s name, after he’s creepily watched the slave woman from afar for too long. They speak of duty, and Ragnar arrogantly compares his kingship to the condition of being a slave. Yidu, for her part, confides that she thinks about killing everyone fairly often, so I think it’s an even exchange.
During a feast in Ecbert’s hall, King Aelle shares that he has not forgotten his vow to kill Ragnar and his kin. That wrath extends to Magnus, the alleged bastard child of Ragnar and Kwenthrith’s bizarre season 3 tryst.
Floki stops in to see the Seer, and the holy man greets him with, “so you finally came.” It’s strange to realize that Floki, who is truly devout, has not spoken to the Seer at all through the whole series. I had a pet theory confirmed by this episode, however, when the Seer implied that Floki would take his place. It made me want to give my own little chuckle of joy.
The moment where Rollo reveals his newly acquired language skills feels like The Dread Pirate Roberts revealing that he’s actually Wesley and has been all along. Rollo proves his love to Gisla, and she warms to him, though not before calling out his killing of his own warriors as a “very Viking thing to do.”
The resentment between Aslaug and Ragnar continues to deepen which pushes him into spending more time with Yidu. Apparently “quality time” for Ragnar means violently accosting the slave woman in the yard as she tends to the pigs. His new violence against women kick is truly despicable.
Despite his rough handling of her, Ragnar and Yidu start a bizarre courtship that involves drug use, dancing, and live snake-swallowing. She tells him of her upbringing in China, and he suspects there is more to her than meets the eye.
Even though he “killed him a bar” just last episode, Björn’s trials aren’t over. He still has the boss battle of his side quest; the Berserker Erlendur and Kalf hired to kill him in the wilderness. The stunt group has really upped their fight game this season, and Björn’s clever and horrific use of the fish hooks is cringe-inducing. Alexander Ludwig has done an excellent job copying Travis Fimmel’s old Norse lilt and mannerisms, like the way he sucks his teeth: they really seem like father and son.
Like the Christian and Viking weddings from season two, the contrast between the Christmas and Yol celebrations is an excellent device to show cultural differences. At the celebrations, we meet a charming and impressive new ally, Harald Finehair, who has ambitions to become king of Norway. We’ll see about that.
What I Learned
Episode 5: “Promised”
Lagertha is back in fighting form, training for the coming raid on Paris. She shares with Kalf that she is expecting a child, and he proposes marriage.
In Kattegat, Ragnar and his band also prepare. Ragnar reflects on his failures as a father and a husband, and he reprimands Björn for not caring for his daughter Siggy. Björn’s time in the wilderness has made him more confident, but it hasn’t improved his relationship with his father.
King Harald Finehair’s brother, Halfdan, arrives on the scene, and his introduction to Ragnar is awkward, to say the least. Ragnar is drugged, somehow sedate and wild at once, and obsessively throwing daggers at a shield. The Viking king is depressed, and aimless, and is looking for an escape when he should be turning his attention to the affairs at hand.
In Frankia, Rollo and Gisla delight in their marriage. All seem joyous except for Count Odo, and perhaps he has right to be surly. Therese, who has been his mistress, appears before Emperor Charles and accuses the count of conspiring to usurp the crown. She and Roland, who are apparently siblings (and also lovers), promise to warn Charles of any treachery. Charles is simpering and paranoid. So far his only clever maneuver was marrying Gisla with Rollo, though that succeeded only because of Rollo’s efforts.
Charles is simpering and paranoid. So far his only clever maneuver was marrying Gisla with Rollo, though that succeeded only because of Rollo’s efforts.
During a feast in Kattegat, Harald and Halfdan mingle with the locals, including Floki. Ragnar and Yidu watch the proceedings from a nearby rooftop, like teenagers playing hooky from the high school prom. In the firelit glow, Ragnar confides to Yidu about the destroyed settlement in Wessex. Yidu then reveals that she is the daughter of the Tang Dynasty Emperor.
Later, they have naughty bath time, and Ragnar shows a level of sadism and desire for control that is extremely troubling. The show has not shied away from sexuality in the past, but both Ragnar and Count Odo’s approach to acting out their sexual urges have been problematic, to say the least.
Not more problematic, though, than Ivar straight up killing a kid for not letting him play ball. Floki has been a good mentor to Ivar so far, but perhaps a little of his madness has rubbed off on the youngest of Ragnar and Aslaug’s sons.
Björn studies his map of the Mediterranean acquired during the raid on Paris when Torvi interrupts him. She identifies the ring he took from the Beserker as belonging to Erlendur, who received it from King Horik. Erlendur will not be safe from Bjorn Bear-Slayer’s wrath.
Lagertha looks stunning in her wedding dress, and she lures Kalf into a false sense of security before she stabs him in the gut. They kiss tenderly even as he dies, for as the title reminds us, she promised to love him even though she vowed to one day kill him for the wrongs he inflicted on her. As far as weddings go, it’s not the bloodiest one we’ve seen on TV, but it was a shock all the same.
Kalf is hard to read. Did he have ambitions beyond being Earl? Did he envision himself becoming king? Or was he simply content to win the love of Lagertha? We will never know now.
What I Learned
Harald Finehair, king of Norway, lived between 850 and 932. If Ragnar Lothbrok really existed, it’s possible they could have been contemporaries, but Ragnar was likely much older than the Norwegian King.