Sagas are about lineage. They are as much family histories as they are epics about the rise and fall of nations. Even the very names of men and women pictured in the sagas are shaped by those who came before them. In episodes six to ten of Vikings season four, we start to get a taste of what Ragnar’s legacy will be.
~Treachery! Spoilers ahead!~
Need a refresher on the key characters? Check out Wikia’s character guide.
Episode 6: “What Might Have Been”
Paris will be a battleground once again. While announcing the Viking invasion, Ragnar grants Ubbe and Hvitserk their arm rings. It’s all a ploy to keep the children with him, as he, hypocritically, still hasn’t forgiven Aslaug for her dalliance with the wanderer, Harbard. The drums and chanting that see the Vikings off on this journey herald an unfortunate excursion.
Children are being separated from their parents all over. In Wessex, Ecbert announces that he is sending young Alfred on a pilgrimage to Rome. He cites the child’s holy parentage as the reason, but in truth, it’s a maneuver to keep Aethelwulf from getting too… familiar with Queen Kwenthrith. As the two princes depart with Prudentius as their guide, Judith and Aethelwulf share a glance which shows that their relationship might be on the mend.
Guess who’s back, back again? Harbard’s back (tell a friend). Kevin Durand is just a little creepy in this role, and that’s for the best. Whether or not he is divine, Harbard makes a point of appearing only when Ragnar is away. Aslaug is intrigued by his insinuation that he can give her the answers she has been seeking for so long. Ivar, who, like Sigurd, resents being left behind, reacts with manic glee when he sees Harbard’s bearded face.
Along the Seine, the Vikings encounter and dispatch the first wave of Frankish scouts that they encounter. The signal fires that go up along the shore are the first of the new, wicked countermeasures the Vikings encounter. Harald Fairhair and his men inject a fresh sense of cruelty into the mix when they burn several of the scouts on the nearby pyre. Floki reveals that his resentment for Ragnar runs deeper than any bond of friendship they once shared.
The most important sequence of the episode is when Ragnar, freshly dosed with his “medicine”, hallucinates a vision of his old family with Lagertha. Seeing the younger Björn on the shore and Gyda wrapped in her mother’s arms leaves the king wracked with pain. It’s a vision of what he left behind, of what could have been. No matter how agonizing the memory, his brother Rollo’s defection will cause him even greater pain than he can imagine.
What I Learned
The drug Ragnar is (ab)using is likely betel nut, which turns the saliva of the user red. I suppose that would make it “betel juice?”
Episode 7: “The Profit and the Loss”
The Viking assault on Rollo’s guard towers goes predictably poorly. Lagertha’s landbound contingent gets mired in the literal sense as they approach the tower, and the chain capsizes several of the lead boats when they cannot turn quickly enough. Commanding the Frankish forces beside Princess Gisla, Rollo seems heartbroken as he orders the attacks on the Viking flotilla.
While the ships burn during the aftermath, Gisla expresses her admiration for the shieldmaidens and Lagertha in particular. If there is to be a chance of peace between the Vikings and the Franks, it may come through her desire to meet Lagertha.
As he reels from the carnage of their failed assault and Roland‘s sneak attack on the Viking encampment, Ragnar commands Yidu to give him some of the “Chinese medicine.” Ragnar is clearly addicted to the substance, and becoming more erratic and violent by the moment. Yidu realizes Ragnar’s decline, and despite her best efforts to stop him using, he forces her to provide him with the drug and steals a very unwelcome kiss from her. All of this foreshadows Yidu’s tragic end.
Things in Wessex and Mercia are heating up. Ecbert finds an unlikely ally in Wigstan, a prince of Mercia who wants to install Ecbert on the throne and wash his hands of the bloody civil war. The ambitious Ecbert promises that he won’t mind getting his hands a little dirty to see that dream realized.
Back in Kattegat, Harbard expands his influence by holding a carnivalesque kissing booth with the women in the town square. Sigurd has taken a cautious interest in the mysterious stranger and follows him about town, watching from a distance.
In a bizarre sequence, Aslaug appears before a grief-stricken Floki as he pines over the wounded Helga. Floki and the Queen proceed to make love, only it appears she is actually making love to Harbard on a similar riverbank. Is there truly some spiritual connection between Harbard, whom Floki believes to be Odin, and the mad shipwright who would be a holy man? Despite the historical bent of this show, it’s important to stay open to the possibility that there is more at play.
What I Learned
Wood doesn’t offer much protection if it’s covered in oil and set on fire.
Episode 8: “Portage”
This episode reduced the number of X chromosomes in named roles by 5. Roland, at Charles’ command, executes Count Odo (XY) in a gruesome fashion for his treasonous plotting.
Up the Seine a bit from Paris, Ragnar comes up with a plan to carry the longboats overland and down river to circumvent the towers (hence “portage“). Floki eagerly sets to the task of devising machinery to accomplish this feat, and he shares a long-overdue moment of vulnerability with Ragnar as the two start the process of reconciliation.
It’s not all roses, however. During the move, Torvi has a vision of Erlendur shooting Björn in the throat with a crossbow, and clever editing makes us believe that just maybe Björn actually is dead.
Ragnar tries to demand more of his “medicine” from Yidu. She denies him, and when he threatens her, she blackmails him with his secret about the settlement in Wessex. This proves to be her last and fatal mistake, and Ragnar violently drowns her (XX). His boys Ubbe and Hvitserk witness this murder and they are horrified by their father’s wretched deed. Ragnar is fated to sabotage himself through acts of senseless selfishness motivated by a lust for vengeance.
Sigurd the sleuth has news of Harbard’s other conquests and boy is Aslaug unhappy about it. After catching Harbard *ahem* canoodling with two women, she flies into a rage and trashes her rooms in the longhouse. Harbard appears and attempts to calm her by telling her that he has a special love for Aslaug, but she will hear none of it. Then, as quickly as he appeared, the charismatic if unorthodox Harbard disappears once again into the wilderness.
Ecbert, now king of Mercia and Wessex, returns triumphantly to his villa. Kwenthrith is none too pleased to learn that he has robbed her of her queenship. She attempts to bargain for her release, revealing both to Ecbert and Judith that she is carrying Aethelwulf’s child. Judith displays some remarkable character growth by forgiving Kwenthrith and surprisingly gains the upper hand on the queen through her position of kindness. When Kwenthrith’s entreaties fail, she flees outright but is captured and placed under house arrest.
In the middle of the night, she slinks into the King’s chambers and menaces him with a dagger. Judith, hiding in the shadows and with King Ecbert’s confession of love for her fresh in his mind, fatally stabs Kwenthrith (XX). The queen is dead. Long live the king.
What I Learned
Episode 9: “Death All ‘Round”
This show demonstrates a remarkable gift for constructing parallel scenes. As young Alfred meets the Pope and is named a consul of Rome, his grandfather Ecbert is crowned King of Wessex and Mercia by Bishop Edmund. The implication is that Alfred, like his grandfather, is destined for great things. In many ways, this entire episode is about lineage.
Lagertha’s line suffers another heartbreaking blow. She miscarries and writes it off, though sadly, as inevitable because of the Seer’s prophecy that she would never again have children. We’ve seen evidence of augury on this show, but there’s a part of me that still wonders how much of it is genuine mystical insight instead of the subjects acting out a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ragnar and Björn seem equally heartbroken, and it’s gut-wrenching to see this once well-knit family in a picture of emotional disarray.
Erlendur moves to finally exact his revenge on Ragnar by urging Torvi to kill Björn. She instead pegs Erlendur in the chest with a well-aimed crossbow bolt, ending King Horik’s line once and for all. The trouble with revenge is that there’s no telling where the cycle will end. Farewell, at least, to Erlendur’s ’90s grunge band aesthetic.
Björn may have survived, but sadly his daughter Siggy met a cold and lonely end. Harbard has once again come and gone, and yet another child is dead during his time in Kattegat. If he has magic derived from the gods, then perhaps he fuels it with grim sacrifice.
Not all stories involving children are sad in this episode: Charles publicly announces that Rollo and Gisla are expecting their first child. As the emperor asserts, whatever hope for peace with the Northmen they may have is symbolized in that child.
The Vikings finally make it to the river and exult Ragnar as a cunning leader. The Viking king resists the urge to indulge in his addiction because he’s being showered in a more potent drug, the love of his people. As he retches in his tent later, Ragnar confides in Björn that he is saving the last dose for when he must face Rollo. His desire for vengeance, like Erlendur’s, will consume him.
What I Learned
Episode 10: “The Last Ship”
In a show about seafaring raiders, it sure took a long time to see a naval battle. The clash between Rollo’s Frankish fleet and the Viking longships is a thrilling climax for the first half of the season. Rollo and Ragnar meet in battle, and their fencing quickly deteriorates into a bare-knuckled brawl. Watching each of the main characters sustain grievous injuries is like watching an old friend suffer. When Lagertha is pierced by a Frankish sword, it’s too much for Ragnar to bear, and the Vikings retreat full tilt toward the ocean.
While the battle rages, Gisla offers an earnest and moving prayer for Rollo. I can’t help but root for him; given the Seer’s prophecy, it’s hard to see Rollo as a traitor. He’s simply stepped up and embraced his destiny. Rollo has become a man worthy of respect for his devotion to his wife and his adopted country. Meanwhile, Charles murders Roland and Therese at the dinner table. He’s become more decisive as a leader. That doesn’t mean I have to approve of the decisions he makes.
The episode ends with a massive time jump forward. Ragnar has disappeared, and Björn and Aslaug rule in his absence. A traveler comes bearing news of Ragnar’s son, Magnus, and the destruction of the settlement in Wessex. When he hears the news, Björn sets out in search of his brothers, Ubbe, Hvitserk, Sigurd, and Ivar. Now fully grown, the brothers discuss their father’s legacy, and we are treated to a glimpse of what this show is really about: history and the men and women who make it. Whatever Ragnar’s deeds, his impact on this region of the world is unmistakable; he has broken the barrier between two cultures and set them on a conjoined course toward the future.
Ragnar’s vision also rubbed off on Björn. After speaking with his brothers, he meets with Floki (now sporting a funky braided ‘do) to discuss plans to sail into the Mediterranean. The showrunners hinted at Björn’s next course by showing him poring over the map he took during their raid on Paris. Perhaps his travels will take him as far as Rome, which would give the introduction of the holy city in Alfred’s arc this season and even greater meaning.
Finally, Ragnar returns to Kattegat. The townsfolk part for him, gawking at him as he makes his way into town. He is intercepted by his sons, who have their swords drawn. Ragnar gives another of his grand speeches, apologizing for abandoning his sons and his people. He fervently exhorts someone, anyone, to kill him and take his place as king. Will anyone take him up on it? The Viking king’s story isn’t done, but like many sagas, I doubt it will have a particularly happy ending.
What Comes Next
Vikings season 4 returns to History on Nov 30. Forums are abuzz with talk that the second part of season four will be the end of Ragnar Lothbrok. Thankfully, he has his sons to carry on his family name. It will be interesting to see the saga continue with a different hero in the central role. Will it be Björn sailing into the Mediterranean? More interestingly, could Ivar take the place as chief among Ragnar’s sons? It would be easy to underestimate him, but he is a figure of note in the sagas.
Also not yet settled are the questions of who will rule in Kattegat. Aslaug has ambitions to be Queen in her own right, and Lagertha has proven herself a capable leader time and again. They are likely to come to blows in the coming episodes. Watch the trailer below to get a taste of what is to come.