Political machinations, death, and illicit romantic entanglements were all over this week’s episode of Vikings. Ragnar’s sons continue their quest for vengeance, and Lagertha tries desperately to project strength from her new seat of power. We’re in the heart of the Viking Age now, and the world will shake with fear.
~Shield Wall! Spoilers Ahead~
One Bride for (A Few Less Than) Seven Brothers
Getting hitched before going into battle is a time-honored tradition. Before departing for England, Ubbe marries Margrethe in a ceremony in the forest. Over the course of the series, we’ve seen many examples of Viking ceremony; funerals, sacrifices, and weddings, and each example provides a new window into our understanding of life in that age. It’s moments like those where the series is at its strongest as a historical epic.
Ubbe and Margrethe’s wedding highlights again the spirit of competition that plagues the Ragnarrsons. Ubbe and Hvitserk race to determine who must serve the wedding feast. Of course, they’re really racing to impress Margrethe. It all culminates when, as the feast disperses, Ubbe invites Hvitserk to, well, share, Margrethe with him. It would be uncomfortable if it weren’t for the fact that she clearly loves Hvitserk and Ubbe both. She readily consents and even initiates their, ahem, tumble.
Polyamory is nothing new for Vikings. Way back in season one, Ragnar invited Athelstan to join he and Lagertha in some bed-romping (the holy man declined), and let’s not even get started on all that craziness with Ecbert and Judith in Wessex. There are different cultural norms at play in this show, and this kind of free-love quasi-incest really butts up against what the Judeo-Christian western world holds as polite, decent behavior. Even with this loose approach to romance, the narrative aligns itself against the trysts between Björn and Astrid.
“My Sacrifice” Isn’t Just a Creed Song
When we first met Earl Jorgensen, he gave Lagertha a sword. Now it’s her turn to return the favor. Human sacrifice has been the hardest thing to stomach on the show so far. Killing another person to appease the gods always seems so senseless, wasteful, and cruel. It is especially strange to offer up someone’s life when the Vikings know a battle is coming – as if those who will die in combat are not sacrifice enough.
Lagertha’s decision to sacrifice Jorgensen (who volunteers for the honor), reads like less of a religious necessity and more as a display of her new power. She’s not the first monarch to take another person’s life as part of a ritual, nor, I’m sure, will she be the last. It’s hard to argue with the effect the event has on the crowd. The new queen Lagertha looks impressive in all white, an owl perched on her shoulder. A comet appears in the sky at the exact moment of the sacrifice and reads as a divine blessing from those immortal beings who live beyond the realm of human understanding. Jorgensen goes to his death bravely and foolishly.
What really stood out in this sequence was the staging of Björn and Astrid’s illicit rendezvous. While the events around the platform unfold, they slink away to find a private spot to explore their mutual attraction. The director and editors contrasted the sensual ecstasy of their encounter with the slow agony of Jorgensen’s death. It feels suitably naughty and frivolous. Torvi and Lagertha both, at the conclusion of the ceremony, note their respective partners’ absence. However this plays out, it may be one of the factors that lead to Lagertha’s eventual downfall and demise. She’s been betrayed over and over again, and not since Ragnar left her for Aslaug has a betrayal seemed so personal and heartrending.
Dying Hard with Avengeance
Poor Aelle had no idea what was in store for him. He marches heroically out of the city after learning of the Great Heathen Army landing in Northumbria. As they leave, he is full of the usual bluster, his bishop militant and resplendent in armor astride a horse beside him. And then all joy leaves his face when he sees the size of the army come to seek its revenge.
Not showing the battle was a minor failure on the part of the showrunners. Much of the character growth in recent episodes has been entrancing, to be sure, and the show is trying very hard to deliver on the promise of an interesting, post-Ragnar narrative. But hiding the details of the first assault of the Great Army shows that even a well-reviewed, widely-watched show can sometimes misunderstand what its audience wants to see. Instead of a fight, we are left with two gratuitous execution sequences that bordered on the torture-porn. No matter how deliciously vile King Aelle was, it ought not to bring you any joy to see his flayed corpse hauled up into a tree. Björn hasn’t been that violent since he fought off the assassin Erelendur and Kalf sent to kill him.
Ah, Björn. The arrogance and hot-headedness of his youth is starting to rear its ugly head again. He browbeats his brothers into accepting him as the leader of the army, though Ubbe and Hvitserk both think it is his rightful place. He has been behaving very badly this season. His latest affront, seducing his mother’s lover, is particularly unlikable. When he tells Astrid how much his mother needs her as he leaves, it was with cold possessiveness. Alexander Ludwig might be playing an even worse guy than Cato, of The Hunger Games. You cannot help but wonder if Michael Hirst and the others are deliberately sabotaging Björn to make it easier to like Ivar, who by all appearances is set to become the most powerful Viking of his age. Powerful, sure. But likable? The odds are never in his favor.
Hoard of Bonus Observations
- Egil, Harald, and Halfdan continue to plot against Lagertha. Even as the brothers set sail to join the Great Heathen Army, Egil is planning an assault on Kattegat. With much of her fighting force gone, will Lagertha be able to withstand the assault?
- Harald’s confrontation with his former lover was chilling. He has always been unhinged, but now that he’s learned that Ellisif married a Danish earl, there’s no telling how far he’ll go to prove his worth. Things will get ugly with Harald, and sooner rather than later.
- Aethelwulf’s tearful conversation with Ecbert was much needed. The old king is looking frail, and probably won’t be around much longer. Both Linus Roache and Moe Dunford gave excellent performances, despite their brief appearances this episode. I love these scruffy Saxons.
- It frankly surprises me that the Seer is still alive. If he goes, or, rather, when he goes, it will likely be a big to-do.
- Not much has happened with Tanaruz yet. It’s possible that the show is gearing up for another leap forward in time, in which case we may see her again as an older woman. What will we learn from her as she unpacks the experience of being orphaned and then kidnapped on the same day?