Previously on Vikings, “Two Journeys”
The relationship of Ragnar and Ecbert has always been one of the greatest bromances/foemances on Vikings. The two shared ambitions for kingdom expansion and legacy, self-admitted corruption, and a penchant for creative, underhanded violence. Despite their wary affection, Ecbert ordered Ragnar’s farming settlement wiped out in Season 3’s “The Usurper,” provoking this inevitable moment… many years and wrinkles after he expected it, and not at all in the same manner. Likewise when Aslaug usurped Lagertha as wife and queen of Kattegat, Lagertha allowed it to percolate for two decades until Aslaug’s rule had grown unacceptable in her eyes and Lagertha’s army had grown strong. But neither confrontation would ever be straight forward given the strategic minds and emotional history of these four titans. “In the Uncertain Hour Before the Morning” is a collection of of conversations between pairs, but what conversations they were.
Good news, before you pass out from holding your breath: neither Ragnar nor Lagertha dies. Aslaug does. Dismantling Lagertha only a little with her sole weapon, psychological warfare, Aslaug claims not primacy on the throne, but in Ragnar’s desires and destiny, her place as mother of his sons assured in the Sagas. Having relied so heavily on his mere existence to keep the city together all these years, she undermines Lagertha a bit more, saying her visions have shown her Ragnar’s death. She even leans on her sons’ potential for revenge as collateral, the last check she had to cash, and asks for safe passage to leave, but it’s not enough: as Aslaug reaches the edge of the crowd, Lagertha shoots her with an arrow. Aslaug falls with a smile, perhaps savoring the discord she’d sown before ascending to Valhalla.
Her funeral is gorgeous and celebratory, echoes of the archaeological discovery of a royal female Viking burial investigated in its sister show, Real Vikings. Ubbe and Sigurd, however, are still an open question. Ubbe admirably battles through half of what is now Lagertha’s hall, in vain, but Sigurd has a dimmer view of avenging his neglectful, unloving mother. Following a night of drunken brother commiseration, Astrid chimes in chirpily (Is there anything worse than a morning person when you’re hungover?) that she’d love to give them a makeover, mainly in attitude, as she will not permit them to attack Lagertha. Thus far I’ve not been impressed with Astrid’s presence on a Viking level, so I am a bit hopeful that this direction means there are some hidden depths to Lagertha’s lover.
As always, Michael Hirst fashions his confrontations in parallel. Touting all that he’s done for the kingdom, the surety of fortune in his reign, and even hauling out the weapon of a son in Magnus, Ecbert tries the same game to make himself feel worthy against this man in an iron cage, the “most dangerous thing in the world.” Undeterred and unimpressed, Ragnar talks his way out of the cage and into his cups, inspiring one final drunken philosophy match between the aged kings. Among the usual in vino veritas regarding the existence of God/gods, women, and death, is another argument over the love of a man and his choices: Athelstan. Like Aslaug, Ragnar declares Athelstan’s choice to follow him and die paramount over Ecbert’s dubious ability to care for him and keep him safe.
This guilt, and that of the destroyed settlement, drives Ragnar to seek the absolution of death in the place of origin for both sins, but Ecbert cannot bring himself to kill this Great Other whose existence defined him from the moment they met. Ecbert even grants him the blessing of embracing Athelstan’s impressively cast teen son Alfred. So the men devise their last plan together, one that would allow Ragnar to die at Aelle’s hands and ensure eternal revenge upon him courtesy of Ragnar’s sons, who by now have been promised to enough battles to last them into middle age. Although their unsupervised bonding is improbable, I enjoy Linus Roache and Travis Fimmel together so much that I willingly overlook its contrivance and admit to tearing up at least three times, hardly blinking when Ragnar leaned across the table to grasp Ecbert’s shaking hands and reassure him, those piercing eyes the only point of color in a room of old gray wood and old gray men. Despite the evidence to the contrary, Ragnar cites the trust between them, asking for safe passage for Ivar and faith in his plan. Lest we forget, corruption defines both sides, so I must assume more twists will present themselves, but perhaps this self-sacrifice will succeed where Aslaug’s plan did not. (Or did it?)
While these conversations met with satisfying conclusions, plenty of unease remains about the future. Are we reaching the end of Ragnar’s story, or will he validate Sigurd’s belief that he can’t die? Will Lagertha ever truly be queen in Kattegat, or did Aslaug already fulfill the Seer’s prophecy? How will Ivar inspire his brothers to finish this dark work? This episode wasn’t entirely perfect: Aslaug in rare form is irritating to say the least, Aethelwulf’s constant amusement seemed strange and misplaced, and I am still just not sure about Astrid. But along with the larger moments in what felt very like a stage play were satisfying details: Torvi stepping in behind Lagertha as her second, the twang of the arrow in silence, Norse chanting over Ecbert’s prayers, the bones in Ragnar’s neck cracking as he stretches… Sound engineering deserves another Emmy. A strong setup for next episode.
Lagertha vs. Aslaug
Lagertha strides to the center of the welcoming crowd while Aslaug approaches with the royal sword in offering. In the presence of the Seer, Aslaug mocks Lagertha for the irony of attempting to usurp her, which Lagertha dismisses, as well as Aslaug’s false protest of their shared womanhood. Changing tactics, Aslaug announces that Ragnar is dead according to her dream, upsetting Lagertha and the crowd, and, as mother of his sons, her place in his saga is fulfilled. She throws the sword down, renouncing all, and asks safe passage to preserve peace from her sons, “giving” Lagertha back her hearth and home. But Lagertha didn’t come to be given her home back, she came to take it back, and shoots Aslaug dead as she leaves. As if her boys will just walk away from their throne, either way. Unlikely.
Ubbe and Sigurd arrive after Aslaug’s raucous funeral, worth of a volva queen, and find Lagertha already enthroned with simple answers to their questions: what was taken has been retaken. Ubbe fights his way to the front, but no further. In a smaller scale drunken truths session, Sigurd decries Aslaug as a loving mother and probable witch, which dulls Ubbe’s edge a bit; Ubbe bitterly notes they’re probably now orphans. Sigurd laughs.
“Ragnar Lothbrok can’t die.”
They wake up busted and hung over to Astrid warning them away from Lagertha in a disarming fashion.
Ragnar vs. Ecbert
Ragnar’s reception is less friendly: Aethelwulf has him beaten and jailed in a suspended cage. While Ivar is dismissed as a cripple, Aethelwulf doesn’t believe Ragnar is alone, but is disarmed by Ragnar’s claim that he murdered everyone and his personal questions about Aethelwulf’s sons and Ecbert, who returns promptly. Ragnar refuses to eat until he sees Ivar safe and arranges for his keeping. Amusingly Ivar shouts back in Old Norse, “Don’t fuck with them!” while Ragnar claims he said, “Thank you.” Ecbert doesn’t believe him.
Ecbert claims fault over the settlement well enough, but upon bringing in the blond, admiring Magnus, he loses any leverage on that front when Ragnar claims Kwenthrith only peed on him, and Aethelwulf tosses the poor thing out into the rain, sobbing, with only his not-father’s name and a knife to protect him from the Dark Ages countryside. Proclaiming his accomplishments, Ecbert admits that Ragnar’s settlement idea is an idea for Alfred’s time (it was), but still Ragnar wants more: the truth.
Gambling on their trust and drunkenness, Ecbert lets Ragnar out. Ragnar prowls out, but falls, and says Ecbert must kill him.
“You Vikings are incorrigible. You emerge from the womb with only one thing on your mind: how to die. What about the things in between?”
Ragnar rolls over, grinning, “Are you talking about women?”
Boys night is back on, and onto the existence of God/gods. Without the gods, Ragnar feels life finally has meaning, whereas Ecbert feels the opposite. They mock the other’s idea of heaven, stumbling in mirror sprawls, and speak his name: Athelstan. Ragnar protests that he’s not to blame for Athelstan’s death, since Athelstan chose to be with him, but wherever he is, his death is on Ragnar’s conscience, as Ragnar’s will be on Ecbert’s. Ecbert cries at the prospect. Seating Ragnar at his right hand, Ecbert has Judith bring Alfred in, the resemblance apparent. Dirty and chained, Ragnar embraces him, ecstatic.
Pondering the decision in his chapel, Ecbert quotes Ecclesiastes, the voice of Solomon lamenting the sorrow that comes with wisdom, while Ragnar waits silently in the dark, decided. But Ecbert can’t do it, so Ragnar proposes sending him to Aelle, with Ivar to direct his sons’ revenge against Northumbria alone. Ecbert’s hands shake. Ragnar reaches across and holds them.
“Don’t be afraid.”
Vikings – S4E14 – “In the Uncertain Hour Before the Morning” | Starring: Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, Gustaf Skarsgård, Alexander Ludwig, Alyssa Sutherland, Alex Høgh, Marco Ilsø, David Lindström, Jordan Patrick Smith, Josefin Asplund, Maude Hirst, Ida Nielsen, Georgia Hirst, Moe Dunford, Linus Roache, Jennie Jacques