Previously on Vikings, “In the Uncertain Hour Before the Morning”
Ragnar is dead. The twitchy, electric-eyed, screen-hiding, tongue-thrusting, philosophizing, agnostic, reluctant king we followed from farmer life to raider life, up to the heights of Paris, into the seclusion of depression, and back into the depths of the snake pit, is gone. This is the episode all Vikings fans who dared to Wiki have been dreading. Historically, Ragnar Lothbrok, whose existence as a real person is disputed, died two ways in differing Sagas. The first was from dysentery after raiding Paris, which the show used as a segue into the coffin-raid stunt from Bjorn Ironside’s Saga feats. The second was this, in a snake pit at King Aelle’s hands, a moment teased over and over throughout the series. It brings us, and him, full circle: the place of his first incursion, bells tolling from the Lindesfarne monastery, marks his ultimate demise.
But it is not just justice. His death plants a Viking flag in the English soil, saying, Here is where to strike and toil, until you gain a foothold that cannot be shaken. Ragnar’s own blood blesses the ground, a potent offering to a future in which the two peoples do indeed live side by side under the holy Alfred… but not until after the Great Heathen Army, led by Ivar the Boneless, takes its revenge, a fate assured when, at the end of this episode, Ivar grips a chess piece from Alfred until it drips blood.
2 Praise ye him, all his angels: praise ye him, all his hosts.
7 Praise the LORD from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps:
8 Fire, and hail; snow, and vapour; stormy wind fulfilling his word:
After exhorting Ecbert Annunciation-style last episode, “Don’t be afraid,” it is easy to cast Ragnar in this tale as both an angel to Ecbert and a dragon to Aelle. Ever conflicted by nature, Ragnar made much of his afterlife destination, whether in Valhalla as Odin’s special son or in Heaven for Athelstan’s sake. In “Breaking Point,” Ragnar’s brush with death had Jesus and Odin practically throwing down over his soul. Yet more than once, Ragnar admits that he actually believes in nothing but man’s power to create answers for himself. This episode provides no conclusion in that matter, only a hallucinated Seer admitting to Ragnar’s astonishment, “I might have been wrong.”
Echoing Ragnar’s refusal to accept Athelstan’s fate, Ecbert struggles with letting Ragnar go. Not simply “friends” or “enemies,” Ragnar has been the Other by which Ecbert has defined his Self. With Ragnar’s death, Ecbert must finally face the last step to accomplishing his unification goal, the defeat of Northumbria, and thereby admit that his own time is coming to a close, something Christianity is ill-equipped to encourage, but the Northmen well embrace. Ecbert gets a first-hand tutorial by undertaking a bloody, barefoot pilgrimage in Athelstan’s raiments to see his god die, eye to eye. Aelle might be the tool of the Sagas, but he is merely a barking voice we nearly forget in the heavy space between Ecbert and Ragnar. Ecbert’s presence was the perfect choice to add emotional weight to Ragnar’s otherwise silent death in the alien medieval forest. And it is not without a twist of the knife, as Ecbert stands in witness for us, not knowing, as we do, that Ragnar betrayed him one final time.
Any avid viewer had no doubt that Ragnar would meet his death valiantly, certainly at least as well as Jarl Borg’s blood eagle, and so it wasn’t about the moment itself, but rather the journey to get him, and us, to that point. After a night of literal self-reflection huddled over a bowl of water, Ragnar heartrendingly bids goodbye to Ivar, passing him a gleaming torc in the darkness as he confides the real plan, to attack not Aelle, but Ecbert. Dismissing the importance of happiness as is his way, Ragnar tells Ivar that he chose him, not his brothers:
“It is you that I believe is most important to the future of our people.”
To Alfred, he returns Athelstan’s cross and admits the priest chose their God in the end, inspiring the boy’s faith and devotion. On the road, Ragnar discovers the coachman (Brendan Conroy) is blind, completing the Seer’s prophecy when the man, leaning on the charming gravedigger trope from Hamlet, notes the fear of the other escorts, but he sees Ragnar just fine. Visions of the Lindesfarne raid, of Athelstan, and of the farm chase Ragnar, his own voice eagerly saying they should go raiding in England. After too many pre-death montages on The Walking Dead, the jaded viewer might find this a bit cheesy, but memories have always haunted Ragnar in this way. For him, it is this collection of moments, not his glories, that make Ragnar who he is.
To the end, he defies the prophecies, telling the Seer that he has made and shaped his own fate, but it seems that a tiny bit of doubt remains when the Seer admits he could have been wrong. Yet his final night in the cage calls back to his Odin-nature, swinging and creaking in the great tree, owls prophesying death, while dozens stand watch by torchlight. In his final moments, he proclaims his gladness at seeing Odin and invites the Valkyries to claim him (rather faithfully repeated from the Krákumál). As he earlier told Ecbert, he may not believe, but his sons do, so he begins their campaign of terror in the hearts of the crowd. And then, he falls, one eye open, a vision of the god himself, as the snakes swarm and bite him.
Composition-wise, this episode was brilliant. Ivar and Alfred playing chess in beams of light and dark thrilled me for the future of the series, just as Ragnar emerging from his screen of darkness to reveal the plan to Ivar nodded to the past. The sunburst grate Ragnar watches Ivar leave through is repeated when he is later surrounded by an equal number of spears in the Wessex street. The rain soon begins as we, and Ecbert, realize, this is it, and there is no coming back from it. It is not without levity, between the blind coachman and a teasing soldier who gets his hand bitten. Just as Alfred’s casting is perfection, I suppose I must say the same for the corpulent Aelle, who inspires revulsion at his every appearance and looks genuinely shaken by Ragnar’s silence during torture. My primary dislike in the episode is his prayer scene, which somehow seems even less sincere than Ecbert’s, but at least it is balanced by Ragnar’s mockery, another quote from the Sagas:
“How the little piggies will grunt when they hear how the old boar suffered.”
As for Ivar, Ecbert keeps one promise: the boy arrives home safely, leaning on his supposed infirmities so well that he misses Lagertha’s presence at the dock, not his mother’s. After telling his brothers what happened and what they must do, they reveal Aslaug’s death, and Ivar’s anger is stoked bright again. On top of that, a black-cloaked, one-eyed stranger sails into port. Another demigod, perhaps?
Expected or not, the question regarding Ragnar’s fate remains: is there life for Vikings after Travis Fimmel? Probably. Michael Hirst has done an admirable job of slowly unhooking us from the drug that is his steely glare and mumbly quirks. It seemed impossible to imagine the series without Ragnar after his tour de force in season 3’s Paris arc, but season 4A brought the depressing, unproductive addiction plot through Yidu, followed by a dismal failure in Paris which left his foes, family, and viewers wondering if he’d lost it, and where his story could possibly go from there. While we cringed to see Ragnar’s end, it is a bit of a relief as well to have the legend cut off before it meanders too much further. At only halfway into the season, Alexander Ludwig, Alex Høgh, and of course Kathryn Winnick seem acclimated to their new places of power and are well poised to move forward with the demanding Great Heathen Army story line, so I have hope that Vikings will be just fine. But for now, let us raise a horn of mead to Ragnar Lothbrok, the Eternal Wolf. We shall not look upon his like again.
"All His Angels"
Vikings – S4E15 – “All His Angels” | Starring: Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, Gustaf Skarsgård, Alexander Ludwig, Alyssa Sutherland, John Kavanagh, Moe Dunford, Alex Høgh, David Lindström, Jordan Patrick Smith, Linus Roache, Josefin Asplund, George Blagden, Ivan Kaye, Jennie Jacques