Previously on Vikings, “Revenge”
Beautiful battles, braids, banners, and bridles. Sweet moments and sweet victory with a tang of (maybe?) loss. If you were wondering where last episode’s battle budget went, here’s your answer. The Great Army rolls through England and confronts Aethelwulf’s Saxon army, setting up Ivar as a budding tactician, and Egil the Bastard sweeps into Kattegat on Harald’s bankroll, but ends up on a barbecue spit. Sure, a few soapy elements remain–the Ragnarssons squabble, Harald confronts Ellisif again, and Tanaruz goes on the lam–but this week the results seem grounded in the story at hand and resolve in a more “Viking”way, a welcome respite from the dramatic silliness in “Revenge.”
Historically, the Great Heathen Army spent 13 long years sweeping through England (map), between attacking, being attacked, wintering down, dividing, and occupying. According to one saga, Ivar the Boneless originally left England having requested only enough land he could cover with an ox’s hide, which he then split into such fine pieces that it could cover a fortress. It seems Aslaug and Ragnar passed down their talent for semantics. Upon returning with the army and defeating Aelle, he installed Egbert I as a puppet ruler in Northumbria before leading the army through the countryside, employing unexpected tactics like those in this episode.
Thematically, “On the Eve” has some lovely vignettes of fatherhood, which provide an emotional backbone for the episode. After turning the tables again on Ecbert’s dwindling leadership, Aethelwulf tucks Alfred in to bed, reassuring him that his saintly father Athelstan is watching over him, without even a hint of resentfulness. The boy in turn reassures him that he is every bit his father, and if you didn’t say “Aww!” please call the hospital because you are potentially dead inside. Judith even tears up, and since Ecbert pushed her to return to Aethelwulf’s side, I almost believe these two crazy kids might make it after all.
Floki also shows amazing depths when Helga finds Tanaruz missing from camp. He gentles her back home with an apology and admittance that he doesn’t know what to do, but unfortunately Helga then overwhelms the girl once more, suggesting that her smothering is indeed a major problem with potential consequences. Later Floki gets another win as Ivar’s strategy proves correct and he leaps into Ivar’s chariot to kiss him and ruffle his hair. It’s significant that both successful instances of fatherly bonding here are Ivar and Alfred, the future of this entire conflict, and neither are from their “real” fathers.
Egil, Egil the Bastard
Patrolling the marketplace, Torvi notices a clot of suspicious outsiders, and when she touches her bow, they immediately attack the merchants but are put down quickly. A test run. Everyone goes on alert, and before long, Egil’s forces appear. Apparently there are a few weaknesses, because they swarm in from the wall, over the pike moats, and even from the docks. But Lagertha spots Egil and draws him into an empty alley, setting fire to his front line.
He jumps through the flames, but Astrid puts him straight down, though not permanently. They need information, so Lagertha roasts him on an open spit in the Great Hall, sing-songing his name. Once she trots out his wife, he talks pretty fast, sobering them with the big reveal that Harald is his backer. Somehow they miss Torvi’s absence: she’s laying in the pike moat, staring, with a shoulder full of arrows. Given that Vikings has pulled this exact ploy when Ragnar found Bjorn in Paris, I suspect this is a red herring and not Torvi’s actual death, because who dies when their braids are so on point? Nobody.*
*possibly an alternative fact.
Harald continues to moon about Princess Ellisif, but Halfdan thinks he should just move on. Does he? Do they ever? No! Why get over someone when you can obsess, create a shrine to them, and get violent. Instead he apologizes passive-aggressively and forgives her, which, logically I don’t think you can do both, just to lure her kind husband Vik outside and then put an ax in his head mocking her many apologies. Then she suckers him into some private time in the tent and pretends she always wanted him, but once she’s got him completely compromised, pulls a knife. Halfdan strides in just in time and kills her with a smirk, leaving Harald stunned and potentially furious that now he’ll never have her at all.
Blades of Grass
Carried to Wessex in a cart, Aelle’s cleric has only the strength to mutter that their army numbers like the blades of grass in a field before dying. Amusingly, Aethelwulf barks,
“DAMN YOU… And… may you rest in peace.”
Attack imminent, the cardinal blesses him before he sends Judith and the boys to safety. She urges him to live with such emphasis that he laughs and promises to try to be worthy of her. (See? Shipping it.) Ecbert, though, is not leaving, and revisits his Biblical “a time to ___” exhortation from Season 3 to stoke the fire of hate in Aethelwulf, who seems stunned at the callback and rides off with his army. With a Celtic cross behind him, he greets the cheers of the camp and feels justified in his assertions that the Ragnarssons will be there next.
As the Vikings glide menacingly up the familiar waterways back to Repton, Mercia to make camp and send the country folk fleeing, Ivar laughs at the Saxons’ weakness but Bjorn points out that he’s not seen true warriors yet. Ivar turns on Sigurd next, leaving Bjorn to knock him down a few more pegs by claiming they don’t need him in brotherly mocking, which makes Ivar mad enough to go for the low blow that he’s the true spiritual heir to Ragnar. Floki, having heard the entire discussion, snorts that this must be the little piggies grunting that Ragnar talked about. Touché again, sir. A day out, the Vikings make camp, but Ivar suggests that he and Bjorn go ahead and scout the terrain to use against the Saxons and not depend on their lines and shield walls. After some headbutting, they ultimately agree.
At last the Vikings crest the hill to face off with the Saxons, but as soon as they appear, they turn around and split, disappearing into the forest. Aethelwulf follows forward a bit, but a group attacks from the treeline behind. He calls for their own shield wall, no doubt having learned from his previous encounters, but after a short arrow volley, they’re gone again. Just as Aethelwulf peers into the trees, once again they appear from the opposite direction, Ivar and Floki laughing from the hillside. Aethelwulf loses it and decides to head for Mercia to burn their ships instead of playing their games. Floki almost appears concerned about the ships, but he’s just amused that Aethelwulf took their bait and congratulates Ivar as the Saxons become trapped in a valley with arrows hailing down. The real forces converge in front of them and form the line. To be continued!
As a Whole…
When it comes to battles, Vikings gets better and better every season with choreography, costuming, and cinematography. Each battle was very well done, capturing the texture of both Kattegat’s newly-hewn battlements and Ireland’s foggy, frigid countryside. The combat itself was vicious and impressive as usual, but with far more horses. I particularly loved the Vikings running through the trees to reach their next gambit point; it seemed almost joyous and playful. Lagertha’s lure on a smaller scale was just as satisfying, with some GIF-inspiring showmanship, and the invasion was larger and bloodier than anticipated, which justifies her concerns entirely.
This is the kind of episode most Vikings fans are looking for, in spirit if not always in scale, where not everything goes perfectly, but there is investment and enjoyment in nearly every scene and actions that make sense for every character. Even the minor characters like Egil and Vik were interesting and believable, and while I continue to scratch my head over Astrid, she at least upgraded her fighting skills to solid. If “On the Eve” can be considered light, it is only in contrast to next week’s season 4 finale, which should have much heavier material including the outcome of this battle, Ecbert’s comeuppance, Torvi’s fate, Helga’s crisis, and the Ragnarssons’ inevitable division.
"On the Eve"
Starring: Alexander Ludwig, Katheryn Winnick, Gustaf Skarsgård, Linus Roache, Moe Dunford, Peter Franzén, Jasper Pääkkönen, Josefin Asplund, Maude Hirst, Alex Høgh, Marco Ilsø, David Lindström, Jordan Patrick Smith, Ida Nielsen, Georgia Hirst, Jennie Jacques, Sinead Gormally, Ivan Kaye, Charlie Kelly, Isaac O’Sullivan, Sophie Vavasseur, Gary Buckley, Siobhan Kelly