Previously on Vikings, “On the Eve”
What an ending! So many beloved characters lost this season, and this episode is responsible for three. As the Vikings accomplished their destiny to avenge Ragnar and gain English soil, the episode progressed from muddy battlefields and deep shadows in Wessex to streams of light and a glowing sunset, evoking the joint wills of the gods and God. Then, “The Reckoning.” The players began to fall, from the most predictable to least, and in order of show seniority. Helga’s fatal mistake in claiming Tanaruz turns upon her when the frightened girl stabs her and kills herself. Ecbert commits suicide by way of self-execution after granting land to the Ragnarssons. And Sigurd and Ivar’s lifelong resentments explode into violence at the celebratory feast, with Ivar cutting his famous brother down for all to see. There is much to say.
Long Live the King
Ecbert shivers as Aethelwulf’s army clashes with the Vikings, mud flying. Every named warrior acquits themselves impressively but once Aethelwulf finally hits the ground, time slows and he sees the tide turning, an influx of fresh warriors led by Ivar. He orders his men to save themselves, rushing back to Wessex to hustle everyone to safety, but Ecbert and Bishop Edmund are unmovable. Instead, Ecbert asks for his trust, granting Aethelwulf the crown in a simple ceremony. That this is satisfying says volumes about the depth of Moe Dunford’s acting, in that we have watched him grow from a two-dimensional snarling prince, to his nearing arch-villainy as he murdered the settlers at a hastily-built burning cross; from there he discovered love and heroism with Kwenthrith, took his bastard foster son on a pilgrimage, learned to accept Judith’s independence, and proved himself as a general. With the stone Celtic cross behind him last episode and his father’s acceptance won at last, Aethelwulf has solidified as the strong-minded, multifaceted king England needs.
Ecbert kisses them all goodbye, telling Judith as she thanks him (what?!), “Love is everything.” To Alfred, he wishes humility and final words of wisdom. To Aethelred… well, him, too. With arms wrapped collegially, he and the bishop cheer them away, even tossing the mitre. Once they’re gone, however, the cheering turns to sobbing. Light shines over the gate. God’s will be done.
While Ecbert and Edmund drain the wine cellars, the Great Army crests the hill, charging through the gates, but there’s no need: Wessex is empty. Confused, they venture into the buildings. Athelstan’s former manuscript room is the first to go as Floki puts the wall of scrolls to the torch. But they don’t find Ecbert, so he drunkenly stumbles out into the crowd until he catches Bjorn’s eye, then smiles, patting him. A face he knows. Upon finding Edmund, Floki pauses as the bishop forgives them, but Hvitserk strikes him down.
They cage Ecbert as he did Ragnar, debating his fate as he swings. Ivar wants to blood eagle him, but, with complete Ragnar mannerisms and punctuation, Bjorn lectures that they’re now in enemy territory and must use him wisely. Ecbert indicates he can mostly understand and, touting his authority as “king of kings,” he offers them East Anglia (east of Wessex) in exchange for choosing the manner of his death. Eventually Ivar warms up to the deal and Bjorn approves, a twist on history where Ivar left Egbert I as a puppet king—in this case he’s a willing one. Not without one signature Ecbert betrayal, however: he’s no longer a king. Will this prove a problem for the Vikings, for Aethelwulf, or both? Both he and Ragnar leave the last man to see them alive without all of the pertinent information.
A harried scribe draws up the contract without such comments, Ecbert reassuring him magnanimously. Bjorn then leads Ecbert to the Roman baths and nods goodbye. There in the warm water where he conversed with Ragnar, Athelstan, and Lagertha, surrounded by the heathen curiosities he loved so much, Ecbert opens his veins and dies. Although his time had come, he will be missed. Linus Roache elevated Ecbert to a formidable foil for all who shared the screen with him.
As the Vikings rush into the gate, Helga brings Tanaruz in as well, hustling the terrified girl through the palace halls as they burn. Overwhelmed by fear and Helga’s fretting, Tanaruz grabs Helga’s knife and stabs her in the neck, then kills herself. Floki, drawn to the hallway by Helga’s singing moments before, finds her dying.
“You’re not like anybody else. Be yourself, Floki. This world is too small for you.”
At sunset, he carries her body to the great tree and gently arranges her grave, laying jewelry and combs around her as he speaks of the pure god Baldr‘s death. Baldr’s mother had made all the objects in the realm swear not to hurt him, but thought mistletoe was too young to swear, and by this, he was killed with a mistletoe arrow of Loki’s design, accidentally wielded by his brother. An appropriate comparison, between Helga’s defining lack of cunning and the young Tanaruz, who was not of their realm, and Floki now feels responsible.
Bjorn watches from afar, then finds Floki in darkness to offer condolences. Floki says he, too, is dead. A part of him died with Angrboda, another with Ragnar, and the last with Helga. Now he’s a rudderless ship, willing to go where the gods take him. He stands, stares at Bjorn’s third eye wonderingly, and blesses it in his way, then walks into the light, his darkness swallowed.
I am of two minds about this. Emotionally, Maude Hirst and Gustaf Skarsgard use every bit of feeling we’ve invested into them. Visually, it is a beautiful call to archaeological finds of Viking women burials in the area, essentially archaeology fanfiction. Thematically, it is a way that tragedy buried can revisit us, and the words themselves were loaded with the religious depth and tenderness unique to Helga and Floki. Holy and heartbreaking.
On the other hand, this end felt telegraphed. Helga is a Viking woman of a certain age, but without warrior skills or royal blood, there was no readily apparent end point for her. Helga was strong enough to climb the mountain in winter to bury Angrboda in silence, so it is disappointing to have this return to break her. For a woman so dedicated to the gods’ will to die as a result of irrational desires resulting from an off-screen illness feels cheap. Critical changes to any major character should be on screen, period. Logically, she would not have even been with the army in Wessex; she would have been with the camp as repeatedly demonstrated by past raids. Two strikes there.
On a more dangerous note for a show so bolstered by its female audience, it is further problematic that her death not only pushes Floki into his destiny as a solo explorer, but seals Bjorn’s ascendance to the lead of the Ragnarssons as an adult by removing his final two childhood mentors in one fell swoop. A trope, to use the death of a woman to make men into men. None of this detracts from the work of the actors, which was perfection, but from a plot standpoint, maddening.
The Ragnarssons Divide
Celebrating their win, the Ragnarssons feast on the elevated stage where Ecbert was crowned. Bjorn charges them all with sending over settlers, but his own destiny lies in the Mediterranean. Harald cites “other business,” aka overthrowing Lagertha, but Halfdan, apparently deciding Bjorn isn’t cursed after all, signs on with that venture. Ivar just wants to tear up the countryside, but, with the entire army watching, Sigurd’s usual retorts are too much. Ivar cuts deep by accusing Sigurd of being feminine (see our previous discussion about Viking sexuality), but when Sigurd lashes out one last time, Ivar hurtles his ax across the table into his brother’s chest. Sigurd stumbles towards him, dying just short, the snake in his eye staring into nothing.
From a dramatic angle, it isn’t surprising that one Ragnarsson would die, especially the only one to witness all of Aslaug and Ivar’s sins and to have met Harbard. Aslaug’s abandonment left Sigurd without a definite parent or mentor, which, in a Hirst script, means he’s cannon fodder. Although he conceived of the Great Army, Sigurd was an emotional drifter, taking a shine to Lagertha, Margrethe, really anyone that showed him attention, ergo he is of little significance. Of greater significance, fratricide hardens and darkens Ivar’s soul, pushing him into his final form while he is still quite young.
However, from a historical point of view… AUGH! Sigurd Snake in the Eye is the one to stay and settle in England. He marries Aelle’s daughter, who has already appeared on screen, and is a major figure for many decades, father of legendary Danish king Harthacnut I, grandfather of Halfdan, and great grandfather of the real Harald Finehair. Maybe their current presence makes him redundant, but otherwise this choice is boggling. And for such a massive diversion, it should have been given more than a couple seconds and another abrupt season ending time jump to…
A bishop (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) performs funeral rites and gives comfort to the grieving widow, offering a little more, if she’d like. She does like. They have noisy, vigorous sex as a sword gleams, engraved “ANANYZAPATA,” a religious spell against poison. He is Heahmund, warrior priest.
At the end of its first extended season, Vikings should be congratulated in pulling off the maturation and expansion of its cast and crew. A year ago, I questioned its ability to allow the characters to grow old and die, but Travis Fimmel and Linus Roache pulled it off with aplomb. Moe Dunford grew from a bratty prince to a fully-deserving king. Katheryn Winnick made easy work of the transition from background ex to queen of Kattegat while never letting Lagertha’s warrior edge dull. The Ragnarssons settled into their roles and hierarchy. Kattegat armored itself while Wessex burned down. Hundreds of extras set sail on real boats, and the costumers turned out their best work yet. Visually, Vikings continues to dazzle and its uber-realistic combat expanded to “Battle of the Bastards”-scale with style and brutality.
But those side stories… This is where fans question the most. Not unlike the recent season of Game of Thrones, this season has periodically shown its bones of known historical events, people, and archaeological finds, with Hirst filling in details that don’t always work. The highlights are certainly high, but the emotions and drama propelling us from point to point have at times felt contrived, even infuriating, when they don’t add up. Astrid, for example: what did her story accomplish? Tanaruz. Margrethe. Yidu. Little Siggy. All female, all stories that deserved more plot justification. One hopes that as Season 5 films, course corrections have been made, because, without Ragnar’s magnetism to hold it together, Vikings needs to tighten up on the frivolities and make a conscious effort to keep its dramatic plots relevant. It would also be perfectly fine if Hirst allowed the season to end on a meditative note, allowing us to absorb the trauma just experienced, rather than a jarring jump to the future.
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, Isaac O’Sullivan, Sophie Vavasseur, Gary Buckley, Siobhan Kelly, Jonathan Rhys Meyers