Previously on Vikings, “Promised”
After Lagertha killed Kalf at their wedding in “Promised,” there was much fandom debate over whether she actually loved him and was truly pregnant, or if it had all been a ruse. In interviews, both actors have since revealed their head-cannon backstory: Kalf grew up with Bjorn in Hedeby and always had a crush on Lagertha. She thought affectionately of him, and at adulthood, they grew to genuinely care for each other. So, it was in fact a great sorrow for her to kill him, although necessary and terribly Viking-esque, and Kalf admired her to his last breath. According to comments by Katheryn Winnick, it seems that Lagertha is pregnant.
“What Might Have Been” punctuates that tale, beginning with Lagertha’s tender and solemn ritual over Kalf’s grave, which Erlendur rudely interrupts to ask for an explanation. When she relates her promise, he nods, his own promise to slaughter Ragnar’s family for the same sin hanging silently in the air. Before they leave for Paris, she counsels Guthrum:
“I advise you to keep your friends very close, for some of them will die only too soon. And the others… the others will betray you.”
Rites of Passage
Ragnar and Ecbert hold audiences in their respective great halls to announce the coming of age and pilgrimage of their young heirs. Ragnar, on one hand, seems out of sorts when he announces their raid departure and grants Ubbe and Hvitserk their sacred arm rings, offered with earth and salt because Vikings are about that #SaltLife. He’s taking them to Paris, since they weren’t safe with Aslaug last time. Burn.
On the other hand, Ecbert is more himself than ever when announcing he’s sending Alfred on an 1100-mile pilgrimage on foot to Rome with Prudentius. When Aethelwulf protests, Ecbert declares he’ll be going too, while Ecbert “handles” Mercia. Naturally, none of the younger adults are thrilled with all of their toys being sent away in one fell swoop, but the bishop packs them all off on their journey forthwith. Ecbert exhorts Alfred that a pilgrimage will purify his grimy bastard* soul.
*Maybe not exact words
Interestingly, this emphasis on coming of age contrasts with Ragnar’s protest to Yidu that he’s not a child and wants to manage his own “medication.” She disagrees.
With Lagertha’s smooth and successful re-coup of Hedeby in the rear view, Vikings balances its exploration of feminine freedom and power with three counterweights. Yidu, acting more squirrelly than ever, offers to bring her traveling apothecary show and translation services to Paris. Erlendur informs Torvi that, according to him, she never was nor will ever be free to choose a life that doesn’t include him. And, with Ragnar gone, Harbard returns to Kattegat, telling Aslaug:
“Come to me and I will put an end to your suffering and heal you and make you free.”
Again we question the price of this freedom. Considering that the last time Harbard relieved someone’s pain, three people died to pay for it, what will her “freedom” cost and in what manner will it manifest? When Aslaug re-introduces him to Ivar, whom she nursed blissfully earlier in a blatant show of favoritism for Sigurd to stumble upon, he laughs like a little psychopath. Questionable investment thus far. Further, while Torvi and Aslaug are both clearly motivated and limited by motherhood, Yidu’s agency and sharp glares call into question her true purpose. Is it only freedom… or more?
On the (Ocean) Road Again
Departure brings us the two most stunning scenes of the episode. A single chanter at the head of Kattegat’s docks provides the soundtrack for the longships as they glide out of Kattegat’s harbor under Ivar’s morose supervision. Ragnar instructs Ubbe and Hvitserk not to look back, Floki settles in with his new Odin-loving Fine-Hair friends, and Bjorn finally admits to Torvi how he found the ring.
From afar, the boats pepper the fjord and a raven takes flight. Odin yet again accompanies his favorite son… But is it still Ragnar, or has someone else taken his place?
Sometime later, the boats ride through a midnight storm. Yidu sings the worried young boys to sleep, but the alien sound agitates the Fine-Hair crew and Ragnar seems unusually twitchy.
With the pressure of approaching battle, both Ragnar and Count Odo make telltale blunders. As Ragnar’s crew finds themselves separated from the rest of the fleet, Ragnar fumbles with his sunstone (see Season 1) and compass. Bjorn takes it from his hands to get them back on course.
Meanwhile in Frankia, despite Odo’s reassurances that they are prepared, the Emperor tearfully begs Rollo to keep his vows. Frustrated and regretful, Odo drunkenly laments his trust to Therese, and she finally wrenches an admission from him: he believes Charles is an idiot and plans to save Paris alone, then kill Charles. Is he onto her or is he truly unhinged?
Friend-shippers and relation-shippers, this wasn’t your episode. Helga implores Floki not to forget Ragnar’s mercy as a sign of his friendship. Floki, however, isn’t interested in friendship with someone who tortured him, or so he says… Floki does have a history of lying to Helga and making “friends” with Ragnar’s frienemies ahem Horik cough so maybe this is true, and maybe it isn’t. Either way, Floki appears fully comfortable in his skin, taking full advantage of Gustaf Skarsgård’s considerable height, versus his usual loony trickster hunch. He’s now channeling something more powerful and serious.
Addressing the other eternal relationship question, Ragnar finds Lagertha honing her ax alone, and wonders why she hasn’t stayed home to protect her baby, along with presumably her earldom and its legacy, imagining that Kalf’s death broke her heart.
“Of course it didn’t. My heart was broken a long time ago.”
Katheryn Winnick brings rueful realism to this poignant moment between two people who know each other through and through… and yet she has not yet trusted him, nor maybe ever will, with how Kalf’s death came to be and sends him harshly on his way.
Settling into the shore and uprooting a Frankish scouting party, quickly replacing one set raucous laughter with their own, the raiders chain one unfortunate soldier to a plank, sending it by current to the ocean as a signal to the lost boats. But, an escapee has lit signal fires. As Ragnar’s leaders watch from afar, Harald and Halfdan’s mocking crew ties a group of hostages to the nearest signal tower while Floki sets it afire, echoing his last experience with burning towers, perhaps answering the gods in kind.
The reunited fleet approaches Frankia and finds Rollo’s camp empty, to Ragnar’s total lack of surprise. As they sail deeper inland, they finally find him, watching from the shore astride a horse in his new Frankish duds, the two forts looming ahead at the mouth of the Seine. Floki snorts, vindicated at last.
Under the influence of his growing addiction, Ragnar has two visions. First, in the Rave Cave, he asks Yidu what day he will die, presumably having bought into her “powers.” He flashes back to the Seer’s proclamation:
“You will die the day that the blind man sees you.”
Second, as the fleet passes Rollo’s abandoned camp, Ragnar envisions bloody river water washing over his feet. A carved bucket of the same water tips over on shore. Then a white horse gallops past younger Lagertha, his daughter Gyda, Athelstan, and preteen Bjorn. Lagertha beckons and grows sad as they sail on. This moment of “What Might Have Been” before ambition and corruption took him to fame and fortune is magical in its simplicity, Ragnar’s personal Valhalla. But we must remember what he counseled his sons:
“Don’t waste your time looking back. You’re not going that way.”
This won’t be a happy ending.
In this literal transition episode where each piece travels to the third act, my complaints primarily regard the minor, artificial-feeling moments of nonsensical timing to serve storytelling purposes. I’m not a fan of media using breastfeeding to show an imbalanced maternal relationship, especially considering a sweet moment in last season of Porrun nursing Siggy was cut from the American version, and its apparent secrecy would be impossible. It also felt false that Torvi would only ask Lagertha about Guthrum once they reached Frankia, that Erlendur would interrupt Kalf’s burial to ask if it was his grave (obviously), and that Sigurd would have no age-appropriate playmates. However, the larger scenes worked and worked well, conveying a much bleaker, wearier view of the upcoming raid, and encourage us to question where each player’s loyalties lie.