Previously on Vikings, “What Might Have Been”
Following Vikings’ seventh-episode pattern, “The Profit and the Loss” kicks off the next mega-battle and mass carnage. Starting at camp, Ragnar walks the leaders through his plan to go through the towers with a raiding party distracting the archers from behind. Lagertha takes point on the raiders while Harald and Halfdan insist on being the first boat through the channel. Afterward, Ragnar privately tries to talk Lagertha out of risking her baby, but, relating the Seer’s prophecy, she sees no point in bothering. Erlendur denies ownership of the ring, and Ragnar instructs Ubbe and Hvitserk to guard the food and supplies.
“Oh boys, keep your bows close.”
Cue the ominous foreshadowing.
The Space Between Life & Death
Even if we didn’t know Rollo’s plans, the washed-out cinematography contrasting with the drugged-red of Ragnar’s lips bodes ill for the battle. Two cups and a mead horn as battle model are no intricate sandcastle on the beach either.
Harald, Halfdan, and Floki bond, giggling, over their joint mindset:
“The space between life and death, it’s where we are most alive.”
Rollo watches from the tower with Gisla who’s clad in Joan of Arc-type armor, but also has braids, joining her husband in hybridization of their cultures. Lagertha and Erlendur’s raiding party find themselves clumsily trapped in a bog, attracting the crossbows they were supposed to eliminate. Decimated, they escape with only a straggly crew.
The boat leaders hide in the darkness of their shield wall as Harald’s boat crosses the line… into the chain. The front ships pitch over while the others scramble to stop in the face of trebuchets. Rollo recites,
Up onto the overturned keel
Clamber with a heart of steel
Cold is the ocean spray
And your death is on its way*
*Rollo’s war cry from season 1, episode 4 when he and Ragnar face Aelle’s forces on the Northumbrian beach
Ragnar’s crew rescue Harald and Halfdan as fiery arrows rain down, igniting the longships, and he spots Floki sinking. Ragnar jumps in to save his ex-friend, but much of the fleet is indeed overturned and burning. Hands out in resignation as he leads the retreat, Ragnar shouts to Rollo:
“This is how you repay me. When everyone wanted you dead, I kept you alive. You heard me brother, you heard me! And this is how you REPAY MY LOVE!”
It gets worse. During the battle, Roland led an attack on the encampment, slaughtering most of the women. Floki finds Helga nearly burned to death, but the boys, Yidu, and Torvi emerge from the woods unharmed. Fires soon burn again, this time funeral pyres. Bjorn blames Ragnar.
Frustrated, Ragnar bullies Yidu for more drugs, kissing her by force, then sits by the boats in the thundering storm. Likewise Floki leaves runes for Helga and finds a private stream where a vision of Aslaug appears to seduce him, whispering, “Harbard.” Seven bells toll, perhaps for the seven worlds between Asgard and Helheim. In the aftermath of the battle while the space between life and death remains fluid, Floki seems to be channeling what’s happening back in Kattegat.
Aslaug’s Meadshake Brings All the Gods to the Yard
Aslaug tells Harbard that Ragnar is punishing her for what happened last time he was gone. He says he’s been so many places since then, “between worlds, between the living and the dead.” Sound familiar? On the dock, they share a public kiss.
Remember last season when I was convinced he was going to get her pregnant, recalling Rig, the human avatar of Heimdallr, in Rígsþula? He didn’t then, but this time, he’s here to get ERR’BODY pregnant. A crowd of women surround him, remarking how his holy presence inspires them to hope and happiness. He kisses two on the mouth and has sex with the first later, all under Sigurd’s watchful eye and Aslaug’s prideful gaze.
Remember #2 when the hooting owls evoked Heimdallr in “Mercy,” calling to mind the space between Midgard (earth) and Asgard (heaven), AKA the space between life and death? Still fits.
With the bishop’s blessing, Ecbert leads his army out of Wessex into the fog towards Mercia. Werfurth joins him and leads the way to the mausoleum of the Mercian royal family. Prince Wigstan awaits below, surrounded by all that royal blood Kwenthrith waved away dismissively, and proposes joining forces to overthrow the ruling council. He then plans to renounce the corruption of his royal world and finish his life on pilgrimage to Rome, leaving the tarnished Mercian crown hidden in his mother’s casket to a certain Mr. King Ecbert. Aelle is going to be so, so mad.
To be or not to be…
After 3 days of tweaking, Ragnar tells Bjorn they will retreat, then resumes muttering Hamlet-style to a severed head.
As battles go, this was not as rousing as former battles, nor was it meant to be. The washed-out tones and grays mixed with endless fog and smoke and mud, underlining Ragnar’s poor planning and rudderless direction he now has, contrasting with the rich colors of Ecbert’s realm as he rides into the mist of obscured intent to seize Mercia. The sun shines on Lagertha’s golden hair one brief moment, giving us hope as she wades into the brush, only to bury that hope in a bog. As Ragnar’s military acumen markedly decreases, Rollo’s increases, having left his preferred drugs of mushrooms, liquor, and heartbreak behind. With additional camera work under the boiling water and drone shots over the burning longships to Vikings’ signature throbbing battle music, the devastation was complete.
There were some beautiful character moments, especially between Ragnar and Floki, as Ragnar once again saved his life, perhaps against his will, then met his ex-friend’s eyes as Floki bowed over Helga’s broken body; even permanently estranged, they still share that pain. Ragnar’s intervention with Lagertha was yet another poignant scene; though the baby is not his child, he still cannot help but care. She doesn’t quite push him away like last time, but rather finally admits the prophecy to him, which she’s shared with no one else.
Connected by the water they gaze upon, Floki maintains the middle ground between Ragnar in Frankia and Aslaug back in Kattegat, where their women reap the benefits of the Vikings’ sacrifice as Harbard sows the seeds of the next halfling generation to serve her sons. The space between the living and the dead fills every corner of this episode—the moment before the battle, the battle, the bog, the Mercian crypt, Helga’s coma, and Lagertha’s pregnancy and the future pregnancies of the women at home. Even the crown Wigstan hands Ecbert is darkened, pulled literally from the bones of his ancestors. How apropos. Thematically, “The Profit and the Loss” maintained a solid hold on its gloomy atmosphere and left us squarely in Ragnar’s numb mindset, while Rollo, Aslaug, Floki, and Ecbert flourish into their next phase of dominance.
Strong thematic and cinematic work combined with a smaller-scale, yet still devastating, battle made this episode, like all Vikings battle episodes, a winner. Watching the boats pitch over and catch fire was truly agonizing, as well as their arrival back to the slaughtered camp to find Helga, the most undeserving of all, near death. While there remained a few awkward transitional moments (“Erlendur, here’s your ring, now that I need you to watch my pregnant mom’s back on the battle field in like 5 minutes!”), the Yidu relationship is still creepy, and Ragnar’s opium addiction seems unnecessary, the rest really worked, even though the effect was quite negative for “our” side. Dialogue was nearly nil, save for simple, clear moments, like Lagertha’s voice ringing across the field to Rollo’s tower, which allowed the action to take center stage. The wardrobe designers certainly know how to declare the victors between Gisla’s armor and Rollo’s richly-braided leather paired with Ecbert’s gold and damask finery and Aslaug’s emerald dress. Grim, grim episode.