I’m going to miss Ragnar Lothbrok.
More to the point, I’m going to miss not knowing what a main character is going to do from one moment to another. Not due to inconsistent writing, or sheer unpredictability for its own sake, but because he, and the world he inhabits, have been so well imagined and remote from my own experience that one of the chief joys of Vikings is watching Travis Fimmel and creator Michael Hirst allow their creation to operate by rules which are essentially alien to the viewer and yet which make such sense when acted upon. Ragnar is portrayed as a man ahead of his time, and yet fully wedded to his time. It’s such an astute balancing act that I often find myself grinning in admiration that it’s consistently pulled off so well.
That being said, “All Change,” the season one finale of Vikings, is not the triumph I was hoping for, considering how assured the series last two episodes have been. And, as many such dramatic downfalls are shaped, it all comes down to a woman. (Hang on. I’m going somewhere with this.)
Sent on an errand of intrigue/possible assassination by Donal Logue’s King Horik, Ragnar meets an impossibly beautiful maiden after his men spot her bathing nude under a waterfall (and get roundly trounced/slashed by her attending shieldmaidens for their presumptuousness). In the comments last week, there was significant outcry over the previews’ implication that Ragnar was going to step out on Lagertha, and I have to confess to a fair share of unease myself. I’ve spoken at length about the seemingly impossible line Vikings has had to walk with Ragnar. Make him too modern and relatable and his, and the show’s, credibility is shot, but at the same time, Ragnar’s devotion to his formidable (and sexy) wife has been a cornerstone of his fascinatingly ambiguous character throughout. Plus, ending the season on an infidelity subplot seems far too ordinary for these characters.
Sure they may beat the shit out of each other (albeit in a sexy way) when they’re really in disagreement, and yes, maybe they invited their monk slave into bed for some hot Viking threesome sex at one point, but through all the various travails of the Lothbrok clan, dramatically, the solid union of Ragnar and Lagertha makes sense. That’s why Ragnar’s not engaging in the first part of the “rape, pillage, and plunder” Viking agenda. His singleminded pursuit of his goals aside, he and his wife are evenly matched, totally hot for each other, and Vikings has suggested most convincingly that they have come together after mutual adventures, struggles, and the occasional slave threesome. So this development, coming as it does in the last episode of Vikings’ short first season, has the smack of suddenness, even randomness about it.
Unless you think about it.
Ragnar’s relationship to the Norse gods and the idea that they control his destiny, and that of all Vikings, has been seeded through the series, albeit only intermittently foregrounded. The very first scene of the show sees Ragnar envisioning the warriors he and Rollo have just killed being swept up to Valhalla by Odin. And while he often smiled his skeptical Lothbrok smile at Gabriel Byrne’s Jarl when the shifty leader invoked the gods in opposition to Ragnar’s plans to raid to the west or to prop up his own authority, that was more a function of his anti-authoritarian nature than any doubt of the gods’ authenticity.
So when the seer prophesied that Ragnar would have many sons, he believed it, wanted it, and was sure of it. And when Lagertha, the seeming vessel of his hopes thereof, miscarried the first of those sons (and a snatch of dialogue last episode revealed that conception has always been an issue), Ragnar’s secret entreaty to Odin at the holy site Uppsala had the ring of true desperation, and confusion. Through all of his careful planning, fighting acumen, and sheer force of will, Ragnar carried with him an aura of assurance born of imagined destiny. And now he is uncertain and confused. Is he not Ragnar Lothbrok, and is he not to be the father of many sons? When he asks Odin why Lagertha has lost his son, Fimmel imbues Ragnar with a genuine sorrow, but also the signature Lothbrok defiance. (Again, I cannot say enough about Travis Fimmel’s utter ownership of his character throughout this first season: I’m trying to think of contemporaries who could make this role their own the way he has, and I honestly can’t.) Ragnar simply cannot fathom how his plans, heretofore so successful, have suddenly, tragically failed.
It’s with this crisis of faith in mind that Ragnar meets the woman under the waterfall and, while it follows with what’s gone before that Alyssa Sutherland’s Aslaug should enter into Ragnar’s tale at this point, it is nonetheless shocking when he first kisses her, and then sleeps with her. In these scenes, we are like Ragnar’s son Bjorn, horrified and angry that he is, to our way of viewing things, cheating on his wife. (Especially considering the horrors we know Lagertha is dealing with back home as a plague sweeps their village.) And while Bjorn (and, by extension we) are patronized by both one of Ragnar’s men (“Ragnar and Lagertha are a famous couple”) and Ragnar himself (grinningly asserting, “I could not help myself” and telling Bjorn to tell his mother if he wants to), it’s still a comfort to Bjorn and us when Ragnar swears that he won’t do so again and follows through by turning Aslaug away when she comes to him in the night.
Until she informs Ragnar that she’s with child. (It’s unrealistically quick news from our point of view, but he’s convinced, and she is built up throughout as something of a mystical figure.) So now all bets are off, dramatically speaking, and we head into the next season as uncertain as our protagonist how things will turn out. It’s not bad as far as cliffhangers go, except that it seems rushed, more a function of a too-short series order than a natural stopping point. Ragnar, laying his head on Aslaug’s belly as the season ends, looking as conflicted as we’ve ever seen him. Again, it seems less a natural stopping point (and introduced far too quickly), than a point at which season one just ran out of time. But I suppose it’s a compliment that I’m pissed I have to wait a year to see where this unexpectedly entertaining and complex show goes from here.
- Ragnar’s signature smile to Jarl Borg as he proclaims, “I am surprised you have heard about me” says precisely, “Of course you have heard about me.” That’s so Ragnar.
- The targeted ads portray Viking exploits as about ten times less complex than the show they’re interrupting. I’d like to think Don Draper would have gone a different way, Ram trucks.
- Ha! The titles for this episode confirm that “Jarl” is what the characters are saying all along. Take that, commenters! I am vindicated!
- Kathryn Winnick, like Lagertha, has just gotten stronger as the season’s gone on. Her scenes with ill daughter Gyda, and at the child’s funeral on the beach thereafter, are all the more heartbreaking for how little she gives in to outward shows of fear, and then grief.
- Tough week for daughters, as Thyri succumbs to the plague as well. While this subplot, like Ragnar’s felt rushed, Jessalyn Gilsig’s Siggy, free to give in to her grief unlike Lagertha, is most affecting.
- Not much screen time for Athelstan after last week’s stunning events, but the parallel between him wiping the brow of the desperately ill Thyri and her washing his body before the sacrifice was a nice touch, and touching.
- When Ragnar’s men tried to explain their peeping by saying, “We came upon your mistress by chance,” I immediately thought “phrasing!” because I love Archer. And, as previously mentioned, am 12 years old.
- Donal Logue remains a welcome upgrade over Gabriel Byrne in the antagonist role. In his one scene, I loved how attentively he listened to Floki’s tale, and then turned it into his own.
- Rollo succumbed to Jarl Borg’s obvious enticement to betray Ragnar, in case anyone was wondering.
- Which makes me wonder if Ragnar left Rollo behind for that very purpose. Remember that Ragnar and King Horik matched wits at a strategy game last episode, while Borg urges Rollo to “roll the dice.” Long-term planning vs. blind chance. Ragnar vs. Rollo.
- One last stunning image for the season, as the Vikings confront the massive ash tree they imagine to be Yggdrasil while Ragnar recalls to himself the tree’s legend, wherein Odin hanged himself from its branches.
- I’ve held off reading about the historical Ragnar’s tale. As Lagertha says this episode: “It’s sometimes better not to know one’s fate.”
- Thanks for reading, gang. Vikings will be back in 2014. I hope we’ll argue again then.