Ragnar Lothbrok’s vision has propelled Vikings up to this point, his enigmatic, largely unspoken drives informing the action, with the eerie glint in his eyes promising that he knows far more than he’s letting on. But the show has obliquely introduced the idea from the start that its protagonist may not be as in control as he appears to be. In tonight’s episode, we see that Ragnar may be in over his head—and the show is better for the realization in almost every way.
Much has been written about the age of the TV antihero—its ubiquity and decline—and Vikings seems yet another example of a series centered on a brutal, violent man whose role as protagonist is derived from those qualities, and a healthy dose of charisma. The lure of the bad man with the captivating eyes is the recurring theme of such shows, and certainly, Ragnar Lothbrok (helped along by the natural magnetism of Travis Fimmel) fits the mold. Except that Ragnar, hailing from a truly alien culture, is more of an unknown quantity. Sure, Tony Soprano comes from a milieu far, far distant from most Sopranos viewers, but he’s still a product of the same cultural history. Even Michael Hirst’s previous historical dramas (The Tudors, Elizabeth) hew more closely to the shared tradition of an American viewing audience. Vikings is derived from a culture further removed, both in time and sensibility. It frees up Ragnar as a character, lending him an air of unknowability that at times threatens to grant him a vision and competence bordering on infallibility. “Eye For An Eye” is Hirst’s clearest declaration yet that, as ahead of his time as Ragnar may be, he is not made of unalloyed win.
He starts off well enough, engaging in the sort of balls-out Lothbrok move that seems doomed but for Ragnar’s willingness to trust in his own undeniable coolness to carry the day. Having introduced the idea to King Ecbert’s delegation that the Norsemen might be willing to abate their pillaging of Wessex if their conditions are met, he accepts Ecbert’s proposed hostage swap—himself for the king’s son—in order to parley. As in the similar invitation from last season’s King Aelle, there’s no real reason why this should work—the Vikings are but few, and, son or no, there’s not much preventing Ecbert from simply cutting his losses and wiping them out with his superior numbers. (Sure, the Brits keep getting their jerkins handed to them, but the Ragar/Horik band wouldn’t stand a chance if Ecbert really put his mind to it.) As Ragnar relinquishes his axe and rides smirking past royal scion Aethelwulf (Moe Dunford), it’s another signature Vikings confrontation where we’re led to expect that, simply by being the most charismatic man on screen, Ragnar has everything well in hand.
Despite Fimmel continuing to make every intense confrontation an occasion for subtle high comedy (here hopping along playfully with his guards and copping feels from the statuary), there’s the sense that, faced with Linus Roache’s archly formidable Ecbert, he’s finally met his equal—or his better. Look at his body language as he disrobes to join the king in the sauna that’s Ecbert’s preferred meeting place—Ragnar turns his back, looking repeatedly over his shoulder in uncertainty. It’s not something we’ve seen from him before. Even in the alien territory of Aelle’s banquet hall, he seemed in command of the situation. Here, even once he’s joined Ecbert naked in the pool (“Now we are equal,” intones the king. “We can talk together honestly”), Fimmel portrays Ragnar’s unaccustomed unease. He’s faced leaders—both Viking and English—before and never looked anything but cocksure that his will, the gods’ blessing, and some violence-expedited luck would carry him through. But here Ecbert simply asks his foe, “Why do you not go home?” And Ragnar, forced to answer a simple question, must explain himself—and his answer, “I don’t care about treasure. I’m a very curious man. I want to see your lands and I want to see how you farm them. I am really a farmer,” reveals that, for all his impressive triumphs, he, Earl though he is in Kattegat, is playing in a different league.
That’s of a piece with the show’s admirable sense of time and place—sure we know the relative size and trajectory of each culture’s destiny, but the players here do not. For all the talk of prophecies and their indomitable will, the Norsemen of Vikings are a small, isolated society striking out into the unknown. Similarly, the English are encountering a strange, impossibly violent new enemy. Neither side can truly know what the other will do, nor what they are capable of, and Vikings continues to portray that uncertainty through the actions of its characters. It’s impressive.
It’s back at his camp that Ragnar’s contemplation of what, exactly, the Norsemen want from this particular raid is interrupted when one of Horik’s ships arrives with the news that Earl Borg has seized Ragnar’s territory and driven his family into hiding. And here too, Vikings puts Ragnar on the defensive, with him abandoning the raid and packing up to go home, hungry for some Borg-blood. Here too, we see Ragar acting out of uncertainty, with things out of his control forcing his hand, especially when Athelstan chooses to stay behind to assist Horik in the ongoing negotiations/bloodshed. The Ragnar/Athelstan relationship was on low heat for a while, but here its fertile dramatic nature reasserts itself. Ever unwilling to ask for what he wants from those around him, Ragnar deflects both Athelstan and Horik’s questions with averted eyes and the noncommittal non-answer of a petulant teen, “Althelstan is a free man.” It’s the first time we are told that fact directly, a development as evocative as Ragnar’s equally loaded parting shot, “Then so be it—if you change your mind, your friends will be leaving at first light.” As ever, Fimmel and George Blagden do a fascinating dance around the tangled relationship of the two men, and the fact that Athelstan indeed stays behind is at first a disappointment—until the shocking result of his action plays out in the episode’s final minutes. It’s a bummer that we’re going to be deprived of the Ragnar/Athelstan show for a while, but the strange, tragic journey of the former monk takes a compelling new turn here.
Meanwhile, Rollo is fulfilling his pledge to look out for Ragnar’s family, finding them shelter in a farmhouse and trying in vain to recruit bodies to mount a counterattack on Borg. As has been the case since the season’s second episode, Clive Standen brings the formerly one-dimensional Rollo into focus, making Ragnar’s lunkheaded brother improbably affecting and compelling. His explanation to Jessalyn Gilsig’s Siggy (“My brother forgave me, something I thought impossible. When I searched my heart I discovered that I always loved him. And had grown to hate myself”) is so on the nose for the character that it should be prosaic, but damned if Standen doesn’t continue to land every such speech. He’s especially impressive in the role reversal when the returned and furious Ragnar longs to go berserker on Borg, only for Rollo to talk him down. Ragnar’s response again is one of unaccustomed uncertainty, sulking in the doorway as Rollo leaves, his body language that of a man unwilling to concede the inescapable point. Here too, Ragnar’s discomfiture is Vikings’ gain.
Which isn’t to say that Ragnar has lost it—he is Ragnar Lothbrok after all. There’s almost too much plot for the episode, but, as usual, Vikings’ narrative authority is so sensible and propulsive that events lock together with a seamlessness bordering on inevitability. And when Lagertha, after clearly laying down the law (at least) to her husband/would-be rapist Sigvard, arrives in full shieldmaiden armor with Bjorn and a force of Sigvard’s warriors following her, it’s hard not to feel that Vikings is following a well prepared blueprint. (Plus—awesomeness.) Ragnar’s reunion with Bjorn is especially (if manfully) poignant, with Ragnar, spying his now-grown son for the first time asking, “And you are?,” before interrupting the confused lad’s “I’m your s—“ with a hug this father’s son could feel down to his toes. Sure, the whole Ragnar/Lagertha/Aslaug triangle (heretofore the show’s weakest element) will have to reassert itself now, but this calm before the storm promises that its resolution will be acted out with a renewed energy. And maybe some Borg-blood.
- This is probably too much for a stray observation, but the episode does more than any other to examine the position of women in Viking (and Vikings) culture, with Lagertha’s near-rape at the hands of her drunken husband juxtaposed with the ongoing violation of the nuns taken from the Vikings’ raid in the last episode. Once again, Ragnar is not present for the abuse by his men, absenting him from the discussion, but Vikings remains intriguingly canny about what women are in this world. The nuns are fair game to the Vikings because that’s what Vikings do to conquered females. (Even the shieldmaidens at the camp barely raise an eyebrow at what’s happening.) Yet we’re as horrified as is Athelstan as he withdraws to his tent in an unsuccessful attempt to ignore the women’s cries. We’re more affected by Sigvard’s brutal assault on Lagertha in the previous scene, since she’s such a formidable (and central) character. There’s every indication that Lagertha accepted a marriage to this earl in order to protect herself and her son—a woman and child alone—even though he’s clearly unworthy of her even before this attack. Even so, these paired scenes reinforce the parallel thread of a woman’s place in this world—noblewoman or peasant (or nun), a different sort of strength is a necessity.
- Aslaug remains the least interesting character on the show, however, with nearly every one of her lines causing eye-rolls. From the start, her motives in seducing Ragnar haven’t been clear, a fact less mysterious than cliché. With her mix of spoiled princess (“I’m not staying there, it looks disgusting”), and intimations of mysticism, Aslaug seems immune to the almost universal character enrichment going on around here. Even Siggy (“Life is not a walk across an open field”) is outpacing her.
- Points for Bjorn not having to come to Lagertha’s rescue.
- Thorbjørn Harr’s Borg is clearly not long for this world, but he’s finally starting to grow on me, with Harr’s worried, sad eyes belying his martinet’s proclamations. For all his successes, Borg just isn’t made of stern enough stuff.
- Floki’s reunion with Helga (clearly the healthiest relationship on the show) is especially stirring as she clearly understands how terrified Floki is at the thought that the gods had turned against them at sea. Gustaf Skarsgård’s haunted recreation of what he claims was the hand of Thor sinking their ships (“We saw it!”) is chilling.