I’ve deliberately learned as little as possible about the historical Ragnar Lothbrok while reviewing Vikings. Part of that is simply a desire to avoid 1,000 year old spoilers, but mainly, I’ve stayed away from all but the barest details because they’re irrelevant. Apart from the fact that most of the “facts” out there about the guy are clouded, contradictory, or just plain made up, judging Vikings as a creative enterprise on its own terms necessitates divorcing the history from the characters and their actions. There’s an impressive amount of detail and imagination built into the show, with everything appearing authentic and nicely lived in—but I have little to no interest in the specifics, except as they serve to create the show’s world. Vikings is viable drama only so far as it makes us invested in that world and its characters. With historical fiction, it’s not enough to say “that actually happened,” if, in presenting the historical event, it seems false, hollow, or dramatically contrived.
It’s a tricky point, but one that Vikings’ creator Michael Hirst has played around with pretty successfully throughout the course of the series. (Having a tight-lipped protagonist with an often enigmatic agenda is a help.) But there have been times where the historical tail has wagged the dramatic dog, and the show has suffered for it. Historically, we’re pretty certain that Ragnar married a princess named Aslaug, so in she goes. Unfortunately, Hirst hasn’t been able to make the union dramatically compelling, with the Ragar/Aslaug relationship paling next to Ragnar’s marriage with the kick-ass Lagertha. Apart from suffering from the lack of the formidable Katheryn Winnick, the new Mrs. Lothbrok’s storyline has alternately smacked of prosaic writing, a less interesting actress, and, perhaps most worrying, the steady creep of potentially magical elements into the Vikings universe (more on that later). Likewise, in tonight’s episode, there’s a plot development that, even if historically necessary, and—it must be conceded—pretty thrilling, sticks out as the hoariest of dramatic twists.
The very first scene of the new season saw Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar and Donal Logue’s King Horik forming that Viking shield wall against Thorbjørn Harr’s glowering Jarl Borg. So when Horik ordered Ragnar to cut Borg out of their British raiding plans, thus leaving one pissed off Jarl with several layers of mad on behind while simultaneously leaving Ragnar’s home village of Kattegat undefended but for old men, women, and young boys, and a drunk, variably treacherous Rollo, well, the title of tonight’s episode pretty much spells it out. I have no idea if a Jarl Borg ever invaded Ragnar’s home turf, but this development certainly smells of something perfunctorily historical—and it plays that way. Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar was clearly unhappy at Horik’s decision, and yet he took exactly zero precautions against a seemingly inevitable outcome. That’s not the Ragnar Vikings has presented so far, and so compellingly. Sure, he’s put himself in positions where only some brazen courage and a little luck could carry him through, but he’s never been so heedlessly incautious.
That being said, the raid, when it comes, is a stunner. “Treachery” packs in a lot of plot, but each strand does an admirable job of fleshing out some Vikings characters who have been underserved this season (Lagertha, Bjorn, Athelstan) or, in this case, one who has been inconsistently written, bordering on tiresome (Rollo). Roused from a drunken stupor by Siggy, Rollo’s actions once Borg’s ships enter the harbor are decisive—and weighty. Left behind by his brother and still living under the public shame and distrust wrought by his (latest) betrayal, Rollo yet leads the rickety defense of Kattegat and, if he cannot save the day, he at least redeems himself as a character.
Largely used as a foil to Ragnar, Rollo’s been, at various times a betrayer, mindless thug, pawn, and dupe, and while Clive Standen has at times brought glimmers of something more interesting to the role, it’s in this episode that he truly makes his case as a viable main character. Contrasted with previous penchant for impatient berserker rage, Rollo’s strategic planning in his hopeless cause, coupled with his willingness to do the unthinkable and retreat to protect Ragnar’s sons are significant steps toward complexity in the character. Plus, I’m a sucker for Viking heroism like, “What do you think we’re going to do? We’re going to fight,” and “For whatever the gods decide is about to happen.” The old Rollo would have gone down fighting in foolhardy battle—this more interesting Rollo looks down from the mountains at the triumphant Borg with a protagonist’s authority. (One that does not bode well for Jarl Borg.)
“Treachery” also defines things for another character coming into his own in this episode—at least as far as the invaded English are concerned. Athelstan, seemingly forgotten in the season premiere, is poised for more important things than ever this season as he assumes the position of Ragnar’s translator and guide on the Vikings’ incursion into Wessex. Or, as his former people view it, he assumes the position of traitor, telling Ragnar what to expect in the cathedral, and where to find the treasure (consisting of the Brits’ most holy relics) inside. As a captured bishop spits contemptuously, Athelstan is an apostate, a traitor to his nation and his faith. In Paradise Lost, the lowest level of Hell is reserved for the betrayers, and to those English who recognize Athelstan as one of their own, the former monk is clearly headed there too.
George Blagden, with his ever watchful eyes, has long acted as viewer surrogate as he, too, has been both fascinated and horrified by Norse society. And now, after some three years among them, he has made his choice, taking part in battles against his former countrymen, renouncing his former title (Floki continues to call him “priest,” much to Athelstan’s annoyance), and presumably even shedding that pesky vow of celibacy (if his posture with that comely Viking maiden last episode is any indication). When he fought against the ambushing soldiers last episode, any inner conflict fled in the face of simply trying to stay alive, but in “Treachery,” there’s no escape, as Athelstan is instrumental in pillaging the holy site, and, in a truly shocking moment, kills a young monk attempting to protect the Bible pages he believed the former monk and calligrapher to be desecrating. Throughout the raid, Blagden heartbreakingly radiates impossible conflict, and it’s equally impossible not to watch him as he navigates the bald, bloody facts of his divided loyalties. (Which will undoubtedly only grow as the Vikings strike further into England.)
Ragnar, too, has his conflicts, although, as is ever the case, his inner workings are less transparent. From the very first episode, the question of how relatable Ragnar could be to viewers’ modern sensibilities while still remaining true to his time and place has been central to Vikings, and it remains impressive how Hirst and Fimmel continue to keep him in that sweet spot. My interpretation as to why Ragnar generally does not take part in the most infamous Viking cruelties is that he simply has a wider view of raiding than his contemporaries and so has less interest in, say, the raping part of “raping and pillaging.”
This balance continues tonight, with Ragnar leading the sack of a church and killing his share of soldiers while, at various points, concealing a terrified child from his own men and not taking part in Horik’s sadistic Saint Sebastian-style torture of the captive bishop (and some implied rape going on in the background). Absent at the beginning of the sadistic scene, Ragnar comes upon it and stands tellingly in the doorway, cocking his head enigmatically until Athelstan finally puts a stop to the old man’s torment. Again, these actions could be seen as anachronistic softening of the character, but Fimmel keeps Ragnar’s integrity, mainly by keeping us in the dark as to his motives. Clues come in his conversation with Horik later as, holding up a handful of Britain’s plenteous, fertile soil, he muses on how strong the Vikings could be if they, too, were surrounded with England’s softer, more welcoming climate. Ragnar Lothbrok, the son of a farmer, sees the future of his people in terms of arable land, and that vision is his primary focus. It remains as satisfying a solution to a Viking antihero as possible—Vikings continues to present Vikings as simply… other.
- Lagertha’s back! Having rebounded with a marriage of security to another Earl, and with a now-strapping Bjorn sulking Hamlet-like at his hated stepfather’s table, she’s clearly biding her time for something. Enduring a smack in the mouth from her new husband, and looking more striking than ever in her furs, Katheryn Winnick continues to animate Lagertha with a formidable strength, even in temporary story exile. (Taking bets on which Earl, this one or Borg, goes down first.)
- Great casting with Alexander Ludwig taking over as the now man-sized Bjorn (although expressive young Nathan O’Toole will be missed). Ludwig’s got Fimmel’s jaw-jut and softly menacing accent down, and looks like the lost Hemsworth brother.
- Both major action sequences tonight are exceptionally filmed, with the confident slaughter of Ragnar’s band contrasted with the pell-mell chaos of the rout at Kattegat.
- Those are some solid spear hits Rollo lays on Borg’s men.
- After seeing Athelstan make the sign of the cross before slitting the throat of the tortured bishop, Ragnar mocks the next bishop they see with the same gesture.
- Ragnar’s ongoing strategy when facing an English nobleman: unnerving smile and some weird stuff with his hands. Tonight, faced with an imperious bishop and his men, he picks a flower and then playfully rolls up the priest’s vestments while he talks. Classic Ragnar.
- Gustaf Skarsgård’s Floki , as ever, lobbies for most valuable Viking. His deceptively deadly, snaky fighting moves are chilling, and his flame-eyed visceral hatred of all things Christian continues to mark him as the avatar of the Norse religion. Plus, taunting Athelstan with saint bones—never not funny.
- In other news, Aslaug had Ragnar’s newest son—and he has snake/dragon eyes! Just like she predicted! Yet another reason to dislike the Aslaug character, this development is another of those historically mandated plots that has me worried. Sure, Ragnar had a vision in the pilot, and Athelstan has had a couple of drug-aided visions himself, but thus far, Vikings has remained grounded in compelling-enough reality. Here’s to the kid just having unique astigmatism and moving on.
- The English continue to be routed by the Vikings in hand-to-hand combat. It’d be ridiculous if it didn’t make perfect sense. The English soldiers are mercenaries or conscripts or just citizen soldiers in the service of a remote, unseen monarch facing a terrifyingly resolute alien force. The Vikings pursue fighting as a way of life and fight side by side with their leaders in a common cause. I can see it.
- Speaking of monarchs, Linus Roache’s King Ecbert continues to look like Ragnar’s first real challenge as far as antagonists go. Sure, he might be fond of lounging around in the sauna like Richard II, but he’s clearly a formidable thinker and possessed of a ruthless, purring menace. Should be fun.