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Vikings: "Unforgiven"

Pieces moving on the board

An hour of table setting leading to some shocking violence, “Unforgiven” sees Vikings moving long-dormant pieces into place for the season’s endgame, whose outcome seems less predictable than ever. As an hour of television, it may lack (until the end) the series’ signature propulsive narrative drive, but it compensates by giving its characters time to breathe and, in several cases, reveal what’s been going on under the surface all season.

With Horik’s limping return from Ecbert’s treachery, he and Ragnar agree that their forces and ships are too depleted to continue Ragnar’s plan to raid and colonize the inviting British coast. Where they part company, despite Ragnar’s seeming acceptance of Horik’s plan, is the idea that they should reach out to the oft-defeated Jarl Borg (Thorbjørn Harr) to replenish their numbers. As much as I was happy to see Donal Logue step in over Gabriel Byrne’s scheming Earl Haraldson at the end of the first season, Vikings has done little with his character since. Introduced with all the pomp and mystique of his title, King Horik seemed to fall all too readily in line alongside—and seemingly behind—Ragnar’s vision. First seen taking Ragnar’s measure over a chess-like board game, Horik has been a largely recessive character, bordering on a dull one. Finally here, he gets some colors—and dark ones—although the fact that he remains one step behind Ragnar at all times still paints him as a lesser figure. “Whatever you think he will do he will always do the opposite,” advises Jessalyn Gilsig’s Siggy at one point, yet another of Vikings’ statements of the nigh-infallible greatness of its protagonist. For Horik, that means he’s simply overmatched in the show’s dramatic sweepstakes, even though he finally gets to make a few moves.

Siggy, too, has been put in the position of reacting, her tenuous social position reflected in the fact that, as a character, she’s bordered on inconsistent. Here again, “Unforgiven” gives the former Earl’s wife the spotlight, opening with her confession to Jon Kavanagh’s Seer that, despite her seeming acceptance of her lowly station with Rollo, she, too, has had something cooking all along. Jessalyn Gilsig’s fallen victim to her indistinct character throughout, often given stock manipulator’s motivations and sidelong glances in lieu of a center, but here her tearful revelation that she yet mourns for her dead husband and still harbors hate for Ragnar who killed him, is her most affecting work so far. Her, “My anger is like stone, stone that I carry inside me that weighs me down…I cannot lift it” is one of the first times we’ve heard Siggy speaking her feelings to someone she has no reason to manipulate, and her pain brings much of her past actions into greater focus.

So when Siggy and Horik come back together, their shared desire to keep Ragnar in their respective sights should make them stronger. Unfortunately for them, each has blind spots preventing them from mounting an effective front, especially when Horik forces Siggy to “make a man” of his young son—with Horik in the room, no less. As humiliated as she clearly is by Horik’s gamesmanship here, it’s she who comes out on top in the end—Horik can’t realize the asset he’s got and neglects her insight, patronizingly patting her on the arm and calling her his whore. Siggy goes along because she thinks Horik may be of use, but their partnership is clearly not long for the world. Again, Horik—destined for failure.

And then there’s Rollo. Clive Standen has made Ragnar’s formerly boneheaded brother much more interesting this season, but it’s come at the price of sometimes making Rollo almost maddeningly passive and wise. Here, sent on the mission to recruit former partner in betrayal Borg, again Vikings reveals that at least some of that transformation has been a long con. It’s a mixed blessing—Standen’s soulful awakening as nice, protective Uncle Rollo has been poignant—but when the episode’s final trap gets sprung and the old, brutal, ice-cold Rollo returns, there’s a renewed fire to the character. His fate is suddenly in play again. 

Of course, it’s Ragnar Lothbrok’s world, and everyone else is merely fooling themselves into thinking they have the upper hand in it. Vikings has taken pains this season to allow for Ragnar to not be the smartest, shiniest, most infallible Viking in Scandinavia (as he invariably was in the first). At times that’s meant that Ragnar has been a cipher, the show relying on Travis Fimmel’s undeniable charisma to provide the gravitas that his oft-enigmatic inaction lacked. Finally in this episode, all that simmering, and all those icy, unreadable looks finally explode in a climax as brutal as it turns out to have been inevitable. Like Horik, looking out his chamber window to see Ragnar staring off into the distance with a freaking enormous bird of prey perched on his arm in the moonlight, we’re left guessing about Ragnar Lothbrok’s plans until they’re already, inexorably underway.

“Unforgiven” isn’t prime Vikings—as much as I appreciate the way this episode was obviously the culmination of a lot of carefully-laid groundwork, it’s got a certain pokiness throughout, and the side stories chronicling the misadventures of Athelastan in Wessex and Lagertha returning to her despicable husband exist in isolation from the main action. (Plus, looking ahead the fact that Borg’s fate is to be drawn out, seemingly over several more episodes, undermines the impact of the ending.) But the final image of Ragnar standing over his vanquished foe and striking the pose of the blood eagle over Borg is as mysterious and alien as any in the show so far. Both Vikings—and Ragnar—keep revealing that that there’s impressive planning going on, even if their long games are unclear until the final move.

Stray observations:

  • Kudos to all of you in the comments who correctly spotted the blood eagle reference (wikipedia that if you’re curious—and of strong stomach) in the Seer’s prophecy to Borg. Again, it’s disappointing that Borg’s fate appears to be postponed, but still—well done, you guys.
  • After her triumphant tour last episode, it’s gratifying that Vikings isn’t going to let Lagertha fade from its story (even if the historical Lagertha does). Katheryn Winnick’s just too compelling in the role, and her actions here make the equally compelling case that her story is not done.
  • Lagertha’s reasons for returning to her jackass husband (who adds a copious, drunken drooling to his repellant traits in his final appearance) remain enigmatic, although tied to her dignity in refusing to stay with Ragnar and Aslaug. But her final, decisive act is shocking, not only for the level of eye-violence, but for the fact that she is seemingly willing to die at that moment. It’s simply not clear what her own endgame was here—I don’t think even she foresaw the twist that the Earl’s men wouldn’t just kill her. Hmmm.
  • As much as I enjoy the interplay between Athelstan and Ecbert as the only two men in Britain drawn to the art and history of “pagan” cultures, I must confess that the way their story exists in such isolation from the rest robs it of some of its immediacy.
  • That being said, George Blagden and Linus Roache bring an intriguing undercurrent of kinship to their unlikely passion for knowledge. Roache’s sincere, “We have lost more knowledge than we ever had. These pagans ruled the world. What is the lesson?” goes a long way toward keeping his ruler interesting. Still—let’s get Ecbert and Ragnar back on the same island.
  • And poor Athelstan—beset with visions, befriended by a king (who yet swears him to secrecy on pain of death), and destined to confront Ragnar again some time soon. The guy just wanted to be an artist, and he’s clearly headed for more wrenching choices.
  • Borg seemed to go bananas pretty quickly, didn’t he? Really thought he was going to French kiss that skull for a minute.
  • Oh, Bjorn’s in love with a slave girl. Let’s stick a pin in that one for now. 

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