“What other kind of hero do you want?”
The remaining sons of Ragnar Lothbrok (R.I.P. Sigurd, maybe Magnus) are, like Norway, in tatters. That’s most true of the shuddering Hvitserk, here exiled by brother Bjorn for killing Lagertha, but Bjorn and Ubbe, too, fairly flap in the variable winds of history. (Ivar, plotting with increasingly weird and creepy little Igor in Kiev, is at least biding his time.) In the (unintentionally hilariously titled) “Valhalla Can Wait,” none of the men intended—by lineage and fate—to take up the mantle of their illustrious father looks prepared to do anything but fade away.
Bjorn, angrily drinking alongside Ubbe, Gunnhild, and Torvi as he contemplates the imprisoned Hvitserk’s fate, decries the three successive losses he’s suffered (Lagertha, Halli, and the throne of Norway), without recognizing how his choices informed each one. He’s reminded by Gunnhild (the wife he’s currently betraying with servant Ingrid) at separate times of his part in the first two. Lagertha’s settlement was raided by the men Bjorn exiled rather than executed, and little Halli picked up a sword to fight them since, “He knew that his mother and father would hear of his exploits.” Coming upon Bjorn and Ingrid later (in their candlelit houseboat love nest), Gunnhild offers to share Bjorn with Ingrid as co-wives, but reveals the knowledge of the bandits as her one dig at Bjorn’s pride. “You are a great man, but even great men make mistakes,” Gunnhild offers to her half-naked husband, but it seems that Bjorn Ironside has done nothing but make mistakes for a long, long time now.
Ubbe, freed at last from his stewardship of Kattegat by Bjorn’s return, immediately seeks out Kjetill and sets out with Torvi and little Asa for Iceland, as he’d intended. Just as the city gates are irrevocably shut on the pathetic Hvitserk (“He won’t last the winter,” Ubbe notes upon hearting Bjorn’s judgement), Ubbe takes leave of his home and his brother, even though Bjorn’s leadership is as unstable as it has ever been. Bjorn, having assembled his people, confesses from his elevated platform that he’s “suffered an immense defeat” in losing the crown to the untrustworthy Harald (who he rescued against everyone’s counsel), leaving Kattegat and its people “isolated, vulnerable, and alone” against Harald’s inevitable attack. “We are a prize worth taking,” admits Bjorn, before asking his people if they still support him. In the deafening silence that follows, Bjorn can only stare blankly until his queen scolds the people into action, claiming that the gods still love Bjorn, and demanding that they decide “What other kind of hero” they want. It’s a good question.
Vikings is now hero-less, at least in the way that it once could rely on Ragnar (and, tied for second place, Lagertha and Floki) to fill that role. No episode of Vikings (and certainly, as I’m reminded, no review of Vikings) passes without the shadow of Ragnar Lothbrok being invoked. “Valhalla Can Wait” (again—just a terrible title) finally leans into that fact as it surveys a landscape bereft of the one preternaturally magnetic and resourceful figure who we can count on to save the day and drive the story. And, for the first time, Alexander Ludwig’s Bjorn seems to come to terms with how trying to emulate his father’s example can only lead to a second-rate leader. (And, perhaps, a second-rate Vikings.) On the night before he’s to pronounce Hvitserk’s fate, the drunken and secretly weeping Bjorn is approached by new confidant Erik, who once more urges Bjorn to accept that the story of Bjorn Ironside is known just as far and well as is that of Ragnar Lothbrok. That Bjorn flashes back to his younger self (hi again, Nathan O’Toole) in the moment when he chose to follow his mother in leaving Kattegat (and Ragnar) is revealing. Hearing voices from his past (Ragnar, Floki, Lagertha) as he contemplates the impossible choices facing him, the now-king is left with his father’s advice, echoing, “Lead with your head and not your heart.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done, head and heart being as inseparable as they are in choosing a path. Bjorn’s stubborn loyalty led him to rescue Harald—and it bit him in the end. Bjorn eschewed vengeance (and his mother’s advice) and spared Ivar’s men—and it bit him. Halli’s meaningless death bit hardest of all, perhaps because the tangle of cultural and personal pressures that led to it are so impossible to untangle in his guilt and grief. Now his brother Hvitserk, having done the unforgivable, awaits another unthinkable decision. It’s dirty pool, dramatically, to let Hvitserk (and us) dangle so precariously. Led to a massive pile of oily kindling in the middle of the harbor, Hvitserk is bound unprotesting to a post, and we see Bjorn turn his back before yelling to the waiting archers with their flaming arrows, “Light the fire!” It’s a shocker, undone only slightly by the ensuing derring-do when, with a nod to Ubbe, Bjorn signals that Hvitsek’s to be spared after all. (Via a perhaps unnecessarily difficult axe-throw.) Hauled spitting from the icy water, Hvitsek can only tremble as Bjorn pronounces his real doom:
I saved you. And do you want to know why I saved you? Because I know you were happy to die. But I don’t want you to be happy. No. I don’t want you to enter Odin’s heart. I want you to suffer a living death. Expelled from Kattegat and the haunts of men, destined to die in a ditch in some forest somewhere. Utterly forgotten, wretched, insignificant, unmemorable! Like a flea on a sheep’s back. [Spits.] Take him away!
As passionate as is Bjorn’s public repudiation of his little brother, it’s also a canny piece of political theater, a dramatic melding of head and heart no less effective for how uncertain its outcome will be. Having seen Hvitserk gazingup into a parting cloud as the flames rose around him, Bjorn claims that it was that instant that led him to deny his brother’s supposed rise to Valhalla. (Hvitserk had explained to Ubbe that, in killing the woman that killed their mother Aslaug, he’d become, finally, “an instrument of the gods.”) Yet, Bjorn had a plan in place. A grand show to prove to his people that he was still capable of making wrenching decisions. Now the broken and exiled Hvitserk will have to make it through the coming winter utterly alone, but he might. And Bjorn’s choice left his people unmoved until Gunnhild moved them, but he’s still in power. For the mighty Bjorn Ironside, it’s time to forge a legend free from his father’s. And while he’s at his lowest here (and his reactions at first—sullenly drinking and screwing Ingrid—are hardly inspiring), there are the stirrings of a leader in Bjorn’s countenance.
As Ubbe’s boat prepares to leave, complete with the very pregnant Torvi and tiny Asa for a perilous winter voyage to Iceland, Ludwig makes Bjorn’s unexpected benediction to his departing family, finally, sound like his own man. At first seeming contented with a bluff farewell (and a warning to the shifty Kjetill), Bjorn turns and addresses them with a gravity we’ve not seen before.
All who came before us are dead, and we are the remainders. And now we are going separately on our own paths and I am sad. All I know is we will see each other again in Valhalla, in Odin’s home, and we will be young again. We will be fierce and proud, we will laugh and sing, the gods will embrace us, we will be what we were always meant to be. And so is this life, and so is this death. Farewell.
It’s not Ragnar’s voice that emerges, ultimately, from Bjorn Ironside, but, finally, the words of a king, a brother, a father, a husband. A person, capable of stepping outside the sweep and tumble of the history carrying him along and reflecting on his and their place in each others’ lives. Bjorn’s a king without power, clinging perilously to both his reputation and his throne, a vindictive enemy poised to take it all away, and now he is losing even more. And yet he finds, in the midst of it all, perspective. And, finally for the mighty warrior Bjorn Ironside, something like grace. “What other kind of hero do you want?” Indeed.
- It’s telling that we actually see Travis Fimmel, finally, in flashback at Bjorn’s lowest moment, Vikings deploying once more its Ragnar flashbacks to the greatest effect.
- With Hvitserk shivering in the wilderness and Oleg’s men making their initial bloody raids on the Norse hinterlands, Hvitserk’s premonitions that he’s to face Ivar once more seem destined to come to pass.
- Speaking of the Rus’ raid on a meager Viking village, there’s one kick-ass blacksmith (played by Keith Ward) who almost saves the day with some impressive, hammer-chucking prowess before he’s finally cut down. Every village has its hero.
- Oleg’s still Oleg, taunting Ivar with Katia and his mysterious knowledge of Ivar’s past while finally smashing that creepy king puppet of Igor’s when the little weirdo uses it to speak some of the defiance Ivar’s been whispering in his ear.
- Ivar comforts the weeping Igor in his nest (again, little weirdo) with seemingly sincere empathy, telling the boy tenderly, “Sweet child do not weep, I am here now.” The extent of Ivar’s humanity, as ever, re4mains in question, but, coming as this scene does right after Ivar is shaken at being reminded of poor little Baldur’s fate, is affecting nonetheless.
- The fame of the Lothbrok clan keeps increasingly informing how people react to them. Erik, coming across Bjorn painfully contemplating Hvitserk’s fate, notes that’s it’s startling to see Bjorn Ironside mourning just as normal people do. And when Kjetill brings Ubbe and Torvi to Iceland, his wife is all a-flutter, exclaiming, “A son of Ragnar Lothbrook, in our poor settlement!”
- Not that that stops Kjetill from—wait for it—plotting something shifty. Privately, he asks Odin why he’d brought Ubbe there now. (Look for the third former star of Vikings to reenter the picture soon, much to Kjetill’s dismay.)
- Bjorn, sheepishly accepting Gunnhild’s offer to share him with Ingrid (who is freed from servitude, since that’s just polite at this point), responds to his wife bringing up Ragnar’s similar pitch to Lagertha and Aslaug by noting that his mother refused.