Ragnar Lothbrok’s lurching journey through this season of Vikings has been suitably compelling, upping the show’s usual stakes by introducing the very real possibility that Ragnar’s disillusionment with his position as king and leader is genuine. Ragnar traditionally keeps his enemies off balance, and us with them, by allowing everyone to read what they can from his cagey actions and hooded glances. When he inevitably triumphs, as he always has, it fosters the show’s conception of Ragnar as someone who is always, no matter how overmatched he seems, playing things a few important moves ahead.
But tonight, he murders Yidu.
It’s an ugly murder, brutally drowning his confidant and lover in a river after she first cuts him off from the drugs she’s been doling out, then threatens to reveal the truth about the slaughtered settlers in Wessex. When, snatching the remaining drugs from Yidu’s drowned body, he sees young sons Hvitserk and Ubbe staring in horror at what he’s done, Ragnar acts like the jittery, guilty, abashed junkie-murderer he is, clasping the frightened boys to his chest and repeatedly reassuring them, “It’s all right, it’s all right” with a desperate, panicked look in his eyes.
In one sense, he’s right. Yidu’s a nonentity to the Norsemen, a foreign slave girl presumably brought along as the king’s plaything. Yidu hasn’t been shown to have any meaningful connections with anyone but Ragnar, and, if Ragnar would be loath to have Bjorn or Lagertha know about what he’s done, there’s still no danger in him being found out, really. In a larger sense, however, everything is changed—for him and for Vikings.
Ragnar’s not faking his drug-addled madness. Barring some, at this point, wildly ridiculous swerve where this is all some sort of gambit, Ragnar is out of control, dangerous, and quite mad. When we first see him in the episode, he’s crouched in his boat as the Norse retreat downriver, his eyes hunted and ever darting, while untrustworthy ally Harald talks of treason. “We bought into the magic of Ragnar Lothbrok,” Harald tells a stoic Lagertha, “In our world we cannot accept compromise. We cannot accept failure. Someone is always responsible for failure.” And despite Lagertha’s impressively steely, “If I were you, I wouldn’t talk like that about Ragnar Lothbrok to my face,” open mutiny seems imminent. When Ragnar orders his fleet to stop so he can unveil his plan to have Floki engineer a way to hoist the Viking ships up over the cliffs in order to bypass Rollo’s forts, it could signal another signature Lothbrok master-stroke if not for the wild look in his eyes as he announces the plan. This is not a hidden strategy or a sudden burst of genius—it’s Fitzcarraldo having a vision of desperate, improbable glory and mobilizing those following him to put their muscle behind his mad dream. The fact that Floki, in fact, can do the impossible doesn’t mean that Ragnar’s in the right this time. Like his later murder of Yidu in that river, it’s an impulse, a lightning vision. And because he’s the king—and Ragnar Lothbrok—his mad whims have terrible consequences.
Which is all fine—if this is the season where Ragnar Lothbrok’s improbable winning streak ends, then that’s a fascinating prospect. What’s not so encouraging in “Portage” is how ramshackle the show’s handling of its three would-be shocking deaths is in practice. Beginning with Yidu, her death here is a shock—of the three deaths tonight, I didn’t see hers actually coming until that last bubble of air broke the surface of the water and Ragnar set her body adrift in the current. But it’s also abrupt in a way that robs the deed of its impact. Dianne Doan’s (possible) emperor’s daughter was set up as the new Athelstan, the outsider that Ragnar was drawn to for the knowledge of the greater world she could bring him. (And, you know, being a beautiful woman, someone he could actually have sex with. Sorry, Athelstan-Ragnar shippers.)
Like with Athelstan, Ragnar broke custom to allow her freedom, to make her something like a friend, and if Doan wasn’t able to make Yidu as compelling a presence, she was hampered by how her “mysterious Chinese medicine” derailed her relationship with the soon-addicted Ragnar. And now she’s dead. From a storytelling standpoint, it’s cheap—not in the sense that we’re outraged that Ragnar could do such a thing, but that such a potentially interesting female character is brutally killed off for shock effect. It also lessens Ragnar. If, as it seems, the only reason he kills Yidu is the instability caused by his addiction to whatever she’s been giving him, his character track calls for nothing more than not doing those drugs any more. (Although the prospect of a Viking intervention might rival The Sopranos for comic brutality.)
Indeed, the murders of Kwenthrith and Odo tonight are also less impactful than intended as well, although their demises were both more predictable and more perfunctory. As fun as Amy Bailey’s lusty insanity has been at times as Kwenthrith, the show’s been setting up her exit for quite a while. Tonight, when she greets the victorious Ecbert on his return from conquering Mercia, her joyful, “Then I am queen again!” pretty much sounds her death knell, narratively speaking. Again, while I’ve never been the biggest fan of the Wessex storyline (especially without Ragnar involved), Kwenthrith’s had her moments—abused seemingly from birth by all the men in her world, her teeth-baring ruthlessness and madness had an affecting power. But here she’s a dope—not able to see through Ecbert’s obvious plan to usurp her, and going to Judith (Ecbert’s mistress and wife of Aethelwulf, whose baby Kwenthrith’s carrying) for help just makes her eventual death more certain. She goes out well enough, only taking a moment too long before slitting the helpless Ecbert’s throat and getting stabbed herself by Judith, and delivering a rather dignified benediction to her killer as she dies. (“Poor Judith, you have killed twice over.”)
But Kwenthrith’s death, like that of the odious Odo, plays out more like housecleaning, their murders killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. All the limp Paris intrigues come to a head as Odo—goaded into getting chained up and whipped for once by Therese—is whipped to death by Roland. This whole “Odo’s sex dungeon” subplot has been the silliest in Vikings history, so good riddance there, but, apart from the interesting development that now Rollo is unquestionably Paris’ protector, the fact that Emperor Charles shares a private moment with Therese (“I think you carry a terrible burden and you carry it alone”) only promises more of the same.
There’s a bluntness to the writing in “Portage,” extending to dialogue as well as plot. After Harald’s on-the-nose summation of the Vikings’ doubts about Ragnar above, he responds to Ragnar’s successful plan to carry the ships up that cliff with an equally full-throated and prosaic, “You’re insane! But this is beautiful. After everything we heard and thought, we feel stupid.” A pair of mirrored scenes in Wessex and Paris see Ecbert and Charles muttering the same phrase (“How strange life is”) upon learning of unexpected pregnancies (Kwenthrith’s and Gisla’s) that complicate their separate schemes. Instead of resonant and poetic, the device is clumsy and forced—as much as I appreciate Linus Roache’s velvety menace as Ecbert, neither storyline as enough depth to sustain the effect Michael Hirst is going for here. And the dramatic fake-out, with Erlendur seeming to shoot Bjorn with a crossbow turning out to be just Torvi’s imagination, is easily the cheapest stunt the show’s ever pulled.
“Portage” is an unwieldy exercise in shock tactics, precisely the sort of obvious, manipulative storytelling that shows Vikings at its worst. I’ve said elsewhere that Vikings centered on an out-of-control Ragnar Lothbrok is a fascinating idea. But a Vikings that’s lost its way is a lot more problematic.
- Gustaf Skarsgård continues to mine Floki’s rediscovered instability to good effect. When the manic Ragnar asks “You can do that can’t you, Floki? Or am I wrong?,” his reply is as unreadable as it is haunting: “No. I can do it, Ragnar. I can do it for you. Everything I do is for you.”
- Helga’s alive, and doing a lot better than it seemed she would be last week. (Seriously, her skin was basically burned black, wasn’t it?) Still, she’s evidently traumatized by whatever the Franks did do to her, hauntingly responding to Floki’s entreaties with a quiet, “Don’t die Floki.”
- Back in Kattegat, too, Aslaug’s blowout with Harbard (Sigurd rats him out during his latest threesome with the ladies of the town) is ordinary stuff. Lots of broken dishes and screaming, although Kevin Durand’s Harbard continues to make the wanderer’s mellifluous pronouncements suitably enigmatic and spooky. His words of excuse as he leaves the furious queen are so equanimous that they take on just the right note of creepy otherworldliness. (“I have sex with them to free them from their devils and their fears. Everything I do is holy. I try to live like the gods. I reject everything of this world… I take on the sins of the world upon myself.”)
- As Ragnar falls, Rollo continues to rise, being given full “hand of the king” status. Clive Standen has little to do tonight, but keeps making the most of Rollo’s reactions to Charles—simultaneously amused and earnest at the high-flown language directed toward him. When he does speak, his simplicity carries such a ring of quiet dignity, telling the emperor, “I gave you my word. And I kept it.”