“What Might Have Been” is all mounting anticipation. Starting with Trevor Morris’ synth score pulsing over Lagertha saying a prayer at Kalf’s grave, the episode is all about the coming invasion of Paris. Vikings is at its best when time moves quickly, and the episode gathers momentum as, very soon after Ragnar informs his people that his ships will set sail in three weeks, the oars of the Viking ships slice through the water. For an episode largely devoid of action—the one battle against some very unfortunate Frankish lookouts takes place offscreen—“What Might Have Been” has the exciting pull of things coming inevitably to a head.
Even the obligatory stops over in Wessex and Paris are lent an urgency, with King Ecbert’s decision to send young Alfred on a pilgrimage to Rome, and Emperor Charles’ entreaty to Rollo not to betray the city he’s sworn to protect swept along by the swift narrative current. (Only another of Count Odo’s signature bondage scenes with Therese sticks out as deeply unnecessary, as he confesses his plan to usurp Charles to his duplicitous mistress in helpfully damning detail.) The episode reestablishes that all the intrigues, in Kattegat, in Wessex, in Paris, in Hedeby—they’re all bound to Ragnar’s destiny, whatever that turns out to be. As he launches himself back to Paris, all these storylines go taut as they’re pulled along with him, even if Ragnar himself seems uncertain of his place in the head of the boat.
Sailing across the ocean, he slouches against the side of his ship, and it’s Bjorn who takes up the sunstone from his father to determine the right course after a storm. He—after negotiating with Yidu over just how much of her medicine he should be allowed to take in their secret clubhouse—spends the voyage moodily munching on the mind-altering herbs, Yidu along for companionship (and so he doesn’t run out). When the Norse ambush those Franks, he remains largely removed from the wanton brutality toward the prisoners, instead asking Lagertha why she’s going into battle after he seemingly intuits that she’s pregnant. (Katheryn Winnick, as ever, makes Lagertha satisfyingly uncompromising, responding with a curt, “Who are you to talk? I’m not your wife.”) And when his ships finally make the approach up the river toward Paris, Ragnar has a vision of who he was before he was king, or Jarl, or even a renowned warrior, and it looks poised to pull him back from his course entirely.
Much of the power of the sequence comes from Travis Fimmel, who—always most charismatic the less Ragnar explains himself—gazes on a vision of his former life with such sorrow and longing that it’s simply heartbreaking. After his talk with Lagertha had reaffirmed how far apart they are (“My heart was broken a long time ago”), this Lagertha, beckoning to Ragnar from their former, humble farmhouse is achingly beautiful, and the sight of the young Bjorn (Nathan O’Toole), George Blagden’s Athelstan, and long-dead daughter Gyda (Ruby O’Leary) registers on Ragnar’s face with devastating regret and need. When he snaps back to the reality of his ships sailing upriver to once again engage in bloody battle over Paris (looking around sheepishly to see if anyone has witnessed his distraction), it’s to see his brother Rollo, now decked out in Frankish finery, sitting defiantly on his horse on the bank. Even though he’d icily mocked Bjorn for being surprised that Rollo’s encampment is not where they’d left him years before, the sight of Rollo apparently having betrayed him (again) is crushing, Ragnar punching the mast of his ship as he turns away. The past is the past, and the future is arriving in bald, bloody battle and severed ties with those he loves. As Ragnar tells his young sons Ubbe and Hvitserk when they look back at the retreating Kattegat as they sail off to war, “Don’t waste your time looking back. You’re not going that way.”
- As ever, Vikings does its nimble dance around the violence of the Norsemen. While uneasy new allies Harald and his brother Halfdan reveal themselves to be especially sadistic, burning Frankish prisoners alive on their own signal fire (Halfdan even pissing on one), the show keeps Ragnar at a distance from the worst actions. Even though he ties an unfortunate Frank to a plank and sets him out to sea, it’s shown to be more of a signal to the ships that had become separated in the storm. It’s always been fascinating to watch how Vikings creator Michael Hirst goes about making his protagonist both palatable and authentic, the difference between Harald and Ragnar here playing on the idea that Ragnar’s bloody deeds are in service of something beyond personal glory, or hatred. Floki—whose unnerving little giggle has returned since his ordeal at Ragnar’s hands—draws closer (it seems) to Harald largely on the basis of their mutual xenophobic hatred of everyone and everything not Viking. Ragnar, always ambitious, and capable of great brutality, yet has his sights on something bigger than himself. Meanwhile, Bjorn stands at a distance and watches Harald and Floki glory in the horrifying death of the captive Christians, and even young Ubbe and Hvitserk use a dead Frank’s hanging body for target practice. The Vikings’ moral universe remains compellingly complex.
- Not so, Wessex and Paris, where the “civilized” world (meaning the one more familiar to the modern audience) remains haven for sexual sadism, incest, backstabbing, and feeble, watery leadership.
- Lothaire Bluteau’s Emperor Charles appeals to Rollo, making a great show of how he—even he!—is willing to beg to ensure Rollo’s loyalty, saying, “I actually would fall on my knees before you, me!” Oh, Charles—we know that already, buddy.
- It’s nice that Odo and Therese have a safeword/permission system in place for their dungeon games. Safety first.
- Back in Kattegat, Aslaug remains stranded on her rather less compelling path toward outright villainy. Spotted still breastfeeding Ivar by little Sigurd, Aslaug’s path seems to be that of the smothering mother raising a monster. After shockingly murdering one of his playmates last episode, Ivar’s giggling delight at the return of the mysterious, sinister Harbard (Kevin Durand) is genuinely unsettling.
- After the liberating acts and words of most of the show’s women over the last few episodes, the men of Vikings begin to hem them in again. Elrendur sneers at his wife, now gone to live with Bjorn, “If I ask to kill him you will have to do it. You thought you were free, Torvi.” After defying her father and convention by proclaiming her freedom in continuing her relationship with Ecbert, Judith is shocked and devastated when Ecbert announces her young son with Athelstan, Alfred, will be sent of his perilous pilgrimage to Rome. (Similarly, Ragnar takes Ubbe and Hvitserk from his queen, taunting Aslaug that they’re safer with him in Paris than they were last time with her.) And even though Harbard (first seen looming menacingly in a doorway) offers the isolated Aslaug liberation from her unsatisfying life, his words and his tone imply a terrible cost, “I know how you suffer. I know all your pain. Things you cannot tell anyone else. Come to me and I will end all of your suffering, and heal you, and make you free.”
- More prophecy from the Seer, teeling Ragnar, “You will die on the day that the blind man sees you.”
- While Rollo being back on the betrayal train should be a tired device by this point, Clive Standen just keeps resisting, his tortured looks when Charles questions his loyalty and his unreadable expression facing his brother’s gaze both deeply affecting. Standen simply will not allow Rollo to be a cliché through force of will. It’s impressive.