An episode of minimal action and one big shock, “Scarred” nonetheless stands as the most intriguing episode of the season, as the scattered Wessex plot lines come together in the form of a victory celebration at Ecbert’s palace. With Princess Kwenthrith’s uncle dead and her whimpering brother Burgred begging everyone in sight for forgiveness for his failed rebellion, the long, sprawling piss-up at Ecbert’s is unusually thrilling, the seemingly relaxed atmosphere allowing nearly every character an opportunity to play off one another to good effect. Sure, someone dies during the evening—it is a Viking party, after all—but the chief joy in this extended sequence is seeing these characters let their various alliances, intrigues, and old wounds recede just a bit and talk.
The co-mingling of the English and the Norsemen here seems like the fulfillment of Ragnar’s ambitions—the Vikings have won a battle on Ecbert’s behalf, Ecbert has kept his promise to give over English land for a Viking settlement, and both sides are making tentative steps toward amity. (We see a Viking and an English soldier happily drunk-punching each other, which seems to indicate they’ve found some common ground.) The fact that it’s all an illusion isn’t lost on Ragnar or Lagertha, though. In an earlier scene, Lagertha responds to Ecbert’s purring post-coital entreaty to stay with him with a matter-of-fact demurral the more damning for how little anger is in it:
I have enjoyed your company and the sex…Even so, although you have made me happy and fulfilled, I have come to understand that the only person you truly care for us yourself.
The same goes for Ragnar, who has never not seen through Ecbert’s condescending friendliness, yet still finds the king’s opportunism both useful and understandable. They both know their alliance is born of mutual necessity, and destined for dissolution as soon as one or the other deems it time—and yet they both like each other well enough, especially since they are the only two in the room who understand the loneliness of kingship. In a fascinating scene that shows Travis Fimmel and Linus Roache at their respective bests, the two kings essentially pull themselves out of the flow of their predestined stories and tipsily share a moment, while the actors faces register every contradictory thought.
Ecbert: You and I, we understand each other. That is why we are allies and will remain so.
Raganr: Do you think you are a good man?
Ecbert: Yes. I think so. Are you a good man?
Ragnar: Yes. I think so. Are you corrupt?
Ecbert: Oh yes. Are you.
Ragnar: Uh huh.
For all its rousing action, Vikings is most fascinating when it centers on its protagonist, and watching Ragnar navigate through the intersecting currents of Ecbert’s gathering is to watch Travis Fimmel at his most magnetic. No cleaving, just sly smiles, watchful eyes, and enigmatic words. In his incursion into Wessex, Ragnar has a plan, and while his assertion to Rollo, “my ambitions for our people have never changed,” rings true, in Fimmel’s eternally cagey performance, there are depths to that statement we can only guess at.
There’s less guesswork in some of the more plot-driven elements tonight, unfortunately. Athelstan, having finally overcome his scruples, has slept with Princess Judith, so their story at the party becomes the stuff of period soap opera. Even Judith’s immediate after-sex pillow talk signals how perfunctory this plot feels. (“There. It’s done. I’m glad. Do you love me?”) Athelstan’s position on Vikings has always been most interesting as an observer—George Blagden’s portrayal of the former monk as eternally curious outsider is always affecting. Here, thrust into an unpromising love triangle, Athelstan’s journey threatens to become less interesting. Floki’s fury at Ragnar’s willingness to let go of the gods (in Floki’s fundamentalist interpretation) benefits, as ever, from Gustaf Skarsgård’s enigmatic performance, but its worrisome that his mercurial nature is being shunted onto this one rail in season three. It makes sense enough, as Floki’s visceral antipathy toward any hint of “the Christ God” has been a constant from the series’ beginning, but his single-minded sneering at Ragnar all season is robbing him of some of his mystery. (And his plan to pin all of his rage on Athelstan—complete with Floki spying on Athelstan smooching with Judith—is similarly plot-, rather than character-driven.) And then there’s Kalf.
Ben Robson’s portrayal of Lagertha’s duplicitous deputy has been this season’s weakest element, his prettyboy villainy the most lightweight yet of Vikings antagonists. Everything about this usurper comes off second rate, even down to his introduction tonight, Lagertha’s assertion to Rollo that she has left her earldom in the hands of her most trustworthy advisor smash cutting immediately to Kalf lounging around in the Earl’s bed with two sexy Viking ladies. Couple that with his mustache-twiddling pronouncement that he has invited an ally to join him against Lagertha and Ragnar, and the underwhelming reveal that said ally is King Horik’s physically unimposing son Erlendur, and the whole Kalf storyline continues to sap Vikings’ dramatic energy whenever it reemerges.
Not so with the death of Siggy.
Unlike some supporting characters whose death or exit are preordained the moment their initial plot is dispensed with, there was still some storytelling juice left in Siggy. Once a queen herself (or near enough), she found herself adrift in a cold, brutal world with minimal options for an unprotected woman. So she schemed—first with Rollo, then with Horik—to return herself to power and/or to avenge herself of the man who slew her husband (Gabriel Byrne’s long-departed Earl Haraldson). Along the way, however, her manipulations were touched with a knowing sadness that redeemed some of creator Michael Hirst’s most villainous plans for her, eventually allying herself, begrudgingly, with the women in Ragnar’s life. Comforting Lagertha after the deaths of her daughter and miscarried child, Siggy’s grief spoke of sisterhood, a trait that continued this season with her kinship toward both Aslaug and Helga. Sure, the prophecy subplot preceding the stranger’s arrival in Kattegat reduced her as a character a bit (as it did all three women), but her care for Ragnar’s sons alongside Aslaug always appeared genuine, and her closeness with Aslaug and Helga the function of three smart women banding together in a dangerous situation. Jessalyn Gilsig often had to play similar notes, but she played them well, and brought them unexpected resonance.
Which is why her death genuinely surprised me. She’s been the one throwing the most skeptical looks at Kevin Durand’s Harbard, but Vikings hadn’t tipped its hand regarding her abrupt exit tonight—indeed, her growing boldness in criticizing the bewitched Aslaug, and her one lingering moment sitting on the thrones of Kattegat and stroking the pelts there were more indicative of another direction entirely. So her panicked flight to track down the wayward Ubbe and Hvitserk was all the more effective—thinking her safe, all the concern went to the boys, so their shockingly sudden plunge through the ice seemed their doom and not Siggy’s. (Not having watched any of the History Channel ads leading up to the episode, I don’t know how cagey they were about the event, but I was suitably shocked.)
The whole sequence is evocatively shot, Siggy’s dress a splash of sky blue in the forbidding iron landscape, her barefoot dash and unflinching dive into the unthinkably cold water resolved and final. The underwater scenes are paradoxically beautiful and unhurried, Siggy finding the unnervingly still boys and, before bringing one up to the surface, locking eyes with him and smiling, before an unseen hand reaches into the water to haul them both upward. We expect Aslaug, or perhaps Helga, but when she emerges the first time, it’s a beautiful, strange woman, smiling. When Siggy goes back for the other boy and comes up, it’s Harbard, smiling as benignly as the vanished woman. They lock eyes, she smiles, and then sinks back into the frigid water, again unhurriedly, out of sight. It’s striking, and it pays off a lot of the mystical goings-on with an effective ambiguity.
The Norsemen fully believe that their gods walk among them, are a part of daily life. As Ragnar says to Rollo in the episode:
What limits did Odin put on his curiosity?
Who can say?
Exactly. So unless I seek out those limits, I cannot say I have honored his sprit. I would not be ashamed to meet the god face to face.
So Siggy’s vision, one presumes of a goddess (Frigg? Freya? Help me out, people*) makes sense as a dying vision—hypothermia aside, she expects the gods to take an interest in her death, and she draws strength to complete her task from the idea that a benevolent god admires her courage. While the unambiguous triple vision of Harbard’s coming indicated that Vikings was going mystical (at the expense of the human), the Harbard storyline has grounded itself appreciably. Is he Odin, giving with one hand (by taking away Ivar’s pain), and taking with the other (the two drowned children, Siggy)? Is he a wandering seducer and child murderer? Durand, and the show, have paid off the stranger better than his arrival betokened, his final words to the now-suspicious Aslaug and Helga saying nothing while suggesting plenty.
I’m never anywhere for too long. Too restless. The boy is well. In future I doubt he will suffer such pains as before. I have taken some of his pains upon myself. And your friend Siggy, she is also very happy. She is with her husband, her sons, her daughter in Valhalla. If you don’t believe me, you can ask the Seer.
Who are you?
Just a wanderer.
And then he’s gone (the show can’t resist having him fade out of Helga’s sight behind a wisp of smoke—an “or was he?!” convention that serves to play to his ambiguous nature, while also being a bit silly).
*Well, thanks to the quick help, I now know that that was Siggy’s dead daughter Thyri and not a goddess.
- Aslaug’s coupling with Harbard tonight is oddly ennobling to the character, rather than demeaning. While it’s apparent that Harbard’s got some hold over her—mystical or otherwise—her choice to sleep with him is one of the most interesting things she’s had to do on the series. While she, Helga, and the late Siggy were all written to be in the same swoony grip of fate in their narrative, Alsaug’s actions go a long way toward deepening her heretofore-thin character’s inner life. Whether in the sway of forces beyond her control or a lonely, neglected woman frayed to her limits by the demands of leadership and a howling child, Aslaug’s infidelity to Ragnar and her responsibilities make the queen of Kattegat seem human for a change.
- Her actions also call back to the tale from a previous season of a wife being brought before Lagertha for infidelity, only for Lagertha to proclaim the woman’s tale of being made pregnant by a traveling trickster god the truth. Norse women find tales of wandering, lustful gods particularly useful protection from time to time.
- Kwenthrith’s home remedy for Ragnar’s wound has some basis in fact (urine is sterile for a time, and was used as an antiseptic). It is also, in Ragnar’s reaction, very funny.
- Linus Roache’s condescending glad-handing is especially delicious throughout the episode, his exchange with Ragnar here a perfect little piece of two-handed knowingness. After a line of nobles kneel before him, Ragnar’s “Forgive me if I do not kiss your hand,” and Ecbert’s ”We are equals, you and I” show both leaders playing their roles with twinkly self-awareness.
- Erlendur’s big reveal is anticlimactic on several fronts. For one, the character was never interesting to begin with, Edvin Endre usually coming off like a pallid King Joffrey knockoff. Plus, after Kalf’s buildup, Erlendur’s hooded entrance just needed the Imperial March playing over it to cement his underwhelming resemblance to Hayden Christensen. (And using “blood eagle” as a verb just sounds dopey.)
- Since Ragnar has stated his belief that he is descended from Odin, the fact that Harbard no doubt has impregnated Aslaug brings up some thorny questions.
- Kwenthrith’s poisoning of her brother provides everyone at the celebration the opportunity to react in entertaining and character-appropriate ways. I especially liked Rollo simply shrugging and tossing his cup to the floor.
- Burgred died as he lived—sniveling and confused.
- Porunn and Bjorn’s story remains limp, although there’s one striking image—when Bjorn leans in to kiss Porunn’s mangled face, his lips come away stained with blood.
- Someone pointed out to me that Harbard’s representation on the show corresponds suspiciously well to the lyrics of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ song “Red Right Hand.” Probably coincidental, but still pretty fun to think about.