AV CLUB – Vikings, for all its reliably exciting action, is well served by stillness. With Ragnar Lothbrok hobbled, perhaps irrevocably, the show is forced to slow down as well, and in an episode like “Mercy,” we’re reminded how that’s not a bad thing.
Especially after the dull, jittery kingdom-hopping last week, “Mercy” is a welcome rest note in the flow of the tale. Floki isn’t at peace strung up in his cave prison, the incessant drip of water on his head driving him toward madness, but his immobility and his cries at the start of the episode give way immediately to Lagertha’s cries of pleasure as she, her enemies vanquished for now, enjoyably beds Kalf over in Hedeby. (We can all agree that that’s how their continuing arrangement should be characterized, right?) Kalf proclaims his love, to which Lagertha is rightfully noncommittal, but his words echo Ragnar’s themes from last season as he states, “I love you. As long as I have remembered, I have desired you. I thought it was power I wanted, but now I realize it was you.” Meanwhile in Paris, Therese rolls in bed with secret lover Roland while Rollo, deprived of such comfort by the defiant Gisla, rapidly grows dangerously irritated (as his ill-fated and supercilious holy man language tutor can attest after Rollo rips up a sacred text and hurls the old bird across the room).
Ragnar is denied sleep, too, his restless waking echoed across the sea in Wessex, as King Ecbert also finds himself stalking his domain by torchlight, ultimately being confronted by the ghost, or vision, or dream of the dead Athelstan. While Vikings toys intermittently with its characters’ various beliefs in mysticism, the scene derives its power more from how it underscores that the death of the conflicted, curious monk has severed the bridge between the worlds of these two kings, and their gods. Travis Fimmel and Linus Roache both make the loss of that connection, and of the kings’ shared friend, haunting and affecting, their parallel quests both ending with them registering Ragnar and Ecbert’s mixture of joy, wonder, and fear at seeing Athelstan there in the dark. The messages he gives them are enigmatic, as all good ghost messages should be. Ecbert receives the sign of the cross as he tells the monk earnestly, “Oh, how I’ve waited for you, my friend.” Athelstan silently washes Ragnar’s bare feet before whispering the word “mercy” three times. But, again, like all good ghosts, the dead monk is gone when they try to reach for more—more contact, more clarity. Left alone again, both kings must decipher what their respective message means.