Paris invasion proceeds, but Ragnar’s still lost
And leaving shocking deaths in his wake
AV CLUB – With only two episodes before the mid-season finale, “Death All ’Round” continues last week’s housecleaning of unprofitable characters, concluding with Torvi finally standing up to—and snuffing out—treacherous weasel Erlendur with his own beloved crossbow. Like Odo, like Kwenthrith, Elrendur’s death has little impact, either on the plot or, I suspect, on viewers. His revenge narrative never registered on a personal level—not really Edvin Endre’s fault, but the little creep was always more of a plot device than a person, a feeble threat to Bjorn whose machinations were doomed to fail. (Last week’s ill-conceived crossbow fakeout faked out only those who imagined Elrlendur a lot more formidable than he ever was.) The other deaths in this episode, however, mean more.
First there’s Lagertha’s baby, as doomed by the Seer’s prophecy that Lagertha would never have another child as it was by the stray shot at the start of the episode of Lagertha wincing and putting her hand to her tummy. (While helping haul Ragnar’s ships through a forest, no less.) Still, when the inevitable comes and Lagertha sits pale and covered in her own blood in her tent, it’s devastating, especially because of Katheryn Winnick, Travis Fimmel, and Alexander Ludwig’s performances. The sight of the three of them—their past and Ragnar’s recent drug-assisted vision of the family they were still echoing—sitting together in wordless grief is powerful. Everything that’s separated them further from each other is momentarily swept away in shared sorrow. The sight of Ragnar simply holding his former wife’s head and stroking her hair (and Lagertha allowing it, for a moment at least) sees all the years—and the betrayals—drop away. And when Lagertha regains her wonted strength and orders the men out, they move away, but only a few feet, father and son adopting identical crouched poses on either side of the woman they both love. Like the best emotional Vikings moments, it works because there’s so little said. These aren’t people prone to explaining themselves or making speeches about their grief. Here, it’s the movement of Ragnar’s hand in Lagertha’s hair, Bjorn and Ragnar’s wordless refusal to leave, and Lagertha’s drained, set expression that are so eloquent.
In contrast to this death is the murder of the Frankish farm family, and it’s as horrifying as the death of Lagertha’s baby is devastating. Harald and Halfdan and their men lead a raid on the farm, presumably in search of food. (We’d seen the farmer and his son spying on the Vikings’ progress through the forest, but the show goes out of its way to show that they have no intention of telling anyone.) Harald and Halfdan’s search of the farm is a chillingly assured piece of staging, their jocular ease in their task (Halfdan pegs his brother with a stolen egg) edging ever so gradually into menace and then terror once Harald—deftly searching the house with his nimble sword—says calmly to his brother, “There are women here.” We see them uncover the five members of the family cowering in the hayloft, their friendly smiles at the terrified women and “Harald’s soothing “Shhhh” signaling the brothers’ confident knowledge in both their own power and their intentions. (Contrast that to Ragnar’s loving “Shhhh” to the weeping Lagertha.) We don’t see what happens next, instead picking up the men as they, stolen horses laden with food, walk easily away, the lovely, haunting melody of the Norse song they sing in unison as they leave playing over the slowly revealed sight of the wanton carnage they’ve wrought upon the family. Dead, ravished women, blood sprayed over the walls, a severed head—and the farmer himself, still alive, hung on the back of his front door, his eyes gouged out, muttering and mad.
It’s a credit to Vikings’ Michael Hirst that the show has always walked a subtle path through the realities of Viking violence toward outsiders. Ragnar’s signature farsightedness has served as explanation for Vikings’ main character’s disinterest in killing for its own sake (or rape in any case), with his undeniably bloody deeds all, to his mind, in service of his greater goals for himself and his people. But Viking society as presented on Vikings is hardly sanitized for modern sensibilities, and Harald and Halfdan’s actions here are presented as nothing outside the realm what’s accepted, or expected. Returning to camp with his booty, Harald senses Bjorn’s disapproval but says simply, “You would have done the same.” We know that Bjorn would not, but Bjorn’s response is an even, “I’m not blaming you.” Bjorn is his father’s son, has learned his father’s lessons—he knows that to be ahead of your people is a dangerous position.
Meanwhile, Ragnar remains lost, any thought that he is merely playing up his madness for strategic advantage swept away as we see him vomiting up and swatting imaginary spiders, crouched in his tent in a filthy undershirt. He still leads his grand plan to drag those ships through the forest—displayed with convincing Norse muscle and ingenuity in the episode—but he’s a wild-eyed, jittering, twitching wreck, wracked by the effects of Yidu’s dwindling stash of medicine and, presumably, thoughts and fears only Ragnar knows. This Ragnar is such a long way from the magnetic champion of seasons past that it’s easy to underestimate how compelling Fimmel’s made Ragnar’s transformation. If his mad flash of genius to haul the boats up a cliff recalled Fitzcarraldo, his manner at this point conjures a different Werner Herzog-Klaus Kinski character. Gnarled in lingering injury and encroaching madness and guilt, this is Ragnar as Aguirre, the grotesquely fascinating conquistador from Aguirre: The Wrath Of God. Eyes darting, his body turning slightly away as he speaks, never looking anyone directly in the eye as he pursues a seemingly impossible task, it’s a striking echo—and an ominous one.
When Harald and Halfdan gleefully call Bjorn and the rest out to look at something, we see only the back of Ragnar, turned away from them on the top of a hill. There’s laughter, cheers, and chants of “Ragnar,” and the eventual revelation that Ragnar’s plan has worked and the river is in sight comes only after the very real possibility that Harald is happy about some new horror, or that it’s all in Ragnar’s head. Ragnar registers the triumph of his grand plan hardly at all, only twisting half-around to mutter to Floki, “We’re not finished yet. There’s one more thing you have to do,” as his face twitches and his jaw clenches. When, the boats finally in the water (alongside some mysterious raft/barge things that Floki’s made), Ragnar, alone in the bow, mutters to himself, again and again, ”I must kill you. I have to kill you.” As he confided to Bjorn earlier, he doesn’t care about retaking Paris, only about reaching his brother. “I came for Rollo,” he states, simply, as the motivation for his whole campaign, and, it’s fascinating to think that he means it—and what it means. We’ll find out next week.
- The other death in the episode is somehow more terrifying for how offhand it is. Little Sigurd finds a dead body in the water back in Kattegat. Only when he tells Aslaug—drunkenly and reluctantly playing a board game with Ivar—“Siggy is dead” do we realize that it’s Bjorn and Þórunn’s little daughter. The horror of the realization is only compounded by how dismissive both Aslaug and Ivar are of the fact. She’s grieving the loss of Harbard, Ivar’s a domineering, child-murdering little monster (“Who cares?,” he snaps at his brother’s news), and their creepy giggling as poor Sigurd leaves rings with the music of a Kattegat in the grip of madness and chaos. It’s chilling.
- Yidu’s death is barely acknowledged, Bjorn’s allusion to “Yidu’s medicine” the only reference to her at all. With only one episode left, it will be interesting to see if her whole seemingly central character arc was meant only to introduce Ragnar’s “just say no” drug breakdown. Which would be very disappointing, on several levels.
- Oh, Charles asks Roland for permission to sleep with Roland’s sister Therese, and then wakes up in bed next to Roland. Remember, kids—non-Viking European kingdoms are so decadent.
- And little Alfred finally makes it to Rome, where the avuncular Pope Leo shows the adorable lad some suspect relics, gives him a sword, and proclaims him a Consul of Rome “like Caesar.”
- It’s good to see the religious tradition of blaming believers for the disasters that befall them isn’t a new thing, as the Pope warns Aethelwulf, “If Christian people do not quickly do penance for their various vices and crimes, then a great and crushing disaster will swiftly come upon you.”
Interestingly, that’s John Kavanagh as Pope Leo. He also plays The Seer. Huh.
- Floki’s mysticism is back in full force, having another eyes-rolled-back vision of Aslaug weeping over Harbard in the rain. Plus, his signature snaky arm movements have returned.
- The ongoing adventures of Count Rollo in Paris continue to provide little snatches of hilarity from Clive Standen. Tonight, teased for being “simple” by Gisla, Rollo, lounging in bed awaiting his wife asks, “Simple… what is ‘simple?’” with an impish smile. And, after popping under the covers to initiate lovemaking, his reply to Gisla’s announcement that her “holy” condition means no more sex until the baby comes, Rollo’s frustrated deadpan, “Many things are better here. Just a few things which were better before,” is even funnier.
- Over in Wessex, Ecbert is crowned king of Mercia as well, which doesn’t sit well with Aelle. As ever, Linus Roache makes a delicious meal of Ecbert’s silver-tongued superciliousness, telling his furious ally, “It may be true that things have changed. Life is all about change, is it not, King Aelle. If we do not change, we fall behind. What was once true and real is suddenly no longer true, no longer real. And sometimes we have to accept that.”