Travis Fimmel, Linus Roache (Photo: Jonathan Hession/History)

“In The Uncertain Hour Before The Morning,” two kings remove themselves from the world for a night, only to confront the fact that the world will wait for no one, king or no. His reappearance teased last week when son Aethelwulf informed him of Ragnar’s return, King Ecbert tonight faces off with his nemesis. Brushing past the gloating Aethelwulf to where Ragnar sits in chains (and a hanging cage), Ecbert, now stooped and grizzled with the weight of the intervening years, dismisses everyone from the chamber with a brusque, repeated, “Leave.” Ragnar, brutally beaten and starving in his captivity, locks eyes with the king who ordered the slaughter of the Norse settlers, and summons a wry, “What took you so long?”

Travis Fimmel (Photo: Bernard Walsh/History)

This episode, but for a momentous episode back in Kattegat we’ll get to later, is almost entirely a two-hander for Travis Fimmel and Linus Roache, as the two kings—one pacing in his finery, one chained and in rags—simply talk. And it’s mostly riveting. For all the hearty action and occasional melodrama, Vikings has truly been its best when it has captured the characters’ greedy joy in discovery. The characters who’ve most relished the unimaginable wealth of possibilities the Norsemen’s voyages have brought about—Ragnar, Ecbert, Athelstan—are all present here, with Ecbert finally introducing Ragnar to Alfred, Athelstan’s son with Judith. Fimmel, as ever, is most eloquent in silence and action, and, here, his stunned, adoring look at the child, and his tearful embrace of his late friend’s son, is one of the actor’s finest moments. When Ecbert begins to introduce the boy, Ragnar’s quiet “I know, without explanation” testifies to the bond that still remains—among all three men.

Roache and Fimmel match each other throughout the episode, their characters switching gears from wary antagonism, to drunken, philosophical sparring, and, finally, to the most profound and sorrowful understanding. Ecbert starts with the key to Ragnar’s cage in his hands, constantly fiddling with it, and asking his captive, “What would you do if I let you out?” Ragnar responds bluntly, “I would kill you—or not.” Ecbert lets him out (of the cage, if not the chains), and Ragnar doesn’t kill him. Instead, they—after Ragnar is assured that Ivar is safe and fed—spend the long night talking. It’s a singular conversation, one that, perhaps, no other two people in this world could have, the two tired kings speaking, again, as if the coming morning and its attendant, wrenching choices, were not coming.

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From their first meeting (with the naked Ragnar dipping warily into Ecbert’s luxurious, pool-sized hot tub to parley), the English and the Norse leaders always recognized a similar spark of curiosity—and the loneliness that comes from being the only one in their respective worlds that seems to have it. After their initial sparring tonight, Ecbert offering an arch “mea maxima culpa” in response to Ragnar’s anger over his people’s murder, they settle into a bristly honesty that both men clearly have been longing for.

Part of that bond is their shared love of Athelstan, the holy man whose hunger for discovery remained uncoupled to any attendant ambition for power. Drunkenly discussing their friend’s fate (Ecbert having broken out the wine), both men recognize what they’ve lost in the monk, Ecbert stating, “We needed him. He never needed us.” The whole scene is a lovely mix of philosophical musing and tipsy bonding (Ragnar and Ecbert debate the existence of God, or the gods, like college sophomores lighting up their first-ever joint), with both rulers uneasily conceding that their respective faiths are deeply shaken, and that Athelstan’s, for all his divided loyalties, wasn’t. Exhausted, both men end the scene slumped on the floor facing each other, wearily.

“Is he with your gods or mine?”

“It does not matter. His death is on my conscience, not yours.”

“And yours will be on mine.”

“Even so. You have to kill me.”

Indeed, Ecbert must. Apart from the fact that anyone who’s looked up the eventual fate of the historical Ragnar will wince once he mentions King Aelle, there is truly no other way for Ragnar Lothbrok’s last raid on England to end. It’s been a long time since Vikings hummed with the certainty of Ragnar’s inevitable victories, but, in the haunting final scene tonight, it does again—although in a deeper, more sorrowful register.

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We do not know what Ragnar learned in his travels, really, his sincere apologies to those he has wronged and his fanatical, seemingly final drive to avenge the settlers he led to slaughter indicative of mysterious accumulated wisdom known only to him. And no doubt things would have been different if Ragnar were embraced by his people upon his return, if Floki, Lagertha, Bjorn, and all his sons had pledged to join him, if his pitiful band of mercenaries hadn’t been dashed in a storm. But, in advising the grieving Ecbert to turn him (and all blame for his inevitable death) over to Aelle, Ragnar reveals that his scattershot plan had, in fact, been a bomb with a very long fuse. “My sons will come over here and they will rip the lungs out of all of you,” says Ragnar, as the morning light grows in the chamber where they sit, and Ecbert knows Ragnar is right. If, as he says, all Vikings think of is death, then Ecbert knows full well their thoughts on vengeance. After extracting the promise that Ivar will be allowed to return home, Ragnar tells Ecbert to let Aelle be the one who kills him, thus, as Ragnar says, with heartbreaking earnestness, “They will spare you, my friend.”

Earlier, Ecbert had excused his move against the settlers, explaining regretfully, “It was part of a larger and bolder strategy.” Then, Ragnar taunted Ecbert about his quest for power, to which Ecbert responded, “I only like it because it allows me to do good things.” Such are the things monarchs tell people. But, their long conversation at an end, Ecbert—who has, indeed, been successfully working to unite the fractious English kingdoms into a stronger whole—is beyond even the most well-intentioned rationalizations. He is bereft at his powerlessness to save the life of a man he has, despite or because of their differences, come to respect, and love. “You trust me, yes?,” asks Ragnar, to which Ecbert replies a broken ”Yes” in return, and then Ragnar, reaching across the table to take Ecbert’s hands, gazes (in stunning, somehow chilling full-face closeup) into Ecbert’s eyes and tells him, “Don’t be afraid.” Chained, helpless, ragged, and alone, Ragnar Lothbrok is, nonetheless, and perhaps for one of the last times, the most captivating man in Vikings’ world.

At the same time, the battle of wills between two other leaders concludes back across the sea in Kattegat, as the victorious Lagertha, having retaken the land of her birth, shockingly kills its queen. The death of Aslaug—and departure of Alyssa Sutherland—would be more welcome if Vikings weren’t replacing her with something of a lesser Lagertha. Not that Katheryn Winnick is anything but magnetic as she icily sends an arrow into the regally confident departing Aslaug’s back. But Lagertha’s abrupt return to power has dangled from an equally abrupt and uncharacteristic motivation—her apparently sincere belief that Aslaug only reigned in her place because she bewitched Ragnar Lothbrok. Narratively, this just isn’t borne out by what we know of her character, or by the manner of her parting with Ragnar.

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Certainly, Aslaug has presented her supposed magical and legendary lineage as part of her allure from the first moment Ragnar saw her. And while the series has apparently bought into the idea (with Aslaug’s prescient dreams and visions largely presented as fact), this conviction on Lagertha’s part rings false. The Lagertha up until now has been a pragmatic, iron-willed survivor. A product of her culture, she may harbor suspicions that there are magical forces at play in the world, but, in the last few episodes, Lagertha’s single-minded belief that Aslaug has to die because she’s the witch who stole her man is awfully reductive. We’ve seen Lagertha use brutally unsentimental methods to get what she wants (good riddance, Kalf and Earl Sigvard). And, like all of the players in this world, Lagertha walks an axe-edged moral path. Which is to say, if Lagertha wanted to take back Kattegat, and her place by Ragnar’s side, she need not pawn off her ambitions on manufactured grounds. If nothing else, Aslaug’s haughty surrender—where she taunts the now-barren Lagertha that bearing Ragnar so many sons has made her as much a part of Ragnar’s saga as Lagertha is—is motivation enough for that final killing arrow. As good as it is to see Lagertha kicking ass and taking back her throne, this storyline is founded on a disappointingly narrow premise.

Still, as Vikings bids farewell to one main character, and looks poised to lose another, eminently more central and seemingly irreplaceable one very soon, the sight of a majestic Lagertha atop her reclaimed throne is a promising sign. If Vikings is to survive without Ragnar Lothbrok (and Travis Fimmel), there will be a dramatic power vacuum to fill. And, as Lagertha allows the furious Ubbe to attempt to fight his way through a gauntlet in order to reach her (he winds up with a hall of a shiner, but alive), Winnick—and Lagertha—evince enough power to suggest that all might not be lost.

Stray observations

  • Ecbert: “You Vikings. You emerge from the womb with only one thing on your mind. How to die. What of all the things in between?” Ragnar: “Are you talking about women?”
  • Aslaug doesn’t help her argument against having bewitched Ragnar by taunting Lagertha with, “I don’t deny women can have power over men, but it’s not always magical”—and then immediately proclaiming that her visions have shown her that Ragnar is dead. Witch or no witch, Aslaug. Pick one.
  • Ivar, advising his father, says, in Norse, “Don’t fuck with them,” which Ragnar smilingly mis-translates to Ecbert as “He said ‘thank you.’”
  • Ragnar meets another orphaned son in the episode, although poor Magnus doesn’t fare nearly as well as Alfred. Sneering that all Kwenthrith ever did was piss on him, Ragnar mockingly proclaims the boy’s birth a miracle, causing Ecbert to have Aethelwulf to send the lad packing.
  • Need a ruling on Ragnar’s assertion there—Kwenthrith did, indeed, proclaim the disinfectant power of her pee, but it sure looked like she and Ragnar had sex as well. Still, none of that will help Magnus, especially since Aethelwulf tells the boy to loudly proclaim that he is the son of Ragnar Lothbrok in his travels. Good luck, kid.
  • Sigurd isn’t nearly as broken up about Aslaug’s death as Ubbe, sneering about her dalliance with possible god Harbard, and how she always preferred Ivar to them. Sigurd, always the resentful little creep.
  • Ragnar and Ecbert have become similarly skeptical about their religions, with each drunkenly mocking the other’s concept of paradise while clearly agreeing that both Heaven (where everyone’s nice to each other) and Valhalla (where warriors kill each other all day, then drink together all night) are ridiculous. Says Ecbert or the enduring need for his subjects to believe, however, “Even if the gods don’t exist, it’s still necessary to have them.”
  • Perhaps wishing to be less wise, later, praying for guidance, Ecbert confesses, “He that increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
  • History’s not giving out screeners for next week’s episode, gang. Which means two things: 1) The review will be up later than usual, and 2) Probably something big is happening.

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