Well, that didn’t go well.
Ragnar’s return to Paris goes as badly as it could have because Ragnar is not Ragnar Lothbrok any more. In seasons past, Ragnar had lain low, has played the fool, or made it look like he was being fooled, before springing the iron trap he’s been hiding behind his back on his too-confident adversaries (and us). But “The Profit And The Loss” makes the case that that really doesn’t appear to be true this time around, as his blunt, literally shaky leadership of the Paris invasion leaves his forces decimated, a large number of his ships capsized and burning, his camp destroyed (and poor Helga horribly wounded), and everyone questioning his ability to lead. (The fact that Rollo—yes, Rollo—seems to have outthought him every step of the way is only the capper.) Even Bjorn, storming into Ragnar’s tent to demand the Vikings’ next move, snaps at his father, “We have waited three days for a plan of attack!,” before, taken aback at the sight of a jittery, muttering Ragnar, asks worriedly, “Father, are you all right?” Ragnar, it appears, is not, in fact, all right, as the camera reveals that he has been defending his plan to retreat back downriver to the severed head plopped in the mud at his feet.
As entertaining as it’s been to rest in the surety that Vikings’ protagonist will always pull victory right out from beneath his tunic at the last minute, there’s something invigorating, even frightening, at the thought that Ragnar’s time is up. Instead of the fun of watching Travis Fimmel’s dashing, enigmatic antihero dance right on the winning edge of disaster, the thought that Ragnar has lost his touch leaves Vikings careening rather thrillingly out of control. When he was just being a stoned, disaffected layabout alongside his sexy new lover/drug connection Yidu back in his Kattegat clubhouse, that was one thing, the light ever dancing in those icy blue eyes always hinting that his withdrawal from his duties was just another gambit to cope with his physical enfeeblement, and the confidence it lent smug, cocky new pretender Harald. But now, with untold losses of people and ships and the Paris invasion in serious jeopardy, Ragnar’s erratic behavior looks less and less like strategy and more like the final descent of a mighty king.
Of course, it could all be a longer con than ever before. Last season’s initial raid on Paris saw Ragnar—rather improbably—sacrifice much of his forces in order to snatch victory in the end with an incredibly convoluted and risky (again, some would say improbable) fake-out. He sacrificed a lot of himself, too, not only physically, but also in his relationships with those that mean the most to him. But he won. So could his Chinese medicine-chomping, wild-eyed, teeth-grinding, restless-legged indecisiveness be just another act whose real purpose will only be unveiled when Ragnar Lothbrok stands, once again, victorious and smiling on the parapets of Paris? Sure. But it’s also entirely possible—and, frankly, more interesting—to think that Ragnar’s crises of faith and competence are indeed the product of the deep disillusionment he confessed to Yidu back in Kattegat. That he’s a broken man, or a breaking one, who will either heal himself in time to rally his people once more to violent triumph, or shatter all to pieces.
Echoes of two great Shakespearean kings sound throughout “The Profit And The Loss.” (And if you hear some strains of Hamlet as Ragnar monologues to that severed head, you’re not alone.) Apart from the superficial analogy to Henry V, of an invading king leading his outnumbered forces into France (or Francia in this case), Ragnar’s history keeps us waiting for the charismatic king to pull off an inspirationally heroic, Agincourt-like stand against Rollo and Odo’s massed crossbowmen and booby-traps. In practice though, Ragnar turns more and more King Lear as the battle turns to rout, his daring rescue of the drowning Floki the only scrap of the old Ragnar we see. Instead, he jounces in his seat at the ships sail toward their doom, his gums and teeth stained red with Yidu’s drugs, his mind unable to focus. Asked beforehand about tactics, he gives the Rollo-esque order to simply “do the obvious” and sail right where the Franks expect them to go. We expect a secret, but Ragnar hasn’t got one, and his diversionary plan of having Lagertha’s troops come at the Frankish forts from behind fails spectacularly, literally getting stuck in the mud of an unseen marsh.
After the battle, too, there’s the war of kings, the fact that the dastardly Franks have massacred the women, old men, and boys left to guard the Vikings’ camp a direct allusion to the dastardly French doing the same during Henry V’s impossible victory at Agincourt. (I can hear Shakespeare’s stout Welshman Fluellen exclaiming, “Kill the boys and the luggage… ‘Tis as arrant a piece of knavery as can be offered!”) But, unlike Henry, whose furious “I was not angry since I came to France until this instant!” signaled his willingness to seemingly burn France to the ground, all Ragnar can offer is a stunned look and a grateful, tearful hug of sons Ubbe and Hvitserk upon seeing they (and Yidu) have survived the massacre. Then, seemingly shattered at all that’s happened, Ragnar retreats to Yidu, begging like the junkie he now appears to be for more medicine, and thrashing through her belongings until she reluctantly gives him some. A peal of thunder brings a Lear-like storm, and the battered king simply sits down on a boat in in pouring rain and looks, for all the world, like he’s gone mad. Earlier, when different rain in the form of the Franks’ catapulted oil-bombs set the river and his ships ablaze, Ragnar’s defiant bellow to the victorious Rollo above is suitably Lear-like as well, a mad king in the midst of disaster, railing at personal betrayal. “And this is how you repay me? When everyone wanted you dead, I kept you alive! And this is how you repay my love!”
Fimmel is outstanding there, and, asked to show heretofore unseen shades of uncertainty and encroaching madness in Ragnar, he’s even better. Ruse or no, this Ragnar is become all distraction and live-wire anxiety. It’s nothing we’ve ever seen Fimmel do before and it’s another thing he shows he can do exceptionally well. As for Rollo, Clive Standen, too, continues to use this season’s new direction to reinvigorate a character whose constant scheming and self-pity should have worn thin seasons ago. As Ragnar unravels, Rollo grows more confident, and Standen makes Rollo’s (again, seemingly) final betrayal of his brother and his people fairly glow with inner life. Seeing Lagertha stuck in the marsh, he first orders the bowmen to hold, then finally to fire. Walking among the dead with Gisla (bravely armored on the battlements alongside her husband), he looks to see if Lagertha is among the slain, and answers Gisla’s admiring observation that Norse women are as brave as their men with a hushed and even, “Sometimes they are much braver that the men. And the most fierce, her name is Lagertha,” that encapsulates all his conflicted feelings with heartbreaking understatement. And earlier, he recites the Norse poem he once said in battle alongside his brother as he watches Ragnar’s ships burn, another gut-punch of a callback that Standen makes only more devastating with the emotions playing across his face.
The battle itself, which takes up much of the episode, is another piece of outstanding Vikings direction (by Ken Girotti), a massive undertaking that earns its place as the season’s major setpiece while never sacrificing clarity of storytelling or the decidedly earthy nature of the combat. Everyone’s actions and motivations are clear, the staging crisp and logical, and the final sight of the burning ships as the Vikings retreat appropriately horrifying. (That’s still a lot of healthy Norsemen for Rollo to deal with, though.)
And yet, the episode makes a few missteps. We’re stuck with the Wessex storyline, I suppose, Michael Hirst’s appetite for flowery court shenanigans necessitating another round of Ecbert’s intrigues against Mercia. At least Hirst keeps bringing in great actors to make the flowery enjoyable, here introducing mysterious Mercian nobleman Wigstan (“Never trust Wigstan!”) in the mellifluous person of The Tudors veteran Declan Conlon, who tells tales of the ludicrously corrupt Mercian bloodline with delightful contempt. (I shall be stealing his “fools, monkeys, and drunkards” the next time the comments get unruly.) But, for all the fun of listening to Conlon and Linus Roache out-arch each other, the Wessex stuff has never seemed more unnecessary than when plunked down in the middle of Ragnar’s Paris disaster.
Less obtrusive is Floki’s strange vision of Queen Aslaug, carnally humping him in a field after the battle, but I still question its dramatic efficacy, especially since seeing Floki actually mourn the horribly burned Helga would have been more affecting. Since Aslaug is back in Kattegat with the wanderer Harbard (who, being Harbard, is smilingly screwing his way through the female population like a cult leader, barnyard analogies and all), and since Floki’s rescue at the hands of Ragnar may have reestablished their broken bond, it makes sense enough, I suppose, for Floki to realize the danger Ragnar faces from that quarter. (Or to have a mystical vision thereof, if that’s where we come down on that.) But the extended scene, too, diverts necessary attention from what’s so compelling about the episode.
As I said last week, I like the narrative chaos caused by Ragnar’s growing instability. As much as the show has counted on its hero’s preternatural gift for winning to fill its sails, there’s a real charge in not knowing how things will end this time. As Ragnar faces threats from every side, it’s equally energizing wondering if we’ll be treated to the spectacle of another improbable Lothbrok triumph, or of his ultimate, no-doubt similarly glorious destruction.
- I’ve been staring at a screenshot of that severed head all day (like you do) and can only conclude it’s just a random head, right? None of the recognizable characters went down, so it’s not one of them. Any alternative candidates, please guess away in the comments.
- Alsaug isn’t bothering to hide her infidelity with Harbard this time around, something little Sigurd is keeping a close watch on.
- I had another big smile greeting Wigstan spitting, “The council and their lickspits.”
- One hint that the old Ragnar is still in there somewhere is his concern for Lagertha leading the ground assault while she’s pregnant. Both his concern and her putting him back in his place (“Let me explain something to you…”) serving to remind just how strong their bond remains.
- Tiny moment that got me: Upon seeing the boys have survived, Ragnar must give the okay before older son Ubbe consents to join his little brother in giving their father a hug.
- “I hate my uncle. I want to kill him.” “Good.”
- Rollo’s poem: “Up unto the overturned keel. Clamber with a heart of steel. Gold is the ocean spray. And your death is on its way.”
Oh, and just thought you’d like to know, Vikings-pals: Free Vikings stuff! There’s a contest to win some official Vikings merch—Click on our Instagram photo and you can be the Lagertha for a change.