Travis Fimmel (Photo: Jonathan Hession/History)

In the end, I found myself thinking about Tostig. If you remember, Tostig was the aged Norse warrior who begged the young Ragnar Lothbrok to take him along on Ragnar’s initial English raids, if only so he could die in battle, as all good Vikings desire to do. Getting his wish at the hands of King Aelle’s troops, the old man dies smiling, “Valhalla” on his lips.

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In the moments before Ragnar dies, dropped with shocking abruptness from his dangling cage into his historically florid fate in a pit full of snakes, Ragnar, too, proclaims his faith in the Norsemen’s afterlife. Sparing no detail, he speaks of Odin preparing his welcoming feast, of drinking from curved horns, of the Valkyries summoning him home to feast, and fight, and fuck for all eternity. Except that Ragnar is lying, his final breaths—before he lies shattered and grunting amidst stinging serpents, that is—spent playing the role his captors expect so that his sons’ inevitable vengeance will come armed with righteous fury.

Being ferried to King Aelle’s lands by a blind coachman (and several dozen of Ecbert’s skittish troops), Ragnar, smiling wryly in his cage and in his rags, answers the old man’s description of the legendary Viking king Ragnar Lothbrok (he’s supposedly eight feet tall and eats children) with a friendly, “The last one’s true.” But Ragnar’s end is very much about his legacy—what he publicly wishes it to be, and what it is truly. As ever, we know only what Ragnar allows us to know about what he thinks, what, really, he has learned. (Also as ever, Vikings errs by giving us a bit too much information when its power has always resided more in implication.)

Still, when Ragnar imagines the coachman as the blind Seer and echoes the doubts about the gods, it’s one last reaffirmation of the iconoclastic thinker and explorer that has been our rightful, and main, focus all along.

I fashion the course of my life and my death. Me. Not you. Not the gods. Me. This was my idea, to come here to die. I don’t believe in the gods’ existence. Man is the master of his own fate, not the gods. The gods are man’s creation to give answers that they are too afraid to give themselves.

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Ivan Kaye (Photo: Bernard Walsh/History)

Aelle is a duller final adversary than the wily but worthy Ecbert, but his lesser status both marks him out as the future victim of Viking vengeance, and as the appropriately blunter instrument of this Ragnar Lothbrok’s death. As we’ve seen since his return to Kattegat, this Ragnar bears little resemblance to the dashing and daring adventurer we first met, years ago. Apart from his scarred visage and tattered and befouled clothes, whatever lessons Ragnar has taken from both his battles and his wanderings have stripped him of the certainty that saw him imagining his deeds watched over by a spectral Odin on the battlefield in his first ever appearance.

At the beginning of this season, the wounded Ragnar saw a very different vision—the gates of Valhalla swinging irrevocably shut in his face. Throughout, more and more of Ragnar’s troubled faith seems to have been stripped away, until he finally confessed to Floki that he was no longer sure that they would meet in paradise—and then shared a drunken agreement with Ecbert that both the Norse and Christian gods may well, indeed, be nothing but convenient and necessary fantasy.

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It’s always been one of Vikings’ main pleasures, speculating just what thoughts reside in Ragnar Lothbrok’s head. Here, he plays the role the English expect, enduring sadistic and excruciating (for him and for us) tortures while rejecting the cocksure, imperious Aelle’s demands that he ask for absolution from the Christian God. (“Heaven is what piggies will grunt when they hear how the old boar suffered,” sneers the horrifically wounded Ragnar, his implacable will shaking even Aelle’s smug fanaticism.) He plays the role history demands of the great Ragnar Lothbrok, spitting his boastful “pagan” beliefs right to the end. But, before Ecbert sends him to Aelle, Ragnar secretly tells Ivar to pin his death on Ecbert, not on Aelle, betraying his agreement with Ecbert. When Ragnar Lothbrok pulls in his last breath—locking eyes with the disguised Ecbert far above—it’s, fittingly, one last instance of Ragnar leaving everyone else a step behind.

“All His Angels,” apart from a brief coda delivering Ivar back to Kattegat, is one, measured lead-up to the end of Ragnar, and of Travis Fimmel. When, draped in biting, writhing snakes, he is finally gone, Fimmel only has Ragnar’s one good eye to work with, but he’s no less fascinating a subject than he’s ever been on Vikings. The episode employs some requisite, fleeting flashbacks (not unwelcome, if, like some of the dialogue tonight, a bit prosaic). There, we see the young Ragnar (and younger Fimmel), the brash, dashing man of action, and the contrast is striking, not only for how convincingly makeup coveys the intervening years and countless miles, but for how Fimmel has inhabited this character so fully, every step of the way. When Vikings premiered, it looked like History was angling for its own Game Of Thrones, a sexy, brutal action franchise, complete with Fimmel—a former model with limited acting experience under his belt—as its hunky lead. But it was clear essentially from the first scene that Fimmel is a uniquely expressive and subtle actor, especially in his physicality. It could have seemed nothing but a trick all this time, Ragnar’s spooky eyes and knowing smiles, but, in Fimmel’s enduringly magnetic performance, Vikings’ central conception of Ragnar as a man ahead of his time never rang false. Not once.

There’s something Passion Of The Christ-like about the episode’s gauntlet of torments, although here it’s the Christian Aelle, praying to God to make him His instrument of divine justice, holding the hot pokers. Ragnar defies Aelle’s brutal demand to succumb to his God while, finally, having no gods of his own. In his flashbacks, each sunny image of the people Ragnar loves comes yoked to images of the pain his pursuit of something bigger caused them. Ragnar Lothbrok didn’t articulate much of his vision for his people, but Fimmel made us believe that what he saw was worth all the pain. If Ragnar Lothbrok leaves an impossible legacy for the Vikings to follow, then Travis Fimmel leaves a similarly daunting one for Vikings.

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As Vikings closes the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok with the closing of that one, eerily blue eye in its pit of snakes, it faces many questions. Alexander Høgh’s Ivar, Katheryn Winnick’s Lagertha, Clive Standen’s Rollo, and Alexander Ludwig’s Bjorn all have major storylines that position them as the series’ potential focal points. Ragnar’s parting speech to Ivar passes the torch from father to son pretty definitively (if, again, a bit prosaically). But Ragnar and Fimmel’s departures leave an enormous hole at the center of a series that has always been able to rely on their gifts to suggest far more than standard costume drama or action-adventure spectacle. Vikings’ Ragnar Lothbrok was the rarest of men, one who exemplified his culture even as he saw its limitations, and the possibilities that lay beyond. Now that culture—and this series—looks uncertainly ahead to a world without its guiding star.

Stray observations

  • Ivar and Alfred share a game of chess and a smile, suggesting that their fathers’ bond will continue to inform their shared destinies going forward. Although Ivar squeezing Alfred’s gift of a chess piece upon learning of Lagertha’s murder of Aslaug until his hand bleeds suggests it won’t be smooth sailing.
  • Høgh continues to provide just enough shades to Ivar to keep him from being too predictable in his often-sadistic anger. Father and son have one last piece of high comedy when Ivar, suckering Ragnar into thinking he’s ashamed of his nature, slaps his dad across the bald head.
  • Also, Høgh’s forcibly restrained sorrow when saying goodbye to his father and learning of his mother’s death bode well for Ivar the Boneless going forward as one of Vikings’ protagonists.
  • Why does Ragnar ultimately betray Ecbert? My take—the slaughter of the Norse colonists. As sincere a bond as Ecbert and Ragnar have, that settlement was the embodiment of Ragnar’s vision for his people. No number of mea maxima culpas from Ecbert will erase that.
  • Still, Ragnar’s confession to Ecbert that Athelstan, finally, chose the Christian God over the Norse gods confirms that their bond is a real one.
  • There’s a mysterious, one-eyed warrior sailing into Kattegat at the end of the episode. Stay tuned.

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