“Perhaps she had come to the end of reason.”
That’s Torvi, offering one explanation for Lagertha’s battlefield disappearance, but it might as well be a summation of Vikings’ mishandling of one of its most important characters. “The Buddha” begins with a shot of the dead Heahmund and the silent and unreadable face of Lagertha standing over him, the clang and roar of the battle against King Harald’s forces faded into irrelevance in the background. That’s the last we see of Lagertha in the episode, but her presence haunts the proceedings, both overtly and not.
“The Buddha” is another Vikings reset, something the show has done with admirable grace in the past. The brutally variable fortunes of its characters and world swing on changing loyalties, battlefield triumphs or defeats, even the season and the tides. People and societies rise and fall, and those around them adjust, and forge new paths through the changed terrain. “The Buddha” sees most of the main characters striking out in different directions, according to their natures, their fortunes, and what they intuit to be the will of their gods. Some paths are more promising than others, but it’s a sea breeze of the sort of character-based unpredictability that’s served the series so well in the past. For Lagertha, however, a mysterious post-battle powder is like an admission by Michael Hirst that the once-thrilling tale of Lagertha had lost its way. Lagertha’s not dead—the steadfast Torvi believes that, and, as poorly as the former queen of Kattegat has been treated by the screenwriting gods this season, it’s simply inconceivable that she’s gone for good. But, in her absence, Vikings finds time to reflect on how much she and former husband Ragnar’s dreams have informed everything.
Ubbe and Bjorn pause to reflect that they—in receiving the East Anglia lands from Alfred in recompense for their service—have fulfilled at last their father’s greatest dream. Still furious over Ubbe’s choice to convert to the Christian god, Bjorn, earlier, sneers alongside freed new love interest Grunhild that Ubbe and Torvi worship a false god, and that their unwillingness to sacrifice to the Norse gods will bring ruin. Yet, as the brothers prepare to part, Bjorn teels Ubbe simply, “You have taken a path I could not have taken.” (Little brother Ubbe’s response, “My brother, still my hero,” to the departing Bjorn is the warmest moment the sons of Ragnar have shared in a long time.) And—Bjorn and Lagertha’s assistance aside—Ubbe has done what his legendary father could not, at least for now. With the full and public support of an English king, he and Torvi now rule over a vast swath of English soil to, as Alfred pronounces at court, “settle and farm as you see fit.” Ubbe, walking for the first time on the land that his father coveted (and briefly held), scoops up a handful of rich English farmland and marvels to Bjorn, “Look at this treasure . . .” For Ragnar, treasure wasn’t mere gold or power or fame—it was an expansion of land, and the mindset of a culture too narrowly focused on the known horizon. Ubbe now holds Ragnar’s dream in his hands. It’s powerful.
For Bjorn—first seen slouched and sulking in Alfred’s court, reminding the king of his grandfather’s broken promises—Ragnar’s dream can’t end there. He will never convert like Ubbe, nor will he be satisfied with the life of a farmer. Bjorn’s adventurous side is Ragnar’s, too, and the fact that Ivar has usurped Kattegat will never allow him to leave that part of Ragnar’s dreams unfulfilled. Ragnar Lothbrok was a farmer. A warrior, too, but one whose prowess on the raids of Jarl Haraldson (remember when Gabriel Byrne was on this show?) only fueled the innate curiosity that lent the Kattegat farmer an ahead-of-his-time vision. Bjorn, alongside the well-matched resentment of the formidable Gunnhild, has chafed under compromises with Christian kings long enough. That he, upon leaving to form a necessarily doomed alliance with the still-smarting Harald, finds the grace to forgive his brother (and to apologize to Torvi) shows how the click of recognition that accompanies spotting your next path clears away the brambles. “We are all trying to defend Ragnar’s dream,” he tells the questioning Ubbe, not unkindly, “But perhaps some of us try to do it differently.” Riding into York alongside Gunnhild, Bjorn Ironside looks for all the world like a man who has found his purpose again.
I’d like to say that Vikings has done the same, but the unholy mess this season has largely been isn’t so easily righted. Kattegat is still mired in the unevenly matched war of wills between Ivar and Hvitserk, with Ivar’s self-declared godhood still not cherently registering either as outright cynical manipulation or egomaniacal self-delusion. Still, Alex Høgh continues to at least make Ivar’s taunting of his big brother entertaining, here wrapping his veiled threats (he reminds Hvitserk of what happened to the mad Margrethe when she opposed him) with the twinkling gamesmanship of someone who knows he’s playing against an inferior opponent. (Ivar lends his voice a playfully teasing singsong as he puts on a little grimace at the mention of Margrethe’s fate.) At once poised to take on Vikings’ central antagonist role, Ivar’s gotten stranded in some indifferent characterization and sluggish motivation this season, but Høgh continues to do what he can.
As for Hvitserk, he gets way into Buddhism. Spotting an old Asian man in the teeming Kattegat marketplace, Hvitserk fingers the man’s Buddha figurine before apparently getting some serious offscreen Noble Eightfold Path bullet points, since we immediately see him quoting aphorisms while in bed with an amused young woman. “He told me I could come talk to him again,” says Hvitserk excitedly, with the eagerness of the easily converted fuckup. (It is adorable that he turns the statue’s face away before the couple gets down to business.) Hvitserk is later confronted by Ivar about the apparent contradiction of having thrown over the rest of his family for Ivar, and how unhappy he appears to be with everything Ivar does. Hvitserk responds with the blissful assurance of someone who’s seized onto something he imagines has clarified his life in one easy lesson, “There is no contradiction. It’s possible that everything is part of the one.” Hvitserk’s a perennial dope, and his lightning quick flirtation with Buddhism mirrors his father’s grappling with friend Althelstan’s Christian beliefs in appropriately farcical terms. (Hirst hints at the coming conflict between Hvitserk and Ivar with their juxtaposed figurines—Hvitserk’s Buddha vs. the chess piece Ivar once played against the young Alfred. Still, it’s not much of a contest.)
Then there’s Wessex. The historical clash—cultural and martial—between Alfred (of coming “The Great” fame) and the Norse is Vikings’ unavoidable next narrative path, certainly. But, Jesus, is Michael Hirst addicted to flowery court intrigue at the expense of the show’s main characters. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo’s Alfred and Jennie Jacques’ Judith aren’t bad characters, necessarily, although Jacques has only become less interesting the more power Judith has attained. But it’s a question of focus, and Vikings keeps nudging Vikings out of the frame. Here, the intrigues against the ailing Alfred (historically thought to have been suffering from Crohn’s disease, he suffers an attack that leaves him comatose for much of the episode) are characteristically given far more airtime than the story warrants. Culminating with Judith poisoning waveringly loyal son Aethelred to close the episode, there’s nothing especially wrong with this storyline—except that it is given equal (or more) weight to that of the Vikings. Of Vikings. Once more we get the merest glimpse of York—an English city under Norse control—while we’re treated to an episode of Wessex, a show that does not exist, no matter how Hirst tries to spin it off within his far more intriguing series.
- Floki’s story shows a few signs of life, thankfully, with the return of the horrifically frostbitten Helgi offering the opportunity for the return of Eyvind’s clan. Now, Eyvind’s a weasely little drip, no mistake, but the possibility of forgiveness and redemption this development hints at is an intriguing one, especially in how it comes to rest on grieving father Kjetill. And you know what that means:
- Edge-watch! With his hulking frame and kind eyes, wrestler-turned-actor Adam Copeland’s faithful Kjetill has been a quietly steadying presence in Floki’s troubled utopia. Here, faced with Floki’s choice of whether or not to bring back the supposedly repentant murderer of both his son and daughter, Copeland makes Kjetill’s decision ring truer than imagined, his wrenchingly earnest, “You know I cannot live without hope” providing a thematic energy that this stranded storyline has often lacked.
- Plus, Floki’s mad little giggle returns. When his followers turn up their noses at the rancid fish they have left to eat, Floki delightedly laughs and pronounces it “Food!”
- That old inscrutability takes another form when, as the frostbitten Helgi pleads his case to Kjetill’s family, Floki silently heats the knife and axe blades he’s preparing to use to lop off the young man’s dead finger.
- Still, Floki’s lament that—with Eyvind gone—“our settlement was beginning to work,” is questionable. That fish aside, all we see here is Kjetill’s family and Floki huddled in isolation against the icy wind.
- Look, Bjorn’s bed-hopping can be a little silly (Queen Elsewith’s pregnant, opening the possibility of another illegitimate Lothbrok entering the English royal bloodline), but Ragga Ragnars’ Gunnhild matches up nicely. Matter-of-factly stating that she would be unable to resist Bjorn’s advances while bound, she takes the first opportunity once her bonds are cut to slug Bjorn in the kisser. “I was just exercising my freedom,” she tells Bjorn airily before dismissing him from her room.
- Bjorn continues his father’s aversion to the “ . . . and plunder” aspect of the Viking cliché, his unwillingness to force himself on the captive Gunnhild born equally of honorable inclination and a desire to find out what happened to Lagertha.
- Harald, having cemented his power in York by killing a doubter sneering over Harald’s defeat, is left contemplating not only an alliance with the victorious Bjorn, but the fact that Bjorn has now taken up with Gunnhild. Harald’s runty lust remains one of his most characteristic weaknesses, so we’ll see what that means for the unstable détente.
- Dean Ridge’s Magnus continues his similarly twerpy wannabe quest to prove himself a true Viking. Harald’s announcement that he has teamed up with this heretofore-unknown “son of Ragnar” elicits only smattered applause from the people of York, while Magnus’ back-slapping greeting of his supposed big brother Bjorn is also greeted with indulgence rather than enthusiasm.
- Upon finding out at Alfred’s bedside that Elsewith is pregnant, Judith demands, “You must not lose this child!” No pressure, mother-in-law.
- Bjorn’s goodbye praise to former wife and mother of his children Torvi might hinge on, essentially, “you didn’t ever make too big a deal of me cheating and abandoning you,” but it’s sort of sweet nonetheless. The way the brutish Bjorn leans in to whisper a heartfelt “Thank you” before leaving (with Gunnhild) is about as affectionate as Bjorn gets these days.