Gustaf SkarsgĂĄrd, Travis Fimmel (Photo: Jonathan Hession/History)

Toward the end of “The Outsider,” Ragnar’s four youngest sons contemplate their father’s unexpected return to Kattegat. The most resentful of the four, Sigurd, dismisses his brothers’ opinions of their famous father, pronouncing, “Our father is defeated. All the magic of his past raids and successes was also lost. Nobody loves him any more.”

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As Vikings returns for the second half of this extended fourth season, the question of Ragnar’s true place—in Kattegat, in the lives of his family and friends, in history, and in Vikings itself—is very much in the air. The cliffhanger of Ragnar’s return in “The Last Ship” was less what Ragnar Lothbrok’s next move was, and more who Ragnar is now. We—and his people—had come to expect that King Ragnar was always several steps ahead, Travis Fimmel’s indelibly enigmatic performance lending credence to the idea that Vikings’ protagonist saw the big picture that others couldn’t, or wouldn’t. But Ragnar spent the first half of this season playing the fool until he became the fool. Dallying with Yidu and her mysterious Chinese medicines, Ragnar walked and talked like the cagy Ragnar of old, but, when it came down to it, he really was as lost in his role of leader and king as he pretended to be. Coming back to Kattegat after years of wandering, he confronts his now-grown sons with the the question he’d been asking himself—“Who wants to be king?”

“The Outsider” sets up a world (and a series) without Ragnar, and Fimmel. This Ragnar is dirty, restless, and, as we see in a shocking scene late in the episode, tired of the life he’d always embraced so lustily. Spotting a crooked, majestic tree on his ride from Lagertha’s earldom back to Kattegat, he attempts to hang himself, an abrupt jolt more puzzling for how it’s initially presented as if it were Ragnar’s fantasy. (Slow-motion, symbolic ravens, and all.) Since returning to his kingdom, Ragnar’s been this wandering shadow of himself, as if the Ragnar that returned is not the Ragnar who left. Refusing to see his Queen, he gathers his sons to explain that his goal is to return to England to avenge the slaughter of the Wessex settlers, watchful of their various responses. (Bjorn, still poring over the map he found in Paris, announces his intention to sail to this Mediterranean, eyes glowing with the promise of “wonderful places.”) He visits Floki and Helga, impishly stealing up on Helga from behind, and marvels at Floki’s improved boat design (“I forced my mind to contemplate the ideal boat,” says Floki), before learning that the boats are promised to Bjorn. “It’s fitting. In an annoying way,” smiles Ragnar. And when he departs, the two old friends share a touching intimacy. Gustaf Skarsgård registers Floki’s emotions in response to Ragnar’s unexpected “I love you,” his face dancing with gratitude and just a hint of his familiar, mad giggle, before he gathers himself to boom out “I love you too, Ragnar Lothbrok!” as his friend walks away.

But before that, Ragnar had gently rebuffed Floki’s talk of them finding each other in Valhalla, a profound self-doubt that carries over to his visit to his former wife, now the Earl of Hedeby, and possessed of a fierce female lover in Josefin Asplund’s Astrid. Rebuffed when he asks Lagertha to join him in Wessex, Ragnar says of his absence, simply, “I was no longer interested in ruling any more.” There, Ragnar tickles around Lagertha’s new relationship (Fimmel, as ever, does magnificent work with lifted brows and body language) before confiding to Lagertha, “I regret what happened between us. I have made many bad choices.” Fimmel and Kathryn Winnick, as ever, are a formidable match, regardless of their characters’ separation, as Lagertha consoles her former husband without letting him off the hook entirely. “We all approved of your ideas, but they didn’t work,” she says, clear-eyed, “Ragnar Lothbrok didn’t succeed.” Their parting kisses—his tentative, hers far less so—serve to reinforce how strong a bond they retain, and how powerfully Fimmel and Winnick express it with everything they do. Their exchange here could be too much. Instead, it’s deeply sad and affecting. (“Forgive me for all of my faults. All of my failings.” “No regrets. And yet. Every regret.”)

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Josefin Asplund, Katheryn Winnick (Photo: Bernard Walsh/History)

After failing to kill himself—Fimmel making Ragnar’s exasperated disappointment at the snapped rope a little masterpiece of physical comedy—he returns to his kingdom in the middle of the night. There he finds Alex Høgh’s Ivar sitting in Aslaug’s throne and joins him, finally taking his kingly place in the abandoned dark of the night. The episode constantly cuts between Ragnar’s wanderings and Ivar’s, drawing them both as the outsider of the title. For Ivar, crawling nimbly through the dirt, his useless legs trailing behind him always, resentment dogs his every labored motion. The son of a king, he is yet a cripple—something unheard of for the Norsemen, his life only spared because Ragnar saved him from the fate of all such unfortunate Viking infants. His brothers attempt to include him—and Ivar proves himself surprisingly adept at physical combat as they spar and taunt each other in the woods—but Høgh, with his pale, darting eyes, registers their well-meaning condescension with glimmering resentment. When Ragnar first returns to Kattegat, he challenges his sons to kill him by name, but has only a pat on the head for Ivar. And Aslaug, seen here rolling her eyes at Ivar’s creepy public advances to slave girl Margrethe (Ida Marie Nielsen), continues to countenance her son’s sadistic streak (first seen when the young Ivar bashed a playmate’s brains out).

As Vikings moves forward, Ragnar’s end approaches. Historical record aside, this scarred, ragged Ragnar Lothbrok is not the ambitious explorer and conqueror of old. Instead, his desire to return to Wessex appears to emerge from the burden of regret he carries with him here. Aslaug rules placidly in his absence, Kattegat having become a prosperous trading center. Bjorn carries on the legacy of his father’s explorer’s soul, with dreams of discovery and adventure. Sons Ubbe, Hvitserk, and Sigurd stand uncertainly as they try to determine their paths forward, and their relationship to their long-absent father. In the end of the episode, it’s Ivar (a.k.a. Ivar the Boneless) who looks to take up his father’s mantle, a compelling development, considering who Ivar is in “The Outsider.”

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Alex Høgh as Ivar the Boneless (Photo: Bernard Walsh/History)

Høgh is a canny choice for Ivar, his hooded, creepy stare and ready smirk marking him out as the archetypical coddled bully (think Joffrey), but his easily wounded countenance admitting enough humanity to keep him just this side of relatable. This even after the disturbing scene where—after failing to lose his virginity to Margrethe, procured for him by his brothers—he attempts to strangle the young woman to hide his shame. Unlike Game Of Thrones, Vikings’ approach to the often predatory and matter-of-fact sexuality of its brutal world is rarely exploitative, but this sequence comes close—at least at first. The sight of the deceptively muscular Ivar mounting this powerless girl from behind and pulling a cord around her throat while she begs for mercy recalls some of Thrones’ ugliest excesses, Ivar’s sneering “I like killing” seemingly signalling the series’ embrace of an out-and-out psychopath track for the character. It’s only when Margrethe manages to soothe Ivar’s rage with a speech equal parts canny and blunt does the dynamic shift.

The gods? What does it matter to them? They know the truth and they will laugh at you for being such a coward. So your prick doesn’t work. Does that make you less of a man? No it doesn’t. Lots of men can have sex. Lots men can have children. Those things are easy. To be a son of Ragnar Lothbrok and to find greatness that is hard. I truly believe that.

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When we first saw this grown Ivar in “The Last Ship,” he was contemptuous of his father’s deception about the fate of the Wessex settlers, saying “It was a waste of time. They were dead. Ragnar wanted to sail to Paris. He wanted to be famous. Isn’t that more important?” But throughout this episode, we see how Ivar, always observing, collects fragments of the identity he is to assume. Sparring with his brothers, he shows he’s a match for their skills, even while seated on a stump. But he also sees how they don’t take his abilities seriously (even after he whizzes an arrow and an axe tauntingly close to their heads). Spying on his brothers—all of whom have been sleeping with the seemingly complacent Margrethe—he imagines that joining in sexually will make him truly one of them. When he can’t, his fury is irrational, but understandable in its thwarted desperation. Plus, sure, Ivar’s always been something of a little prick. (It’s clear that Margrethe—as a slave, completely powerless—is set to join Vikings’ long line of strong women who find their own strategies to thrive in a society where their roles are prescribed for them.) Emboldened by Margrethe’s words, Ivar later scolds his brothers, “None of you deserves our father,” his own restless search for identity seeing him adopt the stance of the one true heir to Ragnar’s legacy.

But Ivar—confiding in Ragnar that only he ever dared sit in Ragnar’s empty throne when no one was looking—finally finds his truth in Margrethe’s words, telling Ragnar off for abandoning him, and laying claim to being his one son willing to undertake the journey to Wessex. Høgh and Fimmel find a lovely, prickly rhythm here, Ivar’s feigned shock at being invited (“What use is a cripple on such a journey?”) eliciting Ragnar’s playfully dismissive, “Ehhh, so don’t come.” In the end, father and son, slouching alone on their thrones in the empty hall, stare off into a future as uncertain as it is promising in Vikings’ assured return.

Stray observations

  • “The Outsider” does a fine job in reintroducing Ragnar’s sons, several scenes integrating an unobtrusive roll call so we can discern their individual characteristics. Jordan Smith’s Ubbe is watchful and emotional, his conflicted soul seeing him first challenge Ragnar upon his initial return, and then quailing as Ragnar pulls him in for an embrace. (He also calls out Ivar for slimily groping Margrethe at table, and later asserts that she must agree before they give her to Ivar.) Marco Ilsø’s Hvitserk thus far seems the most placid of the four, looking to older brother Ubbe for his lead. And David Lindstrom’s Sigurd is the most openly contemptuous, his runty resentment only enhanced by how much the actor looks like Brendan Sexton III’s bully in Welcome To The Dollhouse.
  • Bjorn, meanwhile, is Bjorn, strong and mopey, telling the nursing Torvi, “Everything was always what he wanted. Everything was always for him. Those days are gone.”
  • Consulting John Kavanagh’s Seer (whose added some unappealing lip-crust to his already unsettling countenance), Bjorn is told Ragnar’s return brings, “calamity, discord, tragedy, chaos, and death.” Always a pip, that Seer.
  • Astrid and Lagertha’s relationship is introduced with some truly impressive wrestling practice, a no-nonsense display of martial prowess only halted when Lagertha gains the painful upper hand and informs Astrid, enigmatically, “I want you to be ready. You won’t be ready until you put some doubt in my mind.”
  • Astrid teases Ragnar about his advancing age, claiming, “I think my wet nurse was a little in love with you.” Ragnar: “When can I meet her?”
  • Startling Helga with a pinch on the bum, Ragnar says, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” When she asks, “Are you a ghost?,” he responds, mischievously, “Perhaps I am.”
  • Welcome back to the A.V. Club’s Vikings reviews, everyone. And, of course, SHIELD WALL!

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