When Ragnar and Rollo’s confrontation comes, it’s a stunner. Fleets of ships, strategy and counter-strategy, flames, blood, grievous injuries to major characters, the long-anticipated showdown between brothers. A Frankish victory, a Viking defeat.
And then Bjorn fishes in the waters back home in Kattegat. Aslaug calls him in to the more-ornate-than-ever royal hall to hear a messenger tell both of the existence of Ragnar’s supposed son Magnus over in Wessex, and the long-ago massacre of the Norse settlers there. Asking to speak to the king, the messenger is told that Ragnar has been missing for years, ever since the defeat in Paris. “How could such a man just disappear?,” the messenger asks. How, indeed?
In a strong season that’s nonetheless progressed on a seemingly predictable track, this leap forward in time serves to remind us both of how Vikings is very much about the inexorable sweep of history, and how the series, at its best, is unafraid to get swept along with it. After the massive battle scene between the Frankish and Viking forces on the river to Paris, with the Norsemen in retreat but still seemingly a viable force, we expect the setback is only a prelude to Ragnar Lothbrok’s next move. But, instead, it’s his only move, and we pick up back in Kattegat. Alyssa Sutherland’s Aslaug rules, more secure and smugly happy than ever in her finery and opulent throne room, and Alexander Ludwig inhabits Bjorn as the strapping figure he’s been, but carries his manhood more securely in his strong bearing and more measured way of speech.
And Ragnar’s other sons are grown. The messenger says that Magnus, still a ward of King Ecbert, is 12 years old, meaning that some seven years have passed, and, when Bjorn tracks his brothers down at their hunting cabin, Ubbe, Hvitserk, Sigurd, and Ivar are all young men. When Bjorn tells them the news about Magnus and the settlers, their reactions vary, with the younger brothers resentful of their father’s abandonment and seeming betrayal. Ivar (now played by Alex Høgh, and his creepy gray eyes) is disdainful, scolding, “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?” When Ubbe (now Jordan Patrick Smith) speaks of fatherly love, Ivar snaps, “Who said I loved him, Ubbe? I admired him. He’s Viking.” Ubbe responds, “As his son, his fame does not interest me. What he used his power for, now that would interest me.” Finally, Bjorn responds simply, “I think what happened in Paris finally broke him. He was not a god, he was a man. A man with many dreams and many failings. Despite all his failings he’s still the greatest man in the world to me.”
It’s jarring to see these new versions of the sons of Ragnar, but, again, that’s something Vikings has done well. Unconcerned with our ability to keep up, it moves ahead. Time passes, deeds are remembered, or misremembered, or forgotten. Legends grow, or they fade, or they’re twisted by the people who come after. From the beginning of the series, we’ve followed Ragnar as he rose from lowly farmer to successful explorer and warrior, and finally to king and conqueror of Paris. Now, years after failing to take the city again, he’s gone, and the fascinating, thrilling, often disturbing deeds that formed the spine of his story to this point cast long shadows that will determine how it proceeds. In Ubbe and Ivar’s debate are echoes of the lessons Ragnar was always teaching Bjorn. Fame and power and what they truly mean. What’s important. Without him here, his legacy splits.
Ubbe, seen as a capable, thoughtful child this season, seems to favor his father’s wisdom, while Ivar, last seen being molded by his mother into a single-minded instrument of will and privilege and his Norse heritage, brushes off such concerns. The younger brothers sullenly stew in anger and confusion. Bjorn watches and, as we see when he visits Floki and Helga, plans to continue his father’s legacy by exploring the unknown. Like Ragnar with only the untried sunstone and rumors of land to the west, Bjorn has his purloined map that tells of a sea called Mediterranean. “I learned from my father the only way to tell if something is real is to sail there,” this Bjorn says, before asking Floki and Helga if they’ll come with him. Floki, older and seemingly calmer too (alongside Helga, fully healed), responds with “The lure of an imaginary land? Traveling somewhere that doesn’t exist? Of course I’m coming.” His laugh then isn’t the mad Floki we’d last seen, but the impish boatbuilder genius who we first met, devising new ships to help Ragnar go exploring. Lessons learned. Dreams continue. It’s warm, and lovely.
So when Ragnar reappears back in Kattegat, it’s abrupt mainly because the show seemed to be preparing us for a Vikings without him. Face badly scarred from his fight with Rollo, he saunters through a bazaar full of people, some clearly not Norse, indicating that the Vikings’ world has opened further in his absence. Only when heads turn and a murmuring crowd begins to follow Ragnar do we realize he’s known, and only when he is met by Ubbe, Hvitserk, Sigurd, and Ivar (defiantly crawling through the dirt on his crippled legs) do we understand that Ragnar’s come home. Travis Fimmel doesn’t give out much in Ragnar’s expression—there’s a hint of the clench-jawed tics we’ve seen grow more pronounced this season, but there’s also a steady suggestion of the fiery mischief in his eyes. This season has been energized by how little we know about Ragnar’s mind and intentions (even less than usual), and here, greeting his now-grown sons with smiling lips and cold eyes, we know even less, somehow. Fimmel makes Ragnar’s closing speech as riveting as he does because we don’t have any idea where it’s leading.
Hello Ivar, there is no mistaking you. It appears my return is not welcome. You have obviously made your mind up about me. So now boys, who’s going do it then? Who’s going kill me? I don’t mind. Go ahead. Please. What about you, Hvitserk? You think you’re a man now. I dare you put me out of my misery. Do it! Look at these people, they no longer support me. Why would they? What kind of king abandons his people? What kind of father abandons his sons? So who wants to be king? You know how this works. If you want to be king you must kill me. Take it. No? You? Who wants to be king!?
Ragnar is generally not seen at his best in long speeches, but here Fimmel is magnificent. (His little hesitation after the word “sons” is heartbreaking.) The first half of this extended season has seen Ragnar the king, stewing in regrets and ennui, his innate intensity left to curdle in bitterness and whatever he was up to with Yidu and her potions. (If that storyline isn’t explained more fully at some point, it will be a truly disappointing dead end.) Here, Ragnar’s a king, but dressed like a wanderer, and he’s more alive on screen than he’s been all season, our traditional cluelessness about his motives and plans only amplified by the time-jump and his long absence and sudden return. We still don’t know what his true motive was in returning to Paris—his seeming indifference to re-taking the city appeared to mask a need to confront Rollo, but who knows? We don’t know why he left his kingdom and his family, and we don’t know why he’s back. As he challenges seemingly the whole world to kill him here, Ragnar is more of a mystery at the end of this half-season than he’s ever been. In Fimmel’s sparking eyes, there’s the thrilling sense that Ragnar has a plan, that he’s learned some new lessons in his mysterious travels. As cliffhangers go, it’s as interior as it gets. Masterfully, “The Last Ship” leaves us needing to know just what those lessons were.
- I don’t mean to short-change the sea battle that takes up essentially the first half of the episode, as impressive an undertaking as the show’s ever attempted. We finally find out the purpose of those barges Ragnar had Floki make, as the floating battle platforms allow a stage for the major characters’ deeds to stand out. I especially like the decision to spotlight various characters with isolated slow-mo, in that it amps up the possibility every time that someone central was going to die. As it turns out, no one of importance seems to have—although Lagertha wasn’t looking good and her absence in the fast-forward teases her fate. If I have a complaint, it’s that the scope of the final battle seems too compressed to that one barge with all the main characters on it—once they are driven off, the battle’s won. That being said, as a lead-in to the unexpected time-jump it’s especially effective.
- Even until the end of his absolutely savage fight with Ragnar, I held out a tiny suspicion that Rollo had some swerve in store for his brother/the audience. (Honestly, I don’t know if that’s a function of character or how inconsistently Rollo’s been written over the years.) In the end, though, he’s Count Rollo, now and seemingly forever, crowned as “Caesar” by Emperor Charles once he makes his very unsteady way back into the city he’s saved. I’ve loved pretty much everything about Clive Standen’s performance this season, and, in irrevocably making his choice (and outthinking and outfighting his illustrious brother), Rollo’s finally found the glory and esteem he’s always envied in Ragnar.
- Still, Rollo’s still Rollo, gutting one of his men for suggesting the Franks retreat, and then delivering his own rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech, winning over his shocked troops to their eventual victory. “All of my life. And all of your lives have come to this point. There is nowhere else to be but here. Nowhere else to live or die but here. To be here now is the only thing that matters. So gather yourselves, gather all of your strength, and all of your sweetness into an iron ball, for we will attack again and again until we reach and overcome their king or we die in the attempt.” That “sweetness” is the sort of strange poetry that Rollo’s revealed from time to time over the years—it’s always surprising, and deeply affecting.
- Contrast that with Ragnar’s blunt, “Look at you! You look like a bitch!” when he sees Rollo in his Frankish finery.
- Not to be outdone, Gustaf Skarsgård delivers some prime Floki fury: “Rollo! Betrayer of the gods and of all the sacred things in Midgard! Come here you snake—come my way and let my axe slake its thirst on your blood. Come to Floki.”
- Oh, Charles has Roland and Therese murdered for being the transparently duplicitous snake-people they are. Lothaire Bluteau’s been fighting an uphill battle to make Charles a formidable character, but his self-awareness about his own past weakness (and him urging the battered Rollo to his feet before the adoring Paris crowd) are solid steps, should we return to Paris again.
- I’ve never been enamored of Vikings’ use of mystical elements in general. Here, at least John Kavanagh’s Seer is effectively creepy keening in horror as he, apparently, senses the tide of battle turn in faraway Frankia.
- What a great shot introducing Floki’s model ships. On the placid water, they look full-sized, only for Helga’s hand to reach down and snatch one up. It’s like a Terry Gilliam movie.
- Well, that’s it for the first half of this double-sized season of Vikings. Thank you all, as ever, for reading and participating in the conversation. ’Til next time, as ever: SHIELD WALL!