While Ragnar Lothbrok sleeps, things fall apart. Grievously wounded in the successful siege of Paris at the end of last season, Ragnar slipped into a coma once he returned to Kattegat. Or, if not a coma, a fevered sleep prone to visions where a hearty Ragnar spies the gates of Valhalla across verdant fields—and bellows in rage and sorrow when the massive, ornate gates slam slowly but irrevocably shut before he can enter. Introduced in Vikings’ very first scene as a young unheralded warrior, he saw—or imagined he saw—Odin, bearing dead warriors up to their reward. Now he’s a king, conqueror of great cities and the strongest leader his people have ever known, and, in his mind, the gods refuse him.
For the first half of “A Good Treason,” Ragnar sleeps, and his extended kingdom falters on all fronts in his absence. In the conquered Paris, brother Rollo, left behind to secure the Frankish lands, has seemingly turned on his brother (again), accepting Emperor Charles’ offer of a dukedom—and his haughty daughter Gisla’s very unwilling hand in royal marriage. In Hedeby, Lagertha’s unstable position as deposed Earl Ingstad remains perilous, as the usurping Kalf proposes they share the earldom (and his bed), angering the glowering Einar, who had helped Kalf take over. And in Kattegat, Queen Aslaug rules imperiously in Ragnar’s stead, with a returning Bjorn assuming the responsibility of reminding the people of his father’s glories—and ordering the arrest of Floki for the murder of Athelstan. So when Ragnar finally stirs, hobbling into a celebratory feast with the help of a wooden staff and asking for news, he greets each revelation with his signature guarded expression—and begins to plan.
That’s a lot for this first episode to lay out, and there’s some tinny exposition along the way. Alexander Ludwig’s ever-earnest Bjorn takes most of the hit, his rousing speech to the people of Kattegat (who gather up the Frankish booty tossed out to them) larded with prosaic details about Ragnar’s condition and the murder of Athelstan. (“Ragnar himself has always shown his gratitude to those who have trusted and believed in him. For example, his loyal friend the English monk Athelstan. Who helped him to understand many things.” That “for example” is rough.) Similarly, over in Hedeby, Einar and Kalf’s rupture comes to us in the form of helpful reminders (“It was my family who made you Earl”). Last season, Vikings did overextend itself, just as, perhaps, Ragnar’s forces did, and there’s a lot of table-setting going on in “A Good Treason.” But, when Ragnar awakens, things tighten—even if the weakened, ever-watchful Ragnar doesn’t appear to do very much at all.
Travis Fimmel’s performance as Ragnar Lothbrok is Vikings. As uniformly outstanding as are Kathryn Winnick’s Lagertha, Clive Standen’s Rollo, and Gustaf Skarsgård’s Floki (and George Blagden’s sadly departed Athelstan), the world of Vikings is truly vital when we feel Fimmel’s Ragnar is driving the story. Here, when Ragnar learns of Bjorn’s typically blunt efforts to replicate his father’s leadership, Fimmel betrays Ragnar’s disappointment in his son deftly, taking the wind out of Bjorn’s sails with a few sentences. (“Did you also think that if I wanted him arrested I would have done it a long time ago. Now you have made it public and left me with no options. Now I am forced to deal with my errant friend.”) But, even when compounded upon learning it was Bjorn’s choice to leave Rollo behind in Paris (“He is my uncle!” “He is my brother. And I know better”), Ragnar’s disappointment is, in Fimmel’s expressions, tinged with so much—anger, certainly, but also an exasperated sadness that his strapping son seemingly lacks the foresight Ragnar knows he will need to survive. Bjorn senses it, too, and his later decision to go on a winter-long walkabout to prove himself to his father sees father and son expressing a great deal while, characteristically, saying very little of substance. Ragnar’s parting advice, “Watch for fresh snowdrifts, and what’s pissing in front of you as well as behind you” is all the more affecting for how pragmatic it appears, but his three-word goodbye, “Prove me wrong,” reminds Bjorn of what he lacks in his father’s eyes. As in Vikings’ best moments, it’s terse and understated, and all the more powerful because of it.
Vikings works best in such moments, less well when characters are required to explain themselves. Part of that is simple linguistics—creator Michael Hirst’s choice to have the Norse signal their otherness with a vague accent has always sapped the vitality from long speeches, making the choice of Fimmel as lead so invaluable. With the wrong actor, Ragnar’s knowing glances and enigmatic smiles would be an insufferable storytelling crutch. In Fimmel’s performance, we’re always fascinated, always guessing. It’s a function of Vikings, too, that each season plays out like Ragnar’s gambit—both on his adversaries and the viewer—and it takes someone with the ability to sell the premise that, indeed, Ragnar Lothbrok is smarter than both that keeps the show’s gamesmanship viable.
In the scene where Ragnar visits the imprisoned Floki, he and his longtime friend make their cases in few words (Floki claims the gods’ will makes his act righteous, while Ragnar suggests he has a more personal motive), all while Ragnar deliberately scratches a circle in the dirt around the post where Floki sits chained (a striking overhead shot from episode director Ciarán Donnelly). Walking away, the shivering Floki yells, “Are you going to kill me?,” and when Ragnar looks back, his expression betrays nothing while suggesting every possibility. Fimmel’s that good, is what I’m saying, those striking blue eyes able to dance with menace or with mischief, all while remaining steady on a far prize he’s not prepared to share with us. (Fimmel has a few little bits of comic business tonight as funny as anything I’ve seen on TV this year—his eye-roll and flop back onto his sickbed when son Ubbe mentions the queen conveying how Ragnar will always find something amusing in the chaos.)
Away from Kattegat, both main stories (thankfully, we seem to be leaving the limp intrigues of Wessex aside for now) overcome the lack of Ragnar by concentrating on Rollo and Lagertha’s Ragnar-like mystery. In Hedeby, Ben Robson’s Kalf seems, at first, to have the upper hand, luring Einar and his men around a central post so they can vote to exile Lagertha from what had been her earldom. When he orders his men (including ally Erlendur, son of the dead King Horik) to shoot all the dissidents down with the shiny new Frankish crossbows they’ve brought back from Paris, it’s yet another twist in the Kalf-Lagertha saga that struggles for our attention. Robson’s Kalf just isn’t a formidable-enough antagonist—or romantic match—for Winnick’s Lagertha. As impressively sneaky a trick as he pulls here, sneering smugly as his archers do his bloody bidding, he’s not a strong enough presence to pose a lasting threat. Still, when Lagertha expresses her pleasure with a steely smile, Kalf does go up in our estimation a bit, although the real steel belongs to Lagertha, who gives the final coup de grâce, castrating the dying Einar before giving a grim nod back at Kalf. Before his smirk returns, Kalf looks a little worried at Lagertha’s unreadable face, streaked with her enemy’s (penis) blood. He should—as Einar is just the latest man to find out, attempting to cross Lagertha does not end well.
Echoing through the rest of the episode, that ambush culminates in another when Rollo, informed of an impending mutiny of half his forces still loyal to Ragnar, rides to the Viking camp outside Paris. Greeted by the stalwart Eirik (Cillian O’Sullivan)—who had reported the revolt to him in the first place—Rollo, like Kalf, gives the sign, and a horde of hidden Frankish bowmen cut down every man, woman, and child in the camp, including Eirik and his family. All the while, Rollo sits on his horse and says nothing, even as the enraged Eirik attempts to lead a broken shield wall of warriors against the shockingly powerful bolts, dying with the imprecation on his lips, “Ragnar is coming! Ragnar will revenge us.”
If Travis Fimmel is the exemplar of the perfect actor matched with a fascinating character, then Clive Standen is the perfect actor to keep a badly conceived character alive. Rollo has gone through so many changes, so many betrayals and epiphanies, that he should be deeply dull by now, but Standen makes Rollo’s contradictory impulses as fascinating in their own way as Fimmel makes Ragnar’s magnetic purposefulness.
For one thing, the idea of “Duke Rollo” hulking uneasily around the silk-lined castle in Paris makes for some great comedy, Standen making Rollo’s discomfiture a series of subtly hilarious gestures. Villainous Count Odo called him “a bear” (in keeping with the Seer’s prophecy that “a bear will marry a princess”) when he saw him in battle, and now that he’s a bear in fine clothes among scuttling courtiers he can’t understand, Rollo’s every interaction is pretty delightful. At his wedding to the horrified Gisla (Morgane Polanski), Rollo idly fingers the presiding Bishop’s cross while he waits, and goes through with the ceremony to his weeping bride with the barest hint of chagrin at her distress. Still, after angrily smacking away the servant trying to hand the half-naked Rollo an ornate nightshirt in the wedding chamber, he regards Gisla’s spitting contempt for the nobleman who’d carried her bodily there with amused respect, and greets his new wife’s icy, frightened stare with a little shrug of attempted rapprochement. We’ve seen Rollo the rapist before, but his behavior with Gisla—who, by custom, has no say in the matter—is deferential, even when she pulls a hidden dagger on him rather than submit to the “monster” who’s now her husband. Laughing, he turns his back to go to sleep, leaving the nonplussed Gisla still armed and unmolested. (Polanski holds her own here, making Gisla’s sorrow and her formidable strength affecting—even if there’s an element of “But, I thought you were going to ravish me” cliché in her final confusion.)
So Rollo’s final act of the episode, while seeming to confirm that his latest betrayal of his brother is no ruse, partakes of some of Ragnar’s compelling unknowability. Watching his friend Eirik (he’d been genuinely happy to see him when Eirik came to the palace) die in the mud at his feet, this is a Rollo whose plans, for a change, hold as much interest as Ragnar’s.
- “You’re awake!” “Nothing gets past you, Ubbe.”
- “Do you want to be king one day?” “Of course father.” “Yes? Yes? Well then get me some ale.”
- Other housekeeping in the premiere: Bjorn finds out that Porunn has left Kattegat, and that their little daughter is in the care of the queen. There’s a new slave girl (Dianne Doan)—who appears to be of Asian extraction—in Kattegat, and she has caught the queen’s eye, and Ragnar’s. Little Ivar (James Quinn Markey) is hale and happy, being rushed around the town in a custom wagon by this brothers. (He let’s out an adorable little war cry to greet Bjorn, presaging his historical fate as the warlike “Ivar The Boneless.”) Also, Bjorn pores over a map he took back from Paris, telling little brother Ubbe, “It is my destiny.”
- When he returns, Bjorn helpfully runs down his younger brothers names for us: Ubbe, Hvitserk, Sigurd, and Ivar. (Not counting the infant Magnus over in Wessex, who Princess Kwenthrith claims is Ragnar’s son as well. No offense to the li’l guy, but I’m in no hurry for that story to get picked up any time soon.)
- As for the queen, Auslag continues her ambitious ways, consulting John Kavanagh’s Seer about the prophecy that a woman will rule Kattegat, and casting nothing but sidelong glances to signal her turn toward outright villainy. Having never been sold on Alyssa Sutherland’s Aslaug, her seeming function as one of this season’s main antagonists isn’t especially encouraging, her constant snakelike gaze suggesting a coarsening rather than deepening of the character. We’ll see.
- And we’re back for season four of Vikings, everyone. Thanks for reading. I always forget how fun it is to jump back into this show’s world, so I look forward to sharing it with you. Now, all together—SHIELD WALL!