The two journeys of “Two Journeys” point Vikings toward an end and a new beginning. Ragnar’s doomed raid on Wessex finds just he and Ivar—the king in beggar’s robes and the cripple, dragging himself through the dirt—in front of King Ecbert’s gates, Ragnar’s hands spread in surrender. Bjorn’s much more formidable plan to explore and plunder the Mediterranean sees him in command of 60 of Floki’s new ships, with King Harald and his men at his command, now alongside his traitorous uncle Rollo. Each man, father and son, ends the episode looking ahead, but only Ragnar, as powerless as he seems, evinces confidence, Travis Fimmel whipping out once more that inscrutable, burning-eyed gaze. Meanwhile, the mighty Bjorn, having just humbled Rollo with a near-fatal keel-hauling in return for Rollo having briefly imprisoned him and his men, cannot summon any such resolve. Alexander Ludwig, as ever, shows how Bjorn’s emotions will register on his face, no matter how much he’d like to be like his father. Or how much we need him to be.
This season is setting up for a world without Ragnar Lothbrok, a prospect fraught with all manner of challenges, and worries. For one thing, Travis Fimmel has been a revelation as Ragnar, imbuing the character of farmer turned reluctant king with an unpredictable soulfulness that has elevated the period action from the very start. But for another, Vikings’ storytelling has been filtered through that performance, Ragnar’s hooded depths and intentions supplying—not to slight the rest of the uniformly solid cast—much of the series’ appeal.
When we met Ragnar (and Vikings), things were simpler, and more in line with what we expected a show about Vikings to be. Ragnar was the antihero, Fimmel’s glinting, eerie eyes and playful dangerousness always drawing us to him as he navigated, then overcame, his society’s limits. Watching him gradually fall, until he and his one damaged son are presenting themselves to Ragnar’s enemy in seeming surrender, is to watch Vikings transform itself. It’s as jarring as it is compelling, mainly because it seems to signal that Ragnar Lothbrok is entering his inevitable endgame. Sure, Ragnar once literally popped out of his own coffin to snatch victory from apparent defeat in Paris, but that was then. Now, we have a Ragnar who halfheartedly asks his friends and loved ones to return to Wessex with him, only to hurl his accumulated treasure to the dregs willing to raid with him on the three measly ships he begs from Bjorn. He questions the existence (or at least the influence) of the gods to Floki, and does so again here to Ivar. He seeks to hang himself, seemingly on a whim, and shrugs it off when the attempt fails, trudging on his way. Now he trudges, exhausted and unarmed, into the arms of his enemy. Once more, Fimmel makes Ragnar’s visage a fascinating, unreadable mask as he prepares for his next move. But this time, there’s the very real sense that he knows he will not be coming back.
Conquering, as Ragnar expresses repeatedly, is far less fulfilling (and, for us, exciting to watch) than ruling. And Bjorn’s quest to explore (and, yes, conquer) should revive the former Vikings thrill of the clash of cultures, and forces. That it doesn’t isn’t Ludwig’s fault. In fact, I think he remains a canny choice for Bjorn. Ragnar was our way into this world—in fact, he conquered it for us. His son, no matter how brave or victorious, will never live up to his father’s name. Bjorn’s face shows this in every important moment. Too much doubt lives there, and too much softness, no matter how well Ludwig can set his jaw and glower fearsomely, as when he confronts Rollo for the first time tonight. (He also has a flash of Ragnar-like physicality, impatiently gesturing to the Frankish cartographer while he waits for the now bilingual Rollo to translate.) Following the eldest son of Ragnar Lothbrok as he seeks both to live up to, and surpass, his father isn’t a bad way to go narratively, either.
The question is whether a diffusion of the show’s central focus on Ragnar Lothbrok will sustain the series without him. Not counting the questionable Magnus, Ragnar has five sons ready to fight for glory—and our attention. Like Bjorn, they’re all competently cast and energetically played, even if they all appear more limited to one or two characteristics apiece at this point. As seen tonight, it’s Lagertha’s world (and series) to win, something she does most ably as she and her warriors appear poised to make good on her threat to Aslaug last episode by conquering Kattegat. If Fimmel’s steely charisma has been Vikings’ chief asset, then Katheryn Winnick’s similar magnetism has never been far behind, and Lagertha’s ice-cold execution of her plan sees Earl Ingstad striding with singular resolve as she cuts through her former homeland’s defenders on her implacable way to the woman who, she maintains, took what was hers. The raid sequence is a solid piece of staging, as Lagertha, Astrid, and their mixed-gender army come at the unsuspecting Kattegat from land, sea, and, with ally Torvi’s help, from inside (raining arrows down on the Kattegat warriors penned into the town square).
If it’s always been a fascinating mystery what’s going on behind Ragnar’s eyes, it’s been equally fascinating to take in the icy clarity of Lagertha’s will. Fighting every step of the way from her role as farmer’s wife, to shieldmaiden, to queen, back down to lover of unworthy men, then rising to ruler of her own earldom, Lagertha’s will is, in its own more straightforward way, just as impressive, and terrifying. As Aslaug, hearing the commotion and (unfortunately from a narrative sense) forewarned of the event by one of her dully convenient visions, unwraps a ceremonial sword and adorns herself in preparation to meet her foe, the outcome is not in much doubt. Aslaug—for all her pretensions to regality and mysticism—is no match for Lagertha, as a character or a queen. Lagertha’s decision to usurp her former rival has come on abruptly in the back half of this season, but Lagertha’s formidable resolve sells the idea that this long-awaited comeuppance has been her plan for a very long time, indeed.
Meanwhile, the twin journeys of Ragnar and Bjorn provide their own rewards. Bjorn’s unhappy reunion with Rollo—Bjorn needs Rollo’s permission to sail unmolested along the Frankish coast—brings Clive Standen back, which is always a plus. Rollo, decked out in finery and welcoming his former friends in fluent proto-French with wife Gisla and three happy children at his side, is clearly delighted in his role as nobleman. Still, his eyes flash with delight at the first sight of the Norse ships in his harbor, and, as he tells the furious Gisla about his plan to join Bjorn’s venture, “I cannot deny that part of myself that is still Viking, no matter how hard that I try.” Rollo’s conflict might be predictable—as much as anything about the inconsistently drawn Rollo can be—but Standen, as ever, makes his warring loyalties feel genuinely weighty. The Gisla-Rollo fight here is likewise prosaic (Gisla’s “This will probably be the end of us” is particularly lame), but Standen finds the right note of yearning in Rollo’s admission, “When you hear thunder it’s only thunder. But for me, it is still Thor beating his hammer,” to convince us of its truth.
As for Ragnar, his jagged path to Ecbert’s stronghold sees him subverting our expectations at every turn. Certainly that of his dozen or so remaining warriors, as he, after confiding to Ivar that the Frankish forces are undoubtedly hunting them, slaughters his own people in their sleep. (Along with the help of the deceptively deadly Ivar.) It’s shocking—although, considering what we have seen of Ragnar’s unpredictable and capricious planning so far, less shocking than it could be. All we know of this Ragnar is that his years of wandering have set him on a course to redress wrongs he has done. Apologizing to Lagertha, to Aslaug, to Floki, to his sons, always with the slaughter of the Wessex settlers preying on his mind, this Ragnar fixes his sights on avenging their deaths—even if his methods smack of randomness. As he tells the complaining Ivar while Ragnar carries him heavily through the Wessex fields, “All roads lead to the throne.” (“Sounds good,” says Ivar, “but it’s probably wrong.”) But he does, in the end, find his way to Ecbert’s gates, his exhausting labors taking Ragnar, finally, to the one, seemingly final place he must go.
Ragnar and Ivar’s relationship throughout ”Two Journeys” continues to be a source of affecting drama, and comedy. Ivar rages against his father for stripping away his custom-built leg braces, only for Ragnar to tell the boy, “You are special not in spite of your legs but because of them.” Then the intimacy of the moment is undercut when Ragnar responds to Ivar noting that he’d never heard Ragnar admit he was wrong before with a deadpan, “It won’t happen again, so enjoy it.” Later, as Ragnar confesses his lack of faith in the Norse gods, Ivar, carried like a sack of potatoes on his father’s shoulder, taunts him as a “good donkey,” and Ragnar obliges him with a tired little hee-haw in return. Like Ragnar’s journey to Wessex, the pairing of father and this particular son is a ramshackle affair, the randomness of their survival and their deepening intimacy something neither necessarily planned, but are finding more and more meaningful. At Ecbert’s gates, Ragnar hints at what is going to happen to them inside, telling the boy, “We made it. Once we get inside we will be separated. If you’re smart you will not be hurt. When I can I will find you.” There’s some intimation of a plan in place, but Ivar also suggests that the final outcome of his father’s journey is preordained. Alex Høgh draws a pause right after the word “hurt” (“So, I am going to watch you being… hurt? Sounds like a good plan”) that speaks both to the horrors contained in the word in this context, and his love for his father. When Ragnar urges Ivar to drag himself alongside, giving his son a kiss on the head, it’s testament to how complexly, strangely affecting their journey together has become.
- No one is more furious at Rollo’s betrayal than Floki, but he can still appreciate Rollo’s young son sticking out his tongue at him.
- Lagertha has built a whole female underground network, with Torvi bringing Margrethe to Hedeby in order to lure Ubbe and Sigurd away before the attack on Kattegat.
- The opening scene sees Ivar poking his seemingly drowned father to see if he’s alive. The way Fimmel snaps his annoyed “What?” without moving a muscle or shifting his eyes-open gaze is pure comedy.
- Similarly, Ragnar’s head-conk when Ivar teases him for “acting like a nurse to a cripple.”
- “I’m not going to stand around all day watching you try to be normal when you never will be… Once you realize that, that is when greatness will happen.”
- Another impressive aspect of Ivar and Ragnar’s relationship is how the show doesn’t downplay their brutality, even as we are drawn to their growing tenderness. Ivar, for example, really seems to enjoy killing the female warrior who tries to seduce him so he’ll spare her life.
- A word about aging on Vikings. While everyone in the cast is just as spry as ever in real life, they manage to convey the weight of years and of miles on their characters without ostentatious makeup. Sure, everyone’s accumulated some scar tissue, but the actors—Fimmel and Gustaf Skarsgård, especially—just have a way of carrying themselves as if their bones are tired. It’s impressive.
- I didn’t mention it last time, but Lagertha having a pet owl? Approved.
- Harald and Halfdan are still whiny frontrunners Bjorn should not—and undoubtedly doesn’t—trust as far as he can throw them. (Admittedly, Bjorn could probably throw them quite a way, but still.)
- We get a brief glimpse of the Wessex court once more, with Aethelwulf, Judith and a grizzled Ecbert debating the danger even a shipwrecked Ragnar poses. As ever, Linus Roache’s silky menace is most welcome.