Alexander Høgh, Katheryn Winnick (Photo: Bernard Walsh/History)

After the still-shocking death of Ragnar Lothbrok last week, his spirit haunts the Vikings, and Vikings. Opening on a haunting pull back from Ragnar’s abandoned Northumbrian grave, “Crossings” sees his ghost everywhere. Literally in Lagertha’s case, as she’s awakened in the night to see an indistinct figure standing in the shadows. Addressing him before we get the briefest glimpse of who’s there, Lagertha, a single tear working down her face, calls out, “I knew you would come my love. Enjoy Valhalla. You deserve it, but don’t forget me. Haunt me. Don’t leave me.” Presented as her fantasy or dream, the indistinct vision of someone actually standing there is, indeed, haunting.

Katheryn Winnick (Photo: Bernard Walsh/History)

At episode’s end, Bjorn and Hvitserk stand alongside Rollo, Harald, and Halfdan on a cliff after their first successful raid and look out over the famed Mediterranean. “This is further than our people have ever gone. Further than Ragnar dreamed,” says Bjorn, before he and his brother are distracted by a flock of ominous birds and both hear Ragnar’s prophecy from last episode, “How the little piggies will grunt when they hear how the old boar suffered.”* Back in Kattegat, brothers Sigurd, Ubbe, and Ivar separately are visited by the mysterious one-eyed man seen approaching last week, and told of their father’s death before he appears to Bjorn and Hvitserk on the cliffside. All are shaken.

So is Vikings. It’s perhaps inevitable to lay a lot of pressure on “Crossings” to present a unified, confident trajectory for a series without Ragnar Lothbrok at its center. And it‘s tempting to look at the fractured storytelling of this Rangar-less episode as a failure. It’s not one, although there are warning signs alongside the intriguing narratives on display here. For one thing, creator Michael Hirst seems to imagine that the way to make up for the gravitas Ragnar lent the show is to up the magic quotient, an element I’ve always found Vikings’ weakest. Vikings has excelled from the beginning in portraying a truly alien time and place, and the Norsemen’s belief in the gods (and prophecy, as exemplified by John Kavanagh’s snaky Seer) is part of that. But it’s dullest when those beliefs translates into more or less objective narrative fact—Aslaug is shown having the precise vision of Lagetha’s invasion of Kattegat that we see during Lagertha’s actual invasion of Kattegat, and my eyes glaze over. Vikings was the story of Ragnar Lothbrok’s ambition to lead his people past the raiding, and the shortsightedness—and, yes, the gods, eventually—that limited what he felt they could be. “Crossings” leans heavily on the gods (one-eye, played by André Eriksen and listed as “Black Cloaked Figure” may be intended to actually be Odin), while character motivations, for this episode at least, are shunted aside.

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Gustaf Skarsgård as Floki (Photo: Bernard Walsh/History)

Or, when they are not, those motivations spill out gracelessly, as when Floki and Helga have an abrupt argument aboard on of Bjorn’s raiding vessels. Gustaf Skarsgård has ever made Floki’s passionate belief in his gods a fascinating, sometimes frightening thing—and his fascination with the mosque he invades during the later raid rekindles that gleaming curiosity in a very interesting manner. But his doubts in between are both abrupt and prosaic. “I no longer know who I am, why I am here, what my purpose is. I feel like an empty vessel. I’m hollow. I need something to fill me up,” he explains, to which Helga replies that she wants another baby. This couple has always been a fiercely warm element of the series, but their conflict here is manufactured, leading to Floki’s possible infatuation with a new god, and Helga’s spontaneous desire to adopt a young girl whose parents are slain in the raid.

“Crossings” plays out as a sequence of choppy scenes, some quite effective. Alexander Høgh continues to make a bid for central status, Ivar’s seething fury at Lagertha and his eventual acceptance of Ragnar’s fate eliciting a pair of stirring, disturbing screams to the heavens. And the scene in which he challenges Lagertha to single combat over Aslaug’s death is stunningly staged, the adoring crowd gathered to applaud Lagertha’s plan to fortify Kattegat parting uneasily as Ivar drags himself toward the queen, aided by a pair of spikes (and some impressively booming synths). The coming showdown between Lagertha and Ivar—she turns him down because she says she does not want to kill a son of Ragnar—looms over the rest of this season, suggesting that only one of them will carry the Kattegat storyline from here. (Lagertha learns from the Seer that, yup, a son of Ragnar will someday kill her, so we’ll see how that plays out.)

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The other candidate to fill Ragnar’s boots is, of course, his eldest son, Bjorn, whose journey to discover this Mediterranean Sea finds him and his men sacking an unfortunate town on the Spanish coast. But Bjorn remains in Ragnar’s shadow, despite his similar drive to explore for its own sake, rather than entirely for treasure or glory. Partly, that’s a function of a son striving to live up to his illustrious father (and surpass him, as his incursion into uncharted waters tonight does). And part of it is that Alexander Ludwig isn’t Travis Fimmel, in bearing or ability. I’ve said before that that’s not a bad thing, necessarily—while Fimmel’s charisma made Ragnar’s triumphs more or less inevitable (until they weren’t), there’s real danger in King Harald and brother Halfdan’s mutinous grousing “I was just wondering if Bjorn Ironside is cursed like his father.”

Still, Ludwig’s natural blankness robs Bjorn of Ragnar’s agency, too. When his men slash their way through the town’s bazaar, he and brother Hvitserk kill a man together. There’s some sense that it’s the first time Hvitserk has killed, but Bjorn barely acknowledges the moment, simply wiping his sword blade on his armor and rushing on. Similarly, when the Vikings work their way through a mysterious building only to find a harem of cowering women, Bjorn’s impassive face while Hvitserk, Rollo, and the rest advance on the women with rape on their minds is a far distance dramatically from Ragnar’s. Rape on Vikings has generally been handled with a convenient remove. Ragnar never partook in the act that we saw—Hirst’s solution to keeping his hero palatable was always to have Ragnar off in pursuit of bigger things while his warriors did what Vikings were stereotypically known to do. Here, Bjorn advances with the others—including Hvitserk, his heretofore open, boyish face twisted by ugly greed— before the scene cuts away. (Rollo the married Frankish nobleman spares but a moment to grin sheepishly before joining in.) Meanwhile, Vikings employs the strategy of having some characters behave even worse in order to take the edge off the protagonists’ actions, as Harald and Halfdan sadistically cut a woman’s throat in front of the young girl that Helga comes to save.

Ludwig’s best moment comes at the end of the episode, his face fighting for control as he hears Ragnar’s words seemingly in the air. Standing at the edge of the sea only he truly believed they would ever reach, he is literally on top of his people’s world. It’s up to Ludwig and Vikings to prove that he deserves to be there.

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Stray observations

  • *Yup, I heard this wrong last week, as some of you pointed out. I thought Ragnar was responding to Aelle’s religious taunting by saying a raspy “heaven is what” rather than “how the.” Much clearer here. Apologies.
  • Rollo, swaggering breezily in a sleeveless shirt even on the raid, is clearly relishing his time back with the Norsemen, and away from his family and responsibilities.
  • While the bond between Ragnar and Lagertha has always been unquestionable, the last few episodes have seen Lagertha turning her own ambitions over to the desire to fulfill Ragnar’s dreams. (Or what she imagines them to be.) We’ll see how this plays out, but Lagertha is a woman whose post-Ragnar existence has been one, uninterrupted string of ambitious victories that saw her earl of her own land. Winnick’s still great, but Lagertha’s character is turning disappointingly narrowed of late.
  • Still, Lagertha’s not wrong when she tells Astrid, “Ragnar hated ruling. It weighed him down. Perhaps it even killed him.” She always was a better daily administrator than he was.
  • Ecbert, for all his haunted looks and tearful goodbyes to his friend Ragnar, reverts back to the cocky, blithe security of kingship. (He also seems to be getting a little dotty as he dotes over Alfred’s education.) Convinced as he is that Ragnar kept his word to blame his death on Aelle (he did not), he yet allows son Aethelwulf to beef up Wessex’s defenses in preparation for the sons of Ragnar’s return.
  • “I don’t want to kill you.” “Who says you would kill me?” “I do.”
  • Similarly, I’m not sure how Floki’s fascination with Islam is going to work out, but the sequence where he weaves, ignored and incredulous, through the praying men in the mosque is mesmerizing.
  • “Where are their gods? I can’t see any. And yet they’re praying with such passion.”
  • The slimy Halfdan shows no such compunctions, peremptorily lopping off one worshipper’s head before Floki orders an end to the violence.

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