“Why does it have to be like this? In my dreams it was never like this.”
Harald Finehair is, indeed, a dreamer, in that he envisioned himself all his life—untrustworthy little runt that he is—as king of all Norway. One of Vikings’ canniest thematic through-lines has been what people’s dreams say about them. And us, for that matter. Harald, betraying, kidnapping toad that he is, has yet been capable of a lot of impressive (if not especially admirable) feats in his rise to power, but, like most who put the ambition cart before the perspective horse, he finds himself tetchy, alone, and unsatisfied on his throne in the former King Olaf’s land. Greeting Erik (sent by Bjorn with an urgent message about the fact that Ivar’s Rus pals are violently scouting in advance of a full-scale invasion), Harald summarily tosses Erik in jail, with plans for a morning execution. (He orders his men to toss cold water on Erik all night, just to be a dick.)
Luckily for Erik, Bjorn, and most likely all of Scandinavia, Olaf is still at large, since, as he puts it when confronting Harald, “You said one day I might say something wise for an old fool.” Steven Berkoff’s Olaf is, indeed, prone to apocalyptic rants when he’s not getting outsmarted by Harald, but the aged former king knows something about what holding to self-aggrandizing ambitions can do. He tells his captor (and uses Harald’s term for the scoundrelly former bandit Erik, “skógarmaðr,” which I’m going to incorporate into my vocabulary), “We are all skógarmaðrs. We all come from the forest!” Olaf shames Harald into agreeing to an alliance with Bjorn against their common foe, but only after Harald moans, “My greatest ambition, the purpose of my life, was to become king of all Norway. And now that I have achieved it, I don’t know why, why must I be dragged down, forced to rely on unpredictable allies who have already shown to be weak and unreliable?”
Peter Franzen’s always made Harald—sorry, King Harald—an entertaining sort-of villain, his preening strut always halting just a little with the unwanted knowledge that nobody around him sees the same glorious, fate-blessed warrior-king that he does when he looks in the mirror. As Bjorn Ironside wrestles with his own interpretation of his father’s vision for his people, Harald Finehair is Vikings’ portrait of one who believes that his self-determined fate is his due. As the Rus invasion (led now by Oleg, Ivar, and the rescued-from-freezing-to-death Hvitserk) advances with the retreat of the impenetrable winter, King Harald is learning that believing you’re destined to rule by divine right can only carry you to the throne, not teach you how to be a good and effective ruler.
As for Bjorn Ironside, eldest and most renowned son of Ragnar Lothbrok, it still remains to be seen how well—if at all—he’s to put his father’s admittedly cryptic advice into practice. Harald sneers at Erik’s reference to “King Bjorn,” and calls his rival “a failed king.” And he’s not wrong. We have yet to see Bjorn excel at anything but the martial aspects of leadership, his alternately bull-rushing and indecisive sulking persona unable to keep the throne of Kattegat in the face of Harald and Kjetill’s treachery. (And/or a nominally fair election, if you want to think of it that way.) Even his legendary reputation as Ragnar’s heir and a conqueror and adventurer in his own right is now proving inadequate, as it was queen Gunnhild whose own scolding was all that kept the Kattegat citizens from silently shuffling away when Bjorn asked for their continued fealty.
Bjorn’s feinted toward the sort of difficult moral decision-making his father struggled with, with mixed but not-insignificant result. Yes, the bandits (or skógarmaðr!) who he exiled rather than executing for their loyalty to Ivar ultimately cost him his mother and his young son, but it was the sort of boldness of thought that indicated Bjorn Ironside might have more going on in his head than it’s seemed in the past. Same goes for his decision to rescue Harald, a choice that was destined to bite him on the ass, but that he felt was simply the right and honorable—as opposed to expeditious—thing to do. But, in “Ressurection,” Bjorn—thanks to creator Michael Hirst’s seemingly unslakable thirst for sweaty period romantic intrigue—spends most of this pivotal interval wedding and bedding second wife Ingrid, while waffling stolidly over what first (and still-current) wife Gunnhild will think of him. Hesitantly abed with the pregnant Gunnhild on his wedding night to Ingrid, Bjorn sheepishly tells his queen, “I didn’t want to hurt you. I wasn’t sure.” To that, Gunnhild, channeling the viewer’s frustrations with this would-be king (and should-be series lead), responds, “I’m afraid that has been your failing. But now be sure. You have made a decision. Live with it. Believe in it. Otherwise how can I ever respect you?”
All of this talk of leadership necessarily forces us to assess just what Ragnar Lothbrok’s dream really was. Lagertha—while a better queen than Ragnar ever was a day-to-day king—ever maintained a more homely interpretation of her husband’s dreams, telling the dead Ragnar once she held a handful of the English soil ceded to the Norse that they had finally accomplished what he set out to do. For the Norse (and beyond), Ragnar’s rise to figure of legend is, in the way of all such stories, muddied and twisted into whatever form is necessary to prop up individual dreams and cultural identity. Aspirational, patriotic, inspirational, warning—Ragnar Lothbrok is, like all nation’s heroes, shaped by the dreams of others. As for the actual Ragnar (of Vikings on History, not incompletely sketched history), we, too, are left to interpret his dreams for himself and his people as we may. Travis Fimmel (and how good was it to see him, even in flashback, last week?) worked with Hirst to keep Vikings’ protagonist magnetically screened from our full view, his motivations often as thrillingly, infuriatingly opaque as they were to those around him. But what he told Bjorn on a cold and windy crag overlooking the kingdom he’d won so long before was as clear as it was self-excoriating.
Power is always dangerous. It attracts the worst, and corrupts the best. I never asked for power. Power is only given to those who are prepared to lower themselves to pick it up.
For men like Harald and Oleg (and Kalf, Horik, Borg, Sigvard, and lots more dead and forgotten would-be conquerors), power is, itself, the dream. Ambition, jumped-up with self-regard and a healthy dash of culture-fueled predestination fantasy led them, ultimately, to bloody defeat. (Really, horrifically bloody, if you’re Jarl Borg.) Of course, Ragnar Lothbrok wound up burned, tortured, and filthy in a snake-pit, but Vikings maintained that his vision of power was—at first, and complexly thereafter—ahead of its time. Indeed, ahead even of ours, as the simple farmer and warrior was presented as the one person in his society whose perspective offered him a view of something bigger, and more noble, even if he, too, was ultimately unable to escape the curse shared with his ever-falling foes that he was human, and, fatally, not immune to the failings of that condition.
Ragnar, in the end, lowered himself, lost himself, and lost his grasp on that elusive idea of what true visionary leadership could mean for him and his people. His fall turned Shakespearean, the flaws of a great man undoing him, while, even in his ultimate degradation and failure, we recoiled at the thought of his loss. And we’re still searching for glimpses of him in his sons, perhaps desperately looking for Vikings to hew once more to the slippery, admirable, half-expressed visions of a hero.
Ubbe has set his sights for “the golden land” to the west, his disillusionment in finding out that Oter, the legendary traveler who’d supposedly traveled there, was a fraud deterring him only for a moment. Ivar picks up the shivering Hvitserk in the forest outside Kattegat, whisks him back to Kiev, and introduces him to Oleg, the vainglorious would-be conqueror du jour, whose dreams of taking (or, in his mind, taking back) his ancestral home in Scandinavia smack of the bloody madness of men like Harald, whose self-aggrandizing vision of himself as hero will brook no other considerations. (Indeed, the episode ends with a May Day-style military parade, Oleg’s Rus forces arrayed on the Kiev ice like the Uruk Hai.) And Bjorn lolls with his now two queens, and frets, his bearlike fearsomeness stymied by the need to understand the world the way his illustrious father did.
- It’s during Torvi’s initially agonizingly troubled labor that Ubbe discovers Oter’s secret. He is actually a Christian missionary named . . . Athelstan. The monk’s story is that he met the real explorer Oter and took on his identity after the man died, but, in mental flashbacks (a baffling narrative choice concerning a character we’ve never met), we see he actually killed the real Oter.
- Still, he wants to go with Ubbe to find the golden land, something Ubbe is not at all sure about, especially since Kjetill’s gone to such trouble to conceal that Oter knew Floki. According to Athelstan/Oter, Floki left the failed Icelandic settlement “because he had no hope left for humanity,” gave Oter his and Helga’s wedding ring, and walked naked into the wastes. That’s more than we know of Floki’s fate, but jibes more with what we know of him than Kjetill’s shaky account.
- “Is your name really Athelstan? You have no idea what that name means to me,” says Ubbe, leaving us to wonder just what his father’s Christian friend really does mean to Ubbe.
- So far, the whole “new Athelstan” revelation feels awfully forced. We’ll see.
- Hvitserk undermines the series’ other supposed mysterious resurrection, telling Ivar that Katia, while certainly pretty and sort of forward, looks nothing like Freydis.
- Hvitserk seems to be taking to life back with Ivar in stride, in that he’s taken to gloating over having killed Lagertha (complete with maniacal cackle), and hopping blithely on board with Ivar’s various treacheries. Whether this is bad writing or some sort of long-term revenge plot by Hvitserk against the brother who burned Freya and her family alive remains to be seen.
- That said, the scene of the estranged brothers’ reacquaintance is handled with deft bro-humor. “You look like shit.” “What are you wearing?”
- Speaking of Ivar’s intrigues, that’s some sloppy, out-in-the-open secret plotting Dir’s messenger and Ivar engage in on the street right outside Oleg’s palace.
- Ragga Ragnars (yes, her real name) continues to work to make Gunnhild a character of substance, despite Bjorn’s bumbling infidelity. Telling off Erik (who dared compliment her seeming lack of jealously at Bjorn taking Ingrid as second wife), the queen says evenly, “You don’t know me well enough to pretend to know my feelings. They belong to me.” Later, she sheds one private tear after prodding Bjorn to leave her bed for Ingrid’s.
- Bjorn’s best moment is a silent one when, in the midst of debate about what to do about the Rus scouts, he impatiently starts flipping his hand axe in the air and catching it.