With Ragnar taking over as the new Viking leader upon his brutal deposing of Gabriel Byrne’s departed Jarl last episode, perhaps viewers would be afraid that Episode 7, “A King’s Ransom” would be taken up with the mechanics of his transition into his new office. Filing paperwork, HR seminars, that sort of thing. No fear, however, as the episode begins with Ragnar Lothbrok already leading another expedition across the sea in Northumbria. Sporting his new head tattoos and with a full three ships packed with warriors, Ragnar, exhibiting his, (and Vikings), signature no-nonsense approach to action, wastes precisely no time getting to the next battle.
Not that Vikings is action-happy, it’s just that its economy of storytelling is continually surprising, and entertaining. Whether its Ragnar’s healing wounds, Athelstan’s grown-in tonsure, or, in this episode, the sudden appearance of the Lagertha’s baby bump, which was first mentioned in the closing minutes of the last episode, this expositional shorthand is another refreshingly brisk narrative element in Vikings’ storytelling arsenal, and one that enlivens even the non-action scenes.
While Ragnar and his men confidently set up camp on British soil, the action shifts back briefly to their homeland, where Lagertha, now regal and pregnant, is presiding over the courts in her husband’s stead. Hearing an adultery case where a husband, not without probable cause, suspects his wife’s new baby may be the spawn of the hunky young traveller who shared their bed for a bit, Lagertha draws on the Norse belief system to proclaim that the probable father was, in fact, the god Heimdallr, that the baby is part divine, and that the husband had damned well better not ever harm the child or his mother. It’s a great scene for Katheryn Winnick: there’s no sense that she doesn’t know exactly what she’s doing here, and the underlying female solidarity theme is deftly integrated without being oversold. Again-economy of storytelling.
Then we’re back in Northumbria, where Ragnar’s incursion has thrown King Aelle into a burly, blustering tizzy. Sending his brother Lord Aethelwulf to confront the significantly smaller Viking force leads to yet another stupendous display of British overconfidence, as the supercilious lord, pronouncing the Vikings as “scavengers, little more than beasts” eschews a direct assault and gets utterly routed in the night by the wily Ragnar’s band. With their continued ineffectualness in battle, the Northumbrians could be seen as unrealistically feeble, but the show continues to lay out the circumstances of these encounters in such a way as to make sense. There are but few Vikings, they don’t have the Britons’ armor or weaponry (Rollo marvels at the superiority of the British steel), there’s every indication that Aethelwulf, for all his failures here, is a successful commander- it’s just that the Brits have simply never seen a people as resolute as these.
The Vikings’ goals are singular, and their methods implacable. As the King’s conference with his people (who alternately speculate that the Vikings are the devil’s emissaries and advise complete capitulation) and the clergy (who pull a Pat Robertson and lay blame on the Brits’ inadequate holiness for their misfortune) after news of his brother’s disastrous defeat reaches him shows, the Brits’ entire world is shattered in the face of an enemy so alien to them as to throw their entire worldview into question. It’s in this kind of convincing world-building that Vikings continues to excel.
Speaking of excelling, the episode’s two major battle scenes carry on the series’ tradition of smartly conceived, impeccably executed action sequences. Additionally, each sequence admirably uses what could be standard action scenes to further illuminate Vikings’ protagonist. Before the nighttime raid, Ragnar resists Rollo’s typically boneheaded exhortation to make a frontal attack, speaking about evening the odds and smiling that enigmatic Lothbrok smile. And then it’s night, and he’s leading his men in a slaughter. The same dynamic plays out again when the King tries his ill-advised double-cross, Ragnar mocking Rollo (“Attack, attack, attack- it’s all he says”), before waiting for the Brits to fall into some ingenious booby-trapping. In both scenes, we’re left in the dark as to just what Ragnar has in mind until he’s done it. We’re caught as off guard as his enemies and, unlike them, we can just sit back and marvel at his, and the show’s, clever economy. You know, without getting an axe in the head.
The best example of this comes when, having captured the King’s brother, Ragnar accepts Aelle’s invitation to dine and parlay…in the King’s stronghold. Rollo speaks for us when he points out that they, Viking prowess notwithstanding, don’t stand a chance if the King just decides to have them killed. Cue the Ragnar smile. The ensuing sequence had me actually giggling with admiration and anticipation, and it’s all about Travis Fimmel’s continued mastery of Ragnar’s character. Honestly, I had no idea how this encounter was going to play out, which is a welcome rarity when watching all but my favorite TV series: Ragnar’s approach to every dangerous situation thus far has been an inscrutable combination of shrewd planning and balls-out boldness, and this is the biggest test of that strategy so far. Coupled with the high comedy of the Viking/Northumbrian culture clash all through a tensely raucous dinner sequence (Floki stealing every scene, whether admiring the workmanship underneath the dinner tables, or throwing a hilariously sheepish look after he shatters his unfamiliar ceramic plate), I was as riveted here as with either bravura battle scene.
Also coming to the fore this week is Floki’s enduring antipathy towards all things Christian. Often relegated to reliable scene-thief, Gustaf Skarsgard’s flamboyant madman has flashed to life whenever confronted with the Christian trappings the Vikings encounter. That crests this week when Rollo offers himself up to be baptized as part of King Aelle’s negotiations: Of course, Rollo’s doing so only because he thinks it will put him in position to challenge his brother, but look at Loki’s face while Rollo gets dunked in the river. His shoulders hunched, Floki’s eyes burn with hatred. Floki increasingly functions as the avatar for the Norse religion: his visceral hatred of Athelstan’s beliefs spring from his understanding of the threat they hold to his people’s way of life, and this coming confrontation continues to gnaw at the edges of the drama. Look at the contrast here between Lagertha’s view of her religion (as a canny tool for conflict resolution and good governance) and the picture of the Northumbrian court (where Aethelwulf is caught unawares while praying, and where Aelle’s court descends into fractious religious squabbling rather than uniting against their imminent threat.) It’s not to say Vikings is advocating worship of the Norse gods: It’s just that Floki and Lagertha show how a society rooted in a more pragmatic, single-minded pantheon is much, much stronger. Just ask the devout, defeated Aethelwulf, anointed by the victorious, blood-soaked Ragnar with a bloody, mocking baptism of his own.
The Brits are a booming, blustery bunch. It’s a bit much, perhaps, but entertaining nonetheless. I have yet to tire of Ivan Kaye’s King Aelle belting out the word “brothaaaaaaaaa!”
How to make Ragnar seem even cooler? Fighting in front of some fire.
Rollo, on the captured Aethelwulf: “Why should he care about his brother?” Ragnar: “Do I not care about mine?” Character development without sacrificing forward momentum. I want to stand up and salute this sort of muscular narrative shorthand.
Both battle scenes rival the beach fight in episode 4 for excitement and storytelling. Each with a unique visual presentation, varying shooting styles (some handheld here, some fire there) and all sold with the cast’s uniformly authentic and convincing movements.
I spotted at least two shieldmaidens in the final battle scene. That mysterious promo photo for episode 3 must have been from a deleted scene. Mystery solved.
A very Athelstan-light episode this week. George Blagden makes the most of his brief appearance in the adultery hearing, eyes bright in fascination observing his captors’ strange world. His journey appears to come to the fore next week, though.
Floki’s position as avatar of anti-Christian thought continues in the raid on the Northumbrian camp, where Lord Athelwulf has taken time before joining the battle to pray in his tent. Floki’s decision? Cut the tent ropes, trapping him. Then walk away giggling.
Rollo’s is the funniest baptism since Bill Murray’s in Ed Wood.
Challenged by Floki over his faux conversion, Rollo goes on Vikings’ first berserker rampage, mercilessly and muddily dispatching a half dozen or more wounded British soldiers before screaming, “How many Christians! How many Christians have I killed Floki? Do you think Odin is angry with me now?!” It’s Rollo’s first truly compelling storyline, and I’m actually looking forward to what Clive Standen does with it.
Ragnar was killing me in this episode, whether offering Aelle’s terrified little son a drink, enigmatically playing his hand over the open fire in the King’s great hall (a recurring Ragnar move), or casually blowing his nose on Aethelwulf’s altar cloth. Best of all is when a soldier, seeing the captive Lord, says, “We did not know the King’s brother was alive” and Ragnar playfully pats the bound Aethelwulf on the head. Viking comedy gold.
Apologies if I spelled Aethelwulf incorrectly: IMDb didn’t have the cast list up by post time.
Lagertha’s tale in Ragnar’s absence had some major developments, too. Space precludes going into them further this week, except that her line “All lives are stories” keeps echoing in my head.
A fond goodbye to elderly warrior Torstein, who finally got what he wanted, with his leader on hand to grant him a smiling, silent benediction. He died well.