As much ass as Ragnar Lothbrok kicks in “Answers In Blood”—and it’s a fair amount of ass—this is very much Lagertha’s episode, and makes an intriguing case that her journey is as much of Vikings’ ongoing plan as is Ragnar’s.
From the beginning, Katheryn Winnick’s shieldmaiden has been no slouch in the ass-kicking department herself. Whether fighting off would-be rapists (four and counting so far), taking full and brutal part in any number of battles, or engaging in the sort of full contact foreplay with her husband that Mr. Worf would approve of, Lagertha has been written as Vikings’ most formidable female character. That’s of a piece with the series’ not inconsiderable attempts to craft a portrait of women’s place in the male-centered Vikings universe—a creditable achievement since much of the audience appeal of a show like this is directed toward male viewers.
That being said, there’s a difference between having a character act in ways intended to get a particular point of view across and actually having that character’s story convincingly do the same. For creator Michael Hirst (who wrote this episode), it’s easy to write a strong, beautiful, take-no-shit Viking warrior woman—but simply having a woman character kick ass because she’s designed to on the page comes across as faux-feminist counter-programming if her actions don’t seem to emerge from a believable, fully inhabited character. And while Winnick has always imbued Lagertha with the necessary fire, Lagertha as character hasn’t always assumed true protagonist status. In the final scene tonight—leaving Ragnar and Bjorn for the second time and riding off in command of her troop of warriors (after just having helped her former husband regain his lands)—Lagertha triumphs.
Last episode, after beating the crap out of her current husband (Earl Would-be Rapist, let’s call him) and coming to Ragnar’s aid with a small army of her husband’s men, Lagertha set the scene for the return of the Ragnar/Lagertha/Aslaug love triangle—a development exactly no one was looking forward to. From her first scene here, Winnick lends Lagertha an air of authority. Even making nice with Aslaug and fawning over Ragnar’s new children, Lagertha’s eyes and manner presage her eventual departure. As she says in her goodbye speech to the assembled people, “I have a duty and I’m a responsible person.” It’s a clarity of resolve echoed in her parting words to the clearly impressed Aslaug, “Live for each moment. Trust in the gods.”
I know I’ve been hard on Alyssa Sutherland’s Aslaug, but that’s because she’s a poorly drawn character who’s given an air of mystery and the intimations of magic powers in lieu of a consistent personality. While it’s sort of understandable why Ragnar dallied with the purported princess in the first place, since his oft-referenced farmer’s outlook (coupled with his ambition) would make such a conquest attractive, viewers simply aren’t having it. Apart from the charisma gulf between the actresses and characters, the Ragnar/Lagertha marriage just made sense. Even Aslaug gets it, admitting to Ragnar that, “she is more like you.”
That she is, as we see in the extended battle scene which marks the expulsion of the sneering Earl Borg from Ragnar’s Earldom, where Lagertha stands alongside the male characters (and a handful of similarly hearty shieldmaidens) and, well, kicks some ass. Sure, she gets saved by Rollo at one point, but so does seemingly everyone else at one time or another. (Clive Standen’s Rollo continues his unlikely but welcome transformation into a wisdom-dispensing, twinkly-eyed teddy bear—who will go berserker on anyone who threatens his family. It’s on the verge of too much at times—“You and your men are as welcome to us as spring after the hardest and most bitter winter”—but it’s also a vast improvement over glowering, inevitably treacherous Rollo.) This battle scene itself is a stunner, resembling in structure the pitched standoff of the season’s first episode. But where that battle was unfocused, chaotic, and filled with improbable (if not physically impossible) heroics, this skirmish is marked by a clear sense of space, judicious and thrilling use of isolated slo-mo for effect, and some deft but realistically brutal swordplay and strategy. Especially impressive is the way director Jeff Woolnough keeps cutting back to Ragnar—he is as immersed in the battle’s furious action as the rest, but Woolnough (and the editors) keep charting his inexorable progression through the ranks and toward his quarry, the increasingly and understandably panicked Borg. (As with his assault on Kattegat in “Treachery,” Vikings plays double standard to make Borg look more of a bastard—even though there are shieldmaidens aplenty, only Borg is shown killing a woman.)
Once Borg is driven off (stealing another guy’s horse no less), and Ragnar and company return triumphant to Kattegat, the anticipated (some might say dreaded) love triangle veers in an unexpected and welcome direction. As Ragnar complains to Jon Kavanagh’s Seer (playing bartender with some long-winded advice), he loves two women. And while it’s never been remotely convincing that Ragnar loves Aslaug for anything but her highborn status and her ability to seemingly birth nothing but sons, the seer advises rightly, “You are fooling yourself if you think the choice is yours to make.” Blind though he may be, the Seer has known Lagertha for a long time.
It may seem worryingly contemporary for Lagertha to keep rejecting Ragnar’s desire that she share him with Aslaug, but Vikings, again, has been delineating the complex place of women in this world from the start. Tonight sees a direct parallel to an earlier such episode when Linus Roache’s King Ecbert hears the case of a woman accused of infidelity who has been horribly beaten by her husband. Calling on the rescued (but seriously messed up) Athelstan, half in amusement, for advice on how the “pagans” would handle such a case, the former monk relates how, for the Vikings, “if she were a free woman, they would take her word.” Which is exactly what Lagertha, ruling in the absent Ragnar’s place, did in a nearly identical case in the first season. (Lagertha also invoked the gods’ wrath if the husband in her case ever laid a finger on his wife in a bit of creatively pragmatic religious interpretation.) The Vikings’ relationship with women allows for a lot of distinctions—which are most merciless to those women who fall on the wrong side—but the world presented in the show is not without nuance as far as gender roles are concerned.
So when Lagertha again makes the decision to leave rather than stay with Ragnar (and Bjorn, choosing to say with his father this time), her choice, emerging as it does both from the show’s established cultural milieu and the character’s steadfastly drawn morality, comes across both affectingly and in a way that’s consistent with what we know about her. Ragnar’s typically half-expressed entreaties aside, Lagertha reveals that she has accomplished what she came to do and that nothing has changed. She sheds her tears, as she is leaving her only child and clearly loves no man but Ragnar. But Lagertha, with her answer to Bjorn’s “Don’t take any more shit” (“Who do you think I am?”) still playing in her smile, rides off into an uncertain future with her well earned gravity alongside her. At last, Lagertha’s story seems as promising as Ragnar’s—there’s no sense that she is riding off back to the sidelines. If “Treachery” marked Rollo’s coming out party as a viable protagonist in the series, then “Answers In Blood” is Lagertha’s. I don’t envy Earl Would-be Rapist.
- The gulf between Ragnar’s prowess in battle and his ability to cope with either personal or political conflict continues to widen. Travis Fimmel’s body language, as always, conveys his little boy’s sheepishness when having to confront either Lagertha or Aslaug. And while it’s adorable watching him allow his young son to hold up fingers to determine the penalty in a case he’s hearing (three sheep seems about right, actually), it’s likely that his subjects will question his wisdom if he doesn’t take things not involving pillaging a little more seriously.
- It’s an episode of happy reunions, with Rollo’s teasing of his nephew’s inability to grow a beard glowing warmly next to Floki’s typically scene-stealing exhortation for Bjorn—“Stay true to your path.” Alexander Ludwig continues to impress as Bjorn—greeting his two uncle figures, his looming physical presence wars convincingly with his bashfulness in the face of these powerful figures from his childhood.
- Speaking of Floki, simply every moment Gustaf Skarsgård is on the screen, he’s stealing it. From his posture when tauntingly announcing Ragnar’s presence to Borg, to his blood-streaked dance after the sacrifice of one of Borg’s men, to the way he playfully bops the unfortunate captive on the head on the way to the chopping block, to his lilting “Now it’s time to celebrate” (alongside two fawning, very happy-to-be-liberated Viking maidens), there’s no character more fascinatingly, hilariously alien.
- How adorable are Ragnar’s young sons, by the way? Wrestling with their massive half brother Bjorn or being wowed by Lagertha’s assertion that the gods had told her that they would be born? Cute kids—all I’m sayin’.
- The show is going to have to take a stand on the whole “vision thing” (as George H.W. Bush might have called it). Tonight both Althelstan and Aslaug lay claim to some extrasensory/religious divination, and neither road is especially promising. It may be all Aslaug’s got, but Athelstan especially is a far more interesting character without seeing what appear to be the Critters under his bed. The characters of Vikings can believe in magic all they want, but if Vikings itself does, I fear for the dramatic future of the show.
- Get your giggles out in the comments about Athelstan’s pleas for God to “ravish” and “fill” him—that’s pretty standard talk from the lives of the saints. Leave poor Athelstan alone.
- As impressed as I’ve been by this, the History Channel’s first outing into scripted series, I’d say the channel has a long way to go to look like it belongs in the big leagues. Commercials for the “Viking fantasy league?” And the Geico lizard at a Viking gathering? C’mon, History Channel.
- Also, the practice of playing commercial bumpers from upcoming scenes in the same episode spoiled the fact that Bjorn was going to be the one to make the sacrifice, thus robbing the scene of a lot of its drama. C’mon, History Channel.