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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Alex Høgh as Ivar
Alex Høgh as Ivar
Photo: Jonathan Hession (History)
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“The world has changed.”

“The Ice Maiden,” suitably enough, is one long funeral. There are some quick cuts to storylines that seem, in the wake of last week’s climactic, show-shaking death, even less profitable than usual. Ivar and little Igor plot. Harald imprisons his former captor, King Olaf. Oleg and Katia frolic in a manmade, servant-filled hot tub in the ice outside Kiev. A passing aside reminds us that Lucy Martin’s servant girl Ingrid is still angling to be Bjorn’s mistress, if that’s anyone’s bag.

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But the episode proper is all about mourning Lagertha, who we first see frozen in the snow where the delirious Hvitserk left her. Ferried into the great hall, she receives the first of the episode’s many, many testimonials, here from Ubbe and the ever-loyal Torvi, before Torvi sets off to find out the fate of her children, Gunnhild, and the rest of Lagertha’s settlement. Left alone with Lagertha’s body, it’s Ubbe who expresses his conflicted feelings, telling her, “You killed my mother, but I can still weep for Lagertha the shieldmaiden.”

It’s a nice moment for Jordan Patrick Smith—one topped later on—in an episode that allows literally everyone in Lagertha’s wide orbit the opportunity. Structurally, “The Ice Maiden” is a mess, a processional of goodbyes interrupted only for artlessly shoehorned exposition and side-plots. (Hvitserk is found near death in the forest and questioned, only to turn over in his recovery bed and demand to be left alone.) Torvi is given a moment to grieve for little Hali upon arriving at Lagertha’s farm, but, even there, her grief is all focused on Lagertha, consoling little surviving child Asa by telling her that at least Hali will be in Valhalla with his illustrious grandmother. Torvi—having been liberated by her association with the boundary-smashing Lagertha—has always been her mentor’s staunchest defender. Yet it’s still shocking when Gunnhild, asking for a shieldmaiden to willingly sacrifice herself to accompany Lagertha to the afterlife, is confronted by a steely Torvi, volunteering herself for ritual death.

For as much as Vikings’ storytelling has succumbed to the prosaic since it lost Ragnar Lothbrok, “The Ice Maiden” finds a rather chilling vein of enigmatic fanaticism in Kattegat’s response to Lagertha’s death. Torvi is pregnant, and has the adorable toddler Asa to care for (not to mention Ubbe), and yet she’s dead set upon following Lagertha to the fiery fate of a Viking funeral. Rejected gently by Gunnhild (who points out that her unborn child can’t consent to being a sacrifice), Torvi is genuinely crushed. Her replacement, chosen by the whims of the gods (in the form of a raven landing on her shoulder), is not only overjoyed to step into the fateful role, but reveals that her name is Gyda, and that she was named after Lagertha’s long-dead daughter by her worshipful mother. Throughout the young woman’s preparations (which include a ritual parting gang-bang with some shirtless warriors, witnessed by masked holy men), Gyda maintains her wide-eyed dedication to her task, quailing only momentarily when the sacrificial priestess (calling herself the Angel Of Death, and sporting all-black contacts) pulls out the long knife Gyda’s chosen as her preferred manner of death. Kissed to stop her cry of pain, Gyda finally slumps into the priestess’ embrace, and only then do we see the hidden Asa, smiling happily at the sight.

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Illustration for article titled iVikings /ibids a long, sad goodbye to one of its finest
Photo: Jonathan Hession/History

While there’s some of late-run Vikings’ deadening expositional long-windedness in Gunnhild’s explanation of the rules of the sacrifice, there’s enough going on underneath to slot these bloody events alongside the long-ago, similar ones shown in season one’s “Sacrifice.” There, we were still new to this world (and how, or if, the show would handle the still very contested historicity of Norse human sacrifice), so the eventual decision of the warrior Lief to take the place of Ragnar’s first choice of the monk Athelstan was doubly surprising, and unsettling. By this point, we’ve seen the ritual bloodletting carried out more than once, yet there’s a real unease in the female characters’ cult-like devotion to Lagertha here that lends the episode power. It’s hard not to look at the white-gowned Gyda’s torchlight ritual deflowering and recall the yawning gradual horrors of Midsommar’s final act, even as “The Ice Maiden” showers Lagertha’s memory, again and again (and again), with all the glowing testimonials to her greatness and accomplishments.

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When Lagertha’s funeral ship is hauled across the frozen harbor of Kattegat by a team of her devoted shieldmaidens, it appears unable to move until a second contingent appears on the cliffs above to rain flaming arrows and spears down around her, shattering the ice enough for it to move out to sea. It’s striking, not least because (again, Midsommar comes to mind), the preceding adoration on the part of the women Lagertha’s inspired and led allows for the queasy momentary prospect of cliffside mass-suicide. That doesn’t happen, but the episode posits that Lagertha’s example has had such a seismic effect on Norse society that the country’s women are all irrevocably—perhaps, in Hirst’s mind, dangerously—changed. As with another aspect of late-run Vikings (in the unfocused clutter of pretenders to Ragnar’s place at show’s center), it’s not entirely clear how much of this is intentional on Hirst’s part. Yet there’s an enigmatically potent mystery to it, one that much of the episode’s more straightforward mourning for Lagertha can’t rise to.

Gathered at the shore, Ubbe, Gunnhild, and Torvi all get their turn to say their goodbyes. Gunnhild—now sitting in the throne Lagertha once held—feelingly calls Lagertha “my shield, my hero,” and says that Lagertha taught her that “Women always prevail.” Torvi’s eloquently economical, “I love you. There is really nothing else to say,” is undermined by her being given far too much to say afterward. Ubbe, surprisingly, has the best moment, as, a little smile playing at his lips, he ruminates upon the “joyful, noisy” reunion she’s destined to have with his father Ragnar, any old bitterness swept away in the unavoidable knowledge that it’s she—and not his mother Aslaug—who’s destined to spend eternity at Ragnar’s side.

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And then Bjorn arrives, having been alerted by a convenient (if upsetting) dream. Stepping ashore from Erik’s boat onto the eerily still and deserted Kattegat streets, Bjorn pronounces simply, “I think I know. But I don’t want to know.” Striding silently through the parting crowd at the water’s edge, Bjorn then gets his own lengthy farewell, although Alexander Ludwig finds just the right note of terse grief for Bjorn, his short, declarative sentences echoing with genuine loss as the hulking warrior sits and speaks.

You were always my strength, my guide. You taught me to go on no matter what. You taught me not to be afraid. [Sees her funeral ship stuck in the ice.] And now I see that, like me, the earth itself isn’t willing to let you go. But the gods call you home.

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Bjorn, being Bjorn, dooms himself in the next moment, promising vengeance against the person whom slew her, meaning poor, pitiful Hvitserk. But, as only befits a Vikings without Lagertha, Bjorn without his mother seems destined to flounder in bad decisions and questionable focus.

Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha
Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha
Photo: Jonathan Hession/History
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But in the end, it’s little Asa who delivers the most eloquent and haunting farewell—and the most silent. Chasing her grandmother’s flaming pyre across the frozen harbor, she pauses, sweeps away a handful of loose snow, and gazes down into the unthinkably cold liquid depths—and sees her childlike faith rewarded. Untroubled by the doubts and complexities of her elders, she sees Lagertha, peaceful and youthful, escorted by the Valkyries, and, finally, laid beside Ragnar on the ocean floor. As Lagertha turns to sand and is swept away along with her beloved Ragnar, the little girl smiles, as, to her, everything has ended the way it should.

Stray observations

  • Vikings continues to rely on supernatural shenanigans as storytelling crutch, to its detriment. Bjorn awakes from a dream knowing his mother’s dead. Ubbe’s vision of a blind beggar turns into the Seer, delivering yet more ambiguous yet on-the-nose predictions. And, finally, Ivar, standing suddenly rapt in the Kiev snow, seems to know, too, just what’s happening back in Kattegat. Again, I’m all for Vikings incorporating its characters’ belief system into its storytelling, but all this unambiguous vision-mongering keeps edging the series unprofitably into the realm of lazy fantasy.
  • There’s a lovely, understated moment where we see Torvi give a long, heartbroken look at former husband Bjorn as he laments Lagertha’s death.
  • Oleg, asked about his fondest wish, says it’s to be back in his mother’s womb. Make of that what you will.
  • Olaf, shrugging off Harald’s guards attempting to take him to the dungeons, insists defiantly, “I will walk to eternity in my own shoes.”
  • One of the items placed on Lagertha’s body appears to be the sunstone Ragnar used to first voyage across the sea to England.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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