Gustaf SkarsgĂĄrd, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen (History Channel)
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In the first scene of this third season, Ragnar attempted to teach his son Bjorn about what it means to be a leader, saying:

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.

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Tonight, as Bjorn, Lagertha, Rollo, Floki, and the remainder of his massive raiding army bicker over the best course of action now that the desperate Frankish forces are suing for peace—it’s revealed tonight that the Vikings have lost over a thousand warriors—Ragnar restates:

I did not become earl because I aspired to be one. It came about because of other people’s actions. And I did not become king out of ambition, but once again I had no choice, as a result of other people’s actions. But nonetheless I am king. King Ragnar! That is my name! King Ragnar. What does a king do, Bjorn?

He rules.

Very good, Bjorn. He rules. And as a ruler I have the last say. Me! Not you, not you, not you, and not you. You’ve all had your ideas and they have all failed! I will not. Now, with no more discussion. We shall meet the Franks tomorrow.

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This element of instruction, with Bjorn as its focus, has been central to Ragnar’s actions all season, and Travis Fimmel brings an immediacy to this speech that—even more than our knowledge that there’s only one episode left in the season—makes plain that Ragnar is bringing his lesson to an end. For one thing, Ragnar is dying.

There’s a resurgence this week of the Vikings storytelling style, where the speed of a ten-episode television season conflicts evocatively with the necessarily slower pace of the life of the show’s characters. The episode opens on the sight of Ragnar pissing blood, just as he was in the aftermath of last episode’s disastrous attempt on Paris, but when we see the similarly battle-ravaged Bjorn (he actually looked to be in worse shape) up and walking here while his father lurches and coughs blood all through his speech, it’s an effective technique that forces us to reevaluate our expectations. It’s been a long time since the battle—and Ragnar is getting worse, not better. Similarly, the fact that Paris is dealing with a devastating sickness and dwindling food supplies cuts through much of the expected exposition and gives a sense of how the realities of slow, lumbering ancient warfare meant equally mundane suffering for those caught in the midst of it. (Meanwhile, back in Kattegat, Ivar is noticeably bigger, while Aslaug rules with a steely decisiveness, the previous guilt and resentment stemming from her infidelity with Harbard apparently having dwindled with Ragnar’s long absence.)

But in his speech to the others, Ragnar spits his words, glares at his friends, and, in reaffirming his leadership, denigrates theirs. I’ve said before that Ragnar is most effective as a character the less he explains himself, but this speech works because we’re no wiser at the end of it as to his motivations. Even more than in other seasons it’s clear that Ragnar has been playing a long game—and apart from lending his fighting skills to further necessary military action, Ragnar has sidelined himself. Watching the machinations of others, delegating authority, and smiling the signature Lothbrok inscrutable smile, Ragnar has remained even more on the periphery than before. (Granted, his position tonight watching the Vikings’ latest unsuccessful raid on Paris has more to do with the fact that he can barely walk and is wracked with a hallucination-heavy fever.) In lashing out so furiously at Bjorn and the others, Fimmel conveys Ragnar’s desperation, not about taking Paris (we’re led to assume that he has that covered), but that he’s running out of time to effect the changes in his people’s ways that have been the unspoken theme to his actions all along.

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Ragnar Lothbrok is a great warrior and military leader who longs to be a farmer, or so he says. He leads brutally effective raids on other lands and people, but claims to do so only so the Vikings will have the opportunity to put aside their lives of incessant warfare and live and farm in peace. He’s risen—steadily and bloodily—from farmer, to explorer, to earl, and now to king, but, tonight and all through this season, he speaks of the foolish evil of those who strive for power and advancement. Ragnar is Vikings’ greatest asset—apart from how consistently good and magnetic Fimmel is in the role, the way Ragnar’s contradictory and enigmatic nature drives the show in unpredictable directions is key to its appeal. The fact that we never know what’s really driving him makes Ragnar, and Vikings, eminently watchable, even if this season has seen his act stretched too thin at times.

Part of the issue with having a protagonist always playing an angle is that the entire character—and the narrative—becomes about the reveal. Last season, his move against King Horik was anticlimactic because creator Michael Hirst never truly sold the idea that Floki was going to betray Ragnar. Don’t get me wrong, when the trap finally sprung, and Ragnar sat, finally, on the throne in Kattegat, it was—literally and figuratively—a crowning moment of awesome. (Ragnar is made of those.) It’s just that the season’s narrative—and, to an extent, Ragnar’s character—has become all about the long con. I’ve theorized elsewhere that there’s a solid dramatic reason for that, but this season is even more schematized, with Ragnar so clearly guided by a final goal we’re not meant to know that he—Fimmel’s usual charisma notwithstanding—has receded too far into the background.

Which would be less of a problem if this season of Vikings weren’t littered with especially unpromising subplots. The Lagertha/Kalf storyline—Ben Robson’s blandness aside—had promise, Lagertha’s pain and humiliation at her trusted advisor usurping all she’d achieved providing Katheryn Winnick with opportunities to flesh out her formidable character away from Ragnar’s orbit. But, instead, she and Kalf are subsumed back into Ragnar’s story (and army), their narrative left dangling. Ragnar’s obvious desire to teach his son the new way of masculine virtue he envisions for himself and the Vikings reappears throughout the season, but mostly Bjorn’s attention is taken up with a deeply dull love triangle. The Paris court is perfunctorily sketched out, with Charles as the weak king, and daughter Gisla the fiery, headstrong one. (There’s a love triangle brewing in there somewhere, too.) And don’t get me started on Wessex.

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Hirst’s decision to keep the Wessex story front-and-center even though it has no bearing on the Viking story at this point is utterly baffling. Tonight, again, we get the Ecbert and Judith show, with Linus Roache getting a long and indulgent speech about fate and destiny (“Down the passage we did not take, towards the doorway we did not open…”) all boiling down to him wanting to hump his daughter-in-law. For the second week in a row, the pointlessness of this story is underlined by the editing, as here, Ecbert’s seduction scene cuts to a brief shot of Ragnar writhing in agony on the ground in France—and then back to a sit-down dinner where Ecbert is archly toying with Judith and her returned husband, Ecbert’s son Aethelwulf. While Ecbert’s stated goal to ensure Aethelwulf’s peaceful succession to the throne might parallel Ragnar’s lessons to Bjorn, there is simply no reason to spend so much time back in Wessex, especially when characters far more central and vital to Vikings are left begging for narrative scraps. Hirst cut his teeth on flowery court intrigue—this major storytelling miscalculation suggests he cannot escape its rhythms.

When “Breaking Point” does finally get around to its protagonist, the episode is much better for it, with Ragnar’s shocking physical decline leading to an extended fever dream sequence that’s visually and thematically striking. Visions of Odin, Christ, a beckoning Athelstan, and other, undefinably monstrous figures flash by, while Ragnar curls into a fetal position in what appears to be an enormous pool of glowing blood and fire. Apart from signaling just how grievously hurt Ragnar really is, this sequence cannily lays the groundwork for the episode’s final, shocking scene, where Ragnar, setting out alone to meet the Franks in the early morning, demands to be baptized.

Ragnar’s stated reason—after the shocking claim that he is dying—is that he wants to see Athelstan again. (“I am a dying man and when I die I want to be reunited with my Christian friend who happens to be in your Heaven.”) As with all things Ragnar, we’re left in the dark as to the sincerity of his words here—while there’s never been any indication that Ragnar is drawn to become a Christian, he has, unlike Floki (or Aslaug, as we see in her treatment of a Christian missionary tonight), allowed the idea that both the Norse gods and the “Christ God” are equally real. Ragnar’s friendship with Athelstan provides a strong enough motivation for Ragnar’s stated reasoning here, and the way he icily bullies the judgmental priest into performing the ceremony in a nearby pond makes clear that his vision of Christianity is hardly reverential, but more of a piece with the everyday utilitarian nature of his traditional belief. But, as Floki, Lagertha, and Rollo wordlessly express when they come upon Ragnar emerging from under the water, it’s never safe to assume you know just what Ragnar Lothbrok is thinking.

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Stray observations:

  • Charles, once again summing up the Paris court in a single line: “I understand both these points of view.”
  • As seen in the header image to this article, Floki, Lagertha, and Rollo all reveal specific types of astonishment at Ragnar’s baptism. Floki is enraged, naturally, but Lagertha’s unreadable stare sees Katheryn Winnick letting a lot of contradictory feelings for her ex-husband play over her face. And Rollo—who similarly allowed himself to be baptized by an enemy in the first season—has the most subtly evocative reaction of all. Clive Standen’s had an interesting year as Rollo—seeming to accept his fate as fate’s also-ran, Standen has consistently given Rollo a more thoughtful (if still insanely brutal) core. His look here at his brother is brief, but it suggests a lot.
  • Speaking of Rollo’s brutality, overcoming that enormous, spiked-wheel trap the Parisians had in store during tonight’s battle scene was some prime Rollo. The Franks know it too. Says Owen Roe’s Count Odo, “I have never seen a man of such strength and such violence. He fights like a crazy bear.” That’s Rollo.
  • And, yes, Odo calling Rollo a bear fits right into the Seer’s prophecy. We get it.
  • Oh, Erlendur’s alive. So that’s still a thing.
  • The opening battle scene tonight is another example of Vikings giving viewers what they want while also smartly using the action to further the story. With Ragnar watching from the bank as Lagertha and her shieldmaidens swim the Seine to go Viking-ninja on some guards, we both register their history in Ragnar’s worried countenance, and thrill to the fact that we have no idea what the current plan is until its underway.
  • As an aside, how scary would a Viking-ninja be? Seriously.
  • Also, for the second week in a row, the Vikings’ big invasion plan relies on them charging head on into the Frankish forces down a long, long corridor. Maybe Ragnar has a point about their leadership.
  • And that spiked spool weapon the Franks use may be a real thing (Googling’s been unsuccessful), but it plays out a bit too “Mario Brothers” in practice here.
  • Greg Orvis’ Earl Siegfried, we hardly knew ye. At least you went out pulling some classic “chop the hands off an insufficiently canny French guy” comedy.
  • The line, “we have lost 1,000 men and winter is coming” sure sounded familiar.
  • Back in Kattegat, the torture and death of the missionary serves to show that Ragnar’s influence doesn’t persist in his absence with regard to religious tolerance. That being said, Aslaug does give the self-righteous fellow a chance to prove his God’s power with that white-hot iron bar. He thought he had it for a moment, there.
  • Next week: The season three finale, the final fate of Paris, and the possible death of Ragnar Lothbrok! (One of those is probably not true.)

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