-“It was foretold that divine punishment would fall upon God’s chosen people for all our grievous sins. And so it has happened. And that is why I am here.”

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-“No. You are here because I spared your life.”

-“Why did you spare my life?”

-(Smiling.) “I don’t know yet.”

Ever vigilant as I am against the too-softening of Ragnar Lothbrok’s character, scenes like this from Vikings’ third episode “Dispossessed” continue to reassure me. Travis Fimmel, with his steely blue eyes and enigmatic smile always hinting at some coming violence, seems on guard too: Ragnar must grow and change and all the rest of it, but within certain historical and dramatic parameters. He cannot become us, not for more than a thousand years. He is Vikings’ protagonist and has already been set apart as more enlightened and curious than the rest of his people, but to remain compelling and dramatically viable, he must retain a genuine, saturated otherness. And in exchanges like this one, between Ragnar and his prisoner, the multi-lingual monk Athelstan (George Blagden), there’s a satisfying ambiguity: change the name of this show to Monks and it’s easy to see Blagden’s smart, stoic cleric as the brave hero and Ragnar, toying with the bound but shrewd protagonist, as a Bond villain. (“Have no fear, Mr. Athelstan-when it pleases me, I shall watch you die!”) And while dramatic convention may predict a gradual softening of the Ragnar/Athelstan relationship, this sort of patient character consistency is a good sign.

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Returning from their soon-to-be-legendary raid across the ocean, Ragnar and his men, with Athelstan and several other monks in tow, make a triumphant return home at the beginning of the episode and, with the series’ signature briskness, present their discovery, and a boatload of religious booty, to Gabriel Byrne’s Jarl Haraldson. Having defied his ruler’s blinkered prohibition to undertake the journey in the first place, Ragnar knows this might be it for him. But then he knew that all along-that, unless he wound up at the bottom of the ocean, this is where he’d end up and that, knowing the Jarl as he does, he might end up very dead. Here again, it’s Fimmel’s presence that sells the scene. Not to overstate it, but there’s a lot of Brad Pitt at his dangerous best in Fimmel’s performance: watching him addressing the Jarl, knowing full well that what he’s done means every moment might be his last, he can’t keep the smile from his lips, or his eyes. He knows the leverage he’s got, he knows the danger he’s in, and, knowing he’s made his play, he’s content to just grin an impish grin and see what comes.

His play works, although the Jarl takes most of the loot, and Ragnar, given the choice of one piece for himself, takes the monk, trailing him home to be pawed over curiously by his kids. In these scenes, Vikings continues to impress simply by confounding expectations: Athelstan is welcomed into their home, but with the offhand careless amusement with which one would greet a stray pet. It’s not oversold, but the decidedly alien nature of Vikings’ world continues to be seeded into the show’s smallest details.

More questionable is the scene when Ragnar and Lagertha proposition the Bible-scouring Athelstan for some mid-coital Viking threesome action. The way the scene is filmed, with Athelstan trying (really hard) not to spy on his new master/mistress going at it behind a porous screen, only to look up and see them, half nude and sweaty, asking if he wants to join in, has enough of a Vikings: Red Shoe Diaries vibe that I assumed we were getting the poor monk’s fevered heathen fantasy here. Instead, the couple’s playful offer seems to be genuine, with Lagertha showing some serious leg and Ragnar stretching out seductively by poor Athelstan and urging him on. It’s a puzzling scene: with typical Vikings narrative briskness, it seems that Athelstan’s been in the Lothbrok household for some time at this point, but the whole thing comes out of nowhere. It’s possible that they’re just teasing their new slave’s foreign virtue, but if so, they’re doing so in a damned sexy way and their indecent proposal plays more like Michael Hirst pushing the History Channel’s basic cable boundaries as viewer-bait. (A serious question about the likeliness of such a scenario to my Norse scholar wife and in-house expert yielded nothing elucidating, sadly. Fun conversation though.) It’s also an interesting contrast with the Jarl and his wife: last episode, their seeming openness to open-marriage sex games was shown as merely a trap to unearth disloyalty in a hapless underling (and an abortive throne-sex scene in tonight’s episode may hint at other reasons as well). Here, Ragnar and Lagertha seem to be more genuinely, well, up for some Viking swinging, a decision which may be Hirst’s attempt to prepare viewers for Ragnar to get his raid on, sexually-speaking in future episodes. If his marriage is shown to incorporate a certain sexual latitude, then viewers may be more likely to accept him revealing any Viking sexual libertinism. Just a thought.

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As Athelstan, George Blagdon has quickly proven himself an asset in more ways than one. It was no surprise that Ragnar chose to keep him as his slave: Ragnar clearly has bigger plans, and knows that the monk’s knowledge of England and English will be of use to him. As for the show, Athelstan serves as the entree to the show’s world that I’d feared Ragnar himself would become: if this outsider, baffled by Viking culture (and from a tradition closer to our own) can be our representative, then Ragnar can be developed on his own Viking track. Apart from that narrative functionality, Blagden is tracing an independently interesting figure, neither simperingly meek and dogmatic nor overly demonstrative. Instead his Athelstan has a firm grasp on the tenuousness of his position and retains a worried watchfulness. Plus, in the nighttime drunk scene where Ragnar plies him with (I assume) mead and pumps him for information about his homeland, Blagdon exhibits a light touch, playing drunk-but-wary alongside Fimmel’s entertainingly electric unpredictability. While certainly not drinking buddies, it’s in keeping with Ragnar’s character that he’d get his new slave drunk while they talk. That’s just Viking hospitality-and, as Athelstan finds out too late on a later visit to the Jarl authorizing another raid on the English coast, Ragnar’s got ulterior motives.

Ah, the Jarl. Scheming, plotting, reactionary, prone to sadistic sexual games with his wife and others, poor Gabriel Byrne has a steep hill to climb. For the sake of the series, I keep hoping Hirst will find a way to make the Jarl more than a sneering baddie, but again this week he represents nothing more than a necessarily dastardly plot device. It’s not Byrne’s fault: there’s only so much even a gifted actor like him can do with a role like this, and apart from his signature offset lower jaw and thin-lipped growl, Byrne’s time on screen is mostly dead space, punctuated by the occasional atrocity. (This week: the Jarl forces a boy to dig a pit for his treasure hoard before having the lad strangled and thrown in after!) True, Byrne’s unavoidable gravitas lends some weight to his scenes but, for the sake of Vikings, some added dimension would benefit us all.

The episode ends with Ragnar, Lagertha and a suspect Jarl-minion in tow, returning to England (Northumbria this time) for another satisfyingly tense encounter between Ragnar’s band and a group of Brits utterly unequipped to deal with the Viking mind-set. Armed and open to communication with an Athelstan-tutored Ragnar as they are, the Northumbrians, like the monks before them, end up staining the coastline with their blood. And Ragnar and company make their way towards the hold of a British king.

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Good luck, Your Highness.

Stay observations:

  • As Svein, the Jarl’s right-hand henchman, the unassuming David Pearse continues to be improbably chilling, his soft, ingratiating voice and pudgy body presaging an unlikely doom for whomever he’s sicced upon.
  • “I missed your smell and your body” joins her earlier “I want to ride you like a wild bull” as the sort of come-ons Lagerta uses to get Ragnar into the sack. Sure, he’s easy, but Katherine Winnick could use some less-graceless dialogue.
  • Athelstan gets the all-time monk “resisting temptation” badge. I mean- Viking threesome sex?! (Cue the search term “Viking threesome sex” trending on Google…)
  • Again, the whole shieldmaiden concept is probably apocryphal, but the way Vikings has built up Ragnar and Lagertha’s relationship continues to make me allow it. Plus, joining her husband on this week’s raid, she seems to be sporting Wendy O. Williams’ hairstyle.
  • Vikings continues to trust viewers to understand the language dynamic when disparate cultures meet. It’s welcome.
  • I’ve been listening to the full version of Swedish musician Fever Ray’s theme song “If I Had A Heart.” It’s growing on me…

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