Alex Høgh, Alexander Ludwig (Photo: Jonathan Hession/History)

Since Ragnar Lothbrok’s death, Vikings has been in a rush. The sons of Ragnar, Valhalla-bent on vengeance, squabble and glare, but all in service of the one, immediate goal they can agree on. Aelle killed their father, so they mounted the greatest army their people have ever known and killed him, horribly. Ecbert gave up their father, so now, overwhelming Aethelwulf’s troops in a massive but one-sided battle (thanks to Ivar’s strategy), they sweep into Wessex in search of the king. They find him, and vengeance is served, with Bjorn allowing the captive Ecbert to slit his wrists in his luxurious royal bath in exchange for ceding all of East Anglia to the Norsemen. They’ve won.

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(Photo: Jonathan Hession/History)

And yet, the final scene of the sons of Ragnar together sees Bjorn announcing that he’s leaving England to return to the Mediterranean, and Sigurd lying dead—by Ivar’s hand. Sigurd’s death is a shock, as intended, although Ivar has twice before sent sharp objects whizzing at his brother’s head. But here, their contentious rivalry irrevocably spills over into the violence that ends Sigurd’s life when Ivar’s axe finally finds its home in his brother’s chest. Everyone is stunned, even Ivar momentarily, before his face resets to the burning, resentful sneer that he used when calling on the Norse to eschew Ecbert’s farmland in favor of raiding the English further. The sons of Ragnar, their one, unifying goal accomplished, simply have nothing more to say to each other.

As I’ve said before, the loss of an irreplaceable character and actor in Ragnar/Travis Fimmel isn’t a bad thing on its own. Historical record aside, killing off Ragnar Lothbrok was a bold move by creator Michael Hirst, one that necessitated Vikings changing itself completely. For, as impressively rooted in time and place as Vikings has always been, it’s also very much been the Ragnar Lothbrook show, the series’ ambitions inextricably bound to its protagonist’s, and enriched by Fimmel’s uncanny, inscrutable charisma. Vikings without Ragnar required a seismic shift in direction—in, essentially, what it is. Instead of the mysterious but propulsive journey of a flawed but visionary man ahead of his time, Vikings without Ragnar is made up of a number of those left behind, still struggling to comprehend Ragnar’s plan, and largely failing.

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That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. There is compelling drama to be made from a society suddenly bereft of its central, driving force. The issue remains, however, that the characters we’re left to follow haven’t yet picked up Ragnar’s protagonist’s mantle. There’s Bjorn, eldest son and blunter version of his father. Alexander Ludwig’s Bjorn has incorporated some of his father’s mannerisms as he’s taken over the contentious band of brothers—he cocks his body at impatient angles and moves unexpectedly while speaking, with some of his father’s breathy, singsong delivery—but he’s a blunter instrument than his illustrious father. Where Ragnar could command (and intimidate) with a gesture or a look, Bjorn booms, and states the obvious. Coming upon the inconsolable Floki after Helga’s death (stabbed by the poor captive child she insisted on calling daughter), Bjorn’s words fall between them like dull stones. “I am sorry to hear of Helga’s death. We knew each other a long time. Since I was a boy.” Floki’s response is all the more haunting for how it illustrates the gulf in feeling between them.

I too am dead, Bjorn. A part of me died with my daughter, Angrboda, a second part died with Ragnar, and the rest of what was Floki died with my sweet, sad Helga. What I am now is nothing. And all this nothing I give to the gods to do with as they please. And I shall be an empty ship with no rudders set upon their endless sea. And where they take me, I shall go.

Again, this isn’t in itself a weakness. Simply replacing one charismatic main character with another would be a dull move on Hirst’s part, and, as much as Alexander Ludwig has grown into Bjorn’s skin over the years, he’s simply not the man for that particular job. Diffusing Ragnar’s singular vision through his sons’ (and Lagertha’s) eyes is interesting in theory. In practice, however, “The Reckoning” reveals that plan’s weaknesses.

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One reason why “The Reckoning” works as well as it does is its focus on Linus Roache’s Ecbert, whose manic self-sacrifice to the advancing hordes carries a Lear-like gravitas. Quickly passing the crown to Aethelwulf, sprinting around bidding lovely, twinkling goodbyes to Judith and Alfred, and laughingly embracing Philip O’Sullivan’s Bishop Edmund (who stays behind to help drain the royal wine cellar with his monarch), Roache makes Ecbert’s fall, in its own way, as moving as was Ragnar’s. First seen rocking in fear while the battle rages in the fields, Ecbert, nonetheless, finds a light touch of grace in the king’s preparations for death. In his raggedy nightshirt and unkempt beard, he strides out to meet Bjorn in the abandoned courtyard like the fool, but he yet retains his presence of mind and dignity of his place when he signs over lands far greater than those he took back from the massacred Norse settlers. In his dotage, Ecbert’s conflicted pragmatism remains, tapping on his suspended metal cage to tell Ragnar’s sons, “I’d like to speak. I loved your father. He was my friend,” before starting to bargain. Roache always made Ecbert a slippery character, his personal ambition and his love of country ever warring, but his death is lingered over for good reason. Hearing the voices of the people he cares for (including onetime lover Lagertha), he opens his veins, the blood blooming beautifully in the warm water. The last voice he hears is Ragnar’s teling him, as he once did, “Don’t be afraid.”

The Vikings, in contrast, come off as the brutal invaders they at least partly have always been. Under the leadership of Ragnar’s sons, they make muddy, bloody work of Aethelwulf’s troops at the start of the episode, a sloppy but effective extended battle scene that allows us to see how all the brothers’ various fighting styles are equally deadly. Taking an unnecessary battering ram to the gates of Ecbert’s abandoned stronghold, they sack the place without restraint, eventually burning the library of irreplaceable books and scrolls where Athelstan once worked. There’s a moment where Floki—whose curiosity at the Muslim mosque earlier this season seemed to signal a greater openness—lingers over a rolled scroll, as if to save it. Instead, he lights it on Hvitserk’s torch and sends an entire bookcase up in flames. With brutes like Harald and Halfdan as allies, this is a single-minded endeavor. (Hvitserk, heedless of the bishop’s arms-out surrender and prayer for forgiveness, simply runs the old man through without a thought.)

When Ecbert’s dead and the battle won, the Vikings feast. Bjorn announces his plan, Halfdan pledges to go with him, then the brothers squabble, uninterestingly. “Then it seems the only thing that really kept the sons of Ragnar together was the death of their father,” pronounces Bjorn, and he’s right. There’s precious little that’s compelling about Ubbe, Hvitserk, and Sigurd thus far, and Ivar’s bad seed magnetism here spills into prosaic schoolyard insults. (He calls Sigurd gay, while Sigurd taunts Ivar about his impotence and calls him a mama’s boy.) Sigurd’s death, when it comes, comes in a rush, especially as punctuation to this extended, year-long season. Everyone stares as Sigurd dies (the show can’t resist exaggerating the reason for his “Snake-In-The-Eye” nickname as the lights go out in his eyes), and that’s that. As a cliffhanger, it’s abrupt, and unsatisfying. A short, sharp shock after too-prosaic blueprints for the show going forward.

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The same goes for the final scene of the season, which introduces Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a randy bishop. Bishop Heahmund, a historical figure renowned for Viking-fighting, is glimpsed briefly at a funeral, where his comforting of the grieving widow cuts abruptly to the holy man roughly and loudly mounting said lady doggy-style in front of both a large crucifix on the wall and his ornate sword nearby. As character introductions go, it’s amusingly clumsy, another cheap shot on the way out the door that suggests Vikings is going to rely more on such tactics. Hirst favorite Rhys Meyers is a fine actor, with no shortage of Fimmel-esque mystery to him. And it might be interesting to see the conflicted, enigmatic warrior be on the other side from the Norse this time. But the five episodes since Ragnar’s death have only shown that Ragnar Lothbrok is not so easy to replace.

Stray observations

  • Moe Dunford continues to make Aethelwulf’s improbably admirable, considering the fundamentalist brute he was introduced as. Here, the brisk, pragmatic way he announces to Ecbert, “We are defeated. They’ll be here soon,” signals what kind of king he’ll make. And the little laugh he shares with his father when Ecbert convinces him to take the crown is the truest moment the two have ever shared.
  • Same goes for the way Ecbert joyously tosses the Bishop’s ceremonial hat in the air before the two old men embrace and laugh in the face of their coming doom, and then sit together in the throne room, swilling the best of the wine.
  • The concept of the blood eagle was shocking when Vikings first introduced it, but having Ivar repeat the verb “blood-eagling” just sounds silly.
  • Still, his response when Bjorn teases that Ivar won’t be able to stand long enough to complete the ritual on Ecbert is solid: “I imagine me sitting.”
  • Helga is dead, an unsatisfyingly contrived way to say goodbye to such a warm and heretofore grounded character. Her whole obsession with captive “daughter” Tanaruz was never worthy of her.
  • Speaking of Vikings’ strong female characters, Lagertha simply does not appear in this finale.
  • Gustaf SkarsgĂĄrd makes Floki’s benediction over Helga’s grave another heartbreaker. Speaking of Odin’s grief over the death of his son, he pronounces softly, “Not only did people weep, but fire wept. And iron. And all the other metals wept. The stones wept. Earth wept. Farewell, voyager. Farewell, my heart. Farewell. For now.”
  • And that’s a farewell to the A.V. Club’s coverage of Vikings season four. Thanks for reading everyone and, for old time’s sake—SHIELD WALL!

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