Vikings, for all its reliably exciting action, is well served by stillness. With Ragnar Lothbrok hobbled, perhaps irrevocably, the show is forced to slow down as well, and in an episode like “Mercy,” we’re reminded how that’s not a bad thing.
Especially after the dull, jittery kingdom-hopping last week, “Mercy” is a welcome rest note in the flow of the tale. Floki isn’t at peace strung up in his cave prison, the incessant drip of water on his head driving him toward madness, but his immobility and his cries at the start of the episode give way immediately to Lagertha’s cries of pleasure as she, her enemies vanquished for now, enjoyably beds Kalf over in Hedeby. (We can all agree that that’s how their continuing arrangement should be characterized, right?) Kalf proclaims his love, to which Lagertha is rightfully noncommittal, but his words echo Ragnar’s themes from last season as he states, “I love you. As long as I have remembered, I have desired you. I thought it was power I wanted, but now I realize it was you.” Meanwhile in Paris, Therese rolls in bed with secret lover Roland while Rollo, deprived of such comfort by the defiant Gisla, rapidly grows dangerously irritated (as his ill-fated and supercilious holy man language tutor can attest after Rollo rips up a sacred text and hurls the old bird across the room).
Ragnar is denied sleep, too, his restless waking echoed across the sea in Wessex, as King Ecbert also finds himself stalking his domain by torchlight, ultimately being confronted by the ghost, or vision, or dream of the dead Athelstan. While Vikings toys intermittently with its characters’ various beliefs in mysticism, the scene derives its power more from how it underscores that the death of the conflicted, curious monk has severed the bridge between the worlds of these two kings, and their gods. Travis Fimmel and Linus Roache both make the loss of that connection, and of the kings’ shared friend, haunting and affecting, their parallel quests both ending with them registering Ragnar and Ecbert’s mixture of joy, wonder, and fear at seeing Athelstan there in the dark. The messages he gives them are enigmatic, as all good ghost messages should be. Ecbert receives the sign of the cross as he tells the monk earnestly, “Oh, how I’ve waited for you, my friend.” Athelstan silently washes Ragnar’s bare feet before whispering the word “mercy” three times. But, again, like all good ghosts, the dead monk is gone when they try to reach for more—more contact, more clarity. Left alone again, both kings must decipher what their respective message means.
It’s the best scene in the episode, and perhaps the best of the young fourth season, the mostly silent performances and director Ciaran Donnelly’s patience making the kings’ encounters riveting, and drawing the two stories together far more compellingly than all Ecbert’s wonted scheming and pontificating (or creator Michael Hirst’s effortful attempts to make Wessex happen). Ragnar takes Athelstan’s message as the cue to free Floki from his torture and imprisonment, cutting Floki’s bonds with an axe before dropping it on the floor of the cave as he exits, saying only, “You’ve suffered enough, Helga.” Ecbert goes to Judith, not for another round of semi-incestuous intrigue, but as someone who needs to share his loss with the one person who can understand. “I knew in my heart that he was dead,” he tells her of his vision. “I loved him,” says Judith, to which he replies, simply, “So did I.” It’s as human as Ecbert’s seemed in ages—like much of the rest of “Mercy,” the world slows, and the characters are enriched by the respite.
Of course, much of the promotion for the episode (including the header picture I chose—which, how could I resist?) centers on something entirely different. Bjorn fights a huge freaking bear! Hirst claims ignorance of that whole The Revenant thing, which makes sense, considering time frames, etc. But that aside, Bjorn’s arc in the episode stands on its own two feet (like that bear!) by fleshing out Ranganr’s eldest son’s journey, and what it means for the overall story. Ragnar—the dashing, magnetic, mysterious warrior—may be gone forever. The king we see here is broken down, exhausted. First seen this season having a vision of the gates of Valhalla (which shut him out), that Ragnar Lothbrok of old does not appear to have many more valorous, nigh-miraculous feats of physical prowess in him. The gap between him and Queen Aslaug only grows wider—he ends his story to his young sons about Thor and the ferryman with a mocking allusion to Aslaug’s infidelity with the Wanderer (whose name Harbard hews very close to the ferryman’s name in the story). Indeed, when Ragnar picks up his axe on the night of his vision, the scene is framed to imply that the queen may be the one in danger. In Vikings’ admirably earthy time and place, wounds take long to heal—and sometimes they don’t heal at all. In his hunched and halting actions this season, Fimmel imbues Ragnar’s every choice, word, and look with intimations of rapidly approaching mortality.
Bjorn knows that—and knows that he is not ready to take his father’s place just as Ragnar does. Their parting before Bjorn left to prove himself in the frozen wilderness was filled with barely spoken versions of that message (and all the more affecting for how little they said). For the first time, Alexander Ludwig’s casting begins to make so much sense here. He’s not the charismatic enigma Fimmel is—but he shouldn’t be. Given the name “Bjorn Ironside” by his father for his prowess in battle, Bjorn’s no embarrassment—as wrong-headed as his decision to arrest Floki was in Ragnar’s eyes, he was attempting to emulate his father’s decisiveness, and defied his stepmother the queen to do so. But, unlike that unreadable gaze of Fimmel’s, Ludwig has soft eyes for all his brawn, just as Bjorn’s eyes cannot match those of Ragnar for craft or foresight.
In “Mercy,” Ludwig makes Bjorn’s lonely, brutal battle with the bear that’s been stalking him immediate and exciting, as he faces down the most fearsome foe he can imagine taking down (plus a cauterizing, red-hot knife blade and a plunge into the black depths of a frozen lake) in defiance of his seeming destiny as also-ran. When he kills the bear (in a fast, brutal fight), when the knife sears his bloody bear wounds, and when he emerges from that unimaginably cold water, Bjorn’s bellows of pain mixed with triumph are so profound that Ragnar imagines he hears them, even in far off Kattegat. Ragnar will not be around forever (history, as well as Hirst’s hints, make that plain), and this is the first real indication that Bjorn (and Ludwig) have claim to his throne.
If “Mercy” is Vikings taking a breather, it’s a productive one.
- For the second episode in a row, the Rollo in Paris storyline is mostly played for laughs, but Clive Standen makes Rollo’s mounting agitation with court life very funny indeed. Still sporting his flouncy hairdo and silks, he storms out of Emperor Charles’ royal banquet by stomping over the table and bellowing at the terrified courtiers. Before that, he responds to Gisla’s spitting fury over their marriage (and a goblet of wine in his face) by demanding her to stay in some of the only Frankish language he knows (“Woman… my woman!”), sounding for all the world like Frankenstein’s monster. (Or “Frankishstein’s monster,” if you like.) Equal to all this is his attempt to get Odo to find someone to teach him the language, his threatening grunts and gestures emerging through the chicken drumstick clamped in his mouth. Classic Rollo.
- Judith’s ongoing lessons with Prudentius include an example of ninth-century propaganda, with the smug monk relating how the Norse occupation of Paris saw many of the pagans being struck dead by disease after they dared enter Notre Dame.
- Maude Hirst is an underrated presence as the long-suffering Helga, here looking absolutely shattered and exhausted as she holds a bowl to catch the drops of water slowly driving her husband mad until she collapses from the effort. Hirst makes Helga’s strength human but also appropriately alien—like the best characters on this show, her actions seem to stem from cultural forces we just don’t have the references to understand.
- Oh, Kalf and the ever-sneering Erlendur hire a hulking tracker to secretly kill Bjorn behind Lagertha’s back. Apart from the fact that Edvin Endre’s Joffrey-esque Erlendur has congealed into a one-dimensional villain in his hatred of the Lothbrok line, Kalf’s offhand reference of the tracker as “a berserker” is the sort of abrupt terminology that Vikings generally avoids. It sticks out.
- Another sign that Kalf’s not worthy of Lagertha—he ends his heartfelt pillow talk about love and children with a sudden, “I have to piss.” Lagertha’s wise to be skeptical of this lightweight.
- Bjorn uncovers a cask of some sort of liquor at his hunting cabin, which, good for him.
- Ragnar shares his first words with the new Kategat slave girl played by Dianne Doan. He’s intrigued, which could go either way for the poor girl.
- Ecbert’s vision of Athelstan comes after Judith has made him swear on the monk’s life that he will treat her as an equal if she’s to continue as his mistress. He promises. We’ll see.
- Apart form gasping out an anguished apology to Helga, Gustaf Skarsgård’s performance as Floki is all wordless anguish, as the “Viking water torture” and the news of Angrboda’s death reduces him to just glowering eyes and strained flesh. He’s riveting.
- Speaking of haunting, it was great to see George Blagden as Athelstan again. Like the world of the Vikings, Vikings is poorer without him around.