Ragnar Lothbrok has a perfect protagonist problem. That might seem absurd after we see him suffer the most devastating defeat in Vikings history, but “To The Gates” sees Ragnar’s signature enigmatic omniscience extended too far, even as the River Seine is choked with his dead.
The Vikings’ attack on Paris, which comprises most of the episode, is the most elaborate, impressive action setpiece the show’s ever attempted, with Ragnar’s forces attacking from both land and water, and being met with a repelling force employing everything from crossbows to stones to boiling oil and fire. The siege is all the more impressive because of the way creator Michael Hirst (who wrote the episode) continually plays on our expectations—apart from some easily Googled, 1200-year-old spoilers, everything we’ve seen about Ragnar Lothbrok in the series leads us to believe that Paris is going to fall, tonight, before his implacable will (and axes). Apart from being Vikings’ protagonist, Ragnar has been imbued from the start with the power of winning—Ragnar wins, that’s what he does. There’s his physical prowess, naturally, and his ability to make his opponents pay for underestimating him (don’t get too comfy, King Ecbert), but it’s the indefinable aura of being the smartest tactician in the world that has always marked out Ragnar for victory.
So the crushing defeat at the hands of the Parisian forces tonight should signal a major change, at least in how we view Ragnar. Except that it doesn’t, as, in an episode-concluding monologue (well, he’s communing with Althelstan, but it functions the same), Ragnar explains both that he’s known all along that Floki killed Athelstan, and that, implausibly, he knew the attack would fail even before it began:
Do you think I went too far with Floki? He actually thought I would let him lead without my having an agenda. If I were him I would worry less about the gods and more about the fury of a patient man. As you know I can be very patient. I wish you were here. Paris is everything you told me it would be, and I am bound and determined to conquer it.
I’d like to think that there’s more ambiguity in this speech than there is. Apart from the stilted phrase “without my having an agenda” (Ragnar’s never less compelling than when forced to mouth exposition—and should never say the word “agenda”), the main thrust here, inescapably, is that he only put Floki in charge of major portions of the most important Norse action so far in order to punish him with its failure, and because that failure is part of another long game that only Ragnar can see. Being right and being ahead of everyone else is part of Ragnar’s appeal as a character, but “To The Gates” pushes his preternatural prescience to the point of absurdity.
Vikings has made a bold move in having its protagonist do so little this season. From the first scene looking out over his kingdom with his son, Ragnar has been—even more than previously—put on a plane above the other characters. Looking down over Kattegat, Ragnar tells Bjorn cryptic lessons about the true nature and virtue of leadership, and his actions throughout the season have continued at that remove, to an extent. Sure, he’s in there hacking and slashing when necessary—Ragnar’s plans for victory have always hinged on his ability to back them with martial prowess—but in his dealings with Ecbert, Lagertha, Kalf, Erlendur, and now Floki, the show has seen Ragnar smile his little Lothbrok smiles and accede, all the while allowing Travis Fimmel’s cagey performance and our knowledge of how Ragnar operates to assure us that he’s ten moves ahead. That slyly magnetic super-competence is part of what makes Ragnar so entertaining, but it can also be a storytelling crutch and, tonight, an absurd one.
Which isn’t to say that Ragnar wouldn’t have been thrilled if the two-pronged attack he allowed Floki and the others to mastermind had somehow succeeded. As Rollo says in the aftermath, “We were so close—next time, we will not make the same mistakes.” And indeed, when he, Bjorn, and Ragnar finally manage to use Floki’s towers to top the Paris walls, Ragnar’s look of awed avarice at the glowing city in the distance speaks of how much he wants it to. But, from the first scenes of the episode, when we see Ragnar watching his people’s furious preparations for battle, the look on his face is all about misdirection. At first he looks anxious (actually biting his lip, something I’ve never seen him do before), with Fimmel, as ever, betraying little. And all through the battle, he, always on the periphery, shoots knowing, unreadable glances at each minor advance and setback—and especially at Floki. As Floki’s demeanor degenerates from giddy, exultant giggling to fear, and finally to abject despair, Ragnar keeps finding him with those eyes of his and communicating, essentially, “I knew it was you, Fredo.” Both Fimmel and Gustaf Skarsgård are exceptional, as always, at giving wordless vent to their characters’ (often unknowable) thoughts, and the entire siege is undeniably exciting and well-crafted—but as a narrative reveal, Ragnar’s game-playing here stretches the character past credulity.
None of this is to say that Ragnar wanted tonight’s assault on Paris to fail. As Rollo expresses, it gets pretty dicey for the Parisians for a time, with Floki’s siege towers allowing some Vikings to breach the walls, and Lagertha’s troops doing the same with some particularly stubborn city gates. Indeed, the entire siege, which takes up fully three-quarters of the episode, is an impressively directed and choreographed piece of filmmaking and writing, playing thrillingly with our expectations. For all the hints that something is not right, and the mounting number of Vikings taken out through the course of the various actions, we expect Ragnar’s forces to prevail. For each setback (the boiling oil being set aflame is what finally undoes Floki’s confidence), we admire the show’s commitment to making the inevitable Viking victory a difficult one. When— after Rollo, Bjorn, and Ragnar all fall, Floki retreats inside one of his burning towers with a knife to his own throat, and Lagertha’s people breach the gates only to foolishly charge into the teeth of the concealed Parisians at the end of a long, empty corridor—it becomes apparent that the attack has well and truly failed, it’s an effective shock.
Although not to Ragnar, which is the problem. In crafting a narrative where Ragnar’s necessary rightness means delegating the leadership of a massive military campaign he believes will fail to the one man he wants to punish, Vikings is having its protagonist teach an awfully expensive lesson (if the enormous death toll of his people is any measure). While Ragnar fought as formidably as anyone (except maybe the ever-Hulk-like Rollo), and took a horrible beating for it (if him pissing blood at the end is any indication), his long-game—most likely involving Athelstan’s cross, which he fondles while telling his dead friend of his future plans—is, no matter how triumphant the inevitable outcome, coming at the cost of Vikings’ believability.
- Another way Hirst keeps the stakes high tonight is by making it plausible that he was prepared to kill off one or more major characters. Despite that punishing, ricocheting plummet, we know Ragnar is safe, but “To The Gates” convincingly puts, at different times, Rollo, Floki, Lagertha, and Bjorn in serious peril. (Bjorn, especially, sure looks like a goner when Ragnar finds him.) While it was unlikely Hirst would go the full Joss Whedon/George R.R. Martin and kill them all, the episode—and the recent deaths of Siggy and Athelstan—ramped up the tension nicely.
- That being said, the fact that none of them do die comes as something of an anticlimax. I didn’t want to see Rollo go, but the way his fall into the Seine echoed both Siggy’s death and his season one baptism would have made his death here an evocative way to go. (Plus, the way he just pops in to check on the wounded Bjorn later is particularly abrupt.)
- In the parade of questionable deaths tonight, Erlendur looks to be in the biggest trouble, seemingly taking a crossbow bolt to the head in the ill-fated charge across the bridge to Paris. Although since Bjorn survived, it’s unlikely Hirst will abandon the unpromising Torvi-Bjorn-Erlendur love triangle storyline.
- Speaking of Bjorn, Porunn leaves Kattegat in the one scene we see away from Paris tonight, leaving baby Siggy with Auslag. I like Gaia Weiss as Porunn, but, as ever, her story is under-imagined.
- So, Lagertha and Kalf? Their coupling here doesn’t bother me as much it might—while Ben Robson’s Kalf still seems too lightweight for Lagertha, there’s no denying her attraction to him before he turned out to be a usurping weasel, so her choice to use him for some restorative, post-defeat sex doesn’t come out of nowhere. Kalf, in saving her life at the bridge with a sneaky cold-cocking, defined their relationship perfectly—he cares for her, but by retreating where she would not have, he proves he’s unworthy. Plus, her pre-coital speech restates her power in a suitable manner, telling Kalf she’ll only sleep with him if he understands both that she’ll never forgive his betrayal and that she will kill him for that betrayal someday. Unsurprisingly, Kalf goes for it.
- Skarsgård’s despairing, furious appeal to the gods while trapped inside one of his flaming siege towers is another chance for Floki to reveal how deep both his faith and his madness truly go. Floki’s a fundamentalist who truly believes he knows the will of the gods—by failing so catastrophically after (as he sees it) sacrificing the Christian Althelstan to please the gods, his rigidity makes him snap, only being prevented from slitting his own throat by the falling, burning body of yet another slain Norseman. In both his confusion in the tower and his later rejection by the ever-loyal Helga, Floki’s fall from certainty is both affecting and disturbing. “Floki, you poor fool—you are insane. You will be flayed with fire.”
- Emperor Charles continues to prove himself the newest in the line of unworthy Ragnar Lothbrok adversaries, here rocking and cowering under a ceremonial mask on his throne during the siege and then strolling out when the battle’s won to disdain the dead Vikings as “almost human.” At least Morgane Polanski’s Gisla (literally) picks up the leadership banner, taking a sacred flag to be blessed and then hoisting it upon the Paris battlements to rally the soldiers. Locking eyes at different times with both Rollo and Ragnar, Gisla’s shaping up to be more interesting than she first appeared.
- Nicely underplayed bit of parenting from Ragnar to the injured Bjorn:
But it went badly.
Yes it did. You led today.
I only did what my instincts told me to do.
Well, that is a start.